Queen of the Baltic

Estonia charms visitors with its rich history, refined food and playful Northern European culture.

Estonian skyline
Estonian skyline

Estonia is ready for her close-up, and I’m here to let the secret out: It’s a dream destination for romantics, overflowing with Old World charm. Also for those who worship the high-tech world of tomorrow. And those who savor a land short on tour buses and hordes of selfie sticks, where everyone speaks English — plus German and Russian, the tongues of the most recent invaders, before the Peaceful Revolution (achieved, would you believe, by singing) led to full independence in the 1990s.

Plus, you’ll find food and lodging prices that barely dent the bankroll.

europe map

Tallinn

Tallinn, Estonia’s seaside capital, is bursting with energy and enterprise now that the land — south of Finland, west of Russia, north of Latvia, bordering the Baltic Sea and Gulf of Finland — is free.

Seaplane Harbor showcases interactive maritime exhibits ranging from a 16th-century shipwreck (guided by vipers as an early navigation tool, since they always swam north) to a climb-in submarine, bristling with torpedoes.

Kai Art Center, another harbor resident, heralds forward art installations, while Proto Invention Factory celebrates what-if ideas (think bicycles creating electricity) via virtual reality.

Pohjala Brewery aligns flights to complement a Russian-influenced menu (ravioli-like pelmeni stand out), plus treats from pastry chef Hannah (formerly of Patisserie 46!) like sea buckthorn donuts (unrelated to true buckthorn, that scourge of Minnesota backyards) and American cornbread.

Fotografiska anchors Telliskivi Creative City — another industrial complex- turned-design district — that pulses inside a warehouse with a coffee shop, bar, boutiques, a cinema and breathtaking photography exhibits.

Voted Best Place for a First Date, the complex also boasts a rooftop restaurant whose creative, veggie-forward menu stars plates like roasted carrot with hummus and mandarin-sea buckthorn glaze, or potato-celeriac gnocchi in bacon-brown butter sauce.

Finish the evening with a tipple at Juniperium, the area’s new gin distillery.

That’s the Tallinn of today. And tomorrow.

Estonian street scene

History to explore

But the charm of centuries past blooms in Old Town, honored as a UNESCO Cultural Heritage site. Husky medieval walls cradle a tangle of cobbled streets radiating from Town Hall Square, long the city’s beating heart.

Peek into the pharmacy in the Town Hall’s shadow, in business for 500 years, selling cures involving bat wings, stallion hooves, dog feces and deer penises.

The spire beyond it crowns the Dome Church of 1236, gleaming with elaborate coats of arms. Antiques shops flaunt Nazi and Soviet medals and the occasional gas mask, while St. Catherine’s Passage nearby salutes creative female artisans fashioning elite couture, leather goods, paper works and fabrics. (Wait ’til you see my new jacket!)

Slip back in time to dine at Olde Hansa, housed in the manor of a medieval merchant, where musicians entertain guests as they sup by candlelight on game specialties like bear and elk, all while sipping homemade schnapps.

Head next to St. Nicholas, once the wealthiest church in the land and now a museum of medieval art. Its showpiece is the cautionary Dance of Death, a mural whose grinning skeletons drag sinning patricians to their fate.

Weave your way to the hilltop to see Alexander Nevsky Cathedral, an Orthodox structure brimming with icons hazy with kisses of the devout. Beside it looms the Pepto-pink Toompea Castle, where today’s Parliament resides.

For a glimpse into the dark years under Soviet rule, visit the Occupation Museum and listen to first-person accounts of living in terror; or pop in, if you dare, to the former KGB prison to view its dire cells and torture devices.

Rejoin sunnier times at Ore to dine on treats such as sweetbreads in a chestnut puree or perch with whitefish roe and a would-you-believe-it dessert of beets aside caramel cream and currant sauce. Or seek out Mekk for a soul-saving bowl of rich and creamy salmon chowder, followed by duck with honey-roasted beets in spiced pear sauce.

St. Alexander Nevsky Cathedral
The Alexander Nevsky Cathedral in Tallinn, Estonia, is an Orthodox cathedral designed in
the typical Russian Revival style popular between 1894-1900. Photo by Mark Harrison/ Courtesy of
the Tallinn City Tourist Office and Convention Bureau

Saunas, bogs and songs

Then head off to the winter capital of Otepaa — 2.5 hours inland by car — to witness the annual sauna marathon, in which teams of four in outlandish costumes (Fred Flintstone, ballet tutus and many more) vie to spend three steamy minutes in 19 different saunas within six hours. Vodka may be involved.

At the GMP Puhajarve Restaurant nearby we conquered winter temps with farm-to- table fare like oats risotto with beet leaves and homemade chokecherry liqueur.

Then it was time for a sauna of our own. Mooska Farm, an hour distant, offers an authentic traditional, almost mystical, experience in which the lady healer/owner guides you through poaching in the smoky shadows while she tosses water on the stove to create steam.

When you can bear the heat not one minute longer, step outside and jump into the icy lake (optional), then you’re back at it. Rinse and repeat, snacking meanwhile on cheeses and sausages and such.

Sleep came easily for me that night and readied us all for a walk in Meenikunno bog. We strapped on what looked like snowshoes to clamber over the soggy turf to an ice-glazed lakefront, where peace and quiet reigned.

Then — cameras ready — we drove across the border into a corner of Russia for a few minutes, commanded by glaring signs not to stop, much less leave our car.

Safe in the home of Sirje, a local cheesemaking champ, we watched her prepare the egg-and-butter-rich cheese traditionally served at parties, then devoured special fishcakes and homemade fruit wines. Sirje quit her job as a school cook to follow her dream and launch, most successfully, her in-home restaurant, Maagokono.

We were in the region of the Setos too — people with a distinct language, costumes and traditions, whose Obinitsa Museum reveals their artifacts. As we gaped in wonder, a young woman donned an elaborate wedding costume, weighted with impressive jewelry. Then a quartet of Seto matrons introduced us to the unique Seto leelo singing, proudly intertwining harmonics.

Männikjärve bog Sven Zacek
Bog walks in Estonia bring visitors to peaceful, open landscapes such as Mannikjarve bog. Photo by Sven Zacek

Beyond to Tartu

Next we were on to Tartu, Estonia’s second-largest city, 45 minutes north- east of Otepaa, and its famed university, founded in the 17th century.

Tartu for decades was claimed by the Soviets for secret military purposes, allowing no one to visit, nor residents to leave. In recent years, its plucky citizenshave reinvented themselves, turning dreary Soviet housing blocs into eco-smart homes and reviving Seto ways, sauna culture and reverence for nature.

It’s been chosen as a European Cultural Capital for 2024.

Already it’s home to the blockbuster Estonian National Museum. This modern treasure unspools the history of its people, beginning in 8000 B.C., via displays of daily life rather than dusty history.

It heralds the country as a digital innovator, from Skype to satellite phones that defied bugging. And it celebrates the Singing Revolution that turned the nation’s history around.

Explore visitestonia.com/en and plan your visit — for a time when we’re beyond the COVID-19 pandemic, of course.


Carla Waldemar is an award-winning food/travel/arts writer. She edits the annual Zagat Survey of Twin Cities restaurants and writes food and travel articles for publications around the world. She lives in Uptown.