Most visitors to Estonia are here to see the historic centre of the capital Tallinn, where the atmospheric UNESCO World Heritage-listed Old Town remains one of Europe’s most perfectly preserved medieval cities. Dating back to the 13th century, when the crusading knights of the Teutonic Order built a castle here, it’s exceptionally well preserved, its wealth as a northern European trading centre on full display in the grandeur of the public buildings, opulent churches, and imposing merchants’ houses that have survived the ravages of wars.
Sprawled across a limestone hill, Toompea, the upper town, is the location of the handsome castle and cathedral, overlooking the dramatic skyline of the lower town, distinguished by elegant church spires. Within the substantial town walls, a tangle of narrow winding lanes (like the much-photographed St Catherine's Passage (Katarina Käik), home to artist studios) and splendid public squares, such as Raekoja Plats (site of the City Museum) are lined with splendid buildings. Dating back to the 13th-14th centuries, these include the impressive Town Hall, magnificent churches and monasteries, craftsmen’ guilds and merchants' houses, along with a charming antique pharmacy. Climb to the top of St Olaf's Church to take it all in – at 123 metres high, it was the world’s tallest building from 1549 to 1625.
When you’re done tripping along the cobblestone streets, there are scores of boutiques, galleries and museums to browse until you’re ready to join Estonia’s boisterous locals in Tallinn’s countless cafés, restaurants, bars, and clubs. Mead is a must-try in the medieval-themed taverns while vodka is the locals’ drink of choice. A downside to Tallinn’s popularity is that the Old Town atmosphere and affordability have made it a favourite spot for rowdy Stag Weekends and Hen Parties, around which a whole industry has developed. Things can get pretty wild in the Old Town on weekends, making it a good time to visit the modern town, with its sleek architecture, shiny shopping malls and flashy fine dining restaurants. Or simply get out of the city altogether and explore Estonia’s idyllic countryside, sublime islands and sandy beaches.