Travel postcard: 48 hours in Estonian capital Tallinn

TALLINN Fri Jan 4, 2013 6:30am EST

A bronze monument of Rusalka (The Mermaid) is pictured on the seaside in Tallinn March 7, 2012. REUTERS/Ints Kalnins

A bronze monument of Rusalka (The Mermaid) is pictured on the seaside in Tallinn March 7, 2012.

Credit: Reuters/Ints Kalnins

TALLINN (Reuters) - You could easily lose yourself while exploring the Estonian capital's well-preserved medieval Old Town or become absorbed in Tallinn's gritty Soviet and spy-laden past.

Whatever your interests, local correspondents show you how to make the most of 48 hours in Tallinn.

Friday:

5 p.m. - Arrival and check in. There are many good hotels in the Old Town or nearby, including the spa Hotel Telegraaf (www.telegraafhotel.com), where European central bankers stay, or boutique hotels The Three Sisters (www.threesistershotel.com) and Schlossle (www.schloesslehotel.com).

If you like a good view, try the Raddisson Blu, Swissotel or the Soviet-built, now modernized, Sokos Viru.

6 p.m. - Plunge straight into the heart of the Old Town by heading for Town Hall Square. Tallinn is a Hanseatic architecture-lover's dream and is protected by UNESCO.

The small city of half a million people bills itself as the most intact medieval city in Europe. It still has the original street system (from 13th to 15th century) and most of the 14th and 15th century houses in their original size and form. In addition to the numerous houses, barns and warehouses of the general population and traders, all of the main representative/governmental buildings and churches are still intact.

The town hall is the last surviving Gothic town hall in northern Europe. (veeb.tallinn.ee/raekoda). Tours are possible in winter if booked in advance.

Tallinn has a distinctly Germanic feel. It was established by Danes more than 800 years ago and has been ruled by Germans and Russians. In the Soviet period it was under Moscow's direct control. Estonia was independent between 1918 and the start of Soviet rule in 1940 and became a sovereign nation again in 1991.

7 p.m. - If you are keen to try traditional Estonian food head from Town Hall Square up Dunkri street to Kuldse Notsu korts (the Golden Piglet Inn). Don't forget to try some of Estonia's dark and heavy porter, which seems to suit snowy winters.

If you want to try the kind of food Europeans ate before they discovered the potato and you enjoy pulses and grains, then look for the medieval-style restaurants, such as Olde Hansa, or the Pepper Sack.

Another option is to head to Vana Viru street, towards the old Viru city inner gates and hit the largest cocktail lounge in the country, the Butterfly Lounge (www.kokteilibaar.ee/en)

9 p.m. - Head for an evening of Jazz at Clazz (www.clazz.ee), just a couple of hundred meters away at Vana turg, or try any of the clubs and lounges in the Old Town.

Saturday

9 a.m. - If Tallinn's history takes your fancy, then head up the hill to the look-out spots on Toompea (www.tourism.tallinn.ee/eng), the upper part of the Old Town. That involves a walk up a street called Luhike jalg (short leg) and through the gate in the wall between the upper and lower halves of the town. The gates were locked in the old days, especially when the upper town's rulers and lower town's traders were at war with each other.

There are several fine lookouts spaced around the walls of the upper town giving a panoramic view of the city, with its mix of medieval, baroque and modern architecture.

Interesting buildings in the upper town include the 19th century Russian Orthodox cathedral, a pink building which houses the country's parliament, as well as the cathedral, for which Toompea is named.

A taste of the Soviet past can be found in the lower half of the city, just outside the Old Town gates at the Sokos Viru Hotel (www.sokoshotels.fi).

This Finnish-built hotel from the 1980s has a museum devoted to the work of the KGB secret police and on Soviet life and a tour can be booked.

The hotel had several rooms which served as a communication relay station for radio traffic between Helsinki and Moscow. Some of the rooms were also bugged by the KGB.

The hotel also has a hard currency bar, which recreates the experience of bars which existed where only people with dollars or other hard currencies, mainly foreigners, could visit. Its nostalgic atmosphere is complemented by Soviet-style drinks and music from the 1970s and 1980s - maybe some retired KGB officers are listening in.

The Soviet trail can be followed back up to the Old Town and the former KGB headquarters at 49 Lai street. This building was said to have the best view in Tallinn - all the way to Siberia.

For a complete picture of life under the Soviets, and when Estonia was occupied by Nazi German forces during World War Two, walk down from Toompea to the Occupation Museum(www.okupatsioon.ee/en).

12 p.m. - Elsewhere outside the Old Town you can visit the old fortress-prison called the Patarei (www.patarei.org). On the way out of the Old Town you will pass one of the maritime museums at Paks Margereta (Fat Margaret) tower (www.meremuuseum.ee).

You can also head underground via the old Swedish-made defensive tunnels at Kiek in de Kok tower (linnamuuseum.ee/kok/en/) close to Toompea, or tour many of the defensive towers.

The tunnels were built by the Swedish rulers during the Great Northern War to defend the city from the Russians. Afterwards, head down Viru Gate for a walk along the Old Town wall at the Hellemann Tower, on Muurivahe street.

The tower dates from the 14th century and the wall walk covers 200 meters.

1 p.m. - Lunch.

If you ended up near the Patarei on the western side of the old town down by the harbor it is worth trying the cafes Moon (www.kohvikmoon.ee) and Klause Kohvik in the Estonian design building (www.klauskohvik.ee) near Kalasadam. This is where the locals also hang out on the weekend.

Another option is to head over to the cafe at the Seaplane Harbour (www.lennusadam.eu). Its hangars are the world's first reinforced concrete shell structures designed and built by a Danish firm, Christiani & Nielsen, in 1916 (think of the Sydney opera house). The building has been transformed into a stylish modern museum covering both war and peace time and houses the world's only surviving British-made mine-laying submarine of its series from the 1930s, the Lembit.

3 p.m. - If coffee and chocolates take your fancy, try Chocolats de Pierre (www.pierre.ee) in the master's passage off Vene street, which makes its own chocolates. Or you can visit the Marzipan Museum (Pikk tn 16) and Marzipan Room, downstairs is one of the oldest operating cafes in the city.

5 p.m. - Don't forget to check out what might be on offer for culture vultures at the Estonia concert hall, or the opera house. There may well be concerts and performances in many of the churches and halls about the old town and they often start around 7 p.m. For a list (www.visitestonia.com/en/articles/81)

7 p.m. - For dinner, try the Neh on Lootsi 4 down by the harbour (www.neh.ee), a seasonal kitchen that moves between a manor house on Muhu island in the west of the country and Tallinn and specializes in the food of the Nordic Islands. Neh's chefs have won Estonia's best restaurant title for the last three years running.

If you are still in the Old Town you might try Leib Resto ja Aed (www.leibresto.ee) on Uus street.

Sunday

9 a.m. - Today you could continue to explore the Old Town and its galleries. A must-see is the craft alley at Kateriina Kaik off Vene street with its collection of craftswomen from hat makers to glass blowers and everything in between. (www.katariinagild.eu)

Another option is to head out to Kadriorg Park and the national art gallery (www.kadriorupark.ee). You can take a taxi or the Kadriorg tram from the stop just north of the Viru Hotel.

Kadriorg Park is lined with baroque palaces, one of which is the president's official residence. A little further up the road is the newest national art gallery in the Nordic and Baltic region, Kumu (kumu.ee/en).

11 a.m. - If art is not your thing, walk over to Peter the Great's summer cottage (linnamuuseum.ee/peetrimaja/en) and consider the life of one of the, quite literally, big men of Russian history.

1 p.m. - At the edge of Kadriorg are several cafes and restaurants, including the Park Cafe (www.park-cafe.ee).

Another option is to take a taxi down to the Pirita district, perhaps to the Pirita Hotel, and then walk back to the centre along the bayside, where you get great views of the Old Town from a different perspective and can also see the many ferry boats sailing between Tallinn and Finnish capital Helsinki.

(Editing by Paul Casciato)

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