Loe (22) is originally from Bonn, Germany. A travel grant, awarded by the Schwarzkopf Foundation, brought him to Tallinn, where he conducted research on digitalisation. Within three weeks, he interviewed representatives from academia, industry, and politics. He gained valuable insights, made new friends, and, most importantly, experienced Estonia in ways he never thought he would.
I came to Tallinn with little knowledge of the place. The Baltics in general were a big mystery for me, an unfamiliar space. Growing up, I have never really been in touch with people from the Baltics, let alone Estonians. Thus, there were few incentives, to be honest, to delve into Baltic or Estonian culture.
This changed in March 2016 when I learnt that Estonia was Europe’s digital pioneer. At the time, then prime minister Taavi Rõivas gave an interview at the Daily Show, an American news satire show. He did well, was witty, made a convincing case for further digitalisation, and thereby contributed toward putting Estonia on the map. Shortly afterwards, I caught myself googling Estonia; I am pretty sure I was not the only one. It bothered me that I virtually knew nothing about Estonia. Yes, I did know that its capital was Tallinn. True, I was also aware of its status as a former Soviet state. But besides, I was uninformed.
About one year later, in June 2017, I was in Weeze, Düsseldorf, waiting to board the plane toward Tallinn.
When I told my friends about my travel plans, the reactions were rather modest. A cold place with few to no sights – that was the general perception. While I didn’t really have an idea of what Estonia would look like, I learnt that it had evolved into a popular tourist and backpacker destination throughout the years. There must be something about the place, I thought. Every time I visit new countries, I try to set the bar not too high; it’s the best way to avoid disappointments. So when I took the bus from the airport to the city centre, I was positively surprised. Tallinn, to me, seemed like a very green city. Plus, I liked that almost everything could be reached by foot.
This was also true for my first destination, the Monk’s Bunk Hostel, my home for three weeks. The reception hall was a large space, with pool tables, computers, hangout areas, and a bar. As Julie, working at the reception, introduced me to Tallinn’s places of interest, I knew that my friends’ notion of Tallinn having “no sights” was a myth. There was a lot to explore and, for a moment, I was afraid that I wouldn’t be able to visit every attraction. As it turned out, my fears were more than justified.
Because Tallinn, though comparatively small, is anything but boring. There are plenty of things to do. In fact, I had struggled to identify my three favourite places; simply because of the great variety of options.
First, there is Telliskivi. Now, every city has an area that is known to be particularly hip and trendy. I often find these districts a bit forced, in a way. It’s as if someone had once come up with a recipe that is now being copied all over the world. Williamsburg in NYC, Nørrebro in Copenhagen, Shoreditch in London, West Queen West in Toronto, and District VII in Budapest all have in common that there’s (1) overpriced street food, (2) cafés on every corner, and (3) street art as far as the eye can reach. Every city, simply put, has its own hipster haven. Ironically, their very trying to be offbeat makes these neighbourhoods awfully similar. And even though Tallinn’s Telliskivi, in fairness, does not march to a different tune, I loved it. To some extent, it feels untouched, because there are so many abandoned factories and some parts are almost deserted. What makes Telliskivi so amazing is that you can walk from an empty area to a much more crowded one, where you can (1) get decently priced street food, (2) enjoy good coffee, and (3) admire the street art on the way. Telliskivi, in a nutshell, is the perfect example of a successful revitalisation of old industrial complexes.
Second, there is Pirita beach. You can easily get there by bus. Within 20 minutes, you escape the city life and chill by the sea. While the weather wasn’t particularly inviting for a bath, it was nonetheless nice to walk along the coastline. The opportunity to have a quiet getaway from the noise of the city, I realised, considerably improves the quality of life.
Lastly, the Old Town – and its appearance in the list shouldn’t be surprising – really struck me as well preserved and beautiful, with its Gothic architecture towers and spires. Most old towns I have visited so far were rather touristy, and this is no different in Tallinn. But, luckily, there are also quite a few possibilities to get away from large tourist groups and expensive restaurants. Medieval taverns, to my surprise, offered really cheap and delicious traditional Estonian food.
When the three weeks ended, I didn’t want to leave. I made great friends, met interesting people from all over the world, learnt something new every day, and fell in love with the city of Tallinn. Since everyone spoke English so well, there were few moments where I could practice my Estonian. Every time I did, though, Estonians were genuinely happy that I made an effort. As I am not really satisfied with “hello, how are you, thank you, bye,” a return to Tallinn is basically imperative. One of the first words I learnt, for some reason, was the proverb “kes otsib, see leiab” (he who seeks shall find), and I feel that I sought and found – as cliché as it may sound – happiness.