European capital cities during summertime tend to get filled with cliché imitation medievalness, flyers of Italian restaurants and those house-shaped kitchen magnets… a lot of kitchen magnets. The same does happen in Tallinn. Sure, I do think Tallinn is beautiful no matter the season or amount of people in the city. Summers in Tallinn are wonderfully busy with lovely outdoor concerts and loads of activities, but everything changes drastically with the last cruise ship leaving shore in late autumn. As the tourists pack their suitcases and souvenirs and get back home, Tallinn gets a whole lot different.
The city becomes quiet, almost serene in a way. The main sights of the city suddenly become accessible without having to fight through a crowd of old German ladies. The bars aren’t filled with pub-crawls and stag nights spilling beers everywhere, but are filled with local students spilling beer everywhere. There are some things that just can’t be done in Tallinn during summer time either because of the city being filled with people or because it is summer. Visiting Tallinn off-season has a lot of surprising upsides.
1. Snow! A lot of Snow!
Photo credit: Kadi-Liis Koppel courtesy of Visit Tallinn
In the middle of every November, snow surprises locals just like the monster jumping on screen in horror movies. You know it is coming, you can hear the background music getting louder and more intense, but you still yell as it enters the scene. As the weather gets colder and people start putting on coats, you’d assume they’d know snow is not far away. Apparently this is not the case. In an unsurprisingly Estonian way, people are too slow to notice the signs before the streets turn white. As newspaper headlines and Facebook statuses yell “SNOW!”, people have yet to change their car tires or buy gloves.
During the first week of snow everyone and everything gets really slow-paced and awkward, but as locals get the hang of walking again, regular life reassumes. Tallinners start embracing the fact that winter has begun. Snowmen appear in random places and snow-fights sprout among local students.
Throughout the winter, locals mainly stay indoors, drink hot wine and laugh at Southern tourists trying to balance themselves on the snowy streets.
This is a great time to enjoy the city.Go to the Song Festival Grounds for sledging or just enjoy a walk with snow up to ankles. The quiet slow snow fall during winters is a beautiful thing that is good through a window and is annoying getting in your eyes when discovering the streets of the city.
It can go to -20C (-4F) during winters, so check the weather report before packing your suitcase, get good boots and woolen socks and buy a Soviet ushanka hat (or “läkiläki” as it is cutely named in Estonian) from the train station market.
2. Eerily empty Old Town
The emptiness of Tallinn’s Old Town from November to February almost resembles post-apocalyptic movies. The city is just standing as a movie-prop waiting for actors: you will barely see any people walking the streets during winters. This is especially true for the Old Town after the Sun has gone down. During day time, an odd tour group or two finds its way into the narrow streets. At night, you will only find life on the main party street of the city – Suur-Karja. Thus, walking quietly through the snowy Old Town with the snow blown off rooftops and church bells ringing every now and then is a weird experience. Decembers tend to be a bit more crowded with due to vacations and the amazingly nice and cliché Christmas market held on the Town Hall Square (There are reindeer and elves there. Reindeer!)
Try to stray off the main streets and you will wind up in little curved streets so quiet you will hear snowflakes as they hit the ground. As you get lost, follow your footsteps or ask a local to direct you back. You might have to wait for a few minutes to spot anyone though.
After a walk, hot wine (mulled wine or spiced wine as it is sometimes called) is a must.
Cafes and outdoor markets will offer this for 2-3 euros and wrapping your hands around this sweet drink will make you feel all tingly and liven you up again.
3. Sunrise at Toompea
Kohtu view platform. Photo credit: Andifeelfine
The upper part of Tallinn’s Old, Town, Toompea, is the political center of the whole country. Its centuries old buildings house the many institutions that run the country – the salmon colored Parliament building (Don’t you dare call it pink in front of locals. It’s salmon, there is a difference!), the beautiful Government building and many others. Besides the politics and buildings of 18th-19th century nobility, there are two beautiful churches: the Dome Church and the Alexander Nevski Cathedral. And to add to all of that, cobble stones and amazing viewpoints which show off the whole city.
Every morning with sunrise, the Estonian flag is hoisted up the Tall Hermann tower located in a small garden next to the Parliament building. The Estonian anthem is played at the same time the blue, black and white flag finds its way up the 50-meter tower.
Breathing the freezing air, listening to the Estonian anthem and wondering on winding cobble-stone streets is a brilliant way to start the day.
Since the flag is hoisted up the tower at 7AM during summers and around 8-9AM during winters, you’d probably have a better chance of actually getting out of bed and climbing up there during winters. As the city is almost empty at the time, walking on the streets only noticing smartly-dressed fast-paced politicians running to their offices gives a real feeling of being on a vacation. The church bells also ring every hour, which is a relaxing background sound while enjoying a view of the city with the Sun rising in the background on one of the view platforms. Kohtu platform probably offers the best view of the sunrise, as it directly faces east. You can try Patkuli for a look to the possibly half-frozen Baltic sea.
4. Church Concerts
Photo credit: Ave Rand courtesy of Visit Tallinn
An Estonian who doesn’t sing in a choir is like a Lithuanian who doesn’t play basketball. I’m just implying we like to sing a lot. Most Estonians know traditional Estonian songs, but are shy to sing them without a few encouraging beverages. There are numerous folk events as well as smaller local Song Festivals organized every year, the biggest event of Estonia is definitely the Song and Dance Festival happening every five years.
The Song and Dance Festival of Estonia has even made it to the UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage list along with the same events in other Baltic countries.
Choir events are popular throughout the year, yet they seem especially wonderful during December when there are lot of concerts held in otherwise mostly empty and cold churches. The dim candle-lit rooms of these sacred buildings get lit up by amazing harmonies and beautiful songs. Churches mostly keep posters outside with events coming soon. There is a short organ concert in the Dome Church every Saturday at noon (12PM) and one in the St. Nicholas Church every Saturday and Sunday at 4PM.
5. You’ll hear Estonian
Photo credit: Tõnu Runnel courtesy of Visit Estonia
An Estonian thinks the Estonian language is the most beautiful mean of communication in the world, excluding Elvish from Lord of the Rings, of course. Estonian and Elvish are obviously equally beautiful. This weird finno-ugric language carries resemblance to Finnish and Hungarian and supposedly sounds like a song because of the numerous vowels. Grammatically, it is almost impossible to learn, and it also sounds pretty uncommon, which is why locals love to persuade foreigners pronounce words for their own amusement.
Eating in a restaurant offseason, you will not only hear English and Spanish and Russian, but you could, with a bit of cleverness, also possibly hear locals speak. Estonians tend to be relatively quiet folks though, which makes the listening difficult. Be careful, making direct eye-contact or starting a conversation with an unexpecting Estonian will result in utter confusion and possibly fleeing. Estonians tend to keep to themselves and are mostly really reserved. Thus the best strategy is to get a seat close to locals and don’t look too interested. That’s the trick.
While in a restaurant, get an Estonian winter dish as well – try the lovely black pudding for example (google it first).
All of the above, plus the obvious perks of a city not during the peak of the tourist season (less flyers and rikšas) are why Tallinn is also wonderful during winters. If you are planning a winter holiday in a beautiful medieval city, Tallinn is perfect.
Title photo: Fisherman on ice in Tallinn Bay
photo by Toomas Tuul courtesy of Visit Tallinn
Read also: Winter Wonders in Tallinn