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. Shopping for local crafts can be an enjoyable experience. Sweaters, wool mittens and amber jewelry are big business in Tallinn. Several stalls occupying space under the city wall along M rivahe Street sell sweaters and souvenirs, and another craft market can be found just outside the old town near Viru Gate. Even nonshoppers might discover a must-have souvenir among the handicraft shops and artisans at work along St. Catherine's Passage (Katariina K ik). Jewelry stores are around every corner. Those looking for more contemporary consumer goods can head to Viru Gate to Viru Keskus, a modern shopping center that bills itself as the "fashion mecca of Estonia.” Tallinn slows down after the big cruise boats sail away for their next port of call. The Baltic sun shines late in the summer, and locals and visitors alike stroll the squares and back lanes looking for a meal or a drink. Grandma's Place (Vanaema Juures) advertises traditional Estonian meals in a cozy cellar setting. The fare includes savory dishes such as goat cheese and potato casserole, but the culinary highlight is Grandma's Roast, a mixture of ham, potatoes and fried eggs on thick toasted bread. Full on delicious dinners, smart tourists sleep in the heart of the old town area at Villa Hortensia. A few short blocks off Raekoja plats, Villa Hortensia shares the tiny Master's Courtyard with artisan shops and a delectable chocolaterie. Proprietor and jewelry maker Jaan Parn rents several rooms ranging from a double with twin beds to a suite with a fireplace and balcony. Tallinn is a tasty concoction of many great European places. It's as if someone mixed a lump of Ljubljana, a ration of Rothenburg, a pinch of Prague, a dash of Dubrovnik, a bit of Bratislava and a slice of Salzburg. While this wonderful city can hardly be classified as undiscovered, talking up Tallinn is like bragging about a favorite restaurant. The more people you tell, the longer you'll wait for a table. Eat Tallinn up now before it's too late.
Viru Gate marks the boundary between medieval and modern in Tallinn, Estonia. BY CHARLIE PRICE, For the oklahoman