This is the second of a series of articles on Estonia. Read Nadine Godwin’s previous article here.
TALLINN, Estonia — In 2014, a vendor introduced balloon trips that give visitors a bird’s-eye view of the historic center of Tallinn, Estonia’s capital. The tethered balloons, using helium, rise to almost 400 feet above the ground.
Passengers get a sweeping view of the Old Town’s tallest churches, narrow streets lined with centuries-old buildings as well as defensive walls that have stood since the Middle Ages.
The vendor is Balloon Tallinn, and its 15-minute airborne excursion costs 25 euros for adults, with concessions for the young and for families.
The Old Town, home to 3,000 of Tallinn’s 400,000 people, is so well preserved the whole thing is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The elevated viewing is great for getting the picture — lots of them, in fact — but it’s no substitute for exploring such a valuable piece of real estate on foot.
I recently visited Tallinn as part of a press trip sponsored by the Estonian Tourist Board. The balloon excursion enriched a visit that also featured plenty of nosing around at ground level.
Tallinn first appears in the chronicles in 1154 and by 1284 was a member of the Hanseatic League, a German-led exclusive trading cartel. Much of what we see on the tourist circuit today has its basis in league-generated wealth.
Our guided walking tour started in Town Hall Square. The gothic city hall there, now a museum and concert hall, was built in 1404. Raeapteek, described as Europe’s oldest continuously operating public pharmacy (1422), is on the same square. Besides, the tourist board says, the first-ever Christmas tree stood in this square in 1441.
Also from the 15th century (1410), the Great Guild Hall, once home to the most powerful of the merchant guilds during Hanseatic League days, is a block away on Pikk Street and now houses the Estonian History Museum.
Its near neighbor is the white Holy Spirit Church (14th century) well known for a painted wall clock that has kept time since the 17th century. Other former guildhalls are on Pikk Street, as well.
While tenderly caring for these old places, Estonians also make use of them.
Many medieval merchant houses are now restaurants, some with staff in period costume, such as at the Olde Hansa eatery. Its menus keep to the theme, too.
Medieval merchants were called peppersacks reflecting pepper’s value. Hence, another period restaurant is called Peppersack. And the nearby Hopner Beer House, does beer pairings.
These three establishments sit at a convergence of streets a few steps behind the old Town Hall.