There’s never enough time. As we sped to keep up with our guide, Jaan, he pointed to a stairwell leading to a corridor that connected to a tower along the defensive wall in Tallinn Old Town. He told us we could go inside Epping Tower later, but we didn’t have time on this tour. He said there were chains of armor my boys, 9 and 11, could try on and medieval weaponry to explore. I strained to peek between the walls and caught a few feet of wooden stairs as we dashed to our next stop. I quickly jabbed the name of the tower into my Notes app to make sure we’d come back when our tour was over.
Our family of four had arrived in Tallinn, by ferry, the previous night from Helsinki, Finland. Our trip was partially planned because of a promise I made to my great-aunt as I was leaving Estonia in 2017. It was the first time I’d met her after emigrating in the 1970s. I told her I’d return with my boys in two years, when I felt they’d be old enough to travel the distance. “I’ll stay alive and wait,” she promised. The other reason we came was to get to know my birth city, the capital of Estonia.
More than one mile of the original almost two-mile-long defensive wall in Tallinn Old Town still stands from the 13th century. It retains 20 of its original 46 towers, still looking over the town’s two-storied, pastel residences. Most of the houses haven’t changed their gabled roofs or pulleys that once raised salt for storage into the second level of the merchant’s homes.
The result is a well-preserved, fairy tale-like vision that earned Tallinn Old Town a place among UNESCO’s World Heritage sites in 1997. Among other things on my list for that day was Tallinna Roekoda, or Tallinn Town Hall. Built 1402–1404, it’s the oldest, best-preserved town hall in Northern Europe. It’s open to the public in July and August and is also the site of summer concerts. Across Raekoja Plats, or Town Hall Square, is another place I put on my list, the longest-operating pharmacy in Europe, Raeapteek, or Town Hall Pharmacy. Since 1491, the Town Hall Pharmacy has prescribed remedies such as mummy juice, snakeskin potion and unicorn horn. I went inside the last time I visited and I wanted to show the boys as they still have many items on display from that bygone era. Interestingly enough, the pharmacy was also, at one point, the most famous place in Estonia for making outstanding marzipan, an almond paste and honey concoction.
Estonia was a prosperous trading port in Northern Europe from the 13th to 16th centuries and a part of the Hanseatic League, sort of like a union but with an army. The League’s job was to protect the trading routes and interests of the merchants. It was during that time the Town Hall Pharmacy sold marzipan as a cure for depression. The almond acted as the antidepressant and the honey gave the eater energy. Today, it is Cafe Maiasmokk, just around the corner, that claims the title of world’s best marzipan as well as oldest café in Estonia, open since 1864. If not the best, it’s certainly up there and a visit to its pre war-era styled shop will be a definite treat. The boys watched the bakers shaping and coloring the pastries and they even have a Marzipan Room with pieces on display that date back to before I was born.
A great place for selfies, or even a more traditional family photo, is on the Patkuli Viewing Platform, located at the top of Tallinn Old Town, in a section of the city once inhabited by nobility, called Toompea Hill. From there, you could see what had been the highest building in the world, St. Olaf’s Church. Built when people believed the higher the church, the closer to God they would get, the inspiring tower has been struck by lightning 11 times. Today, it is the tallest building in Tallinn Old Town only, but still a prominent part of its skyline.
A couple of fun, although touristy, activities kids will love is lunch or dinner at Olde Hansa. Conveniently located by Town Hall Square, surrounded by restaurants, this eatery really plays up Tallinn’s medieval history with its costumed servers and the interior tables designed to make diners feel like they’re attending a glutinous banquet, complete with candlelight, live music and giant goblets of flavored ale. The other is a tour. Tallinn Legends isn’t like any tour we’ve ever taken, it’s more like theater. Because of the abundance of doom and gloom in Tallinn’s medieval past, it’s restricted to kids older than 8. Visitors are taken into different rooms and actors reveal the details of what happened to them in their unfortunate lives. It’s not a feel-good tour but, even though photos aren’t allowed, you won’t forget it and you’ll definitely be captivated.
Another kind of tour where the entire family can enjoy ancient and modern Tallinn is the Food Sightseeing Tour Estonia. That’s where we learned about the history of marzipan. Here, our guide, Nikolai, also taught us about the foods Estonians love today and the things they enjoyed in the past. He revealed history as we ate our way through it. He took us through Katariina Káik, or St. Catherine’s Passage, where artists work in studios preserved from medieval days. Visitors can watch painters, glass blowers and jewelers create their crafts and take away unique mementos. St. Catherine’s Passage is right behind what was once St. Catherine’s Monastery but is today the St. Peter and St. Paul Cathedral. It is said the term “stinking rich” came from when the wealthy insisted on being buried in above-ground mausoleums instead of in graves like the poor folk. “When people walked by,” Nokolai told us, “they’d pinch their noses at the smell of decomposing bodies and mutter about the stinking rich.”
What kept the boys going when they’d get tired during any of the tours was the thought of the waterpark that awaited them back at our hotel, Kalev Spa and Waterpark. This hotel was not only super modern and clean, but its waterpark was unreal. There were three twisty water slides, one drop and a small one for toddlers in the kiddie pool with a waterfall that cut the 20 by 20 shallow pool in half. A section of the park was devoted to various spouts. Warm water shot out of one with enough force to scare the kinks out of anyone’s back. Another drizzled rain-like drops to soothe and calm. Spouts positioned in strategic locations around this therapeutic pool served to tend to various parts of the body. Yet another section of this enormous complex included a lazy river with a beach entry that had jets pushing the water along, so one could peacefully float with the current. Our family played many fun games and conducted creative races within this river. The centerpiece of this aquatic playground is the 50-meter pool. Once hosting international swimming competitions, today it’s still a main training venue for Estonian swimmers. We ended each day here and even took afternoon breaks from learning and exploring just to cool off and burn boy energy.
One of the wonderful things about the Kalev Spa and Waterpark is it’s located just minutes from Tallinn Old Town. Everyday, we were able to walk to Old Town after our generous buffet breakfast included in our stay. The buffet offered a variety of foods that included local favorites to sample, but also tried-and-true kid favorites.
Most anything is reachable by foot in Tallinn. A few times we took the tram because our feet had had enough but, from Tallinn Old Town, we walked to the central market called Keskturg where the boys marveled at all the freshly caught fish on display, the colorful fruit and candy shops. We walked to the harbor from there to visit the spectacular Lennusadam Seaplane Harbour Museum. This enormous hanger is home to an actual submarine named the Lembit, which served for 75 years before it was hauled onshore in 2011, making it the world’s longest-serving submarine. An audio tour tells the story of the sailors who lived on board, while guests walk through the submarine. It made us appreciate the hardships these brave men faced. The boys may or may not have listened to the whole audio portion of the tour but they did have fun dressing up as sailors in another part of the museum and flying the simulated missions in bombers. Then we walked into the Kalamaja district of Tallinn where a hip hangout has sprung up between the abandoned railroad repair yard and industrial section in an area now called Telliskivi, or Creative City. Artist’s studios displayed the immense talent of residents. We had passed many random art installations as we meandered through the streets. At night, we had heard the Telliskivi area transforms into a hot spot.
About three minutes on foot from the hotel is a newer restaurant in Estonia serving some of the best food we’d ever eaten. ORE has a white, concrete interior with dramatic arches separating the dining room into sections and combining it at the same time. Bulbous lights, some clear and shaped into clusters, others bringing to mind dense alien formations, brought a modern and creative feel to the restaurant. We decided to have our large family dinner here with the relatives my boys had never met before this trip, but who made them feel like they’d known them forever. Three (or more) people commented it was the best bread they’d ever eaten. Our food was more like art with a combination of flavors that danced and complemented each other. Not one thing disappointed and everyone left feeling uplifted by the company and food.
Our Tallinn family surprised the boys the next day by taking them to a ropes course called Nomme Adventure Park. This park, set among a rich forest, uses clips and carabins to affix the daredevil to cables as they attempt to traverse across wires, ropes, blocks and sticks from tree to tree. The boys had a blast. Kids ages 2–8 have their own mini-adventure course where parents can walk alongside. By the end of the day, my 9-year-old just stepped off the cable and dropped head-first toward the ground, he was so tired. The cables caught him and he ended up swinging inches above the ground, dangling by his feet. Thank god for good Estonian engineering.
Toward the end of the trip, we learned how the collapse of the Soviet Union started in Tallinn at the TV Tower when citizens of all ages, across the three Baltic countries of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, grasped hands and formed a human chain. Called the Baltic Way, it was almost 420 miles of hands held together by 2 million people asking for freedom. Months later, after 52 years of Soviet occupation, all three nations were once again independent.
Although we did much in the four days we spent in Tallinn, we never did get a chance to go back and see the things I had put on my list. As I, once again, said goodbye to our Tallinn family, I looked into the moist blue eyes of my great-aunt and made another promise to come back again in two years.
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