48 Hours in Tallinn

This grand old Estonian city with its fairy-tale ambience is icy cold at this time of year. But, says Sankha Guha, it is the perfect time to explore without the summer crowds
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The Independent Travel

WHY GO NOW?

Tallinn's Old Town is one of the surviving gems of medieval Europe. In summer it suffers the indignity of Disney-style parades of mock friars, buxom wenches and hobbity clutter. The best time to visit is now before the Baltic cruise ships disgorge their tour groups, while the city truly belongs to its inhabitants. With luck you will get a dusting of snow to complete the fairytale ambience. Crunching through fresh snow across the deserted Raekoja Plats (Town Hall Square) in the twilight is quite magical.

BEAM DOWN

Estonian Air (020-7333 0196; www.estonian-air.ee) flies daily except Saturday from Gatwick to Tallinn, return fares start at £184. SAS (0870 6072 7727; www.scandinavian.net) offers daily flights from Heathrow (£222) or Manchester (£330) via either Copenhagen or Stockholm. The airport is bright, modern and unbelievably convenient - just 3km from the centre. Taxis cost around 70kr (£3); bus number 2 leaves the arrivals area every 20 minutes to the Viru Hotel in the centre for a fare of 15kr (£0.65).

GET YOUR BEARINGS

The Old Town is tiny; you can walk from end to end in about 10 minutes. The fortified inner city of Toompea rises above the outer layer of mercantile Tallinn. It is hard to get lost; landmarks to navigate by include the onion domes of the Alexander Nevski Cathedral, and the spires of the Niguliste (St Nicholas) and St Olaf's churches. The tourist office is opposite Niguliste church, on the corner of Niguliste and Kullassepa (00 372 645 7777; www.tourism.tallinn.ee). It opens 9am-5pm from Monday to Friday, 10am-3pm on Saturday, and is closed on Sundays.

The Tallinn Card entitles you to free admission to all museums and main sights, free sightseeing tours, free public transport and discounts in restaurants and shops. The 48-hour card costs 275kr (£12); the rate goes up in April.

The monthly Tallinn In Your Pocket ( www.inyourpocket.com) listings guide at 35kr (£1.50) is a must, and my book 24 Hours In The City: Tallinn (£7.99 from Amazon.co.uk or www.24hours-in.com) gives an insider's guide.

CHECK IN

New hotels are popping up by the week. The Three Sisters, Pikk 71 (00 372 6306 300; www.threesistershotel.com) is a new boutique hotel; a stylish conversion in three of the landmark buildings of the Old Town. Singles from 3,880kr (£166), doubles from 4,226kr (£181), including breakfast.

The Radisson SAS, Ravala 3 (00 372 682 3000; www.radissonsas.com) is a gleaming, purpose-built tower outside the Old Town with panoramic views. Singles from 2,112kr (£92), doubles from 2,316kr (£100) including breakfast.

Uniquestay, just outside the city walls at Paldiski 1 (00 372 660 0700; www.uniquestay.com), is also new with flat-screen computers in every room. Singles 1,300kr (£56), doubles 1,400kr (£60) including breakfast and internet access.

TAKE A VIEW

The best picture-postcard views are from the Kohtuoska platform in Toompea. Compare the restored roofscape of the medieval foreground with the rising towers in the business area.

TAKE A HIKE

Start at the Viru Gates and head up Viru Street (the Oxford Street of Tallinn). The De La Gardie department store on the right - finished in 2000 - is a bravura piece of town planning. It took strong nerves to plant this cool Nineties essay in glass, timber and steel within spitting distance of the 500-year-old city walls. Next is Raekoja Plats, the hub of city life for at least 700 years.

Head up the hill to Toompea. Imposing towers surround you as you walk through the Danish King's Garden making your way to Lossi Plats (Castle Square).

Stand at the birthplace of Tallinn between the Estonian parliament and the onion-domed Alexander Nevski Cathedral erected in 1900. To Estonians it is a crushing statement of Tsarist (read Russian) domination; there are serious discussions periodically about tearing it down and moving it somewhere else.

LUNCH ON THE RUN

City Gourmet at Maakri 36 (00 372 56 498 839; www.citygourmet.ee), is a newcomer to the business district of Tallinn. It is is a Conran-style deli/wine bar/café. A bit pricey by local standards, but the food is reliable and well presented. Browse the design emporia of Maakri Street after filling up on warming goulash.

WINDOW SHOPPING

Try Nu Nordik Vabaduse valjak 8 (00 372 644 93 92; www.nunordik.ee) for offbeat Estonian designers. More Estonian arts and crafts can be found at the Katariina Gild on Katariina kaik (00 372 641 84 76) - a guild working in the applied arts.

AN APERITIF

Chic bars abound. Languid media types and Baltic ice maidens inhabit Moskva at Vabaduse Valjak 10 (00 372 640 46 94; www.moskva.ee). The bar at Bocca Olevimagi 9 (00 372 641 26 10; www.bocca.ee) is more grown up and very Milan. Minimal white Pegasus, at Harju 1 (00 372 631 40 40; www.restoranpegasus.ee) is the umbilicus through which Tallinn's glitterati connect. In any of the above you will label yourself a tourist if you drink Saku beer or, worse, Vanna Tallinn liqueur. Order a Caipirinha and you'll be at home.

DINING WITH THE LOCALS

O at Mere 6e (00 372 661 61 50; www.restoran-o.ee) has an exquisite interior and adventurous menu blending Baltic and Pacific-rim themes to good effect. For typical Estonian home cooking try Vanaema Juures, at Rataskaevu 10 (00 372 626 90 80); the name means "grandmother's place": you can order wild boar, elk and the like in a cosy cellar. Controvento, Katariina kaik (00 372 644 0470; www.controvento.ee) does honest Italian food.

SUNDAY MORNING: GO TO CHURCH

Niguliste (St Nicholas) Church at Niguliste 3 (00 372 644 99 11; www.ekm.ee) is now a museum and concert hall. Virtually flattened in a vindictive Soviet air raid in 1944, the building you now see is largely a painstaking 20-year-old restoration. It houses Tallinn's only world class art treasure. Bernt Notke's 15th-century Dance of Death is a huge (7.5m) memento mori featuring skeletons dancing. Open daily from 10am to 5pm except Monday; admission is 35kr (£1.50).

OUT TO BRUNCH

The best French-style patisserie in town is the foyer café of the posh restaurant Le Bonaparte at Pikk 45 (00 372 646 44 44). Perfect for a mellow start to Sunday after a big night in Tallinn.

A WALK IN THE PARK

Kadriorg Park, 2km west of the centre, is the city's finest open space. It is a gracefully appropriate setting for the Italianate Kadriorg Palace, Weizenbergi 37 (00 372 606 64 00; www.ekm.ee). This was built for tsar Peter the Great at the beginning of the 18th century. It now houses the Museum of Foreign Art, which opens 10am-5pm daily except Monday; admission is 45kr (£1.95).

TAKE A (SLEIGH) RIDE

If there is fresh snow take the sleigh at Rocca Al Mare Open Air Museum, a long way west of the centre at Vabaohumuuseumi tee 12 (00 372 654 91 00; www.evm.ee). Glide through the 84-hectare site on the edge of the sea amid nearly 100 folksy buildings re-sited here from their original surroundings. It opens 10am-5pm daily, admission 12kr (50p). Jump on bus 21 from the centre - or get a cab at around 200kr (£9) there and back.

CULTURAL AFTERNOON

To understand the Estonian psyche, a visit to the brand new Museum of Occupations at Toompea 8 (00 372 668 02 50; www.okupatsioon.ee) is necessary. It tells the story of the traumas the country suffered from 1939 to 1991, first briefly under the Nazis, then the Soviets. The long line of old cases representing those who vanished into the gulags is stark and moving. It opens 11am-6pm daily except Monday, admission 10kr (45p).

WRITE A POSTCARD

Take your cards to Café Anglais at Raekoja plats 14 (00 372 644 21 60) and write them at a window table overlooking the main square. The café remains a delicious secret, given its location. You enter through a municipal-looking entrance, duck to the left and up an almost hidden staircase to find it. Grand room, grand piano and a grandstand from which to watch life in Raekoja Plats.

THE ICING ON THE CAKE

Cold War nostalgists should rent a car, from Tulika (00 372 6120012; www.tulika.ee) at 500-1,000kr (£22-£44) for the day, and head out to Paldiski nuclear submarine base some 30 miles north-west of Tallinn. Fans of Le Carre and Len Deighton will get goose bumps amid the derelict command centre and the crumbling

missile silos. Paldiski was so top secret that it did not appear on maps. Stand on the cliff top next to the lighthouse as the icy winter wind whips in from the Gulf of Finland, and re-discover just how bitter the Cold War could be.

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