Why go now?
Set at a watery crossroads of northern and central European culture, Estonia's little capital presents a powerful package of a wonderfully well-preserved walled Old Town, rich Hanseatic trading history, and – having emerged from 50 years of Soviet occupation – dynamic modernity.
This year Tallinn is European Capital of Culture ( tallinn2011.ee/eng) along with the Finnish city of Turku, just across the Baltic Sea.
Summer highlights include the big art exhibition Gateways ( gateways.ee), exploring art in the digital age until 25 September at the Kumu Art Museum in Kadriorg Park (1) (00 372 602 6000; ekm.ee); kayak trips in Tallinn harbour (00 372 5555 8755; 360.ee; from €30) until August; and the Youth Song and Dance Festival ( laulupidu.ee) at the Tallinn Song Festival Grounds (2) from 1-3 July. One extra bonus: Estonia has adopted the euro, but it remains notably less expensive than most other eurozone destinations.
I flew from Gatwick to Tallinn's Lennart Meri Airport (3) with Estonian Air (00 372 6401 162; estonianair.ee). Ryanair (0871 246 0000; ryanair.com) flies from East Midlands, Edinburgh and Luton, while easyJet (0905 821 0905; easyjet.com) flies from Liverpool and Stansted.
The airport is 4km south-east of the city centre. Bus 2 departs every 20-30 minutes from outside the departures hall to Laikmaa Terminal (4), the nearest stop to the Old Town. The 12-minute journey costs €1.60. A taxi can take you right into the Old Town for around €9.50.
Get your bearings
The tiny walled Old Town lies just south of Tallinn's bustling port. To the west, above this medieval gem, is ancient Toompea Castle (5) (now housing the parliament) and the upper town, where the clergy and aristocracy once lorded it over the trading world below. The Old Town and Toompea districts are largely pedestrianised although taxis are allowed through the old walls.
To the north-west is Kalamaja, a district of fishermen's houses with the remains of a light smattering of Soviet industry and bohemian charm. Over to the east, beyond a rash of Soviet developments is leafy Kadriorg, which was home to Russian aristocracy in the 18th century.
The main tourist office (6) is at Niguliste 2 (00 372 645 7777; tourism.tallinn.ee). It opens 10am-5pm on weekends, and 9am-7pm on other days. You can buy a Tallinn Card which covers entry to most museums and includes public transport. The €24 version covers 24 hours – or, for six hours, there's a €12 ticket.
The Schlössle Hotel (7), in the heart of the Old Town at Puhavaimu 13 (00 372 699 7700; schloesslehotel.com), has been beautifully furnished to evoke the days of the Hanseatic merchants. Doubles from €194 including breakfast and a morning sauna. For a more modern, and modest, take on Tallinn book a room at the Metropol Hotel (8) at Roseni 13 in the newly renovated Rotermann warehouse district (00 372 667 4668; metropol.ee). This three-star has double rooms (some with private saunas) from €57, including breakfast. Right next door is a haven for bargain hunters: the self-proclaimed "€16 Hostel" (9) (00 372 501 3046; 16eur.ee) with clean and comfortable rooms. It does what it says, with doubles for €16 per person, room only. Or opt to sleep in a dormitory for just €10 a night.
Take a view
Head up to the Toompea district where there are two easily accessible terraces off the northern (10) and eastern (11) ends of Rahukohtu. These both offer terrific panoramas over the walls, terracotta rooftops and spires of the Old Town and across to the cruise ships arriving at Tallinn's port.
Take a hike
Walk down from Toompea, through part of the Old Town and over to Kalamaja to get an intriguing overview of Tallinn's varied past. Stroll first down Rahukohtu to Kiriku Plats where the magnificent, bastion-like Toomkirik (12), or Church of the Virgin Mary, dates back to 1240 (daily 9am-5pm, free). Continue down Piiskopi to the onion-domed Aleksander Nevski Cathedral (13), a towering symbol of Russian tsarist domination built in 1900 (weekends 10am-5pm, Mon-Fri 9am-7pm; free). From the square here, step down to the terrace to the south west and follow the cobbled stairway, Luhike Jalg, down to the Old Town. Turn left into Rataskaevu and then right into Dunkri to reach the lovely main square Raekoja Plats (14), presided over by one of the finest Gothic town halls in northern Europe.
Walk up Mundi passageway, cross over Pikk into Borst Kaik and turn right along Lai. Continue along this street of merchants' houses until you reach Surrtuki on the right. Following this road, pass through the gateway by Plate tower (15) and step back to get a great view of the historic wall. Then proceed over tram lines into the Kalamaja district, walking along Kotzebue past atmospheric wooden houses. Follow the road around to Kopli, and finish your walk at Café Boheem (16) at number 18 (00 372 631 1928; boheem.ee).
Lunch on the run
Café Boheem (16) is a cheerfully retro outfit serving the likes of boiled dumplings with sour cream at €3 and ham-and-cheese crêpe at €3.
Stroll back to the Old Town to see Tallinn's most distinctive art treasure, which lies in the Niguliste Museum (17) (00 372 631 4330; ekm.ee; Wednesday-Sunday 10am-5pm; adults €3.20). The great 13th-century church of St Nicholas was all but destroyed during the Second World War, yet in the 1980s it was rebuilt and now acts as a museum displaying the city's major collection of religious art. The ancient wooden altarpieces here are impressive but the highlight is a 15th-century memento mori painting, Bernt Notke's striking medivial depiction, Danse Macabre.
Then walk the city walls. A section of Tallinn's ancient fortifications operates as something of an open-air museum. It links three towers on the western side of the Old Town – and offers terrific views. Linna Muur (18) is open 11am-4pm from Saturday to Wednesday (Friday 11am-5pm), admission €1.30.
Among the growing number of Tallinn's lounge bars is Lai V Bar (19) offering a series of sleek rooms in an Old Town cellar at Lai 5 (00 372 616 1188; bar5.ee). Order a margarita (€5.50) and enjoy the vibe.
Dining with the locals
MEKK (20), on the fringes of the Old Town at Suur-Karja 17, (00 372 680 6688; mekk.ee) is one of the city's most popular new additions. At this chic restaurant, traditional Estonian food is given an exquisitely modern lift. On the menu you'll find roasted duck fillet with spinach, potatoes and asparagus with blackcurrant sauce (€22) or baked cod with quails' eggs, potatoes and crayfish (€16).
Sunday morning: take a ride...
... to the green glories of Kadriorg Park (1). Catch tram 1 (fare €1) from Mere Pst (21), just east of the Old Town. It will clang its way through less-appealing grey and built-up Tallinn to the aristocratic delights of the tsarist district. Leave the tram at the final stop, close to the park.
A walk in the park
Sprawling Kadriorg Park was established by Peter the Great shortly after he conquered the region in the early 18th century. It is a magnificent area of woods, lawns, formal parterres, fountains and a swan lake. And it served as the estate of the summer palace that the Tsar built, which stands in Baroque grandeur midway along the main drive, A Weizenbergi. Kadriorg Palace is now one of three art galleries in the park and contains the national collection of foreign art; highlights of which are two little oils of a peasant wedding by Pieter Brueghel the Younger (00 372 606 6400; ekm.ee; 10am-5pm daily except Monday; €4.20).
A five-minute walk further east is another gallery: Peter the Great's Cottage. This modest building is where the Tsar lodged while his palace was taking shape and it displays (fairly grand) room sets and memorabilia from his time (00 372 601 3136; linnamuuseum.ee/peetrimaja; 10am-6pm daily except Monday, €1.92).
Out to brunch
Adjacent to Peter the Great's Cottage, the park's third gallery is a sublime statement of the 21st century. A curving, high-rise structure, Kumu Art Museum (00 372 602 6000; ekm.ee; 11am-6pm daily except Monday; €5.50) houses the nation's collection of Estonian modern art. It is also home to a sleek little café serving classic brunch fare such as poached eggs and spinach (€4.50) and omelettes with green salad (€4).
Go to church
Return to the Old Town and head to Puha Vaimu kirik (22), the Church of the Holy Spirit (Mon-Sat 9am-5pm; €1; Sun open for services only). Dating from the 14th century, this is a glorious and fascinating building with an ornate clock on the façade. Inside you'll find wooden galleries, a Renaissance pulpit, Baroque pews and a lovely Gothic altarpiece of sculpted wooden figures. Sunday services are held in English at 3pm (11am in Estonian).
Shops selling Baltic amber and Estonian linenware are dotted along Viru and Pikk, the main little thoroughfares of the Old Town. To capture a sense of Tallinn's contemporary creativity head to the craft studios nearby off Vene. At number 6 an archway leads to Meistrite Hoov (23), Masters' Courtyard, where there's a visual feast of workshops displaying wood and felt designs, knitwear and wrought iron (00 372 641 8017; hoov.ee; 10am-6pm daily). A few doors up at number 12, St Catherine's Guild (24) is a collection of craftspeople making paper, leatherwear, hats, patchwork, linens and more, their studios accessed through a fabulous old wooden passageway.