TALLINN - Estonia's capital is a city of contrasts. On one hand, its culture, dining and nightlife continues to be concentrated in its medieval Old Town, a network of winding, cobblestone streets lined with 14th- 17th-century buildings, all surrounded by nearly 2km of intact city walls and towers. Just outside the walls of Old Town however, is a rapidly growing commercial district where drab, Soviet-era structures are constantly being refaced or replaced by high-rise office towers and hotels.
Locals take this mix of old and new in stride. It's not uncommon to find a medieval-style cellar cafe that offers its customers a free wireless Internet connection with their espresso. In fact, Tallinn dwellers have become known for their love of high-tech systems and gadgets. Most drivers here pay for their parking via SMS text message, nearly all banking is done online, and the nation's government, which meets in an 18th-century mansion on Toompea Hill, leads the world in E-governance.
Tallinn's status as a port city is also worth mentioning. In medieval times the port brought enough trade and prosperity to allow the city to develop. Now it brings tourists, most notably those arriving from Helsinki, just 85km across the gulf.
The city's proximity to Helsinki may have played another role in the nation's post-Soviet development. During Soviet times, the Tallinn area was the only place in the USSR that could receive Western TV broadcasts. This window on the West has been credited with the city's willingness to adopt Western business styles and attitudes so quickly after independence and this may the defining thing that sets it apart from Riga and Vilnius.
Both classic and progressive, medieval and modern, Tallinn is somewhat of an enigma. It surprises its visitors and keeps them coming back for more. Whether the history and charm draw you in or you are caught by the upbeat and modern approach to life, this is a place that makes a very unique impression.