48 hours in Tallinn

The capital of Estonia is a precious Baltic gem, discovers Neil Taylor

Because Tallinn's Old Town is a gem of medieval Europe. Because the city is the most Western looking of the Baltic capitals. And perhaps most of all because of Tallinn's summer activities: Tallinn "Old Town Days" take place 4-6 June when street musicians clad in medieval tunic and hose perform on every possible street corner. A month later the city is suffused with music again as the 24th Estonian Song Festival takes place (2-4 July). Between May and the start of this event the Estonians plan to celebrate their accession to the EU by planting a million trees.

WHY GO?

Because Tallinn's Old Town is a gem of medieval Europe. Because the city is the most Western looking of the Baltic capitals. And perhaps most of all because of Tallinn's summer activities: Tallinn "Old Town Days" take place 4-6 June when street musicians clad in medieval tunic and hose perform on every possible street corner. A month later the city is suffused with music again as the 24th Estonian Song Festival takes place (2-4 July). Between May and the start of this event the Estonians plan to celebrate their accession to the EU by planting a million trees.

BEAM DOWN

Estonian Air (020-7333 0196, www.estonian-air.ee) has celebrated EU membership by increasing its flights between London Gatwick and Tallinn from six to nine each week. But avoid flying out on Thursday or Friday evenings: stag groups can make the trip a nightmare (although single women may well be upgraded to business class to escape unwanted attention!). Expect to pay about £180 if you book the journey well in advance, but less if your flight is part of a package including a hotel. Travel from Birmingham, Edinburgh and Manchester is also possible via Copenhagen, Frankfurt, and Prague: expect to pay around £250 return. Be advised, though, that when routed via Prague, it is possible to spend the best part of the day getting to Tallinn.

In summer a leisurely alternative is to fly to Helsinki with British Airways (0870 850 9850, www.ba.com) or Finnair (0870 241 441, www.finnair.com) from London Heathrow for around £170 return or from Birmingham with Duo (0871 700 0700, www.duo.com) for about £185 and then take the two-hour boat trip from Helsinki's ferry port to Tallinn. If you do so in the evening, you will catch the beautiful sight of the sun setting over the Old Town (around 11pm at the height of summer).

GET YOUR BEARINGS

Tallinn Airport is only a couple of miles outside the city centre. Take the number 2 bus for 15 kroon (70p) to Viru Square, which is within walking distance of many hotels, or blow around 100 kroon (£4.30) on a taxi. In town, stock up on bus tickets from kiosks. These ubiquitous outlets are the equivalent of corner shops, selling newspapers, chocolate, soft drinks, beer and vodka (there are no licensing laws in Estonia) as well as bus tickets for 10 kroon (42p) each or in books of 10 for 70 kroon (£3).

The City Tourist Office at Niguliste 2 (00 372 645 7777, www.tourism.tallinn.ee) should be an early port of call. When there, or at any kiosk, buy "Tallinn In Your Pocket" for an up-to-date and above all irreverent assessment of restaurants, museums and shops.

TAKE A HIKE

For a fine intake of cobblestones, spires and candle-lit churches, start a walk beside Hermann Tower at the top of the Old Town. Next take an emotional step out of Estonia for a few minutes by entering Alexander Nevsky Cathedral. The Russian environment here - all Cyrillic alphabet and incense - is striking. Tear yourself away and meander down any nearby cobbled street or stairway. Any of these will in due course lead to the Town Hall Square. For centuries this was the trading centre of the Baltic Germans, occasionally doubling as the site of public executions. Those with enough energy can then admire the lie of the land from the top of the Town Hall Tower. Then set off at a more leisurely pace through Saiakang, Tallinn's narrowest street, emerging into the sunlight beside the Holy Ghost Church. Turn right into Pikk and look left down Pagari at the building with a bridge across the street. This is the former KGB Headquarters. Next on the left is St Olav's Church which the KGB also took over. Finish the tour at Fat Margaret which, despite the name, is a Maritime Museum showing how the British Navy helped Estonia to secure its independence after the First World War. Open Wednesday to Sunday, 10am to 6pm, admission 25 kroon (£1).

LUNCH ON THE RUN

Kuldse Notsu, or The Golden Pig, (00 372 628 6567, www.schlossle-hotels.com) at Dunkri 8, is where young Estonian executives manage a rushed lunch. Despite its name, the restaurant has a large vegetarian menu: start with thick pea soup and continue with onion and mushroom casserole. Have a pint and the total cost will be 150 kroon (£6.40), and the total time taken, half an hour.

CULTURAL AFTERNOON

The Adamson-Eric Museum (00 372 644 5838, www.ekm.ee) at Luhike jalg 3 reflects the versatility of Estonia's most famous 20th-century artist, whose life (1902-1968) spanned two Russian occupations and Estonia's first independence era. During the Twenties Adamson-Eric studied in Paris and Berlin, incorporating both a Cubist and Bauhaus legacy into his paintings. By the Thirties he was focusing on applied arts, concentrating on tapestries and ceramics. During the Second World War, he turned to stage sets but with the postwar austerity he returned to painting since materials for other work were unavailable. Like most museums in Tallinn this gallery is shut on Mondays, and it also closes on Tuesdays. For the rest of the week it is open 11am-6pm, entrance is 10 kroon (42p).

AN APERITIF

Few foreigners find the narrow entrance to Tristan ja Isolde under the Town Hall Tower so it is rarely crowded, even in mid-summer. Try a Vana Tallinn, Estonia's most famous aperitif, which is a Drambuie-like drink made to a secret herbal recipe.

DINING WITH THE LOCALS

Tallinners over 30 who can't quite take the pace of 21st-century life congregate at Eesti Maja Lauteri 1 (00 372 645 5252, www.eestimaja.ee) which is also a bookshop. Try beef and dumpling soup, pork in cider and chocolate cake, perhaps topped with fruits of the forest ice-cream. Allow 150 kroon (£6.40).

SUNDAY MORNING: GO TO CHURCH

The ornate Alexander Nevsky Cathedral seems to have services all day, every day. As is the custom in a Russian Orthodox Church, the congregation stands throughout. The Holy Ghost Church offers afternoon services in English every Sunday at 3pm.

OUT TO BRUNCH

Take a 21 bus from Baltijamm railway station to Rocca Al Mare, which despite the name has nothing to do with Italy. This is the location for the Open Air Museum (Vabaõhumuuseumi tee 12, 00 372 654 9100, www.evm.ee), which opens 10am-6pm daily with an entrance fee of 28 kroon (£1.20). Wooden houses, chapels and stables have been brought from all over Estonia to recreate 19th-century country life. One building is the Kolu Inn, where a brunch of pea soup followed by mashed potato is served on wooden plates. Home cooking is now rare in Tallinn, so catch up with it here.

TAKE A RIDE

Take tram number 1 or 3 from Viru Square out to Kadriorg Palace (37 Weizenbergi Street, 00 372 6066 400). This was commissioned by Peter the Great in 1718 and is now an art museum. Head for the "agitation porcelain" on the second floor, produced in 1923 for the first Soviet Art Exhibition by the renamed State Porcelain Factory (previously it had been the Imperial Porcelain Factory). The museum is open 10am-5pm Tuesday to Sunday, entrance 45 kroon (£1.90).

WRITE A POSTCARD

Drop into the Photographic Museum at Raekoja 4 for reprints of nostalgic pre-war cards. First purchase your card, then admire the fine medieval building in which the gallery is housed - it used to be the town hall prison. Don't be alarmed at the sign telling you that it "was opened for the Olympic Games" - the crucial words "as a museum" have been omitted.

THE ICING ON THE CAKE

The Kalev Chocolate Factory is bringing its museum from the suburbs into central Tallinn. The marzipan selection opens in mid-June, the chocolate section in August. The museum will be appropriately situated above a café called Maiasmokk (00 372 607 7811, www.kalev.ee), meaning Sweet Tooth. It will show how chocolate production has survived and how the box cover designs reflect this: flag-waving peasants from the Fifties give way in the Sixties to cosmonauts and then to views of Old Tallinn, the Eurovision Song Contest and now to EU accession.

CHECK IN

A thousand new hotel rooms are opening this month and next. However in summer, don't risk just turning up and expecting them to be empty, particularly not at 11pm when the London flight arrives. Even if some rooms are available, they will be sold at full price rather than at a discount. Buffet breakfast is always included in the room rate.

Having opened five years ago, the Meriton Grand at Toompuistee 27 (00 372 667 7000, www.meriton.ee) is quite old now by Tallinn standards, but it lives up to its name, with spacious rooms, a marble foyer and a lift with the best view in Tallinn, up towards Tall Hermann Tower. Doubles cost around 2,400 kroon (£102).

It is a pity that tourists can't arrive at Old Town Maestro's at Suur-Karja 10 (00-372-626-2000, www.maestrohotel.ee) on horseback since the tiny pavement and the ban on cars over the cobbles would make this the most practical means of transport. However those willing to drag their cases 100 yards from the main road will find the family-run hotel and bar surprisingly peaceful and quiet. Doubles cost around 1,800 kroon (£77).

The Saku Rock at Sadama 25 (00 372 668 0600, www.sakurockhotel.ee) will open at the beginning of June, making its mark by offering free beer at check-in and free internet access thereafter. Saku is one of Estonia's most famous beers so the hotel will of course offer excursions to its brewery. Doubles will be 990 kroon (£42).

WINDOW SHOPPING

The largest shopping centre in the Baltics, Viru Keskus on Viru Square, attracted 180,000 Estonians (15 per cent of the population) just after opening in April. The innovations here are the food courts, new to Estonia, as well as the totally enclosed facilities so that shoppers - whether arriving by car or bus - do not have face the elements.

The nearby Wall of Sweaters on Muurivahe caters for the rest of the population who still have to face the elements on a regular basis. Whether the temperature is 30F or 30C, the stock is always the same, geared totally to the needs of an Estonian winter.

The Windows of Apollo at Viru 23 makes it clear that its aim is to attract tourists and the ex-pat community, which it certainly does. Books in Estonian hardly get a look-in but there are plenty of other guides in English that focus on Tallinn, its surrounding countryside and on what makes modern Estonia tick.

TASTE OF THE CITY

Few Estonians will admit to liking local food and display a greater preference for foreign cuisine, catching up on what they missed during the years of Soviet austerity. Today, the French, Italians and Chinese who turned up in the early Nineties and established restaurants now have to face competition from Argentinians, Georgians, Greeks and Indians.

Food was initially all that mattered, now the decor is equally important and defines the clientele. The Pegasus Bar at Harju 1 (00 372 631 4040) is renowned for its quantity of clear glass so that anyone inside will surely be admired by those outside. Alternatively, Bocca at Olevimagi 9 (00 372 641 2610, www.bocca.ee) has canvas panels which block any sight of the diners ordering octopus and veal.

There are, though, a few Estonian-run establishments in the city. Some, adopting foreign models have opened restaurants such as Crêperie sans Nom at Muurivahe 23a ( 00 372 631 4344, www.sansnom.ee) where only pancakes are served. But for a unique flavour of old Estonia visit Vanaema Juures (Grandma's Place) at Rataskaevu 10 (00 372 626 9080) where the decor, music and cooking all date from pre-War Estonia.

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