Baltic Capitals Cruise: The Charms of Tallinn, Estonia
Tallinn, Estonia, was one of the ports on my Baltic Capitals cruise itinerary with Norwegian Cruise Lines. The cruise visited famous Baltic capital cities, including Berlin, St. Petersburg, Helsinki, and Stockholm, in addition to sailing from gorgeous Copenhagen.
My friend Jo and I were exhausted thinking about the long days of touring and exploring, so we nearly skipped getting off the ship in Tallinn. We had barely heard of Estonia and were not very anxious to see it.
Jo happened upon a gastronomic walking tour of the city, which incorporated food, drink, and history options. The food tour was different than the possibilities offered by the cruise line and only took a few hours, so we booked it.
Arriving in Beautiful Tallinn, Estonia
Jo and I arrived in Tallinn’s medieval Old Town to very warm temperatures. We walked into town on the uneven cobblestones, about a mile from the ship, for some quick sightseeing before our food tour. (Hint: Wear comfortable shoes!)
The entrance to Old Town is through the 14th century Viru Gates. When we entered the center of Old Town, we were awestruck! Jo and I immediately the quaint charms of the wide pedestrian streets lined with adorable boutiques, cafes, and tourists. Artisans were selling handicrafts along the cobblestone streets, and the people-watching was supreme.
Old Town remains one of the most well preserved Hanseatic town centers in the world. Some buildings even dated back to the 11th century.
Referred to as the “Medieval Pearl of Europe”, through the years, Germany, Sweden, Russia, and the Danes have previously controlled Estonia. However, in 1991, Estonia became its own independent country. Its hardworking people embrace their Nordic tastes and traditions and strive to continue the countries legacy.
Estonia has been a relevant European country since the 13th century. During that time, they housed an important trade port for trade between Russia and Scandinavia.
Exploring Tallinn, Estonia Through Food and History
We joined our food tour group in the center of town. Nessa, our guide, made introductions and told us what to expect for the next few hours.
We walked to our first stop on the four-hour Food Sightseeing tour, which was a delightful restaurant called Peppersack. The waitstaff was dressed as peasants and maids and served us a tasty pumpkin soup with salty pepitas. Billowy bread with soft spread garlic butter accompanied the soup and tasted heavenly. I had to take a photo with our waiter, whose medieval costume I loved.
The next stop was to a street vendor for a sampling of smoked, herb, sweet, and garlic almonds. The stand looked like it was straight from the Beauty and the Beast movie set. The almonds were warm, fragrant, and yummy
After the almonds, we went to a local store with assorted goods that sold Estonia’s famous Pepper Schnapps. The shopkeeper called for us to stand on one foot, hold a glass full of pepper schnapps, and then shoot it. I’m pretty sure she had one with us. The schnapps was disgusting to me, and tasted like liquid fire. Though we appreciated the gesture, we did not make any purchases here.
And Then There Were More!
Across the street was a food emporium where visitors could sample local jams, chutneys, almonds, meringues, dried meats, and other items. Jo and I made our rounds trying some of these, and soon the shopkeeper (a different one) brought us another shot. This time it was a local liquor called “Tallinn,” which comes in 40 to 50 proof. We promptly passed but did try the cordial schnapps, which tasted a lot like Bailey’s Irish Cream. It was smooth and creamy and would be a great ice cream topping.
At a local marketplace called Gourmet Club, we tried traditional Estonian black bread. The bread was loaded with nuts and raisins and topped with popular bottled tomato chutney. It was a slice of heaven!
Taking a break from food, Nessa took us inside a historical building with a spiral staircase that led to a rooftop that offered a view of the entire city. It was spectacular. We could see a handicraft market beneath us, and the photo-ops were excellent. Nessa gave us a quick history lesson but did not bog us down with too many facts.
Old Town Tallinn is full of friendly and beautiful people. The shops, much to my surprise, were filled with very high-end goods. It was some of the best shopping in Europe that I have experienced thus far. My favorite was Bracchialini, an accessories store selling exquisite novelty handbags.
Picture Perfect Eats and Drinks
Our last food stop was to a restaurant that served popular Estonian and Russian dishes. The plates resembled bruschetta and had two different toppings. First, was the fatback, cheese, and chives, and second, was an anchovy-looking fish that didn’t look good at all to me.
We tried each of them, but they were way out of our comfort zone. The redeeming part of this stop was the Kama drink they gave us. Kama is a powdery beverage made from grains, peas, and sometimes milk or yogurt. It is typically served for breakfast or dessert. Not only was the drink picture-perfect and garnished with a cute persimmon, but it tasted almond-like, and I loved it.
Indulging in Historic Sights
Tallinn is one of the most non-religious countries in Europe, but many of their old churches date back to the 13th and 15th centuries. They were fun to photograph and read the historic data inscribed on the wall tablets. We visited Raepteek, the oldest pharmacy in Europe, where legend says marzipan was invented for medicinal purposes. We got to sample the marzipan, too.
Lastly, we toured the Luscher and Matiesen Wine Museum. A charming guide showed us around the museum and shared the history of its owner, the local legends, and drink culture. We each sipped a glass of their local Estonian wine while snacking on olives, cheeses, and meats. The Estonian wine process has a long way to go as we didn’t find it good.
Be sure not to miss the Tallinn’s gothic Town Hall Square, which has remained the heart of the city for over seven centuries. Tallinn is plentiful in fairs and live theater performances, and in the winter months, they have a Christmas market.
Falling in Love with Tallinn, Estonia
Our day ended with a cab ride back to the ship with a sweet driver who expressed his love for American culture and music. He raved about Estonia and shared that a local had invented Skype and that they had a successful flat tax system. I found Tallinn to be the friendliest European city I have visited and cannot wait for a return trip.
Tallinn was the highlight of our entire Baltic Capitals cruise. Supposedly Peter the Great loved visiting Tallinn. It is said that he enjoyed it so much, that had St. Petersburg not been under construction, he would have chosen Tallinn instead. The pride that the locals take in their country was remarkable.
“Pretty as a picture” does not begin to do this lovely place justice. I am forever impressed and mesmerized by the charms of Tallinn, Estonia.
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This article was originally written in Oct, 2014. It was repurposed and updated in April 2020.
See how we spent our days in the other Baltic Capitals: