A winter's break in the Estonian capital reveals snowy scenery, a Christmas market and small craft stores for picking up one-off gifts, writes Will Hawkes.
WHY GO NOW?
Tallinn in the snow is a marvel to behold. The Estonian capital's magnificently preserved medieval Old Town shimmers at this time of the year, particularly the Town Hall Square, which hosts the city's Christmas Market (until 8 January). The tradition of having a Christmas tree in the square dates as far back as 1441, while the market is a relatively new phenomenon. Yuletide trinkets and food can be bought at around 50 stalls.
Tallinn's Lennart Meri Airport is 4km south-east of the city centre; bus number 2 runs every 20 minutes from 6.30am until midnight. One-way tickets for the 15-minute journey can be bought from the driver. For central Tallinn, get off at Laikmaa Street.
Alternatively, you can take the airport shuttle, operated by Hansabuss, which departs every 20 minutes and stops at a number of locations.
Beware of taxi touts. The airport warns "To risk a €50 trip to the centre, feel free to take the first taxi driver to approach you at the arrivals door. For a €5-€10 trip to the centre, use one of our contractual taxi partners, Tulika Takso, Tallink Takso and Tallinna Takso."
GET YOUR BEARINGS
Tallinn lies on the Baltic Sea on the same latitude as Stockholm and St Petersburg. Finland's capital, Helsinki, is 80km north.
From Laikmaa, where the airport bus drops you off, it's an easy walk into the Old Town. Stroll across the compact Tammsaare Park and you're there.
The tourist office is in Niguliste in the heart of the Old Town. It's open Monday to Friday from 9am to 8pm (Saturday and Sunday until 6pm).
You can purchase the Tallinn Card, which includes free entry to 40 museums and other attractions, a city sightseeing tour and free use of public transport.
The renovated 19th-century Hotel St Petersbourg at Rataskaevu 7 combines the best of the old (a sauna, free to guests from 7-11am) with the new (iPads and free Wi-Fi in all 27 rooms).
Minutes from the Old Town's central square is the Schloessle Hotel at Puhavaimu 13 - the choice of pop stars and other jetsetters when they're in town.
For those on a tighter budget, the Hotel St Barbara at Roosikrantsi 2A is very central and sports spacious rooms for families.
Take a view
Toompea ("Dome Hill"), was once inhabited by the city's aristocracy. It is not only home to many of the city's most significant buildings (including the Estonian Parliament), but also has the best views of the city. From Kohtuotsa Vaateplats, a small viewing area accessible via Kohtu Street, you can gaze across the red-roofed Old Town towards the port, Kadriorg Park and out into the Estonian countryside.
Take a hike
Starting from Rataskaevu Plats, walk up the hill past the Michael Sittow house where one of the most significant portrait painters of the 15th and early 16th centuries was born. Turn right into Luhike Jalg ("Short Leg"). This is one of two main routes - the other being Pikk Jalg ("Long Leg") - between the lower Old Town, which was traditionally the home of merchants, and Toompea.
At the top of Luhike Jalg, you'll find a plateau with the city walls to your right and the 14th-century Maiden's Tower in front. Turn right, through a gate in the wall, and you'll see the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral, an onion-domed Russian Orthodox Church built as a symbol of Tsarist power in 1900.
Across the road lies Estonia's elegant Parliament. Head back down the hill via Pikk Jalg, and turn left when you reach Voorimehe. This leads to Raekoja plats, or the Town Hall Square, with its bustling Christmas Market. Look out for northern Europe's best-preserved Gothic town hall and the Raeapteek, the Town Hall Pharmacy - reputedly the Continent's oldest continuously running pharmacy.
Lunch on the run
Leib Resto ja Aed at Uus 31 (closed Sunday) has modern Estonian food made with the best local ingredients. Don't miss the chewy, moreish black bread (leib). The pan-fried pike perch with crushed blue congo potatoes is simple and delicious.
Big brands can be found at Viru Keskus shopping centre but there are more interesting finds in the Old Town at St Catherine's Passage and Master's Courtyard, where you'll find craft items (leather, silk, jewellery) at reasonable prices.
Even better is Telliskivi Loomelinnak, to the west of the Old Town in Kalamaja, the city's bohemian fringe. This complex of former industrial buildings houses a number of interesting shops, from Les Petites - which sells the work of Estonian craftsmen - to Raamaturing, a second-hand bookshop.
Close to Telliskivi Loomelinnak is Pudel Baar at Telliskivi 60a, the city's premier craft-beer venue. Beer-lovers will find familiar names here (Thornbridge, Brewdog) but for local colour, go for OO, a vinous, complex Baltic porter made by Pohjala, a blossoming Estonian microbrewery.
Dining with the locals
Tucked away behind a petrol station it might be, but Neh at Lootsi 4 offers a gourmet experience to rival anything in the culinary world's major cities. The food is inspired by the cuisine of the Nordic islands. Dishes such as smoked Baltic herring and roast duck breast with chestnuts and salmis sauce demonstrate the kitchen's deft touch with the best-quality Estonian ingredients, and their flair for presentation.
Meanwhile Moon at Vorgu 3 offers simple Baltic food at reasonable prices.
Sunday morning: go to church
The cathedral of St Mary the Virgin can be found on Toompea Hill. It's the country's main Lutheran church, a fact reflected in the tombs and coats of arms of Estonia's former German nobility found inside. Sunday Mass begins at 11am.
Take a ride
Once you escape the Old Town's medieval clutches, the Soviet past is easier to perceive. There's a "Bicycle Welcome Tour of Tallinn", which takes in the Soviet-era World War Two Memorial and the Song Festival Grounds, where singing protests in 1988 precipitated the end of Russian rule. Tours run daily (even in winter), starting at 11am, from outside the offices of operator, City Bike at Uus 33 in the Old Town.
Walk in the park
The city's main park, a 20-minute walk to the west of the Old Town, is named for the district it is found in: Kadriorg.
This 300-year-old open space hosts two fine art galleries.
Kadriorg Palace is where you'll find Russian and western European art and a magnificent Baroque main hall (10am-5pm Thursday-Sunday, 10am-8pm Wednesday, closed Monday and Tuesday).
The imposing Kumu is home to the national art collection (11am-6pm Thursday-Sunday, 11am-8pm Wednesday, closed Monday and Tuesday).