This post is the fifth installment in a journal of my cruise through Scandinavia and the Baltic states in 2012 on Norwegian Cruise Line –– for an overview and a map of the entire cruise, go here. Throughout the cruise, I’m highlighting each port, with photos and tips on what to see and how. Today, the third port: Tallinn, Estonia.
This is a cruise with many highlights, but I was especially excited about the port we sailed into on the morning of Day Four: Tallinn, Estonia. It’s a place that’s not even on some people’s maps, but I’d always been intrigued by the small Baltic countries of Estonia and Latvia, intriguing places in a unique corner of the world.
I’d seen movies of quaint villages where people carried out customs dating back to the middle ages, and dark forests reminiscent of Canada’s woodland. However, on a one-day trip to a place like this, you’re pretty much just going to see a city — but in this case, a city with one of the most authentic medieval quarters I’d ever seen.
There’s some interesting history here, too. Estonia is a country that lived under Russian and Soviet rule for many years, and it’s left an indelible stamp on what was once undoubtedly a more beautiful city. But even this plays an intriguing part in the story of Tallinn.
What to do in Tallinn:
Take the Hop-on-Hop-off bus: Many of the passengers on my cruise took this option — the bus leaves from right near the cruise port. We were all whizzed through downtown, then quickly to the old town. But don’t hop off there if it’s still early — better to take the ride around the city first.
There are three lines, which go to most parts of town, taking in sights including the Kadriorg Palace Ensemble (built by Peter the First), the Botanical Garden, the yacht port and the zoo, nestled among some dense forest on the edge of the city. The commentary points out some of Tallinn’s historic districts, many of which were levelled by the Soviets and replaced with soulless housing blocks. In some places it’s heart-breaking, but it must be seen.
Take the free tour: Time your bus trip to arrive back at the old quarter before noon, and hurry to the Town Hall Square, where you can join a free walking tour of the old town: they leave from just off the corner of the square, near the church. These tours are led by university students, and they’re anything but boring. The medieval city is amazing to start with, but they make it come alive with fascinating stories, myths and bits of humour.
Our guide, Carol (seen here), had an encyclopedic knowledge of the city and its history, and lots of funny stories and jokes. One was about the old tower called the Kiek in de Kok (sounds rude, but it’s Dutch for “a peek in the kitchen”). According to the story, a man who worked up in the tower could look down his chimney every day and see what his wife was cooking. When she made him guess what was for dinner, he confounded her by guessing right and avoiding the penalty — a good whack.
Learn the history: Carol also told us the unique and inspiring story of how Estonia won its freedom from the Soviet Union: they did it by singing! Thousands of Estonians gathered in city parks — including Hirvepark, adjacent to the old quarter — and sang beloved old folk songs banned by the Soviets. Finally they gathered strength and seized the city from their masters, who luckily were too preoccupied with a coup of their own to strike back.
Wander the old city: If you don’t take the tour — or even if you do — take some time to wander the old town by yourself (along with hundreds of other tourists) and soak in the atmosphere. Old Tallinn is divided into the Upper Town, where the upper class lived, and the Lower Town, where the working class struggled along. A narrow road connects the two, and both are filled with medieval streets lined with wonderful old buildings. There are lots of shops and restaurants to keep you busy: try the white chocolate bars with blueberries and strawberries, only made here.
One of the most impressive sights, at least for me, was the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral (below), which sits atop Toompea Hill across from the Parliament buildings. Its beautiful onion domes can be seen for blocks around. Then there’s the old city walls, with their classic round towers that look like sets for a Disney movie. And don’t miss spending some time in Town Hall Square, where you can shop for crafts at dozens of stalls and see people play period music in medieval costumes.
See Freedom Square: Just on the edges of the old town is this historic square, topped by a giant cross to commemorate Estonia’s emancipation. You can get there via a lovely, ornate set of steps that have been part of Tallinn’s civic life for many years.
Dine in the square: I know I’ve advised avoiding the overpriced restaurants in touristy public squares, but Tallinn’s Town Hall Square is such a beautiful setting that it’s hard to resist sitting at one of the outdoor restaurants and enjoying some hearty East European food. Prices are pretty average, and there’s lots of choice.
If you just want a snack, there are coffee shops, some dating back to the 1700s. Or you can go all medieval and have an elk pie and some country ale in a little eatery that REALLY looks like a set from a Disney movie. When you enter, they say, “Welcome to the middle ages”.
Shop in the terminal: Tallinn’s cruise terminal has its own little market, filled with everything from clothing to deli goods and more candy than I’ve seen in one place. If you’ve got time, it’s worth a few minutes for some souvenir shopping. (Ignore the stall filled inexplicably with Nazi memorabilia.)
The all aboard was 5 p.m. on Day 4, and we boarded the ship after a memorable day. The show in the Stardust Lounge was called Showtime: Encore, a collection of Broadway hits, and there was a Latin fiesta in the disco. And once again, the clocks turned forward when we went to bed.
Next port: St. Petersburg, Russia.