JOIN ME IN AN INTERVIEW WITH TOM TONKS FROM TALLINN, ESTONIA !
Hidden Tallinn is a superb blog about the city of Tallinn, started by Tom Tonks, seven years ago. Since then Tom had been exploring the hidden corners of Tallinn, finding the stories that give the city its unique charm. He has put his heart and soul into researching and documenting every little piece of information he has shared with his readers and is continuing to do so. Seven years later, living upto it’s name, Hidden Tallinn is now an alternative travel resource for all those who love venturing out of the common tourist spots in Tallinn. You haven’t really seen Tallinn completely if you haven’t taken a tour with Tom.
What is the best month to visit Tallinn and why?
Tallinn is a schizophrenic city when it comes to the weather.
At its finest, summers are almost perfect: a gentle warming sunshine bathes the landscape, beckoning travellers and locals out of their winter hibernation and into the city. My memories of Tallinn summers include lazy days on the beach, refreshing dips in forest lakes and the constant scent of barbecues. The sun never completely sets, the days are long and the atmosphere fills you with a deep sense of peace.
The downsides of summer include an Old Town filled to capacity with huge herds of often clueless tourists and occasional thunderstorms that add a balance to the glorious sunshine and keep everything green.
Tallinn is transformed into a contrasting mixture of pristine snowy landscapes, darkness and harsh Baltic winds. Temperatures regularly fall below -10°C and it’s not uncommon to go for a stroll in -20°C or below. At these temperatures the sea begins to freeze, which is quite a sight to behold!
Despite the sub-zero temperatures, nature beckons. Pirita is a beautiful area for a winter stroll with its beaches and forests.
This is my favourite time of year to explore the Old Town as well. The streets are completely empty, the tiny alleyways echo with tales of ghosts and the pubs emit a warming, welcoming glow. In December there is a giant Christmas tree in the Old Town square, a Christmas market and mulled wine!
My favourite month to visit
May: weather is warm, tourist numbers are low, everything is open!
What is the most convenient and favored transport in Tallinn?
If you’re exploring the Old Town and its immediate surroundings, walking is perfect. This central area of Tallinn is very small and densely packed with hidden corners and quirky architectural oddities. Travel any faster and you will miss many of these unique sights.
Outside of the Old Town, my preferred method of transport is the bicycle, although for many Estonians, there are three mains modes of transport:
Public transport, which consists of buses and trams. There is not an extensive rail network here because the city is too small! All public transport is free for locals, but, sadly, everyone who lives outside of Tallinn still has to pay.
Taxies, which are relatively inexpensive in Tallinn. Apps like Uber and Taxify are probably the most efficient way to hail a cab, although it’s possible to call ahead or even find a licensed taxi on the street. Taxies are primarily used after midnight when the free public transport stops running.
Your own car! For many Estonians, this is the ultimate expression of freedom. Those who can, travel by car.
What are the top three must visit places in Tallinn?
There are three elements that make Tallinn such a fantastic city to visit for me: the Old Town myths and legends, the architectural remnants of the Soviet Union and the accessibility of nature; so let’s break it down.
Old Town: a postcard-makers’ dream. Wonderfully preserved medieval architecture, cobbled streets and red, slated roofs ensure that even the most amateur of photographers will come home with gorgeous photos.
This is the side that most tourists see. However, there is a ‘hidden history’ lurking just beneath the surface; a history based on folklore, word-of-mouth and mythology. Yes, Tallinn Old Town is filled with myths and legends. I have dedicated a large part of my website (Hidden Tallinn) to sharing these stories and they still bring a smile to my face every time I tell them.
Remnants of the Soviet Union: Tallinn is littered with architectural remnants of the Soviet times. Perhaps the most striking is the TV Tower, which looks like a giant U.F.O on a stick. This is probably my favourite building in the city and the view from the top is fantastic.
If you’re into abandoned buildings, take a stroll along the ‘Cultural Kilometre’ (Kultuurikilomeeter). During this walk you can walk up the steps of Linnahall (a concert hall built for the 1980 Moscow Olympics), take in the imposing silence of Patarei Prison and see what modern Estonia is doing with its old industrial factories at Noblessner.
Top tip: keep your eyes open for ‘Volta’; an abandoned factory full of trees!
Nature: Pirita is a beautiful district of Tallinn. Go there for beaches and soul-cleansing forest walks. Google ‘Pirita Terviserajad’ to see what I’m talking about. You won’t believe that such a peaceful forest exists so close to the centre of a capital city.
What are the best day trips for nature, culture and history from Tallinn?
My three favourite day trips are nature-based.
Lahemaa National park is the biggest in Estonia, filled with rivers, quaint villages, nature walks, beaches and even an abandoned submarine base. Ideally, you would explore this national park with your own car, a tent and the RMK App (an amazing guide to Estonian nature), but if this isn’t possible for you, the guys are traveller.ee offer a brilliant tour.
Estonian has over a thousand islands. Yes, you heard that right, over a thousand! Two of them are accessible from the tiny port next to Linnahall.
Aegna is the smaller of the two and perfect for a day trip. Dense forests with easy-to-follow trails, plenty of abandoned structures, including military infrastructure, places to camp and several secluded beaches. I love bringing a picnic and a tent here for a little microadventure.
Naissaar (which translates to Women’s Island) is a great place to explore on a bicycle. There are free campsites, cycle trails, beaches and yet more abandoned Soviet military architecture. Both Aegna and Naissaar were used as military outposts during the Soviet occupation so both of them are ideal for intrepid urban explorers.
Which is the most celebrated holiday of the year in Tallinn? What makes it so special?
Midsummer is perhaps the most widely celebrated holiday in Estonia. Many Estonians head for the countryside for a night of barbecue, family time, drinking, bonfires and maybe even a sauna as they celebrate the longest day of the year.
There are two independence day celebrations: one in February to celebrate the founding of the first Estonian Republic and another in August to celebrate Re-Independence from the Soviet Union. There are often parades and events around the city to mark this event.
The biggest celebration in the country is the Nation Song Festival, held in Tallinn once every five years. During this huge event, a choir of 20,000 Estonians sing national songs to an audience of over 80,000. These songs are a huge source of pride for Estonians and serve as a poignant reminder of the strength of this tiny Baltic nation.
Which is the most happening area in Tallinn and why? Would you suggest any bar or restaurant in particular ?
Kalamaja is the place to be. The neighbourhood itself started life as a small fishing village, hence the name Kala – fish, Maja – house, and has morphed into a district of wooden houses, quiet tree-lined streets and neighbourhood cafés. The cultural centre of this neighbourhood is Telliskivi Creative City, a former factory complex that has become a hive of restaurants, bars, art spaces, a flea market, shops and a street food. Well worth a visit just to see what can rise out of the ashes of the post-industrial dereliction.
My favourite places to eat : Kaja Pizza is the best pizza in town, Burger Box has the best falafel, Noodle Box is amazing for Chinese vegan food, F-Hoone a great all-rounder and Lendav Taldrik for Indian food.
My favourite places to drink: Speakeasy and Puudel are great places to try Estonian craft beer.
There are so many more places to discover in this neighbourhood!
Is Tallinn a vegetarian friendly city? Where can one find amazing street food in your city?
Five years ago, no. Today, absolutely! The number one rated restaurant in the city (V Restoran) is vegan! There are a number of great vegan/vegetarian meals in town but perhaps my favourite is Noodle Box: amazing Sichuan-style dishes that are completely vegan!
Balti Jaam Turg is a great place for street food as well and don’t forget Burger Box for the kimchi fries and Bueno for amazing South American-style sandwiches.
OK, I’ll stop there, but I could easily go on!
What is the most loved local food, savory and sweet in Tallinn? Can you suggest a place to try it?
Pancakes are a classic Estonian dish. Grandmothers make the best ones but for those of us that don’t have such a luxury, Kompressor is legendary. Sweet or savoury, these pancakes will knock you out. They’re huge!
Estonians also love freshly-picked ingredients straight from the forest or the back garden. There are so many different types of berries here, home apples, tomatoes, cucumbers and if you’re fortunate enough to be here in Autumn you will be able to try wild mushrooms. It’s great fun to go into the forest and forage for yourself but if you don’t have the time, head to Balti Jaam Turg where you will be able to buy great seasonal produce.
Other traditional Estonian flavours include smoked fish, pickled everything and rye bread.
If you want to experience Estonian food at its very best, head to Von Krahli Aed, easily one of my favourite restaurants in the entire city. This is a true food experience. If you’re on a budget however, and want to get a flavour of what Estonians and Latvians eat, Lido is a great option.
Where to head for shopping? Which is the local craft or souvenir of Tallinn?
If you’re looking for all the brands you’re familiar with back at home, there are loads of shopping malls here. Take your pick. They’re basically all the same.
Shopping is not my strong point but I would say that Telliskivi Creative City is a good place to start for the best of Estonian design and craft.
Do you recommend any walking tours or travel photography tours in Tallinn to the visitors?
Funnily enough, I actually run walking tours myself! I take small, personalised groups stealthily through the Old Town; day or night, past the crowds and into the backstreets to explore the myths, legends and hidden corners. If you’re interested you can find information on the walking tour section of Hidden Tallinn.
Would you recommend any local app for food, transport or hidden gems in Tallinn?
I would recommend fifteen actually. Strangely enough, I have written a whole blog post on that very topic http://hiddentallinn.com/useful-apps-websites/
IF YOU ARE VISITING TALLINN, CONTACT TOM HERE
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To know more about Estonia, check our interview with a local of Tartu.