While I was fully prepared to be amazed and delighted by the architecture of Northern Europe’s oldest capitals when I toured along the Baltic last spring (spending a day strolling the narrow streets of Stockholm’s Gamle Stan and then enduring the crush of crowds in St. Petersburg, Russia), I was pleasantly intrigued to find another often overlooked architectural gem on this Baltic tour–Tallinn, Estonia. If you’re old enough to have some sense of the history of the Baltic States (Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania), this may perhaps surprise you. Likely you associate their names with the gray and concrete world of so many former Soviet bloc countries. But Estonia, not unlike some of her former Soviet Socialist Republic neighbors (the Ukraine comes to mind) has slowly regained her identity (and prosperity) in a re-imagined Eastern Europe where capitalism, not communism, rules the day and rules it beautifully.
Less crowded by far than Stockholm, which draws throngs of visitors each year to its exceedingly well-preserved Old Town, Tallinn is a destination in her own right…and significantly cheaper. Rich in Nordic and Germanic culture, this capital city on the Gulf of Finland has one of the best preserved 12th and 13th century city centers in Europe. And being rather compact, it’s easy to explore on foot in a day. But make sure you’re in good shape because to fully appreciate all Tallinn’s architecture has to offer, you must be willing to climb lots and lots of steps.
The climbing began for me in the tower of Oleviste Church, once the tallest building in the world, where I mounted 258 steps for amazing views of the Old Town, including the city’s dozen or more defense towers, numerous delicate church spires, and tiled rooftops. You can gain similar views (though not quite as grand) by climbing the Town Hall Tower, where some of the stone risers are more than foot high, making for quite a workout to reach the top of the belfry tower at 34 meters.
One of the best things about Tallinn, however, is how wonderfully inexpensive it is compared to its Scandinavian neighbors. Street vendors will sell you gorgeous handwoven linens for a quarter the price you’ll find them in Norway or Sweden, and they’re every bit as lovely. And the locals absolutely adore tourists–the idea of expended effort equaling financial gain is refreshingly alive and well. Don’t hesitate to haggle for that fine wool cape or fur-lined cap. A fine lunch can be had here as well at places like the Saiakangi Kohvik Cafe for little more than $10 USD a person with scrumptious eats like smoked salmon and lamb open-faced sandwiches with beer followed up by cake-coated pastries with chocolate cream centers.
You can read more about my adventures in Tallinn at Military Officer magazine online as well as gain additional insights for traveling internationally on a budget in my article “Travel Abroad — For Less.”