Prior to gaining its independence in 1991, Estonia had been occupied by foreigners for most of the preceding 800 years. The Baltic country's capital, Tallinn, displays a wealth of historic evidence the interlopers left behind. Recognizing the strategic importance of this coastal city, the Danes conquered it in 1219 and erected a castle; the German-led Hanseatic League arrived soon after and left behind the striking merchant houses that frame the cobbled streets; and the Russians completed a magnificent onion-domed cathedral in 1900. Ultimately, the appeal of Tallinn, particularly the Old Town, is that it's small enough to get around, yet there's still plenty to captivate.
Where to Stay
You can actually inhabit the city's rich history at the Three Sisters hotel, housed in interconnected medieval merchant houses on a quiet street just inside the city walls. Each of the 23 rooms and suites is unique: one boasts a grand piano, another has an indoor balcony that overlooks the hotel lobby's reading area and snug fireplace. The Three Sisters incorporates all the modern comforts you'd expect from a luxury boutique hotel, including generous bathtubs and a spa, while paying due respect to the buildings' history. The unusual shapes of the rooms reflect their original functions as horse barns, stores and living quarters. There's even an old winch between two of the rooms, once used to hoist dry goods to the stores. www.threesistershotel.com
Where to Eat
Dining in a 13th century vaulted cellar has the potential to be a little claustrophobic, but at the Stenhus, the restaurant within the Schlössle, another luxury hotel in the Old Town, it's intimate and romantic. Rich tapestries and a roaring fire are set against candlelit white-linen-covered tables. The superb dinner menu includes a tender Barbarie duck carpaccio with Pernod rouille and marinated lentils; cod with white-bean foam and fresh horseradish; and a tangy green apple jelly with black-bread ice cream. www.stenhus.ee
Where to Walk
From Raekoja Plats, the pretty Old Town square, head straight up Pikk Jalg (Long Leg) to Toompea. It was on this hill that the Danes built their castle (the pink Baroque façade was added during Catherine the Great's reign), and it's now the seat of government. As Russia loomed over Estonia's recent past, the Alexander Nevsky Russian Orthodox cathedral with its red-and-yellow walls and giant black domes dominates Tallinn's skyline. From there you get a commanding view over a bustling port city that preserves its complex past as it forges its promising future.
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