Estonia's singing revolution
Despite the crowds, I am always charmed by Tallinn's Old Town, the best-preserved medieval center in all of Nordic Europe. And I make a point to get beyond the tacky tourism of the city's central square. In ancient townhouses and guild halls around town, I've discovered several humble but worthwhile museums that put Estonia's storied past in context.
Tallinn was a stronghold of the Baltic-Hanseatic maritime world, and the Tallinn City Museum provides a fascinating introduction to the glory days of merchant traders. The sober Museum of Occupations, recounting Estonian life under Soviet and German rule, is a reminder of the struggles faced by small countries in the shadow of empires.
The compact Museum of Estonian History condenses 11,000 years of Estonian cultural history with relative ease, focusing on the events and traditions that have shaped the country's psyche. The Estonian Open-Air Museum, just outside town, displays salvaged farm buildings, windmills and an old church, all transported from rural areas to a park-like setting to both save and share Estonia's traditions.
Visiting this tiny country, you can't help but feel the connection of its people to their land and heritage -- and the vibrancy of a free nation that's just a generation old. Estonian pride is in the air.
IF YOU VISIT...
SLEEPING: My City Hotel fills a handsome 1950s building on the south edge of the Old Town with 68 nicely appointed rooms and a classy lobby lounge (splurge, www.mycityhotel.ee). Hotel Bern, just outside the Old Town, is a friendly place with 50 basic rooms in a new brick building (moderate, www.tallinnhotels.ee).
EATING: Mekk, meaning "modern Estonian cuisine," is small, fresh and upscale (Suur-Karja 17, tel. +372-680-6688). Vanaema Juures ("Grandma's Place"), an eight-table cellar restaurant, serves homey, traditional Estonian meals (Rataskaevu 10, tel. +372-626-9080).
GETTING AROUND: Explore the Old Town on foot, but use public transit to reach outlying sights. Note that Tallinn's buses, trams and trolley buses reuse the same numbers for completely different lines.
TOURIST INFORMATION: www.visittallinn.ee.