People always ask us if our travel plans are preset or if we “go with the flow” in picking our destinations. The answer is that it’s both; a few places we have set itineraries, locations or events we need to be somewhere by, but the other half we do on a whim or by suggestion of the people we’ve met along the way. Estonia was in the latter category. Throughout our travels when we explained to people we were looking at exploring more of Eastern Europe than the more frequently visited Western countries, Estonia kept coming up in conversation. Everyone said we had to visit, especially Tallinn, the capital city. We heard descriptions of a thriving city, for techies & hipsters alike, set amongst the old medieval backdrop of European fortresses & Soviet architecture. We decided if there was all this fuss about it, there must be something worth seeing so why not pop in for a visit? We were certainly not disappointed.
Tallinn conveys a balancing of the “old” vs. “new”; despite its long & ill-fated history of being a pawn in larger world powers’ greed for expansion, you get the sense Estonia has done more in its last 26 years of true independence to advance the country & its people than most other countries. There are some grumbles of corruption in government by the locals, mostly after they paid nearly €7M for a questionable looking Independence Column, but other than that we got the sense this seems to be a country doing everything right.
E-Estonia & Tallinn’s tech hub
E-Estonia is the country’s work to become a completely digital society. We’re talking e-residencies, e-voting an e-cabinet & much more. And to be honest, when we say “tech hub”, Estonia wasn’t the first place you thought of right? Well apparently, it’s a thing & more & more people (including these two bloggers) plan on paying way more attention to this little country. Estonia is producing more successful start-up companies per capita than any other European nation (according to this recent Forbes article) with major investors such as the likes of Richard Branson (I know you’ve heard of him).
And it feels like a fun fresh start-up kind of place. Tallinn is an incredibly young city, we’re talking major baby booms, more strollers & toddlers than we’ve seen, ever. The new areas of the city feel like a revitalized blue-collar town in the U.S. - hipster bars, tech start-ups in basements (ping pong tables included of course), and craft beers are exploding. We could just as easily be in a dozen cities in the states half way around the world. I mean there’s an art/café shop built into an old soviet bunker – it’s trippy & amazing!
During one casual afternoon beer tasting, we stumbled by a virtual presentation on “open air design” being broadcasted in the courtyard of the brewery. No idea where it was coming from but groups of 30 somethings all with their local craft beers sat in lawn chairs watching the presenter (who appeared to be in a drained swimming pool?) walk through the new concept for design of office buildings. Sure, why not?
Never fear, if techie talk & hipster vibes aren’t your thing, Tallinn has embraced its touristic side & plays it well to attract visitors curious to see an old medieval city. Much of the old town is still intact, a benefactor of sheer luck, as it avoided major bombings & a plan by the Soviet Union to scrap it & rebuild housing. Its beautiful cobble stone streets & hidden garden quarters make it a treat to wander through, though we kept getting turned around & lost. One little neighborhood dive that’s worth a visit is Hell Hunt, Estonia’s first pub est. 1993 (remember the whole soviet control til ’91 thing?). One little café is built in the old city’s fortress walls. You climb high into the top of the rafters & walk down a long narrow passage to reach it within the 800-year-old stone walls. Another spot that’s worth a mention is the “DM Baar”, literally a Depeche Mode bar & nothing else. The entire basement pub is devoted to the band playing their music videos 24/7. I mean we can’t explain it, but when in Rome right?
Free walking tours are available from the tourist information center daily & I think we can easily say this one has been the best we’ve had on our world tour thus far. I’m sure all the guides are fantastic but if you get a chance to go with Heli (yes as in helicopter) she’s fantastic & obviously very knowledgeable. As mentioned, much of Estonia’s past is not sunshine & roses, but constant occupation & battles between Germany & the Russian Empire/U.S.S.R. She does an excellent job of rehashing the best & worst of times in a way that keeps it from being too depressing.
If we have one complaint about the historic old town it is that the Baltic cruise tours now visit the city & it is like a swarm of tourists that hit the streets roughly 11am-4pm daily. It’s manageable but if you want to get a better taste of the city avoiding ridiculous large tour groups of the senior variety, go out early & then stick around long after they’re gone. In the summer, the sun doesn’t set until after 10pm so you’ll have plenty of time to see the sites.
A quick walk from old town you can spend some time in the more local area of Telliskivi, the self-proclaimed “Creative City” home to some of the hipster shops, brewers & start up techies noted above. We were lucky enough to stay over just long enough on Saturday to visit the annual “Street Food Festival” since we obviously haven’t been eating or drinking enough so far in Europe. Loads of food trucks lined the square where previously the e-presentation on design was held. Anything you wanted from “American BBQ”, sushi, local cuisine & vegan wraps or veggie burgers was available. One of the most impressive things about Tallinn is the excellent food selections. Between pure vegan restaurants & seasonal dishes on all the menus I can see it becoming a major culinary hub. Anyone know where we can find an Estonian place in D.C.?
It’s obvious the investment in infrastructure, education & promotion of Estonia has been a top priority of the government. It was a little difficult to write this post & explain how much we loved the country without sounding completely nerdy or geeking out. It’s a place we can’t wait & see where the next 25+ years take them. Or who knows, maybe we’ll be back much sooner & for a far longer stay the next time.