There's no better time to visit Estonia than in winter, when a fresh powdering of snow has swept over the cobblestoned streets of the capital's Old Town, and locals have set up shop for the annual Christmas market.
The easiest place to fly into is the capital, Tallinn. For travellers who can only afford a short break away, or for those who want to extend their festivities into January, Tallinn is the desirable option. Here's why:
1. Christmas plays an important part in the local life and is celebrated into the first weeks of January with the annual Christmas market (open until 8 January 2014). Tradition from the 15th century dictates that a Christmas tree is set up in the middle of the Town Hall Square, located in the medieval Old Town, for locals to gather around and admire. Nowadays, the tree is flanked by row after row of stalls selling mulled wine, woolly gloves, wooden handicrafts and more.
2. Local legend insists that marzipan was invented in the heart of Tallinn. While the Christmas market sells the sweet almond delicacy, the Kalev Marzipan Room is a shop combined with a museum where tourists can learn about the city's love affair with marzipan and see 200 figurines on display. Gingerbread is an equally festive treat and the Bonaparte Restaurant, also in the Old Town, makes the biscuits on site and sells them fresh out of the oven. Groups can take part in gingerbread or truffle making classes to test out their culinary skills.
3. Shoppers who are looking for more than just food can venture further into the quaint St Catherine's Passage, easily one of the most photogenic parts of Tallinn. The street is home to craft shops where artists make and sell hats, quilts, ceramics, hand-painted silk and more. The Masters' Courtyard is just a stone's throw away, where more handicraft and jewellery boutiques and the indulgent Chocolats de Pierre shop can be found.
4. Located on the Town Hall Square itself is the Town Hall Pharmacy, which claims to be the oldest continuously running pharmacy in Europe. Medieval remedies like burnt bees and powdered unicorn horn have been replaced by modern treatments. The pharmacy's displays around the back of its old medicine in glass jars and stuffed animals hanging from the ceilings have become something of a tourist attraction.
5. Wondering around the picturesque Christmas market sipping on mulled wine and gazing up at the majestic buildings and spires is enough to make you feel winter wonderful, but a panoramic view of Tallinn's UNESCO-protected historic centre can be appreciated from the city's viewing point. Head up the Toompea Hill to the Kohtu street and Patkuli platforms for a sweeping panorama of the terracotta roofs and fairytale towers.
6. From the top, viewers can see the Tallinn Song Festival Grounds in the distance, an outdoor arena which has hosted the likes of Madonna, Elton John, Robbie Williams, Lady Gaga and the late Michael Jackson. Estonia's home-bred gem, piannist Rein Rannap, meanwhile, has performed in other noteworthy venues around the country and his concerts are worth looking up before planning a trip out.
7. On Toompea Hill stands the St. Alexander Nesky Cathedral, which among the Old Town architecture looks slightly out of place. While Estonia as a country is not religion-focused, this Russian church has become the main place of worship for Estonia’s remaining Russian Orthodox community. Tourists can peek inside to see the stunning interior and get a glimpse of the daily rituals.
8. For traditional Estonian fare, the warm and welcoming Leib Restaurant is highly recommendable. Leib, meaning bread in Estonian, refers to the country's famous black bread - something homemade, fresh, warm and simple, which is exactly what the two owners had in mind for their restaurant. The goal, very much achieved, was to create dishes using the freshest ingredients in season and pair them with their extensive wine list. On the menu are pan fried whitefish, Estonian-bred lamb, roasted quail and more.
9. Wine is gradually making a reappearance in the Estonian market. While locals tend to be seen as vodka-preferring people given the country’s close proximity to Russia, the Luscher & Matiesen winery is hoping to re-make Estonia as the wine-progressive country it was in the 1930s before the war. Groups can enjoy wine tastings of the fine Matiesen beverages on site, talked through by the enthusiastic owners of the winery.
10. With a population of only 1.3million people and a total area of approximately 45,300 square kilometres, Estonia is a small country that makes travelling around easy. For a day out of the capital, stay the night in Vihula Manor, a romantic 16th century country house an hour’s drive from Tallinn. The estate boasts 50 hectares of idyllic parkland and lily-covered ponds for that breath of fresh air, while the eco-spa and fine dining will have you rejuvenated in no time.
Where to stay in Tallinn? Hotel St Petersbourg is conveniently located in the centre of the Old Town, and holds 27 beautiful boutique-style rooms, a traditional restaurant, and sauna and relaxation area, free for guests to use until 11am each morning.
Down the road stands the luxurious Schloessle Hotel, popular with stars and celebrities alike.