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Tallinn is a glittering vision of how winter should be. The Estonian capital, with its slanted red roofs, rocket-like spires and onion domes, turns into a snow-muffled fairytale in late November to early December. Visitors will have the sensation of walking through a Christmas card. Despite the boom of 21st-century development, the merchant houses, medieval courtyards and narrow, cobbled streets remain authentic. It’s also a fantastic time of year to hit the city for another reason: the cold acts as a powerful deterrent to stag and hen parties. And if you’re determined to avoid even a hint of a crowd, venture outside the 14th-century Old Town into the Kadriorg neighbourhood, one mile to the east of Raekoja plats (Town Hall Square), and visit the grounds of Peter the Great’s palace, with its snow-laced oak and horse chestnut woodlands.

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This year, Tallinn is set to be the European Capital of Culture, and there will be events every day to celebrate. In winter this will include the baking of a life-sized gingerbread shop, Nordic concerts, a winter swimming event in the Pirita River, a fire-sculpting competition, concerts of glass instruments, an ice rink in the Old Town, a film festival during the Black Nights (the city's longest and darkest) and a Christmas market. The Capital of Culture goes out with a bang at the end of December, with a grand musical finale featuring the church bells of Tallinn, written by Estonian composer Peeter Vähi.

Getting There
EasyJet flies direct from London to Tallinn, while Air Baltic, Finnair, SAS, Lufthansa and British Airways all fly via Helsinki (from £40 return).

Place to stay: Olevi Residents
Olevi Residents is a maze of 14th-century buildings, full of hidden nooks and crannies and an astounding array of different rooms. Some have wooden beams, others arched ceilings or fireplaces; all are dotted with polished vintage furniture and have large bathrooms. The hotel's restaurant serves local dishes such as wild boar with prunes (from £35; olevi.ee/ hotel.htm).

Book for dinner: Vanaema Juures
Vanaema Juures means 'grandma's place' - a clue to its décor and ambience. Housed in an antique-decorated cellar, it is one of Tallinn's loveliest restaurants, with hearty Estonian food such as roast pork and dumplings, ideal for the cold climate (meals around £20; vonkrahl.ee).

Fairytale views: St Olaf's Church
Once owner of the world's tallest spire (formerly 159 metres, but now 124 metres after being rebuilt several times), 13th-century St Olaf's Church is the town's best viewpoint. Wrap up warm and make the long climb to the viewing platform to gaze over the spires and iced-biscuit roofs of the Old Town buildings (£1.60; Old Town).

Snowy stroll: Kadriorg Park
Kadriorg Park surrounds a grand baroque summer palace created for Russian Tsar Peter the Great by the Italian architect Niccolò Michetti. Its 250-acre grounds are one of Tallinn's best places to stroll, with a large lake and a grand promenade leading to the palace (admission to park is free; kadri orupark.ee).

Retreat from the cold: KUMU
KUMU, the modern Art Museum of Estonia, provides a fine refuge from the snow. A sleek glass and limestone space, its elegant lines - designed by Finnish architect Pekka Vapaavuori - are an exquisitely minimalist arena for Estonian art and sculpture, dating from the 18th century to the present day (admission £5; ekm.ee).

Hot chocolate stop: Café Chocolaterie de Pierre
The incredible Café Chocolaterie de Pierre makes its own chocolate and has some of the best cocoa products in town, from the hot chocolate - a spicy mix of melted chocolate, cream, rum and chilli - to the chocolate croissants. It's all served in a tiny, Mrs Tiggy- Winkle-style 19th-century interior (drinks around £2.50; Vene 6, Old Town).

Souvenir stop: Antiik
Antique shop Antiik has floor-to-ceiling religious icons, with the largest collection in the Baltic States - a shimmering array of Madonnas, saints and biblical scenes in jewel-like colours. The oldest date back to the 17th century (antiqueshop.ee).

Cosy pub for a nightcap: Valli Baar
Valli Baar hasn't changed since it opened in 1969 - it's all bohemian character, with a mixed clientele of musicians, young hipsters and elderly men knocking back vodka. A definite cockle-warmer is the house speciality, millimallikas (meaning 'jellyfish') - a shot of tequila, sambuca and Tabasco (drinks around £2; Muurivahe 14).

Long lunch: Kompressor
Combat the cold weather with the ultimate in comfort food, pannkoogid (pancakes) at Kompressor. This warmly lit, simple restaurant is full of punters sharing tables and feasting on savoury (blue cheese and mushrooms) or sweet (apples and vanilla, raspberry and sweet milk) varieties, washed down with local beer (pancakes from around £2.75 each; Rataskaevu 3, Old Town).

 

 

The article ‘Best city for winter 2011: Tallinn, Estonia’ was published in partnership with Lonely Planet Magazine.

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