How Tallinn’s Old Town is surviving the pandemic
Some change is good.
When the pandemic began, we had a lot of concerns — including how the disappearance of international tourists to Estonia would affect family businesses running saunas for visitors across our country.
As it turned out, many of them have been busier than ever this year.
International tourists tend to stay in Tallinn’s Old Town and about 75% of them never even leave Tallinn. This is something Visit Estonia, our country’s tourist agency, has been working hard to fix in order to spread the benefits of tourism around the country.
But the pandemic has dramatically shifted this. The pause in international travel created a boom in domestic travel instead.
This trend is playing out everywhere, but particularly in northern Europe because the general direction of travel for holidays — which got disrupted this year — is usually disproportionally going from north to south and less so the other way around. Instead of visiting tourist traps in other countries, Estonians are seeking out great small businesses around Estonia.
The big loser inside Estonia, of course, is Tallinn’s old town.
This UNESCO listed part of the city dates back largely to the 13th century and was developed through the wealth of merchants as a key stop off along the trade route of the Hanseatic League.
Even here though, the impact of the pandemic has not been even.
Among the restaurants, there seems to be a certain degree of creative destruction taking place. This is a bit of a brutal economic concept but can lead to long term positive change. Restaurants that offer genuinely good food, service, and value-for-money are generally being sustained by a healthy flow of local visitors, while the tourist traps are shutting up.
Our personal favourite resteraunt is Rataskaevu 16. I recommend the elk.
Perhaps the lesson to take beyond this pandemic is that if your business doesn’t serve locals as well as tourists then maybe it shouldn’t remain in business.
Some quite surprising companies are learning to overcome that. Walking tours of Tallinn were incredibly popular with international visitors, but they are still going through the pandemic with new themes generating new interest among locals, particularly international residents, who are finding new ways to explore their surroundings. They still need all the help they can get though so you can sign up for one here.
That lesson is less relevant for hotels though where the situation is currently much more dire. Many of them have ‘temporarily’ closed their doors, but as one insider explained to me, it’s very unlikely that many of these will ever open them again. Many are seriously overleveraged and under pressure from their banks while property developers circle with plans to turn them into apartments.
Some are concerned about the vicious circle that will create if the Old Town becomes more residential then businesses left here in the nighttime entertainment economy will be under increased pressure to, basically, keep the noise down. The atmosphere could change permanently as the fun relocates outwards to more vibrant parts of town like Kalamaja and the newly developed Noblessner.
The rapid roll out of COVID-19 vaccines is offering some hope that a return to something approaching normality is on the horizon. As a result, some old town hotels and hostels are putting together new proposals for investment in a last ditch attempt to survive the pandemic and reemerge into a consolidated market. If anyone is interested in these kinds of investment opportunities then send us a message and I can connect you.
They have to think long term as the legacy of this pandemic will linger for a while. In addition to the economic impact, it will take airlines much longer to scale back up their fleets with enough experienced pilots to bring back tourists. It’s always much easier to switch things off than back on again.
Christmas market confusion
The Old Town is usually thriving with tourists throughout summer when they can come to enjoy white night season and also during winter when the Christmas market is set up on Raekoja plats (Town Hall Square).
This Christmas market is consistently ranked as one of the best in the world. As you might imagine though, the products on sale are fairly unremarkable compared to any other Christmas market in the world. This is driven by short term economic incentives aimed at maximising income from renting the stalls. You certainly wouldn’t find many Estonians doing their shopping there. But the market does look stunning and it has a cosy atmosphere.
Tallinn first announced the market would be cancelled this year due to the pandemic — and some complicated issues about how the outsourced company responsible for the market would deliver it during these tough times. Many of us were confused by this and complained loudly. The market is a key part of the city’s international brand, but also one of the lowest risk ways for us as Tallinn residents to meet up this Christmas season. Scientists are clear that the virus is predominantly spreading when people meet up inside. That’s why cities around the world are doing the exact opposite by changing rules to help businesses expand into the fresh air and invest in outdoor infrastructure
Tallinn, too, should be encouraging people to meet up in the fresh air.
The city’s communications since then have been quite confusing, but they did decide to go ahead with what they called a ‘decentralised’ Christmas market. Apparently, that’s not just a buzzword used by startups. The Christmas market opened, although with no stage, considerably fewer stands and more light installations spread around the city. It was actually nicer!
In some ways, it still felt like a missed opportunity though.
Without tourists, the city could have used this year as an opportunity to re-imagine the Christmas market and make it even more valuable for the city long term. We could make the market more relevant to Estonians and experiment with ideas that can improve it for international visitors too when they return.
Maybe, instead of seeking maximum income from renting stalls, Tallinn could focus more on the quality of the experience. Instead of mass produced items that visitors can find at any other Christmas market anywhere else in the world, we could instead give opportunities to small local producers instead. Even micro producers, like student projects or people making food and crafts at home. For example, I just ordered afternoon tea made by a couple of enterprising Estonian women who make clotted cream and scones at home in Tallinn.
If we included these people more in future years too, I’m sure the Christmas market would be more valuable for Tallinn anyway. It would bring together visitors and locals who appreciate genuinely good quality unique Estonian goods. That may result in less money being spent at the market, but it would bring in more visitors who are likely to spend more money elsewhere in Tallinn and around Estonia. Maybe Tallinn doesn’t have much incentive to think this broadly, but the city does benefit disproportionately already from national marketing efforts so should give back.
This is all something the city needs to think more deeply about again next year when we are probably still living amidst significant challenges of the pandemic.
In the meantime, there is still time to fix one mistake this year. The city had sought to downplay the Christmas market during the pandemic. But why? Even a decentralised market with few visitors is worth celebrating, perhaps even more so during these tough times. Let’s make sure the world knows we put on the best decentralised Christmas market ever and, as a result, Tallinn is even more ready to welcome international visitors back here in future.
One Old Town hotel not planning to shut up, in more ways than one, is Merchant’s House Hotel.
This is one of Tallinn’s oldest buildings, built in 1368 along the Town Hall Square. It was turned into a hotel a couple of decades ago by a larger-than-life British entrepreneur named Jonathan and his business partners.
Jonathan told us that they are planning to ride out the pandemic by keeping the doors open every day, even if just one guest turns up, and ensuring they can continue to do so long after the pandemic ends.
At this point, I should mention that they have a nice sauna there for guests, as well as a charming courtyard where guests can cool off in their towels right in the heart of the Old Town.
We usually write on this blog about weird and wonderful saunas around Estonia, but this time we decided to book a short holiday just ten minutes down the road at Merchant’s House so we can help support them in our own tiny way.
We asked if there’s any room at the inn and, just as happened to Mary and Joseph 2,000 years ago, they said we could stay in their stables instead. That’s because the stables once used by merchants to ‘park’ their horses around the Town Hall Square has now been converted into one of their luxury suites with its own sauna.
There are six suites like this in the hotel, all with their own theme. They are actually bigger than any apartment I’ve lived in.
In addition to the sauna in our room though, the communal sauna at Merchant’s House is actually the only sauna in an Old Town hotel that doesn’t have to be booked or paid for separately. It’s open to all guests, which is why it has a great atmosphere — well, when the hotel is full. There was just one other couple checking in on the same night as us and we didn’t bump into them again afterwards.
The lack of guests didn’t seem to be affecting Jonathan’s high spirits though who you can see here above showing us the relaxation room next to the communal sauna. He also seemed to be taking on all the roles that would usually require a team of staff.
The next morning he cooked us up full English breakfasts while his joyful singing reverberated around the walls of the building. It was delicious. In case you are wondering, those are just shots of ginger and wheatgrass in the Vana Tallinn glasses.
We loved it here and look forward to returning — especially when other visitors can too.
Before departing the Old Town and heading ten minutes back down the road home, we had a wonder round the cobbled streets and it occurred to me that I have never bothered visiting some of the most interesting buildings open to the public here. That included Raeapteek, which is Estonia’s oldest surviving business. It’s existed as a pharmacy in one form or another for more than 600 years. When they first opened, they mostly sold advice rather than medicines, which means Estonia is the only country in Europe whose oldest surviving business is from the knowledge economy.
We popped inside and were pleasantly surprised to see a steady stream of customers coming inside after us to make purchases. After 600 years, this is one business still not planning to close up. Here’s a short video I took inside:
Tallinn has changed dramatically over the last three decades, even here in the Old Town. As a UK-born Estonian, I’ve been travelling to Tallinn over those years and noticing how the passengers around me keep changing. Our first flight after independence was with soldiers returning from their first exercises alongside Nato. Then flights got cheaper and were full of stag parties. Since then though, Estonia developed considerably (and the price of alcohol here got more expensive while the seedy parts of the Old Town disappeared) so the stag parties were replaced by a very diverse mix of entrepreneurs, families, and backpackers.
We’re not entirely sure what comes next, but we know more change is coming. Some of it will be painful, but some of it can help turn this into an even better place to visit in future.
And, despite all the challenges, many of those already here sustaining what makes Tallinn’s old town so great aren’t planning on going anywhere. Support them if you can.
Thanks for reading
This Estonian Saunas blog is run by Anni and Adam. We invest in cutting edge sauna design and technology in Estonia, which we showcase at our own saunas, and export to saunas around the world. You can learn more at EstonianSaunas.com.
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