Port of Tallinn
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Today, thanks to its strategic position on the Gulf, Estonia's largest city is thriving. Tallinn, with a population of 451,000, is not only a major port but also a major industrial center. Timber, chemicals, electronics and information technology are all booming industries. Voice-over-Internet calling service Skype, of all things, was developed in Estonia. One of its creators: Jaan Tallinn.
The contemporary city of 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 that has remained largely unchanged for over 600 years. Walk the winding streets, past ancient towers and the old city wall, and you'll feel like you're taking a step back into a medieval storybook. It is no wonder that the old town is a UNESCO World Heritage site.
Tallinn is artsy and a delightful place to hang out and people-watch from one of the sidewalk cafes. The folks there are no longer restrained, and amid the fairy tale surroundings there is an "anything goes" ambience. The shops, especially the galleries and antiques venues, serve up interesting finds, such as elaborate weavings from textile artists and modern art from local painters; antique shops feature Communist memorabilia (Lenin paperweight, anyone?).
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Where You're Docked
Cruise ships dock at the commercial port, which is a 15- to 20-minute walk on flat pavement to the heart of Old Town. The cruise season lasts from mid-May to mid-September, with roughly 300 visits a year by cruise ships. The port can accommodate some of the industry's largest ships, thanks to new pier infrastructure. There is also a movement afoot to develop a Christmas markets season for cruise passengers, which would extend the cruise season from late November to the middle of January.
If you don't get your shopping done in town, there are a number of shops next to the cruise terminal that sell locally made souvenirs at competitive prices. The terminal, built in 2012, has a tourist information desk, a currency exchange and a bar. There's also free Wi-Fi.
Good to Know
Wear comfortable shoes because the streets are mainly cobbled and quite uneven. Plus, there are a lot of steep hills. As with any tourist center, beware of pickpockets.
Cruise lines typically run shuttles between the pier and the edge of Old Town; taxis also line up at the terminal. Taxis will generally take U.S. dollars as well as euros, but it's best to negotiate the price in advance. The hop-on, hop-off Tallinn City Tour bus service takes in most of Tallinn's highlights. Once in Old Town, the going is on foot; several of the streets are pedestrian only. In addition to the tourist booth at the cruise terminal, there is an information center at Kullassepa 4 in Old Town.
Currency & Best Way to Get Money
Estonia has been a member of the European Union since 2004. It adopted the euro as its official currency in 2011. For updated currency conversion figures, visit www.oanda.com or www.xe.com. The cheapest way to get money is to use your debit card at an ATM.
The official language is Estonian. Most tourist shop employees speak English, however. English is taught from first grade on, so it is widely understood by young people. Many buildings in Old Town have informational signage in both Estonian and English.
Food and Drink
Estonian cuisine proudly displays its peasant origins. Traditional fare includes pirukad, popular baked goods filled with meat and cabbage, and black pudding, a savory blood sausage. Marzipan made the old-fashioned way is also a local delicacy.
Best for a Quick Bite: There are lots of outdoor cafes that fit the bill, but on the ground floor of Town Hall -- now a concert hall -- is a neat little eatery that serves up freshly roasted coffee, beer, wine, cider, pastries, hot meat pies and, a local's favorite, elk soup. Open 8 a.m. to midnight daily.
Best for Local Atmosphere: Kuldse Notsu Korts (The Little Piggy Inn) has tons of atmosphere -- not to mention a roaring fireplace -- and funky food, like beer soup with ice cream and sauna-smoked lamb leg (Dunkri 8; open noon to 11 p.m.). Peppersack, housed in a building that dates to 1370, offers up home cooking, such as creamy smoked cheese soup, borsch, grilled pork tenderloin with beer-boiled sauerkraut, herring with sour cream and baked pork shank. (Vana turg 6; open 11 a.m. to midnight daily)
Best for a Luxe Lunch: A popular locals' favorite for a special meal, Olde Hansa is a medieval restaurant offering up everything from bear, wild boar and elk sausage to a "sampler" featuring juniper flavored beef, orange tongue jelly, French royal poultry liver pate, onion jam, quail eggs and herb bread with nuts. Portions are served for those with "mild hunger" or "great hunger." There is outdoor and indoor seating. (Vana turg 1; open 11 a.m. to midnight daily)
Handmade woolen sweaters, sophisticated glass art, amber jewelry, juniper wood products, leather goods and fashionable linen capes are just a few examples of locally produced items. The woolen sweaters are every bit as nice as those you'll find in Stockholm and Oslo -- only cheaper. Shops are open Monday through Friday from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m.; Saturday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.; and Sunday from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. In addition to credit cards, most souvenir shops accept U.S. dollars as well as British pounds.