When I first told people, in the deep winter of January, that I was planning a trip to Tallinn, Estonia, they thought I’d lost my mind. And, honestly, I was starting to believe them. Not only was it due to be snowing constantly for the entirety of our week away, but it was due to reach highs of -8°C. That’s right: HIGHS of -8°C. Needless to say, the lows were really low (at its worst, -18°C). However, even though we shivered and shook our way around the centre, I think that seeing the city blanketed in snow made it even more unique than we could ever have hoped.
Tallinn is Scandinavia with an edge. Estonia only ceased to be a member of the USSR in 1992 – which is pretty recent, when you think about it. Elements of this Russian influence are not hard to find; it’s in their Soviet-style architecture, their pickle-infused food, and in their people. Estonia is totally unique in this sense. There’s nowhere else quite like it.
For any nutters like me who are willing to risk frostbite for a few photos on the ‘gram, then here’s my complete guide of everything you should be doing in Tallinn in the middle of January.
First things first: getting to the centre
I would imagine that most of you would be arriving, as we did, at the airport (although, interestingly, the 2-hour ferry from Tallinn-Helsinki runs year-round, and is actually used a lot by people coming from other Scandinavian countries). The best – and pretty much only – way to get to the centre from the airport is by tram. Line number 4 will lead you pretty much right up to the walls of the Old Town, through some of the more commercial districts.
It isn’t hard to imagine, once you step onto the swish, futuristic tram, how Tallinn has earned its reputation as the European capital of technology. Don’t worry, I was shocked, too. But it’s actually home to a lot of big names in the tech world, including the likes of TransferWise and Skype.
Once you’re in the city centre, just walk. Tallinn isn’t big – especially not the Old Town – and wandering the peaceful, snow-covered streets is worth the whole trip alone.
Drink loads of coffee. Or hot chocolate
It goes without saying that Estonia in January is really cold. Like, REALLY cold. After about half an hour of walking, you need to duck inside somewhere just to bring some feeling back into your toes. This is probably a big part of why the coffee houses in Tallinn are so successful – and so pretty, too.
The most famous one in the city is probably the cafe-slash-marzipan-shop, Cafe Maiasmokk. This beautiful old building is three floors high, and has been open as it stands today since 1864. That makes it the oldest cafe in the whole country, not just in Tallinn itself. The decor is stunning and old-timey, with tall ceilings and plush red velvet sofas, and the building is found right in the centre of the Old Town.
Another good coffee spot is nestled a little further out of the city – in fact, it’s right next to the train station, in a residential area that leads up to the port. The cafe is called Q Bistroo, and also offers a yummy lunch menu. This cute little wooden coffee house boasts inventive coffee art (I was delighted to find a teddy bear in my hot chocolate), and is well-priced considering its handy location.
Possibly my favourite coffee spot of all is Bogapott – a tiny pottery workshop that doubles as a cafe, with the world’s most beautiful mugs. Obviously, I bought one to take home with me. Choose either to sit by the window and watch the snow fall in the courtyard, or climb the spiral staircase and snuggle up in their attic space.
Go vintage shopping in an old train station
The Balti Jaama Turg (literally: Train Station Market) is a vintage, food and general produce market found in the city’s old train station. Filled with handmade gems, funky fashion finds, and a huge selection of international foods, this market is a must-see for anyone visiting Tallinn. It’s also an Instagrammer’s haven with its neon signage and huge glass ceilings.
Warm up in a traditional Estonian sauna
When it’s -16°C outside, an obvious activity would be to go and relax in a nice warm sauna. But be warned – these Scandinavians like their nudity. The traditional saunas in Estonia, such as the Kalma Sauna, pride themselves on their functionality. This means that, while the word ‘sauna’ in the UK conjures up images of massages, relaxing music and complimentary tea or coffee, Estonia’s saunas are simple and to-the-point: there is a sauna room, and a cold plunge pool. But it does the job – you come out feeling warmed and refreshed, and ready to tackle anything the harsh Estonian weather may throw at you. A private room with sauna and pool only cost 20EUR per hour – which is very reasonable, if you ask me. PS, towels weren’t included – so remember to take your own!
Have dinner in an abandoned factory
Continuing the Estonian tradition of revamping old, abandoned buildings is the Depoo – a collection of shipping containers and unused train carriages which now make up a village of bars and restaurants. This is arguably one of the best places in the city for nightlife – and for sampling some traditional Estonian cuisine. The mutton dumplings in a mushroom sauce were possibly my favourite thing about the whole trip. Especially when washed down with an Estonian craft beer. If street food is your thing, then look no further. This market has everything from fish and chips to pizza slices. Although, given the totally outside seating area, I’d guess that this is slightly more popular when the temperature climbs above freezing.
Another thing to note when wandering about this village is the street art that decorates the buildings. This area is known for its creative, artistic atmosphere, and you are definitely not disappointed.
Get out of the city
Let’s face it: Tallinn is small. If you’re there for a week, the chances are that you’ll have seen most of the sights pretty quickly. While I could never get bored of strolling around the pastel-lined storefronts and sipping at Scandinavian coffee, we took the opportunity to hop on an extremely comfortable 2-hour bus ride to the West coast city of Haapsalu.
Haapsalu is a fishing town, located on the Western shore of Estonia. It is mainly residential, and, in the winter, is almost deserted. While in the summer months it transforms into a hub of outdoorsy activity, during winter it is silent, almost deserted – but in such a beautiful way. The castle ruins are a must-see, as is the Väike viik: the town’s lake. Of course, because it was January, the lake was entirely frozen over.
We also stopped for a light bite to eat (or so we thought) in Talumehe kõrts. This restaurant is, on the inside, a wood-clad gem of traditional Estonian cuisine. You’ve never experienced being full until you’ve tried their wild boar stew, complete with potatoes, pickles, cabbage, carrots, and so many more things I’m sure I’ve forgotten to list. But it was worth every. Single. Bite.
Take in the view
Probably the most well-Instagrammed spot in the city is the Patkuli Viewing Platform, only a short walk away from the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral. Not only does this little nook give you a view over the stunning rooftops of Tallinn and all the way across the sea to Helsinki, but it’s also full of fearless seagulls, posing for pictures. Seriously. They’re always there. Don’t ask me how, or why. During the winter, there’s also a resilient little lady sitting behind a coffee and hot chocolate kiosk, even in sub-zero temperatures. What an absolute hero.