TALLINN, Estonia -- This picture postcard-perfect capital city on
the Baltic Sea may boast what locals claim is the best-preserved
medieval center in northern Europe, but it's anything but frozen in
While a recent sightseeing visit convinced this reporter of
Tallinn's right to tout its credentials as the top of the Middle
Ages heap, new developments in its still-burgeoning tourism
industry confirmed that the Estonian capital -- liberated from
Communism just a dozen years ago -- has embraced modern capitalism
with a vengeance.
Tallying up Tallinn
It's not only that this tiny Baltic nation is experiencing a
business boom thanks to freewheeling, Yankee-style economics, as my
tour guide ruefully pointed out, or that prices in the souvenir
shops on scenic Toompea Hill -- where a disposable camera can set
you back $25 -- out-price-gouge similar New York or London outfits
by a mile.
It's also the emergence of world-class overnight options in
historic structures- such as the hip new Three Sisters Hotel, a
23-room Design Hotels affiliate housed in three 14th century
rowhouses -- and "touristy," but high-quality and fun, themed
restaurants such as Olde Hansa, a rollicking medieval dining
experience at 1 Vana Turg, near the Town Hall.
Although I normally cringe at Renaissance fairs, medieval
restaurants and the like back home, Olde Hansa's tasty renaissance
"fare"; friendly, camp service; and authentic setting won me
Thus, the city's tourism infrastructure -- and hotel, retail and
restaurant plant -- finally is maturing and catching up in quality
with the scenic glories of its ancient fortifications; towering
churches; cozy, cobblestone lanes; and forests of thin, stone
clocktowers and steeples, unique in northern Europe.
Day by day, Tallinn -- which, although ethnically tied to nearby
Finland, more closely resembles an old Hanseatic port of Germany --
grows better able to stand on its own, as a stand-alone
destination, rather than a mere day-trip port of call for Baltic
cruise passengers or fast-ferry visitors from Helsinki.
Local entrepreneurs even launched a tricycle "velotaxi,"
service, similar to such ventures in Copenhagen, Berlin and other
European tourism meccas; the $2, rickshaw-like ride is a fun option
for getting from the Old Town to ferries at the port.
For more information, see www.velotakso.ee online.
Overnighting inn style
In fact, the city -- which saw visitor arrivals jump 5% in 2003
-- added 256 beds to its accommodations inventory, which now
comprises 199 establishments with 8,091 guest beds.
Among new hotel entrants is the four-star, 350-room Hotel
Tallink, a Best Western-affiliated property that opened in the city
center last month; the 113-room, music-themed Saku Rock Hotel, a
budget, port-side property opening this month with rates ranging
from $70 to $80 per night; and the three-star, 132-room Ulemiste
Hotel, due to open at Tallinn Airport in July.
Armed with first-class accommodations, eateries and attractions,
the Tallinn City Tourist Office and Convention Bureau is hoping to
convert day-trippers -- who accounted for 67% of 2.7 million
visitors in 2003 -- and cruise ship and ferry passengers -- some
82% of arrivals -- into repeat, overnight guests returning for
land-based city stays, now comprising only a third of the city's
But Tallinn marketing manager Helena Tsistova said her
cash-strapped office -- as is the case at Estonia's national
tourist board -- can't really afford overseas promotion, especially
in the U.S., "so what we try to do is supply cruise lines with our
"There's not much else we can do, other than just hope Tallinn
is attractive enough to make them want to return on their own," she
In the long run, Tsistova and her colleagues would like to
reposition Tallinn from a day-trip stop to a base for tourists on
regional tours that combine the city with St. Petersburg, Russia;
Riga, Latvia; and Helsinki.
In 2003, the U.S. was the third-largest source market of
same-day visitors to Tallinn, accounting for 63,992 tourists;
according to the city tourist office, American visits are on the
Price hike in the cards
Many of those U.S. and other day-trippers took advantage of the
discount Tallinn Card program, similar to visitor pass efforts
across the Continent.
Two years ago, a short-term, six-hour card was introduced -- and
it's proved a tremendous success, said Tsistova.
"It's popular with cruise visitors, who tend to spend exactly
that amount of time in town," she explained, adding the six-hour
version offers all benefits of longer-term cards except the free,
guided city tour.
But on April 1 -- coincidentally, just one month before Estonia
entered the European Union -- Tallinn Card prices rose some
The rate hike addressed increases in printing and service costs,
according to the city tourist office; on the bright side, the
Tallinn Card now offers up to 80 free and discounted offers in
museums, shops, restaurants and entertainment venues.
Tallinn Cards are priced as follows: six hours, adults $7, kids
$3.50; 24 hours, adults $20, kids $10; 48 hours, adults $24, kids
$12; and 72 hours, adults $27.50, kids $13.75.
Tallinn Card holders get free entrance to the newly renovated
Town Hall, which celebrates its 600th anniversary this summer.
The Tallinn Town Hall museum is now open from Mondays to
Saturdays, July 1 through Aug. 31, from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.
For more information on Tallinn and Estonia, contact Amest
Travel in New York at (212) 972-2217, [email protected] or www.amest.com or
visit the Tallinn City Tourist Office and Convention Bureau online
To contact reporter Kenneth Kiesnoski, send e-mail to [email protected].