The Baltic Sea is the cool new European cruising ground. And friends who have taken a Baltic cruise come home with special rave notices about their port-of-call in Tallinn, the beautifully preserved capital of Estonia, whose Old Town they discovered indeed had all those things that come with a declared UNESCO World Heritage Site: medieval walls and towers; narrow cobbled streets, many of which retain their original (13th-16th century) names; craftsmen guilds and fine merchant houses; the oldest continuously operated pharmacy in Europe; scores of spires and steeples; and a legacy from an 850-year history that included reigns/rule by Danes, Swedes, Germans and Russians.
Bookings for next year on the 14-day Tauck tour, Russian Glories, Baltic Treasures, are up percentage-wise, “in the strong double-digits above last year at this time,” reports company spokesman Tom Armstrong. “I think the popularity of the Baltics reflects what we are seeing in some other areas of Europe—from Iceland to Portugal—an interest in exploring some of the lesser-known regions of the continent. [I believe] we are becoming more well-traveled as a society, and people who have visited the more traditional European destinations are now looking further afield for new experiences.”
During a recent press trip hosted by the tourism ministry, this guest found particularly fascinating the Baltic experience in Estonia. As Estonia celebrates its 25th year of independence and emergence from the dark days of Soviet occupation, one marvels at a country that is now a full-fledged democracy, a member of both the European Union and NATO. Further, forward-looking Estonians have embraced the digital age with a vengeance. Not only was Skype invented here, but Internet-savvy Estonia was the first country in the world to adopt online voting, and even Parliament can have online sessions. And although I’m not claiming to be an expert after a 3-night visit, let’s share some of my favorite things in Tallinn.
Old Town Walk: Defined by the city walls dating back to the 14th century, the historic heart of Tallinn is best explored on foot. Highlights include the onion-domed Alexander Nevsky Orthodox Cathedral with its beautiful icon and fresco interiors; the St. Olaf’s Church, once the tallest building in the world; and the Gothic Old Town Hall. From the heights of battlement towers and ramparts, you behold the red roofs of medieval Tallinn, the shiny glass blocks of new office buildings (including some decidedly western hotels such as Radisson Blu, Swissotel, Hilton Park) and the Baltic Sea beyond.
Kadriorg Park: Among many choice museums (including one documenting the former KGB headquarters from Soviet occupation days), tops on my list is the Kumu Art Museum, housed in a striking limestone and glass building in Kadriorg Park and displaying leading works in Estonian art from the 18th century to the present. Nearby is the opulent, must-see Kadriorg Palace, built by Peter the Great for his wife Catherine I.
Boutique Hotel Boom: In Tallinn, we stayed at the Savoy Boutique Hotel, occupying a 19th century Art Deco building. The 44-room property is well located, rooms are spacious and comfy, service is excellent, and we had a delicious lunch in the Mekk restaurant. In another part of the Old Town is the charming Three Sisters Hotel, made up of three attached merchant houses from the 14th century; its 23 rooms come in different sizes and shapes. Another historic charmer is Hotel Telegraaf, a former post office, now a smart hotel with suites named after Samuel Morse and Alexander Graham Bell, plus a Russian restaurant named Tchaikovsky.
Estonia Tourist Board: visitestonia.com/en