Life After the Iron Curtain in Tallinn
Tallinn is the small but enchanting capital of the Baltic nation of Estonia. Estonians have lived through centuries of foreign rule in various forms interrupted by brief periods of independence. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Estonia once again became an autonomous country in 1991.
Built in the 13th Century, the impressive castle looks over the city from the upper part of the old town. Admission is by guided tour only but if you don’t fancy it this it is still a great place to wander around with your camera taking in the views from Toompea Hill.
The medieval old town is still in fantastic condition and easily one of the most impressive in Europe. As you wander around the cobblestone streets which are at their best in the bitter winter when snow turns the old town into a medieval winter wonderland. There are plenty of cathedrals, quaint squares and mysterious little archways which make this a beautiful yet eerie city.
Life behind the Iron Curtain
For just 2 Euros will give you a good idea of Estonia’s long battle for independence. It focuses on the period of Nazi and especially Soviet rule with various video screens with real footage from the era. You can also visit a replica of a gulag (Soviet labour camp) where many Estonians were sent to a life of hardship in desperate conditions which killed the majority of them.
This building is now owned by the Estonian government and generally not open to the public. It was once a hugely significant place that rightly generated fear amongst the residents of Tallinn. Suspected dissidents were sent here where they were inflicted to torture and beatings before often being sent to the labour camps in Siberia.
Song Festival Grounds
This was the place where Estonia’s peaceful Singing Revolution took place. As the Soviet Union began to fall apart, Estonian nationalism grew and large crowds gathered here to sing traditional Estonian folk song and wave the national colours. Nowadays it hosts the All Estonian Song Festival which attracts thousands of performers from across the country.
Tallinn Today: Party in the Baltic
For a city of under 500,000 people the nightlife is incredible. It is also very cheap which makes backpacking in Estonia all the more enjoyable. Weekends are by far the liveliest when dozens of late opening cellar bars and night clubs party on well into the small hours. There are also some excellent and very friendly hostels in Tallinn with great local staff and these are good places to party or at least meet travellers to hit the bars with.
The Estonian capital does have some more unsavoury elements. Sex tourism is quite big here with a large number of strip clubs and it attracts many large groups of men from Western Europe and especially the UK. Some of the nightlife is a bit tacky and occasionally tries to rip off tourists but you won’t have to wander far to find somewhere cool to spend the evening. There is occasionally trouble between Estonians and Russians who still make up a large chunk of the population, many of whom don’t speak the native language.
Backpacking in Tallinn – Fitting it in to a trip around the region
Overall Tallinn is a great place to go for a few days. Its size makes it easy to navigate and experience all the main sights. Locals are very friendly and welcoming of travellers and seen as Estonia is only a small country it’s easy to fit in with visiting others in the region. Helsinki is only a short ferry ride across the freezing Baltic Sea from Tallinn taking a couple of hours or so. You can get a 50% discount with a Euro Rail Pass.
You can also head south from Tallinn to the countries second city, Tartu a popular university town. Keep going and you can check out the other two Baltic nations of Latvia and Lithuania. If you’re finding the Soviet period fascinating, you might want to head into Mother Russia with St Petersburg, only a short hop over the border.
Check out our backpacking route in the Baltics for an idea of how to do this!
This article was published in June 2011.