Although many of the cities we visited on our cruise have medieval roots, Tallinn is the best preserved. The medieval city wall (which now encompasses a very small section of the city) is still intact, with fortified guard towers and gates that controlled the entrances into the city. There are impressive churches, narrow cobblestone lanes, lots of shops and cafés, and dense crowds of fellow tourists. However, all you have to do is wander a couple of blocks off the main tourist drag, Viru Street, to find nearly deserted streets and local eateries.
As we did at all ports except St. Petersburg (more on that later), we opted to sightsee on our own instead of taking a guided tour. Tallinn in particular was very easy to get around, since the Old Town is only a 10-15 minute walk from the cruise port--just follow the signs and the parade of fellow cruise ship tourists.
- Maiasmokk (Pikk 16), founded in 1864, is the oldest cafe in Estonia, with an interior dating back to the early 20th century. It's an elegant spot for a coffee break, with a wide selection of reasonably priced pastries, cakes, and candies in a long glass case, which is conducive to the point method of ordering. The pastries taste just as exquisite as they look: my tart had a wonderfully flaky pastry topped with pears lightly seasoned with cinnamon, and Mike's cream puff was feathery light.
- The award for best food value during our cruise goes to Café EAT (Sauna 2). It's a basement cafe with self-serve dumplings sold by weight, so you just dish up all the dumplings, toppings, and sauces that you want and they weigh your bowl at the cash register. On the day we visited, there were three types of dumplings (meat, potato, and meat with spinach), pickles, tomatoes, carrots, a lettuce-tomato-onion salad, and sour cream, garlic, sour cream with sweet chili, and ketchup with mayo sauces, all of which were helpfully labeled in English. The dumplings are hearty and delicious, and the restaurant itself has a laid-back college hangout vibe, complete with a foosball table. The prices are college-student friendly too: two generous bowls of dumplings and a beverage set us back about $7.
Other Tallinn Tips:
- Since the sightseeing highlight of Tallinn is the medieval Old Town, the best part of our day was spent walking around it. The Rick Steves' self-guided walking tour was an excellent way to see and appreciate the Old Town, starting outside the medieval city wall and ending with panoramic views of Tallinn. (Note: I promise that I am not being paid off by Rick Steves to promote his book--it's really that helpful.)
- We happened to visit the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral while a service was in progress (services are held daily at 10:00 am and 6:00 pm), and it was a fascinating glimpse of Russian Orthodox worship. There are no seats, so the worshipers stand in a crowd around the priest while he chants the liturgy. The style of worship was less structured than Catholic or Protestant services I've attended, with people crossing themselves, bowing, and lighting candles as they feel moved to do so rather than in unison. Note that women are required to cover their heads in Russian Orthodox churches. Most of the tourists at the Cathedral don't, and there was not anyone enforcing this rule. However, I felt more comfortable covering my head with a scarf, especially since there was a service in progress.
- Amazing as the Old Town is, it is also crowded with tourist hordes (particularly Town Hall Square and Viru Street) and after a morning spent hearing more English and German than Estonian, we left the crowds behind and walked to Kadriorg Park. A 20-25 minute walk from the Old Town, it's a refreshing break from the hustle and bustle, with beautifully landscaped grounds, a swan pond, a huge playground, and because this is Europe, a palace.
- If you're looking for high quality handicrafts, there are some neat shops selling textiles, wooden items, ceramics, and glass along Lühike Jalg and Katariina Käik. Even if you're not shopping, these picturesque lanes are worth walking down. The Viru Turg outdoor souvenir market (Mere Puiestee 1) has the same tourist trinkets you'll find everywhere in town, but at slightly cheaper prices.
- At one of the shops on Lühike Jalg, Mike found our most unique souvenir of the trip, a nod to Estonia's folk traditions and its high-tech present as one of the most wired countries in the world: an Ethernet cable wrapped in a traditional Estonian skirt pattern.