TALLINN, Estonia — Sixteen years removed from Soviet rule, Tallinn, Estonia, teeters on the brink of another occupation. This time, though, the invading hordes carry cameras and backpacks.
Tallinn is the capital and largest city of Estonia. The country, occupied by Nazi Germany from 1941 to 1944 and annexed as part of the Soviet Union until 1991, has emerged from one-half century of foreign domination with Tallinn as its crown jewel.
Although it's almost impossible to avoid the legions of cruise ship holiday makers who huddle closely to their shore excursion guides, now may be the best time to visit this Baltic capital before its old town charms, friendly locals and reasonable prices transform it into another tourist-choked medieval Disneyland.
A July visit to Tallinn delivered the expected: a charming medieval town nestled under fortified towers and city walls. It also did not fail to surprise with a vibrant, modern city just across the street but seemingly worlds away from the seasick sightseeing swarm.
Just 90 minutes by hydrofoil from Helsinki, Tallinn can easily be explored as a day trip, but staying overnight allows for more leisurely sightseeing.
Old Town Tallinn, on the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization's World Heritage list since 1997, has no must-see sights. There's no Eiffel Tower or Colosseum here. In Tallinn, it's the ambiance that counts. Basically everything of interest lies on Cathedral Hill (Toompea) and in the historic old core of Lower Town. Both can easily be reached on foot.
Town Hall Square (Raekoja plats) is the needle around which Lower Town spins. Filled with outdoor cafes and tourist shops, this square is the pulse of the city. The immediate area boasts numerous sites, including Town Hall, which celebrated its 600th anniversary in 2004. Across the square is a pharmacy that first appeared in town docugins at the top of the Toompea area and explores the sites of both Cathedral Hill and Lower Town.
Every visitor to Tallinn should experience the Museum of Occupation and Fight for Freedom. With simple displays, this humble museum tells the story of oppression, resistance and everyday life during 50 years of foreign rule.