Tuesday, April 16, 2024
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Queer Tallinn Travel Guide

Tallinn, the capital of Estonia, is one of Europe’s most charming, historic yet often overlooked cities. For much of the 20th Century, the country lay behind the iron curtain of the USSR. However, since its liberation in 1990, it has reasserted its own identity, with its own wealth of history to fall back upon. 

Tallinn’s center is the Old Town, recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1997. This part of the city dates back to the 13th century when crusading knights built a castle on Toompea Hill. This fortified, medieval city within the city, offers cobblestone streets, grand old buildings, and beautiful churches, including the orthodox Alexander Nevsky Cathedral. 

Despite the battles that have waged over the country since that time, this medieval enclave has remained remarkably intact. Remember those scenes from Chitty Chitty Bang Bang with the child catcher prowling the streets? West Bavaria actually provided the backdrop for that, but that’s the sort of thing to expect in Tallinn’s Old Town. 

The city continued to grow over the centuries. Its position on the Baltic coast made it a major trading hub. Its ports remain an important aspect of its character today, with cruise ships making regular stop-offs. Bold seagulls are an essential part of the city’s soundtrack, alongside the clink of teaspoons in its many cafes and the clanging of its trams.

The Old Town extends beyond Toompea Hill and includes the historic Town Hall Square. Except for the odd accordion player, the streets here offer a quiet and serene escape, with the stout, pastel-colored ancient buildings seeming to muffle sound and hark back to simpler times.  

Where to Stay 
Much of Tallinn’s charm lies within its old quarter. However, because of its heritage status, you won’t find big, modern hotels there. Many tourists instead opt to stay just outside that zone, somewhere like the Metropol Spa Hotel. This modern hotel lies in the Rotermann district, which offers plenty of boutique retailers, restaurants, and coffee shops. As its name suggests, Metropol Spa includes a spa area, with a pool, four big Jacuzzis, and four saunas, including a steam room and salt sauna. 

Less than five minutes from Metropol Spa, you’ll find the Nordic Hotel Forum. This is another big, modern behemoth aimed at discerning tourists and business travelers. It offers over 260 rooms, including a handful of deluxe rooms and suites. Its Monaco restaurant operates for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. 

A little further away, one of the city’s top-rated hotels is the Hilton Tallinn Park, which overlooks Politseiaia Park. It’s about 2 km (1.2 miles) from the Old Town, but visitors love the floor-to-ceiling windows, superior views, and general all-around luxury. 

If you want to stay within the Old Town itself, check out the Merchants House Hotel. The boutique property offers 36 rooms in a historic setting, and it’s just a stone’s throw from Old Town Square. The buildings date back to the 14th & 16th centuries, with rooms fully upgraded to 21st century standards. 

Where to Eat
Tallinn has a multitude of cafés and bakeries. The aroma of fresh-baked cinnamon rolls hits you around the city. Relax in mainstays such as the Reval Cafe or Pagaripoisid, where it’s possible to get a generous slice of cake and a coffee for just €3.20 ($3.40). 

For a historic step back in time, meander up Pikk Street for a bowl of potato and ham salad (something of a national dish) at Maiasmokk. The oldest operational café in the city, it dates back to 1864. 

For lovers of 60s architecture, check out Pegasus restaurant, situated next door to the Estonian Design and Souvenir Shop. It offers an upscale culinary experience amidst an austere, brutalist aesthetic. 

Peatus restaurant in Telliskivi (Photo Credit: Rasmus Jurkatam/Visit Estonia)
Peatus restaurant in Telliskivi (Photo Credit: Rasmus Jurkatam/Visit Estonia)

If you want to experience a more modern side of the city, head for the aforementioned Rotermann quarter. Among its eating options, we can’t recommend highly enough the vegan shop and restaurant Oasis (keep an eye out for the resident African Grey Parrot). The chic Gallery Café is also perfect as a breakfast option. 

Rotermann City in Tallinn (Photo Credit: Visit Estonia)
Rotermann City in Tallinn (Photo Credit: Visit Estonia)

If you want a more hipster vibe, head straight for the Telliskivi section, near Balti Jaam train station. Peatus, housed in an old train carriage, offers up mouthwatering burgers in a unique setting. The nearby One Sixty Smokehouse serves a creative selection of Estonian-inspired favorites. Many acclaim it as one of the city’s finest.

Balti Jaam Market (Photo Credit: Sam McAllister, Visit Tallinn)
Balti Jaam Market (Photo Credit: Sam McAllister, Visit Tallinn)

What to Do
The number one activity for any tourist is to explore Toompea Hill and the surrounding Old Town. After this, an essential stop-off is Balti Jaama Turg (Baltic Station Market) in Kalamaja. This marketplace dates back to the mid-1800s but has evolved greatly over the years. 

Its modern incarnation arrived in 1993 and offers pretty much anything a home might need. Besides a food market, the first floor offers second-hand shops selling a bewildering array of Soviet-era bric-and-brac and homeware. If a plastic alarm clock with an image of Lenin on its face is your thing, this is where you’ll find it. There are also a great number of vintage clothing stalls. Souvenir hunters rummage for beeswax candles, hand-carved wooden boards and butter knives, and amber jewelry (the Baltics are famed for their natural amber deposits).  

Sea Harbour Museum (Photo Credit: David Hudson)
Sea Harbour Museum (Photo Credit: David Hudson)

For more of a glimpse into the Soviet era, head to the Seaplane Harbour Museum. This astounding structure, consisting of three large concrete domes, was built in 1917. For much of the 20th century, it was a secretive installation of the soviet navy. Following the collapse of the USSR, it fell into disrepair. A crowdfunding campaign brought it back to life. It now offers a look back at Estonia’s maritime history, including a decommissioned, 1930s submarine, the EMS Lembit, which visitors can board. 

Many smaller museums compete for your attention in Tallinn. A relatively new addition is the tiny Museum of Banned Books in the Old Town. It displays a selection of publications banned in the UK, US, China, and elsewhere. This includes some LGBTQ works such as the popular kids’ picture book, And Tango Makes Three, along with info on why they fell foul of the authorities. 

Banned Books Museum (Photo Credit: David Hudson)
Banned Books Museum (Photo Credit: David Hudson)

In the aforementioned Telliskivi district, former warehouses, factories, and cargo containers have been turned into exhibition spaces, independent retailers, cafes, and bars. Art lovers must check out Fotografiska. It’s one of the world’s leading photography museums and also offers its own fabulous, rooftop restaurant. 

How queer-friendly is Tallinn? Well, Estonia still lacks same-sex marriage and religious beliefs hold sway in some sections of society. After violent clashes with anti-LGBTQ protestors in 2007, there was no Pride parade in Tallinn for ten years. It has returned but is a small affair. 

Baltic Pride, a more cemented event, rotates each year between Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania. It was due to take place in Tallinn in 2020 but was canceled because of Covid. It’s sure to return in the next couple of years.

Bear lovers should check out Tallinn Bearty, a small bears festival that takes place in April. Organized by local couple Alvar and Dmitri, this boutique event returns with a different theme each year. Past festivals have celebrated the visual arts and fashion. Artists attend and besides evening parties, there are talks and discussion groups. It’s very much about making new friends and socializing, rather than just partying, with plenty of free time to also explore the city. 

An event at the recent Tallinn Bearty 2022 (Photo Credit: Tallinn Bearty)
An event at the recent Tallinn Bearty 2022 (Photo Credit: Tallinn Bearty)

In terms of the gay scene, Tallinn offers one well-known venue: X-Bar. This can be found on the side of Toompea Hill, overlooking Harjumäe Park and the distinctive War of Independence Memorial column. Little fluffy clouds and gold stars hang over a dancefloor that gets busiest at the weekends. Don’t arrive early as it’s pretty quiet before midnight. 

X-Bar (Photo Credit: X-Bar/Facebook)
X-Bar (Photo Credit: X-Bar/Facebook)

For men looking for a more intimate encounter, the Club 69 Sauna offers a maze of cabins and playrooms, while the nearby Male Secrets offers a similarly cruisy vibe. 

The Telliskivi district offers several hipster hangouts, while for something quite unique, the Old Town has the unexpected honor of housing the world’s only Depeche Mode theme bar. Opened in 1999, the small, black-clad basement enclave attracts a curious crowd of tourists, local goths, and electro music lovers every night. 

It’s yet another unexpected, quirky delight in a city bursting with them. 

Depeche Mode Bar (Photo Credit: Depeche Mode Bar)
Depeche Mode Bar (Photo Credit: Depeche Mode Bar)

David Hudson

David Hudson is an award-winning journalist who has written extensively in the LGBTQ media over the past three decades. His work has appeared in Attitude, Metro, Gay Star News, Queerty, and Gay Cities, among others. When not traveling, he loves exploring his home city of London, England, which he says continually throws up new discoveries and delights.

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