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A Visit to Tallin is a step back in time

Jonathan van Bilsen



December 4, 2016

A Visit to Tallin is a step back in time

There are literally hundreds if not thousands of destinations to visit, when travelling around the globe. Safety issues are becoming more of a concern than in the past, but there are still many fantastic locales to holiday. I recently returned from a trip to the Baltics and must admit that Tallinn, the capital of Estonia, is one not to miss.

Fortunately it is also a favourite cruise destination, but if you do make the visit by ship, make sure you allow at least two, preferably three days for your visit. Many people wander through a few of the old streets and think they have seen the entire city, but that is certainly not the case. There is much more to explore in this former Soviet Union sea port.

I was fortunate to be able to visit for the better part of a week and stayed in the Telegraaf Hotel, located in the old town. The building dates back to the 1870’s, but has been recently renovated into a fantastic five star property. Best of all, the prices in this part of the world are about half of those of Western Europe, and certainly less than what we are used to in the GTA.

Many of you may be interested in history, and Tallinn is certainly not without it. This capital city of Estonia is situated on the Baltic Sea, an ideal location both politically and commercially. Tallinn was founded in 1248, but the earliest human settlements are over 5,000 years old, making it one of the oldest capital cities of Northern Europe. Due to its strategic location, the city became a major trade hub, especially from the 14th to the 16th century.

Occupation bounced back and forth between the Germans (mostly as a trade centre) and Danes, who had always considered it theirs. The Soviets occupied the region for a year, prior to World War II and the Nazis took it over until it was severely bombed in 1944. It then reverted to Soviet occupation until 1991, when the fall of communism offered a democratic existence, which has made the country prosperous. Today’s population of 450,000 is approximately 32% of Estonia's total population.

Tallinn's Old Town is one of the best preserved medieval cities in Europe, and is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. A wall, which stretches a short way around the perimeter (not worth the hike up, as it is very short and there is nothing of interest to see), gives an indicator of what the medieval city was like back in the day.

Most of the streets in the old town are lined with quaint shops, bistros and boutiques. Baltic food is excellent and very filling, but the selection of international dishes is endless. In the centre of the old town is the square, so common in European cities. Most of the square’s perimeter is lined with eateries, and I enjoyed everything from local cuisine to excellent pizza (complete with Italian minstrels).

There is a famous, albeit touristy, restaurant called the Hansa Haus. It takes you back to medieval times and offers all types of game and fowl dishes, as well as some modern fares for the not-so-adventurous. The dimly lit establishment stays true to character, with the wait staff dressed in costumes and speaking as if you have been whisked back in time. The only modern elements are the credit card machines and the price. 

One of the most missed sights is the amazing St. Alexander Nevsky Cathedral, located at the end of a long path. Day tourists seldom have enough time to visit this splendid Russian Orthodox cathedral, complete with gold domes and hundreds of icons lining the interior walls of this opulently decorated house of worship. The cathedral is the largest of its kind in Tallinn, and was constructed in 1884. It was slated for demolition in the non-religious Soviet Union, however, a lack of funds left it standing, albeit somewhat neglected. In the past 20 years, the cathedral has been restored to its original glory and is certainly worth a visit.

Located within the heart of the old town is the marzipan museum. It is the 4th place I have visited in the world where they claim marzipan originated; however, this one is certainly worth a stop. Ask for Otto, a well-dressed employee who has worked there for 62 years, who meticulously explains the history of the craft. Photographs on the wall, dating back to the 1920’s, show how the colourful figurines were made, and surprisingly the same process is used to create the tasty treats today. A small cafe, with wonderful sandwiches, is attached to the museum and well worth the visit. Of course, you cannot leave without purchasing a few samples of the almond sugar delicacies.

The old town is spectacular, but modern Tallinn has many other areas worth a visit. A dilapidated industrial area, near the train station, is undergoing aggressive renovations, and is now a collection of unique eateries and trendy shops. Another expanse is the seaside where buildings are being torn down to make way for new, modern development. As a photographer, this was a paradise of partially destroyed housing, mixed with overgrowth and rubble, and certainly gave insight into what life under Soviet rule had been like.

One of the major attractions of Tallinn is the Seaplane Harbour (Estonian Maritime Museum). An emourmous, hangar-like building houses numerous artifacts from Estonia's sea faring past, including a Soviet submarine, where you can actually walk inside and see how men slept, ate and lived, confined for many months. I spent a great deal of time at the Viking exhibition. It was quite interesting, in that it dispelled many of the Viking clichés, which I have grown accustomed to. Hollywood had certainly done a number on me.

The Baltic region is safe, prosperous and welcomes tourism with open arms. Whether by ship or by land a visit to Estonia, and its capital of Tallinn, is a must for anyone wishing to experience a different culture in a familiar environment.

Jonathan van Bilsen’s photosNtravel TV show can be watched on RogersTV and YouTube. To follow Jonathan’s travel adventures visit

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