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The ancient coastal capital of Tallinn exudes a sense of romantic history. Recognised as one of the most completely preserved medieval cities in Europe, it is a gem on the UNESCO World Heritage List that is slowly being discovered by delighted visitors of all ages. A spirit of mystery still pervades the cobbled courtyards of the picturesque Old Town, where visitors can wander along winding alleys overhung with original 12th- and 13th-century merchant's houses, and view a perfectly preserved medieval church.
While preserving its past, Tallinn is as progressive as any other modern European capital. This is probably best reflected in the interactive exhibits at the AHHAA Science Centre, the city's showcase for the arts and sciences. Public transport is modern and efficient; the nightlife is pumping with cigar bars, pool halls and nightclubs. Dining out promises tasty choices ranging from take-away pizza and Chinese to formal French and traditional Estonian cuisine.
Tallinn's historic centre is the focus for most visits to the city, and the hub of its major tourist attractions. The walled Old Town is divided into two parts: Toompea Hill, the residential area of the aristocracy and gentry in days of yore, and the Lower Town. Much of the Old Town dates back to the 10th century and is extremely well preserved, its powerful stone buildings enduring despite frequent invasions over the centuries. Visitors will revel in Town Hall Square and its adjacent pharmacy, which operates on the site it has occupied since 1422. The Old Town is also full of historic churches, such as St Olav's. The area's walls and its many fortresses made up one of the strongest defence systems in northern Europe by the 16th century, though today, the dominating landmark on Toompea is the magnificent Alexander Nevsky Russian Orthodox Cathedral. History lovers should note that the Old Town's medieval atmosphere is particularly evident in St Catherine's passage, where visitors can stroll past the open studios of artists and craftsmen who have laboured here for centuries.
This popular family attraction is an enchanting space filled with close on 6,000 animals, from Polar bears to Siberian Tigers, as well as species from warmer climates, such as crocodiles and chimpanzees, which frolic in the Tropical House. Visitors can really make a day of this attraction, as there is more than enough variety to suit all tastes. If visitors need a break between exhibits, the zoo has some comfortable restaurants where its patrons can relax and enjoy refreshments. The delightful petting zoo is always a hit with children, and guided tours are available to help visitors get better acquainted with certain themes and topics. The zoo also sells non-profit merchandise and collects donations to fund species conservation projects.
A beautifully designed layout makes Tallinn's magnificent Botanical Garden a wonderful attraction that shouldn't be missed on a sunny day out in the capital. Containing more than 8,000 plant species, the garden is a great place to visit, especially when sightseeing with a family. The flora comes from all around the world and is displayed in arboretums, glasshouses, open fields and thematic gardens. Specialised exhibits change every month, and thematic tours are offered all year round, the most popular being the summer night aroma tours, and the rose days. A nature trail traverses the different habitats.
The beautiful pink baroque Kadriorg Palace was the summer residence of the Russian Tsar Peter the Great. It stands proudly in the centre of its namesake seaside resort suburb of Tallinn, where the streets are lined with noble villas and summer estates. The Palace today houses the Estonian Art Museum's foreign collection, which features thousands of western European and Russian works from the 16th to 20th centuries, ranging from prints and paintings to sculpture and furniture. The palace is also the venue for concerts, theatrical performances, lectures and receptions. The park surrounding the palace is a popular recreational spot for visitors and locals alike, consisting of formal gardens and the symmetrical Swan Lake, as well as meadows and forest groves traversed by paths.
This enchanting collection of historic Estonian buildings lies in a picturesque expanse of forest on Kopli Bay. Transplanted from around the country to represent rural life through the centuries, it exhibits various farm buildings, windmills, watermills and other country clutter, offering a pleasant and informative escape from the nearby city. Handcrafts are on sale, horseback rides are on offer, and a village inn caters for visitors keen to sample local fare. Folk music and dancing displays are scheduled regularly, and most national holidays are celebrated here in grand style.
Like the rest of coastal Estonia, Tallinn has a humid continental climate with warm, mild summers and cold, snowy winters. Winters, from December to February, tend to be very cold, with temperatures hovering close to the freezing mark but with occasional mild spells of weather pushing temperatures above 32F (0C). Snowfall is common during the winter in Tallinn. Summers, from June to August, are mild, with temperatures ranging between 66F (19C) and 70F (21C). Tallinn receives around 24 inches (610mm) of precipitation annually, but there is no distinct wet season and rainfall is quite evenly distributed throughout the year. Summertime brings unexpected rain showers, so an umbrella and light raincoat are recommended.
The twisting streets of the Old Town hold many culinary delights, from fashionable fringe restaurants to traditional Estonian experiences and world cuisines. Even visitors looking for a quick and simple fix will be glad to know Tallinn offers excellent and infinitely healthier alternatives to McDonald's, often at a lower cost.
Visitors commonly converge on the Town Hall Square after finishing their activities and fan out to the surrounding restaurants. As a popular tourist area with beautiful surroundings and a few great eateries, it is not cheap.
Travellers who are feeling a little more adventurous should dig a bit deeper for the real culinary gems. They won't struggle to find them, as Tallinn is a small city and easily traversed by foot. Some local favourites include a traditional and exquisite beef stroganoff, zavarka (Russian black tea), ikra krasnaya (red caviar) and eye-watering vodka.
Tallinn's fairly extensive public transport network is made up of trains and trams, buses and a ferry, meaning visitors have a number of ways to get around. Buses are the backbone of Tallinn's transport network and can take visitors virtually anywhere in the city. Generally, bus services run between 5.30am and midnight.
The tram network only covers the central area of the city, while trolley buses connect western areas of Tallinn to the city centre. Those who want to travel in comfort can use taxis, which are readily available in the city centre. However, tourists would be wise to ask their hotels to a recommend a taxi operator, as scams on unsuspecting foreigners are common. Taxi booking apps such as Bolt and Uber are also options.
Those with an international driving licence have the option of hiring a car in Tallinn, as a number of car hire companies have offices at the airport or in the city centre. The city does experience a high volume of traffic, though, and foreigners will find road rules and the local driving style quite confusing. Signposts are not always clear, so it is best to use a satellite navigation system. There are plenty of parking lots in downtown Tallinn, and street-side parking is provided but must be paid for in advance on curbside machines.
Steeped in history and a rich cultural heritage, Tallinn is a sightseer's paradise and a great place to explore on foot or by bus. Dubbed 'mini Prague', the beautiful cobble-stoned streets of the Old Town are the perfect place to start discovering the city.
Travellers will love the enchanting feel of the town, which features old buildings and churches such as Alexander Nevsky Cathedral and St Olav's. They can stroll through the Estonian Open Air Museum, take the kids to the Tallinn Zoo for the day, or pack a picnic and enjoy a day out at the Tallinn Botanic Garden.
Visitors in Tallinn keen on doing a lot of sightseeing should look into purchasing a Tallinn Card, which grants the bearer free public transport, free admission to more than 40 of Tallinn's museums and attractions, and discounts to sightseeing tours, activities, shops and restaurants. The card is available for one, two and three-day options, and can be bought online, at the airport, harbour, tourist information offices and most hotels.
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