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Estonia's capital city is only 53 miles across the Gulf of Finland from Helsinki but for nearly 50 years, as part of the Soviet Union, was ideologically a world away. That ended in 1991 when Estonia declared its independence from the Soviet Union.
Today, thanks to its strategic position on the Gulf, Estonia and its capital city of Tallinn are thriving. Capitalism was quick to catch on here, and Tallinn, population 400,000, is not only a major port but also a major industrial center. Modern Tallinn is Scandinavian sleek mixed with Soviet era concrete.
But the attraction for cruise passengers is the remarkably restored, medieval Old Town, which despite a plethora of shops catering to locals and tourists, still feels a part of the 1400's because of the cobblestone streets and medieval architecture. Walk the winding streets on cobblestones, past medieval towers and the old city wall, and you'll feel like you're taking a step back into a medieval storybook, with striking towers and historic brick buildings.
Tallinn is artsy in a very much post-Soviet way, and a delightful place to hang out and people-watch from one of the sidewalk cafes. The folks here are restrained no more and amidst the fairy tale surroundings there is an "anything goes" ambience. And the shops, especially the galleries and antiques venues, serve up some interesting finds such as elaborate weavings from cloth artists and modern art from local painters; antique shops feature community memorabilia (Lenin paperweight, anyone?).
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Where You're Docked
Cruise ships dock at the commercial port which is about a 15-minute taxi or shuttle ride to the heart of Tallinn's Old City.
Cruise ships typically offer a shuttle between the ship and the edge of the Old City; taxis also line up at the terminal. Once in Old Town the going is on foot; several of the streets are pedestrian only.
No reason to, no services.
Watch Out For
Wear comfortable shoes because they're mainly cobbled and quite uneven. Plus, there are a lot of steep hills -- steps have often been carved out of sidewalks to make it easier to climb.
Estonian. Some tourist shop employees speak English (they are friendly if they do and will look at English-speakers in horror if they don't). Elsewhere, English is less widely spoken.
Currency & Best Way to Get Money
The official currency is the euro. There are ATM's at the banks in Old Town.
Handmade wool sweaters and sophisticated glass art.
History-seekers should check out the main draws here, which include Toompea Castle (Toompea Hill) which dates to the 13th century. The castle, which has recently undergone a major rehab, is fronted by a pink parliament house built in 1773 and home to the Estonian government.
Alexander Nevski Cathedral (Palace Square, 8 a.m. - 6 p.m. daily) was built in the late 19th century in the style of Russia's 17th-century Orthodox churches. Toomkirk (also near Palace Square) is the oldest church in Tallinn (it's believed to date to the 1200's or earlier) and boasts an unusual baroque altar and tombs (open 9 a.m. - 4 p.m. daily). Kiek en de Kok -- "Peep into the Kitchen" in low German -- is the tallest cannon tower in Old Town and offers excellent views of kitchens and more (1 Komandiandi Tee; open Tuesday - Sunday, 10:30 a.m. - 4 p.m.).
One of our favorite things in addition to these is just wandering the streets of Old Town, checking out the colorful houses, soaking in the atmosphere, catching views and getting lost (you can't get all that lost anyway since this is a walled city).
Medieval Old Town's 14th-century Town Hall Square is a central meeting place. It is lined by numerous cafes and winding streets, full of boutique-style shops that peel off from there. And the preservation is so perfect it's almost eerie -- yet incredibly beautiful.
At the edge of Old Town near where the ship shuttle drops you off, check out the fragrant Flower Market. It's an excellent photo opportunity.
Been There, Done That
Kadriog was built as a summer residence by Peter the Great for Tsarina Catherine; it is now a gallery of paintings and located in the midst of a gorgeous seaside park. It's about a 30-minute taxi ride from the pier.
The Estonian Open-Air Museum lies on the peninsula of Rocca-al-Mare, a 25-minute taxi drive west of the city center. The park consists of a range of wood mills, houses and other structures dating back to the 17th century. In the summer there are folk troupes that perform.
Shopping: Viru Street has the city's best collection of pricy boutiques (capitalism was fast to catch on here once communism fell) but we prefer the smaller galleries and art shops on Luhike jalg, including the Viron Studio and Luhikese Jag Gallery. Estonian artists are particularly good at textiles and glass. Antique shops like Best Antique Shop (Aia 10) have funky collections that include everything from Stalin busts and porcelain to accordions.
Best for casual fare: There are plenty of pubs and cafes in the Old Town. The surprising array includes African, Indian and Thai, to name a few.
Best for Local Atmosphere: Von Krahli Baar (Rataskaevu 10-12, open daily from 11 a.m.) and Kloostri Ait (Vene 14, from noon - midnight). Kuldse Notsu Korts (The Little Piggy Inn (Dunkri 8, from noon - midnight) has tons of atmosphere -- not to mention a roaring fireplace -- and funky food, like beer soup with ice cream and sauna-smoked lamb leg.
Best for a Luxe Lunch: For an upscale meal featuring Estonian cuisine go to Vanaema Juures (Rataskaevu 10, noon - 10 p.m. Monday - Saturday, noon - 6 on Sundays). We also on a recent visit discovered a pretty little tea house. At Matilde (Luhike jalg 4) we had the best bowl of tomato soup we ever had (with real cream and garlic croutons).
Best for Active Types: Bus from the pier to Rocca al Mare Open-Air Museum where you will collect bikes and head off on a guided tour of the Estonian countryside. Total cycling is 2.5 miles. En route, watch local performers do a folkloric show. Then head to Old Town for a one-mile walking tour.
Best for First-Timers: Tallinn is really best seen on foot, so if you can walk and don't want to go it alone, join a walking tour (bus tours that get you close to at least some of the sights are also available). Highlights include the baroque Toompea Palace, now home to the Estonian parliament and the onion-domed Russian Orthodox Alexander Nevsky Cathedral. You'll also stop by St. Mary's Cathedral, where more than 100 coats of arms are on display. Stops will be made at scenic outlooks so you can view the walled city over its rooftops. Free time will allow you to explore the shops and cafes around Town Hall Square. The tour may also include medieval concert at the historic Dominican Monastery.
Staying in Touch
Kohvik Grill (Vana-Viru) offers cafe food and Internet-tapped computers.
For More Information
On the Web: www.tourism.tallinn.ee or www.visitestonia.com
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--by Fran Wenograd Golden. Boston-based Golden, whose contributions to Cruise Critic include features, ship reviews and port profiles, is the travel editor of the Boston Herald and co-author of Frommer's Europe Cruises & Ports of Call.
"The Town Hall" photo is courtesy of Kaido Haagen; "Alexander Nevsky Castle" photo is courtesy of Tavi Grepp; "Pirita Yacht Harbour," "The City Wall" & "The Old Town Days" photos are courtesy of Toomas Volmer. All photos were provided by www.tourism.tallinn.ee