The old and new don’t collide so much as mesh beautifully in Tallinn, Estonia’s capital city. Situated on the Gulf of Finland, there’s a cobblestoned Old Town that dates back to the 13th century (and is an UNESCO World Heritage Site), yet speedy 21st-century high-speed Wi-Fi access is omnipresent, as are digital nomads. Home to approximately one-third of the country’s 1.3 million residents, this is also Estonia’s most cosmopolitan, LGBTQ-friendly destination with a small but vibrant queer scene and population.
While some locals lament the end of an “anything goes” atmosphere that ruled for about a decade in the wake of Estonia’s 1992 liberation from the former Soviet Union, that period has given way to an organized, developed, and Scandinavian-influenced look and feel (and as with the Finns just across the water, there’s also a fondness for saunas, swimming, and small indoor waterparks).
The tram public transportation system is efficient, and you can buy a 2 euro ticket from the driver upon entering. Again, Wi-Fi and ridiculously inexpensive mobile SIM data chips that include talk and text can cost less than 5 euros (and are even available at the airport’s convenience store).
The LGBT Scene in Estonia
When Estonia broke off from the former, oppressive Soviet Union in 1992, homosexuality was decriminalized in the process. As of 2016, While same-sex marriage is not yet legal, Estonia started recognizing binding same-sex marriages conducted abroad in 2016. With a cultural obsession for song, with annual song festivals, celebrations, and enthusiastic participation in the Eurovision Song Contest, it’s worth noting that the LGBT+ choir, Vikerslad, participated in the 2019 jubilee Estonian Song Celebration, which was televised across the country.
Although small, Tallinn’s LGBT scene is mostly concentrated around Tatari, bordering Old Town's southern end. It includes the recently relocated, two-level gay bar and disco, X-Baar, and a gay sauna, Club 69. It’s not unusual to spot gay tourists holding hands in Old Town and young queer Estonians hanging around hipster hood Kalamaja and modern shopping center, Solaris. An LGBT pride parade was held in July 2017, and there’s hope 2020 may see another, or that Tallinn may at least host another future edition of Baltic Pride, as it did in 2011 (the 2019 edition took place in Vilnius, Lithuania).
Best Things to Do
Located to the southern end of hipster district Kalamaja, Telliskivi Creative City is a lively development chock full of local creative shops and incubators, cafes, restaurants, arts venues, a gin distillery, and street art and murals.
The slick, multi-level photography gallery Fotografiska is a standout, hosting exhibitions by cutting edge Estonian and international artists—including Tallinn’s own queer feminist activist and photographer, Anna-Stina Treumund, who passed away in 2017—and selection of publications (including a fantastic book of Treumund’s work). Bonus: its upper level and terrace is home to an outstanding, approachable “leaf to root, nose to tail” restaurant headed up by chef Peeter Pihel, who previously worked at Sweden’s two-Michelin-starred Fäviken Magasinet.
Stunningly designed by Finnish architect Pekka Vapaavuori, contemporary art museum Kumu is edgy and pop-savvy, with exhibitions featuring queer Tallinn artist Jaanus Samma, who explores provocative topics (think Estonia’s gay history during the Soviet Era, and public restrooms) through multidisciplinary work. LGBT Estonian art publications, meanwhile, can be found at eclectic, 6-year-old small press art and culture bookstore Lugemik, which occupies a former Soviet garage close to Tallinn Bay (it’s a cool area worth a stroll!). While it’s touristy, Old Town is a must for its historic churches, architecture, and Raeapteek, a still-operating 5oo-year-old pharmacy—Europe’s oldest—that used to hawk dubious “medicinal” compounds like sundried dog poop, which are now exhibited museum style.
Best (and Gayest!) Bars and Clubs
While there’s only one explicitly LGBTQ bar and nightclub in Tallinn at present, it's everything you'll need for a gay 'ole night out. The two-floor X-Baar is tucked away at the north end of Tatari Street and contains a dimly lit brick-walled bar for pre-dancing conversation and drinks (note the coffee gear behind the bar: some locals enjoy a cup of java alongside their cocktails or beer). The music includes Estonian disco tunes—dating back to when the country became independent and launched their own pop groups—played in a separate, cavern-like discotheque with colored lights and pulsing music for dancing. There's also an upstairs space that's open on weekends. (Pro-tip: Although you may find people here on a weeknight at 7 p.m., the crowds turn up big time on weekends around midnight.)
Telliskivi hipster bar Sveta is also incredibly LGBTQ-inclusive. You’ll also find a mixed crowd, plus a whole lot of EDM and visual arts, at techno nightclub Hall. If you’re feeling a bit frisky, men can head to Club 69, Estonia’s only gay sauna, which is located down the street from X-Baar and open until 2 a.m. daily. Tuesdays are all-naked, and bisexuals and swingers are welcome on Saturdays.
If you happen to be in Tallinn at the end of June, check Facebook for the annual “Club Angel Reunion Party,” a huge LGBTQ-friendly dance that commemorates a legendary albeit closed Old Town gay club.
Where to Eat in Tallinn
Some locals will tell you that Tallinn feels more and more like a Scandinavian city these days, and that sentiment certainly is accurate when it comes to the food scene. At a fraction of the prices you’ll find just north in Scandinavia (or Western Europe for that matter), Tallinn’s fine dining scene is remarkably approachable, and one is simply spoilt for choice when it comes to excellent chefs flexing their New Estonian Cuisine—which draws from Scandinavian, Russian, German, and whatever fresh local ingredients can be foraged—muscles. A few items you’ll see with regularity on menus in various iterations include beef tartare, chicken liver pate, and Baltic seafood, while rare is the meal not accompanied by toothsome assortments of bread including richly flavorful Estonian black bread.
Old Town’s vegetarian-friendly Pegasus used to be a writer’s commune but nowadays serves as a cool gay favorite, especially in warmer months when the patio seating is open for prime people-watching. Enjoy dishes like chilled smoked beet soup with horseradish cream, served alongside outstanding house cocktails and mocktails. Other superb choices, conveniently clustered within Old Town, include the 12-year-old French technique-driven Ribe and farm-to-table-centric Leib. A taxi or Uber northeast will allow the addition of romantic views of Tallinn Bay and the Tallinn city skyline to a meal at either Tuljak, whose Soviet retro-modern kitsch interior decor is also quite cool, or the seafood-forward Noa.
Where to Stay in Tallinn
Old Town is an ideal base for visitors, bordering hipster district Kalamaja, Tatari’s small gay strip, and with easy access to public transport. Part of Autograph Collection, the 84-room Hotel Telegraaf blends 19th-century essence with modern fixtures and five-star comforts, including an indoor spa with pool, Jacuzzi, sauna, and steam bath. Like the Finns, Estonians love spa and sauna culture, and many Tallinn hotels feature facilities, which are free for guests to access, which is quite the perk.
Renovated in 2019, the 119-room Kalev Spa Hotel is home to a miniature indoor waterpark with slides, a sizeable pool, steam rooms, and saunas, and is popular with locals and families (you can pay to just access the facilities if not a guest). While lacking a spa, The Savoy, at just 44 rooms, takes a classic Old Town Estonian approach to its style and décor, as does the 23-room Schlossle Hotel. For business traveler-friendly, wholly modern digs, the sleek 280-room Radisson Blu Sky Hotel also boasts fabulous sweeping views from its Lounge24 restaurant and cocktails spot—it's also just a 10-minute walk to Old Town and X-Baar.