Panorama of the Week: Medieval Old Town Tallinn at Night

Before we backpacked around Europe in 2000, I got my hands on a used copy of Rick Steves’ “Europe Through the Back Door.” (If you are inclined to do so, don’t hold it against me. I was young and impressionable; it was the only English language travel book available.)

Estonia’s capital city, Tallinn, was described as having “a frosted cake feel.” Sure, the old town is small, cute, medieval and full of cobblestones, but Tallinn is more than just a pretty dessert.

But maybe I’m biased.

360-Degree Panorama: Tallinn’s Medieval Old Town (Vanalinn) at Night

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For me, Tallinn was the place I retreated to on weekends during my Peace Corps service in Estonia (1998-2000). Back then, in comparison to my site-cum-hometown of 3,000 people, Tallinn felt like the big city. It was the sort of place where I could buy something other than iceberg lettuce. On my Peace Corps salary, I could even occasionally afford a meal of vegetarian Indian cuisine or ketchup-less pizza.

Typical of the post-Soviet hangover, restaurant service was surly, too. One of the games we Peace Corps volunteers always played: “Get the waitstaff to smile.”

If our charm failed, we had a secret weapon in my friend Amy. She made origami swans and sculpted various other creatures out of napkins. Even the surliest of matrons couldn’t help but break a smile when their table was swamped in paper animals.

Old Town Tallinn has seen its share of changes: an endless stream of brightly-hued paint and countless renovation projects since the country’s independence in the early 1990s — some more heavy-handed than others — have spruced things up from Soviet gray. Each time we’ve returned (in 2004 and 2008), the physical changes have been striking. So has the mood, ever more Scandinavian than anything else. Cafes and good coffee are no longer an anomaly, ketchup rarely seeps onto the pizza, and you’ll likely get a smile and some English spoken at restaurants.

Tallinn teeters on the edge of the frosted cake, but somehow maintains its spirit. So next time you find yourself there, surprise someone with “Tere! Kuidas laheb?” (Hello! How are you?) and a smile. This will help you peel away the veneer and experience some of the real Estonian spirit yourself.

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  1. says

    I love Rick Steves! He turned me onto travel ~ I drove across the state to go to his seminars in college. I still watch his PBS shows when I happen across them on TV. No shame!

  2. says

    @Michael and @JoAnna: Uh oh, I didn’t mean to shame Rick Steves and his books :) His books are great and they have gotten a lot of Americans out of the regular travel trails and into the mindset of exploring. It’s just that as a 25-yr old about to go backpacking across Europe there seemed something a bit “old” about Rick Steves’ book at the time.

  3. says

    This post bring a tear to my eye! Estonia was the first country I ever visited and my first step on foreign soil was in Tallinn. I visited there in 1995 and 1996 and to this day it holds a special place in my heart. While Tallinn is the top destination in Estonia, I actually loved Tartu. It’s a great college town with a great feel and a lot of green space. I really hope to go there again. Thanks for bringing back the memories!

  4. says

    @Andi: Thanks! And, I’ll be sure to let you know when we finally publish the layman’s guide on how to do these.

    @Jeremy: I’m curious – what brought you to Estonia as your first country to visit? Estonia was Dan’s first stop in Europe so it holds a special place for him.

    I also love Tartu – I spent three months there for Peace Corps training and am still close to my host family there. Tartu does have a great feel and buzz about it thanks to the university. Glad we could help take you down memory lane!

  5. says

    That does look like one of the cutest, medieval downtowns I’ve seen. I’ve stayed in old Riga, just a bit south, and it was nowhere near that…cute.

  6. says

    @Garrett: As I disclosed in the post, I am biased. But, I do think it’s hard to top Tallinn as a cute medieval town. Riga is also beautiful, but it’s got a different feel. We’ll be publishing several panoramas from there in the future.

  7. Rob says

    Ah.. Rick Steves.. I laughed at your observation that he felt “old” in 2000. I started traveling Europe in 1984 and the 4th edition of ETTBD wasn’t old at all then – at two years older than me he had a lot to say to my naive 25-year old self. What I learned from him no doubt saved me much grief and money, along with improving the general quality of trip..

    I happened to watch some of his recent video and while not completely, he has definitely aged and tailored his new advice/show to the less courageous, older and more affluent traveler.

    I was in Talinn some years ago and it was a beautiful place with really great people. I’m planning on heading back this summer for continued exploration.

  8. says

    @Rob: Rick Steves’ books are great, but they are often associated now with people older than 25 years these days :) Sad to hear that the advice is changing since he used to have great “offbeat” advice in his books.

    Glad you had a good experience in Tallinn and are planning to return!

  9. Rob says

    @Audrey: I think his books still hold a wealth of information that’s useful to any first-time traveler, whether 20 or 50 years old. But I suspect that after 30+ years of being in the business he has wisely followed his aging “target audience” and adapted his advice appropriately. After all – a lot of the people he was targeting when he was 25 are now also 30-years older and wealthy and/or retired.

    Much like Berlin, where I helped chip down the wall in 1990, I suspect Tallinn has changed rather dramatically since I was there in the mid-1990s. I was there, at the time, with a Russian gal I was dating who had ethnic Russian relatives who were seemingly adapting well to the westernization of their country, as they seemed pretty well-off at the time.

    I’m looking forward to revisiting.

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