At the juncture where the Baltic sea turns east toward St. Petersburg is Tallinn, Estonia. Although the country became independent in 1918, its statehood wouldn't last. Nazi Germany occupied it from 1941 to 1944; then Stalin took control. Estonia separated from the USSR in 1991, but tensions remain: Earlier this year ethnic Russians rioted after the government dared to move a statue of a Red Army soldier. Still, Tallinn has changed radically since Soviet times, evolving from a town of drab concrete paneling, Ladas, and party apparatchiks to a city of shiny skyscrapers, Maseratis, and young entrepreneurs.
It's essential to stay in the Old Town. Centuries-old wood beams and stone floors complement the antique furniture and paintings of nobles in the public spaces of the 23-room Schlössle Hotel (from $575; 13?15 Pühavaimu; 372/699-7700; schlossle-hotels.com) for a Middle Ages atmosphere. The best room is no. 19, up a steep, narrow staircase in the 14th-century annex, with skewed beams and whitewashed walls. Created out of medieval merchant houses, the Three Sisters Hotel (from $575; 71 Pikk; 372/630-6300; threesistershotel.com) heightened the standard for Tallinn's accommodations when it opened its 23 rooms in 2003. It gained some competition when the 86-room Hotel Telegraaf (from $295; Vene Posti Operaator As, 9 Vene; 372/600-0600; telegraafhotel.com) debuted this spring in a 19th-century telegraph exchange station, offering a steam room, sauna, and pool. The best rooms are 613 through 618 on the top floor, which look out onto the Old Town's rubble and roofs and St. Olav's medieval spire.
Try traditional food such as hernesupp suitsulihaga (pea soup with smoked meat) and tuuliku kama (a dessert of grains, curdled milk, and red and black currants) at Kuldse Notsu Kõrts (dinner, $100; 8 Dunkri; 372/ 628-6567; notsu.ee) before eating modern equivalents at the Deco-style Gloria (dinner, $110; 2 Müürivahe; 372/644-6950; gloria.ee). For Estonian-accented French cuisine?say, Charolais steak with stewed beetroot?you can dine like a medieval baron in the 13th-century limestone vaults of Stenhus (dinner, $170; 13?15 Pühavaimu; 372/699-7780; stenhus.ee) or ring the bell and walk up the monogrammed carpet to Egoist (dinner, $280; 33 Vene; 372/646-4052; egoist.ee). The most creative fine dining is just outside the Old Town, at Restaurant Ö (dinner, $180; 6E Mere Pst; 372/661-6150; restoran-o.ee), whose degustatsioonimenüü features Jerusalem artichoke soup with deer jerky. Vertigo (4 Rävala Pst; 372/666-3456; vertigo.ee) has great Baltic vistas and serves Estonian rhubarb four ways: as a sorbet, in a caramelized mille-feuille, as a mousse, and steeped in cardamom with crème brûlée.
Tallinn has a history of fine artisans. Kadri Mälk (10 Sulevimägi; 372/641-1870) crafts museum-quality jewelry in her bohemian apartment and studio. For contemporary fashion, make an appointment with Oksana Tandit (372/515-3401) to see her black, white, and "revolution red" womenswear collection, which was featured in this year's inaugural Tallinn fashion week.
For a potted history of the city, visit the Occupations Museum (8 Toompea; 372/668-0250; okupatsioon.ee), which tells the tale of 20th-century oppression. For tours of the unesco-protected walls, towers, merchant houses, and cobblestoned streets, contact medieval art specialist Maia Masing (372/504-5779; reval-line.com). There are new buildings and converted factory spaces done up with glass, copper, and steel everywhere you turn. Triin Ojari (372/505-9120; email@example.com), editor of the Estonian architecture magazine Maja, conducts bespoke tours of private villas, 100-year-old wooden fishermen's homes, and vast pre?World War I seaplane hangars. Another journey you should make is the ten-minute takso ride through the leafy Kadriorg borough to the newest branch of the Art Museum of Estonia, the Kumu Art Museum (34 Weizenbergi/1 Valge; 372/602-6126; ekm.ee). The exhibit "Signs of the Soviet Era in Recent Estonian Art" opens November 11 and runs to February 2008.