By day, Tallinn, the capital of Estonia, looks like a town preparing to be overrun by tourists, even during the frigid dark winter, when I was there. Plenty of restaurants, cafés, and bars lay about, the bars, I must say, rather dead there at happy hour time when I first darkened their doors. Yet by 9:00, they are packed, and the morning that I left the city, getting up at 5:00 for an early flight, they were still busy, along with the breakfast cafés. Tallinn is rather the party city.
There is a phenomenon in Europe where people look for The Next Prague, the next previously-undiscovered city that is beautiful and has cheap beer and will thus be a future it destination. Contenders include Krakow, Poland and Ljubljana, Slovenia, but I’d put Tallinn up there. It’s cheaper than the larger countries around it, but Estonia isn’t dirt cheap anymore. One can tell The Next Prague by the frequency of backpackers of course, but also by the party tourists (especially, I must say, the British), and the number of stag and hen parties wandering the streets. Follow any of them and you’ll find the cheapest food and drink around.
Estonia is two hours by ferry from Helsinki, an overnight ferry from Stockholm or St. Petersburg, and quick flights from other Euro places. It could be done as a day-trip from Helsinki, or as a stop from a cruise ship. It’s small enough for that, but there’s enough for several days here.
One of the town gates
Tallinn is a rather remarkably preserved medieval-looking place, perhaps the best I’ve seen, so much that it has taken that medieval theme to heart in its city center, the old town. The central square is home to several medieval-themed restaurants, the type with serving wenches and other employees forced to dress in feudal, unenlightened costumes to set the scene. They probably speak in fake Elizabethan (the first) accents as well and call you “my lord” and ‘my lady”. Still, the medieval part and the atmosphere of the city are real. The old town still has much of its old walls and towers, quite large, along with winding cobblestone streets and old buildings dating from the 13th-15th centuries. I’ve never seen anything like it. Prague became popular partly because people suddenly discovered that the place was gorgeous and previously-overlooked. Tallinn is quite all that.
The medieval theme has a possibility of becoming a bit grating to the visitor, particularly the costumes and the tourist schlock. I visited in January, when it’s freezing and dark, and still the main square had vendors dressed in some medieval costumes, selling items such as spiced nuts. A man with a battle ax slung over his shoulder, dressed as a soldier or perhaps an executioner or just some generic medieval man, marched back and forth in front of a theme restaurant, an act that I suppose entices some customers. I can only imagine the performance in the summer months. Perhaps court jesters and jugglers are about.
Your squire is waiting for you, m’lady
The worst offender is a restaurant called Olde Hansa, over the top and horribly expensive. You’ll see it. It seems to have five entrances, including its gift shop where you can probably buy a battle axe or a monogrammed pewter beer tankard. We ducked inside to find long wooden tables in the drab, dark interior and didn’t at all feel like staying.
Another theme spot called III Draakon, complete with its own serving wenches (I’m not using this term indiscriminately. It’s in all the restaurant descriptions), sits beneath the city hall. Its online menu reveals awfully cheap drinks, with the only food being elk stew and various pasties. I never saw the inside because every time I passed the entrance (many times), there was a line out into the square waiting to get in. This place at least seems aware of its own irony. It’s is awfully cheap, and would be the one themed place to try.
Yet one more spot, much better for a drink, is simply called The Beer House. As it brews its own suds and seems serious about it, I stopped in a few times. Though it’s made for meals and has the layout of a German beer hall, it’s fine just to belly up to the central square bar and have a liter. They don’t overdo their theme. The waitstaff again is decked out in some medieval-like costumes, though they look more like dandies than wenches. Some were showing plenty of skin.
The main square features a quite photogenic market around Christmastime, with almost every stand selling either hot, mulled wine for €3 (You need it. It’s freezing) or some sort of winter wear such as hats and socks. Your photos of this place will look wonderful.
The Christmas market
One major point about being The Next Prague is the drinking must be significantly cheaper than it is at home, and especially for the Scandinavians, it is. It’s still not quite as cheap as the current Prague, but better than many places in Europe. The Finns especially like Tallinn, as it’s a quick ferry ride away, and the duty-free store on board gets lots of customers. As recently as a few years ago, Finns were buying one-third of all alcohol sold in Estonia.
The thing to drink in Estonia is beer, or perhaps some gimmicky cocktail. Tallinn is not the place for a proper martini or a G&T. If you’re fussy about how someone makes your sidecar, don’t order that here. They will however, happily serve you a Sex on the Beach, Sex on the Rocks, Sex Sideways with Tongue, or some other silly-named concoction. Several bars have long lists of these, where one orders a drink just to have fun.
As for the beer, you will be spoiled for choice. The local stuff, Saku, is merely the standard national lager that seemingly every nation must produce, something for the locals to love and the visitors to wonder what the fuss is about. But tarry, as the craft beer trend has indeed hit Estonia, and beyond that, one can find good brands here from all over Europe, including some good Belgiums.
Perhaps you’re a wine drinker. After the bartenders are done pouring the beers, they might root around for some wine for you. If you’re slightly serious, order by the bottle, as wine by the glass here is only for the very daring. Perhaps you’ll consider switching to beer?
Like most party cities, the shot list is intensive. Also, remember that Estonia is overrun by Russians, and the vodka list is probably (I didn’t ask) more than enough for you. Just avoid that table in the corner where the five silent guys are giving you the eye. Don’t even glance their way.
As to where to drink, you’ll have no problem finding places at ground level, but for some insider cred, listen for music coming from below level doorways, and plunge in. Tallinn doesn’t seem to be big on doormen or dress codes, lucky for people like me.
Might I suggest some mulled wine?
Tallinn is a very compact town, with the airport 15 minutes away and the port about 10 minutes from the old town, by taxi. The old town is quite walkable, not so large. Any party city needs cheap flophouses, and Tallinn’s got them, though more mid-price hotels are scarcer. Book in advance. Even the hotels with multiple stars are not nearly so expensive as in the neighboring capitals, so if you want to rack out in a four-star, Tallinn is a good option.
Food as well is cheap by Euro standards, though again, not so cheap as Prague and some other contenders. The easiest way to eat is find a café-like place, as opposed to a restaurant. The cafés have soup, sandwiches, and the like, but as with the hotels, most restaurants aren’t very expensive. Estonian food is quite good, a combo of Scandinavian and Slavic that is benefiting from the innovative trends that Scandi food is currently throwing. One night, in a subterranean eatery, we ordered a traditional fish soup and a work of art appeared, a creamy delight topped with greens served in a glass mason jar. Still, Estonian food tradition tends towards dark breads and dark meat.
One thing I quite like about the city is there is no must-see. There are a few Tall Things to Climb for the view (some closed in winter) that will cost a few euro, and an upper town that should be visited for the view, but the attraction is the town itself. It has the usual suspects, the larger religious structures, the history and art museum, a cool, intensive, specialty museum called the Seaplane Harbor, an old palace on the outskirts of town (Kadriorg Park), but your wanderings around the old town won’t be marred by standing in line to get into the Main Sight. There is a “Tallinn Card” for €25 that gives you free entry to tourist sights and includes public transportation for 24 hours, but in order to make it worthwhile, you’d need to do a lot indoors in one day.
Instead, I spend my few days in Tallinn mostly wandering around and trying to stay warm by drinking dozens of cups of hot wine from the market vendors. If you’re into photography, this is a great city with prime opportunities.
If you want your partying to start with your dinner, try a Russian restaurant. Troika is right on the main square, causing me worry, but no, it’s real. I sat in the upstairs bar one late afternoon, the only customer, drinking the underwhelming local Saku beer and talking to Alexander the barkeep, who explained all the massive jars of flavored vodka next to me, with a stack of special racks holding shot glasses for tastings.
In the summer, Troika might be beset by tourists, but in the winter it was all Russian. These aren’t just visitors; around 40% of Tallinn’s population is ethnically Russian. For dinner, I bravely descended into Troika’s cellar where the drinking had already begun. While gypsies sang, the waitstaff opened bottle after bottle of vodka, quite literally pouring it down people’s throats.
Troika is a place where it’s best to be already a little drunk when you enter. I spent some minutes wandering around from table to table in a daze before a waitress directed me to a place to sit, and then she totally took care of me. She brought me a Moscow Mule, the first one I’ve had, and then a house specialty: a heaping spoonful of good caviar and a vodka. I ordered fish soup and dumplings with sour cream and found them outstanding. Singers came and went. Bottles were opened and discarded. Every time a customer had their head held back and vodka poured down their throats, the music would change and everyone would clap.
Be aware: Tallinn, and the rest of the Baltics, has a dark side. After they became independent of the USSR in 1991, the three Baltic states were discovered, especially by the rest of Scandinavia, as three dirt-cheap (then) destinations in easy striking distance of the several rich countries around them. The continuing trend today of going to Tallinn as a cheap place to party was even stronger then, and the city became somewhat known for vices beyond that of just cheap booze. In my own short visit to the city, I’m happy to report I saw none of that, beyond the numerous strip clubs around.
The party-city mood has thus matured a bit, to a level where you can enjoy the city without some people on a piss-up ruining it. Prices are climbing, but the place is still a bargain, and its atmosphere is brilliant.
Aside: I consulted two guidebooks for my visit to Tallinn: Lonely Planet and Rick Steves. Both have Tallinn as a chapter in their general guides to Scandinavia. Rick’s book was excellent, and included a blow-by-blow city walk. Lonely Planet sucked eggs.