Having thrown off Soviet shackles two decades ago, Tallinn, Estonia, now boasts a lively scene for tourists, including gay folks.
“I am nobody!” Sergei bawled as he staggered from the bar into the bustle of Tallinn’s cobbled streets, the perfect picture of a Russian loser. For decades, the Soviets had ruled Tallinn, and all Estonia, with an iron grip, but (Sergei’s right) no more. In 1991, Estonia became the first Baltic satellite to sever the Soviet grasp, and become a free nation.
For centuries, this terrain had been coveted by a steady succession of conquerors—Danes, Germans, Swedes, Russians, Nazis, and finally Soviets—until the Singing Revolution. “In Estonia, we prefer to sing than fight,” our guide, Aare, explained, one of thousands who protested during song festivals by mixing forbidden Estonian national anthems among the usual “Stalin Is Terrific” choruses. Aare, at 20, had been drafted into the Soviet army, and sent to St. Petersburg as driver for a Russian general, then had to swear not to speak to foreigners after his release.
Today, Aare speaks passionately about the triumphant rise in energy and enterprise overtaking his homeland now that his people are free. For the before-and-after picture, we toured the former KGB headquarters atop the Viga—the only hotel for foreigners during occupation days. When the feared secret police pulled out, they left behind a chilling network of surveillance materials, from bugged hotel rooms and saunas to even the restaurant’s ashtrays, linked to Moscow.
Nearby stands the Museum of the Occupations—plural, because it details the clamp-downs, concentration camps, and gulags of both Nazis and the Soviets who followed. Then, descend for an underground tour of the tunnels below the Medieval bastion walls that surround the Old Town—hideout, over the years, for the homeless, anti-Soviet punks and the innocent populace whom the Russians bombed into oblivion on one memorable night in 1944.
To absorb the city’s centuries of history told through music, we signed on for a more upbeat tour, leading us from the age-old Hansa café, where we stuffed ourselves with schnapps, smoked cheese, and pickled turnips, while a musician played Medieval instruments, from an accordion to a cow horn (“to keep away all bad”) and a clay ocarina (“a very rarity”). Then, on to minstrels in a gorgeous guildhall of the Middle Ages, and finally, a stop for cake in Malasmokk (“sweet tooth”), a coffeehouse since 1864, whose violinist wafted 1930s hits.
Leaving…wait, what’s this? The KGB again! An armed officer lined us up for interrogation, demanding passports, searching purses, handcuffing the recalcitrant, then loading us into an unmarked van—for vodka and Hail Russia songs on his guitar, the musical tour’s finale.
In Kadrioru Park, we encounter Russians of an earlier era. Here, Tsar Peter the Great built a summer palace (now an art museum) for Tsarina Catherine. Across the green looms KUMA, harbinger of contemporary Baltic art—think an uberarmchair built of truck tires, etc. It’s this avant vibe that titillates visitors today in the postcard-ready Old Town.
Between the spare, lean, Lutheran spire of St. Olav Church, once the tallest in all Europe, and the Orthodox Alexander Nevsky Cathedral, all icons and incense-scented under its onion dome, explore the former granary that now houses the Museum of Applied Arts to glimpse what current creative types are up to: a racing bike with antler handlebars; a forest of blue-glass mushrooms, jewelry as art—stuff that leaves the Walker in the dust.
Tallinn’s food scene showcases equal creativity. Open a menu in MEKK (Modern Estonian Kitchen), star of the charming Savoy Hotel, to feast on salmon with lemon yogurt, quail egg, and tomato vinaigrette, followed by duck with crispy onions, honey-roasted beets, and spiced pear sauce. Or slide into its homey bar for revisited classics like salmon-dill cream soup and bear-meat dumplings.
Restaurant O—voted best in the city—slicks up traditional dishes for today’s palates in fare ranging from a savory crayfish bisque to crème brûlée sided with rhubarb sorbet. Kaerajaan, a modern outpost on the historic square, takes pride in roasted Baltic herring with potato salad and Parmesan-oatmeal crusted chicken with currant-studded rice. Meanwhile, Nano—the quirky home-cum-café operated by a glam supermodel married to a DJ—harks back to tradition, with apps ranging from pickled beets to herring and potatoes in sour cream, followed by chicken in cherry preserves.
From the city’s best to the best in the land: On Saaremaa Island, Padaste Manor—an estate with medieval roots—serves guests in the lingering daylight of a summer’s eve with juniper-smoked goat cheese, then cod with a trio of parsnips, celery. and apples, followed by rhubarb compute with licorice meringue. On Saaremaa, we kayaked among seabirds, then dined in the Episcopal Castle, a fortress from the 1300s, on lusty Medieval fare—delicious salmon, pork roast—amid candlelight and strumming lutes
On neighboring Muhu Island, another superstar takes over. Sikka, the Julia Child of the Baltics, has converted a shambling farm into guest quarters-cum-cooking school, Nami Namaste, where her husband, Tony, schooled us in potato-leek bisque and roasted salmon.
Whet your own appetite at www.visitestonia.com.
Tallinn, the Gay Capital of Estonia
First gay sauna, and only one in the Baltics; bar; popular pre- or after-party scene
Open 11 PM-5 AM