photo of Tallinn

An aerial view of Tallinn, Estonia. (Medioimages/Photodisc)

What to do in Tallinn

Estonia gained independence from the Soviet Union in 1991 and ever since, Tallinn, the new country's capital, has taken to capitalism with warp speed. Tallinn's morphed into a cosmopolitan high-tech center with a happening nightlife. But Tallinn also stands out for its Old Town, one of northern Europe's best preserved medieval towns and a UNESCO World Heritage site.

Start by discovering Old Town. Divided into a lower and upper regions, the historic center, a maze of steep roofed 15th- and 16th- century buildings seems as if it were lifted from an enchanting storybook. It's fun to meander the winding, narrow, cobblestone streets, but save little ones from getting cranky by boarding Toomas the Train, an open-air tram that does a 20-minute circuit through the ancient streets.

For centuries Town Hall Square (Raekoja Plats) in the Lower Town served as a marketplace—and it still does. The sidewalk cafes are great places for people-watching and kid-friendly, informal dining. During Old Town Days, generally the end of May to early June, the wide square comes alive with puppet shows, concerts, and craftspeople. For snacks visit the Kalev Marzipan Room, a historic shop that has been making intricate, hand-painted marzipan, a Tallinn treat, for centuries.

Defense proved vital to the survival of a medieval city. Just take a look at the massive Toompea Castle, built atop a cliff in the 13th and 14th centuries. The castle now houses Estonia's parliament. At the 15th-century cannon tower (Kiek in de Kök), part of the Tallinn City Museum, discover cannons, suits of armor, and splendid views from the top. Kids can also imagine themselves as lookouts by pacing atop the medieval city walls. For another city panorama, climb (from April to October) to the top of the Oleviste Church Tower, the tall steeple that dominates Old Town's skyline.

Seafaring accounted for much of Tallinn's growth. Located on the Gulf of Finland about 50 miles from Helsinki, Tallinn serves as an important Baltic harbor. The Estonian Maritime Museum and Fat Margaret's Tower (Paks Margareeta) details this history and displays artifacts salvaged from wrecks, including a steering wheel console from a Russian mine ship torpedoed by a German submarine in 1915. Europe's oldest icebreaker, Suur Tõll, built in 1914, is one of the museum's vessels and is berthed in the harbor.

Stay outdoors by strolling through the Tallinn Botanic Garden, rowing a boat on the Pirita River, and pedaling through town and the surrounding region on a City Bikes guided tour. The Estonian Open Air Museum, near the town of Rocca al Mare on the Kakumäe Peninsula not far from Tallinn, showcases farmhouses, windmills, water mills, and scores of other rural buildings depicting typical Estonian life through the centuries.

For a look at modern Tallinn, visit the Kuma Art Museum, a striking structure that debuted in 2006. Along with exhibits of Estonian art from the 18th century, the facility features contemporary works.

Tip: Purchase the Tallinn Card and gain free admission to 40 museums plus free city transportation.

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