There are probably dozens of places left on your bucket list you still need to see. If one of those places isn't Tallinn, however, you need to go make an addition. This capital of Estonia is steeped in history and has a keen eye on the future. Here are the six reasons Tallinn should be your next travel destination:
The Song Festival Tradition
The Song Festival is a long-standing tradition that now takes place every five years. The initial celebration in 1869 was crafted to help provide national identity and demonstrate to peasants that their cultural contributions were relevant, meaningful, and beautiful.
It wasn't until the third iteration of the event (in 1880) that the celebration moved to Tallinn, but it remains there to this day. For the 2019 festival, the audience was treated to the musical stylings of 1,020 choirs. The some 35,000 singers ranged in age from 5 to 90.
Even if you visit on a year when the Song Festival is not happening, you can still see the striking Song Festival Grounds. Catch one of the many other outdoor events held at the location or simply walk around the grounds that attract more than 100,000 audience members at a time. The domed stage was built to incorporate the natural lay of the land, using the sloping hill as the audience seating to make smart use of the space.
The History of Old Town
While Tallinn is a modern-day city, it also works hard to preserve its medieval history. The city itself is more than 1,000 years old, and Old Town is a section of the city that still boasts the architectural displays of that legacy.
This part of the city was once a bustling commerce center for merchants who settled from places like Germany and Denmark. Today, it offers visitors glimpses of the past with cobblestone streets, Gothic spires, and plenty of attractions designed to capture the feel of the 13th century.
Old Town accomplishes its historical goals so well that it earned a UNESCO World Heritage Site designation in 1997. In explaining the designation, UNESCO focuses on Old Town's striking skyline and important place in history. It was once a major cultural center for the Hanseatic League, a German-founded merchant guild that protected German trade interests from the 13th to the 15th centuries.
On top of that, Old Town is still a functional part of greater Tallinn. The city's administration is housed in Old Town's upper portion. The lower portions remain active centers of commerce and cultural events.
An Inspiring Story of Independence
Estonia has a storied history that includes political unrest and occupations. The country has bounced back and forth in its political alignment, and sovereignty was elusive for centuries. It went from German rule in the 1200s to Swedish rule in the 1600s. While the specific ruler shifted during this time, one thing remained constant: the stripping of political power from the peasant Estonians.
Much of Estonia's cultural history is a story of quiet perseverance. Cultural traditions were passed down among peasant families for centuries with no way to influence their country's actual political processes. In the 1700s, the country came under Russian rule, and serfdom was abolished under Tsar Alexander I in the early 1800s.
By the end of the 19th century, the Estonian peasants had taken back some political and economic control of the land. Following World War I, Estonia briefly gained independence before becoming caught in a battle between Soviet and German rule. It fell under Nazi occupation for a time during this struggle. At the end of World War II, Estonia was under Soviet rule once more.
In the late 1980s, political will fell behind those supporting Estonia's independence. Formal independence was declared in 1991, and the establishment of Tallinn as the capital city was a symbolic demonstration of cultural power and significance. The folk traditions and cultural values that had quietly survived among the often downtrodden peasant class finally had a chance to flourish.
Phenomenal Food to Please Every Palate
One of the side effects of such a complex history is the cultural influence of many different countries converging in the Tallinn food scene. Favorite spots like the critically-acclaimed Levier Cakery have a distinct French influence with delicious macarons served alongside tasty teas.
Meanwhile, several restaurants boast "new Nordic" cuisine. Estonia's weather tends to be harsh and wintry, so there is a strong emphasis on preservation techniques in this food movement that emphasizes a local and traditional style. Fish, wild game, and ingredients harvested from the local forests — including spruce shoots and blackcurrant leaves — are common in these dishes.
While there are a few pricey and elevated restaurant experiences, most of the Estonian chefs cater to the modest budgets of locals. As a result, the cost of dining out in Tallinn is affordable while promising a unique and delicious experience.
A Variety of Nightlife Options
The most widely-known thing about Tallinn is its propensity for cheap beer. This is because the city is teeming with craft pubs that offer authentic glimpses into the day-to-day culture as well as affordable drinks brewed locally. Locals will often have fun enticing out-of-towners to try a Jellyfish shot, a disgusting beverage choice that definitely marks one's tourist status.
It's not all dive bars, though. Tallinn's growing social scene means that visitors looking for a more upscale experience will be able to find fancy dance spots blaring contemporary music. The culture is generally laid-back and welcoming, and most places do not have strict dress codes or an air of exclusivity.
When all the dancing and drinking is coming to an end, there are plenty of local kebabs with late-night food offerings to tide night owls over until the morning.
Unique Spots for the Photo Album
In addition to Old Town's striking skyline, guests are also drawn to the TV Tower. Built for broadcasting, the tower is the tallest in Estonia and features an observation deck from which you can snap a few shots. The tower itself echoes the country's Soviet influence and stands as a cultural hub for the modern city.
Another excellent tourist spot in the city is the Seaplane Harbour maritime museum. It features amazing pieces of history including a submarine and an ancient icebreaker, but the real draw is the architecture itself. Yet another piece of Tallinn's vibrant historical past, the hangar was built for Peter the Great and used for seaplanes during World War II. The building doesn't have columns — one of the first in the world to use this construction — and offers a stunning wide expanse for visitors to walk through history.