Estonia: A Nordic fairytale
By Shihaam Hassanali
When you hear the name Estonia, you’ll probably realize it’s not your typical vacation destination, but it’s time to consider adding it to your list of countries to explore. Most people know very little about this northern European country. Bordering the Baltic Sea and the Gulf of Finland, it includes more than 1,500 islands, and beautiful forests and lakes. It was formerly a part of the Soviet Union, so it’s easy to find castles, churches and fortresses scattered throughout the country. Aside from its beautiful landscape, Estonia is also known for its very efficient e-governance system and its capital, Tallinn, for its preserved Old Town and museums.
Tallinn is easy to explore on foot, but some of the more popular attractions are outside the city centre, so finding a centrally located place as a base would be wise. The original Sokos Hotel Viru is the most popular spot in Tallinn. Its tall building stands out and serves as an indicator if you’re ever lost and can’t access Google Maps. It opened in 1972 and was the first high-rise building in Estonia. If you’re looking for cosier options, consider Airbnb — you’ll find a host of affordable accommodation around the city. Hostelworld.com is a great site if you’re on the hunt for even cheaper choices.
Aside from walking, you can take public transport (bus, trolley-bus or train) to any destination. With one of the 4 types of passes in hand, you can freely explore the city. A Tallinn Card serves as a ticket, allowing the holder unlimited free public transport for the duration stated on the card (24h, 48h or 72h). It also gives you a free sightseeing tour of your choice, free admission to museums and other attractions, plus discounts. Buy online or at Tallinn Tourist Information Centre. A paper ticket is valid for a single ride, which you can purchase in the vehicle itself. A Smartcard is a green card that you can top up with credit or e-tickets. You can buy this at any R-Kiosk, post office or the Service Bureau of the Tallinn City Office. If you’re travelling with a large group or public transport isn’t your thing, the local cab service, Taxify, is a great option. They’ve also created a more fun mode of service, an e-scooter called Bolt by Taxify, for the more adventurous type looking for a fun way to explore the city.
During the Soviet era, the 23rd floor of Original Sokos Hotel Viru housed a KGB radio centre that was used to eavesdrop and spy on the guests, while 60 of the rooms had concealed espionage devices and some of the tables at the restaurant had microphones. Although the KGB left the premises in 1991, the secret room was only discovered in 1994 and, shortly after, turned into a museum.
Interactive, interesting and informative, ask for a guide to truly soak up the whole experience. With nearly 200 items on display at this historical seaplane hangar, expect to see a submarine, seaplane, remains of the oldest ship found in Estonia and much more. You can also explore inside the submarine, have your photo taken in a navy uniform, check out the aquarium, enjoy simulators, throw paper aeroplanes and even let the kids entertain themselves in the children’s corner.
Parliament of Estonia
Interested in learning how the country runs? Then add this to your list of things-to-do. Known to Estonians as Riigikogu, its members (104 of them to be exact) are elected by the people every 4 years. Guided tours of Toompea Castle, where Riigikogu is housed, are surprisingly easy to obtain.
The castle consists of 4 parts: the courtyard (where the Riigikogu building is situated), the eastern part (the White Hall, and the rooms of the President of the Riigikogu, committees and factions), the southern and western parts (offices of the members of the Riigikogu), and the northern part (working rooms of the Chancellery of the Riigikogu).
Probably the most impressive aspect of Estonian culture is its digital society. Wired magazine named this country ‘the most advanced digital society in the world’ as they’ve built an efficient, secure and transparent ecosystem that saves both time and money. Pretty much everything you’d normally do in real life in Sri Lanka is done online in Estonia — think governance, taxes, voting, public safety, health, residency, buying and selling vehicles, and even mundane things like paying your utility bills.
As the Estonians like to say: Everything, except for marriage, divorce and buying/selling land, is digital! Schools, too, are slowly integrating this into their curriculum, with an online portal available to read lessons and do homework. Soon, children will only need to log into their account to access material for each lesson. The digital society is something Estonians are extremely proud of, and at E-Estonia Showroom, you can participate in an interactive tour of how it all works. Book online for a tour.
Tallinn Old Town
Travelers the world-over drop by to soak up the beauty and history Tallinn has to offer, in particular, the Old Town. It’s considered the most well-preserved medieval city in Northern Europe, complete with Gothic spires, winding cobblestoned streets and fascinating architecture. Expect to see medieval churches, grand merchant houses, warehouses and barns that date back to the Middle Ages. Because of its intact 12th-century city plan, the Old Town was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1997. Today, there’s new life breathed into this historical spot, thanks to an array of restaurants, bars, galleries and museums. Spend a day exploring, or better yet, join a walking tour to completely immerse yourself in its rich history.
Tallinn Black Nights Film Festival
Between mid-November to early December is the annual Tallinn Black Nights Film Festival. It’s the biggest film festival in Northern Europe, and screens nearly 250 features and over 300 shorts (including a film from Sri Lanka, more often than not).
Lahemaa National Park
Around 70km east of Tallinn is the Lahemaa National Park. There are a few things you can do in the area; one, in particular, is taking a small hike to Viru, the swamp. The air is fresh, the walk is pleasant and the view is stunning. Depending on when you visit, you can even enjoy forms of forest recreation like picking berries and mushrooms.
Käsmu Maritime Museum
This museum sits off the beaten path and nearly 80km outside of Tallinn in Lääne-Viru County. Since 1993, the Käsmu Maritime Museum has been located in a historic border-guard station that dates back to the Russian Imperial time. Their goal is to familiarize visitors with the history of the legendary captain’s village that surrounds it. You’ll get to see exhibits that cover sailing, fishing, smuggling, nature, photography and other arts.
FOOD AND DRINK
While you’re at the Käsmu Maritime Museum, relish in a delicious homemade Estonian lunch. Ask for the salmon (main) and cheesecake for dessert! Estonians love their coffee, and it just so happens that their oldest coffee house in Tallinn, Café Maiasmokk, is still operational. Try Vapiano for a little Italian cuisine, if you’re in the mood. They won’t disappoint! If you’re in need of a little spice, Lendav Taldrik will feed all your cravings with their mouth-watering Indian (and a little Sri Lankan) food. Do say hi to the Lankan chef while you’re there! Kaks Kokka is a charming spot in Tallinn that’s well worth keeping in mind. Their menu is ever-changing, but each dish is much like going on a journey — the whole meal is quite the experience. Whether you’re looking for a quick lunch or a multi-course dinner, visit the cosy Platz. Their continental menu and large selection of wines ensure that everyone will find something they’ll enjoy.
Kohvik Komeet is perfect if you’ve got a massive sweet tooth. They’ve got the most decadent desserts that will leave you feeling full and content. Plus, the restaurant has a gorgeous view of the city. Enjoy a piece of cake with a glass of wine post-dinner.
Tip: Love beer? Try Estonia’s homegrown beer Saku Originaal, which is served at most restaurants.
No matter what time of year you decide to travel to Estonia, add it to your list of must-visit destinations. Immerse yourself in the culture, people and food—and you’ll walk away a more well-rounded individual with each experience.