Tallinn - European City of Culture

on 15 February 2011.

David Atkinson previews what's in store for visitors to Estonia's capital this year.

Colourful skyline of Tallinn's old town, Estonia

First comes an opening salvo of disorientation. Then a frisson a cold, hard fear as I grope my way through the spirit-sapping darkness, blundering through a series of curtains into the night-blind murk of the inner womb.

My heart is racing now. Twinges of lung-squeezing panic grip me as I grapple with my more rational side to steady my staccato breath. Then a voice in the gloom reaches out to me: "Hello, David. I'm your guide, Jürgen. Just walk towards my voice."

I'm at the Ahhaa Science Centre in Tallinn, Estonia, to sample some early highlights from the city's European Capital of Culture programme. Dark Matters, a sensory-depriving art installation based on an idea by the German artist Andreas Heinecke, is one of the first headline-grabbing works. Blind people guide the sighted in a thought-provoking role reversal.

Over the next hour Jürgen takes me on a scaled-down tour of Tallinn's parks and harbour with only a white cane and his lyrical soothing tones to escort me. "Sometimes I get light attacks," says the 20-year-old student, who has been blind since birth. "It can be a very disturbing experience."

For me, facing up to Dark Matters and catching glimpses of Estonia's burgeoning cultural life will help to change my perception of Tallinn during a long weekend Baltic style. I had associated Tallinn with boozed-up stag parties from Rotherham and a nightlife best described as bawdy.

But, having both adopted the Euro as the official currency and taken the spotlight for the year-long cultural jamboree in January, Tallinn is now keen to recast itself as a northern European cultural hub. And to demonstrate that there's more to the city than the fairytale-evoking Old Town with its Unesco World Heritage status and treadmill of international tour groups.

The city is investing heavily in new infrastructure projects. The Estonian Maritime Museum will open in the renovated Seaplane Harbour this autumn. The city's new Cultural Kilometre, opening this spring, runs from the up-and-coming Kalamaja district to the city centre. It hugs the seaside to Katel, a creative centre built in a renovated thermal power factory.

KUMU Art Museum, TallinnBut I start my visit with a crash course in Estonian art at the KUMU Art Museum in the leafy Kadriorg district to the east of the Old Town. After visiting the collection of Estonian and Baltic German art from the 19th century to the present day, the temporary collection of graphic art includes a taste of home: Damian's Hirst's The Last Supper Series.

Sculpted heads in Seagull Exhibition at KUMU Art Museum, Tallinn, EstoniaOne room is given over to The Seagull, an installation, featuring 83 sculpted heads from children to Joseph Stalin via Estonian folk heroes. It is backed by archive recordings of interviews with the subjects played simultaneously for maximum, metaphor-heavy cacophony.

The next morning, as shards of low-slung sunshine dance across the pastel rooftops, I walk through the cobbled streets of the medieval Old Town. An explosion of cobbled courtyards, cosy gallery-cafés and skyline-hogging churches glisten in the winter sun.

But the best colours of all are to be found in Kalev, a marzipan shop and café dating from the 18th century. Still using the original 19th-century moulds, workers bend over trays of fresh marzipan shapes, delicately painting almond-sugared figurines, animals and cityscapes in bright pastel hues.

At lunchtime I duck into a beer-cellar bar to refuel against the sub-zero temperature. An easy-going mix of locals and tourists are tucking into plates of pork schnitzel and roasted potatoes, all washed down with a pint of the local brew.

A couple looking at laptop by fountain in free wi-fi Tallinn, EstoniaIt strikes me that people are cradling their mobile phones rather than newspapers. With ubiquitous free Wi-Fi, Estonians have taken online media to their hearts. No wonder the city is also being touted as a high-tech hub, making homegrown Skype to Estonia what Nokia is to Finland.

As daylight fades and an icy wind builds, I head across town to catch a brand new opening. The Sokos Hotel Viru has been a Tallinn landmark since the early Seventies, but the behemoth hotel housed a dark secret during the Soviet years. The city's KGB surveillance centre was located in a secret set of rooms on the 23rd floor from 1972 to independence in August 1991.

KGB secret recording equipment on top floor of a hotel in Tallinn, now a museumEven today the lift only goes to the 22nd floor. A gated stairway leads to the secret floor, where a sign in Estonian and Russian warns: 'Entrance forbidden'. During the hour-long peek behind the Iron Curtain, tour guide Yana Sampetova lifts the veil on two hidden rooms stuffed with old documents and Cold War-era spy equipment.

In its day, the radio-relay room was the key intelligence link between Helsinki and Moscow.

"The stories seem unreal today yet it was only some 30 years ago," says the elfin Yana. "Everyone wanted to work at the Viru."

Back at the Dark Matters installation, Jürgen and I are sat in the pitch-black café. I'm trying to add milk and sugar to my tea and struggling to get a sense of scale of the space around me. "I live my life in close up," says Jürgen, who uses sound to gauge distances. "You just learn to heighten your senses."

As I emerge back into the museum, blinking at the high-octane sensory sugar rush of artificial light, children running excitedly around exhibits and illuminations across the Old Town through the all-glass façade, I feel the world shift slightly on its axis.

On the street outside it's minus four and falling. But, as I head back to my hotel, I hardly even notice the cold.

Instead, I feel like I've seen the light.

Factbox *

The official programme lists some 7,000 events for 2011.
Six of the best are:

  • Jazzkaar International Jazz Festival (April)
  • NO99 Straw Theatre (May to September)
  • Old Town Days (June) & Tallinn Maritime Days (July)
  • Youth Song and Dance Celebration (July)
  • Birgitta Festival outdoor concerts (August)
  • Richard Wagner's Parsifal opera (August)
More from


David Atkinson travelled with Voyages Jules Verne (0845 166 7378). A three-night Tallinn Tales package costs from £445, including accommodation on a B&B basis, return flights with Estonian Air from London Gatwick, transfers and guided excursions.

Travel to London Gatwick with the Gatwick Express from Victoria station; departures every 15 minutes, standard returns from £30.80.

Savoy Boutique Hotel (00 372 680 6688) has doubles from 130-150€/£110-125 per night B&B.

Hotel Viru & KGB Museum (00 372 680 9300) museum tour by appointment 7€/£6

Dark Matters at the Ahhaa Science Centre (00 372 666 0066) costs 5€/£4.20 and includes entrance to the exhibitions.

Download a copy of up-to-date guide Tallinn In Your Pocket ( before you go - it's free.

* This 'Factbox' is not sponsored. I commission journalists to write travel articles and supply a factbox because we think it is useful information.

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.