Above: Tallinn Old Town
We’ve been plenty busy in 201830, museum-hopping in Paris, flirting in Rome and clubbing in the Berlin Kreuzberg underground. But cultivated Europhiles that we are, we’re always feeling the call of some of our less-trodden, yet still favorite cities on the Continent.
Nothing beckons us to Europa quite like the turning of winter, with its exhilaratingly crisp evenings, stylishly scarfed locals, and those transcendently evocative fragrances that fill the air of each city (the latter a particular treat for those forced to breath the noxious fumes of New York and LA every day).
Clockwise from top left: Hotel St. Petersbourg; Tallinn streets; Kaerajaan restaurant; Kumu Museum
There was a moment around say 2005 – 2007, when Tallinn, bolstered by the success of companies like Skype, became sort of the new Prague: a former Soviet satellite which was now drawing young dreamers from the US and Britain. Only this time they were tech geeks rather than boho literary aspirants.
Now, we would probably love the Estonian capital if only for the fact that it’s home to the Depeche Mode Baar (quick, guess the theme). But its Old Town is as strikingly beautiful and symmetrical as any in Europe – and just strolling the streets is reward enough in itself. There’s also a bright, gleaming modern city (the City Centre) right outside the medieval walls.
On the culture tip, the Kumu Museum is one of the largest in Northern Europe, showcasing two centuries of Estonian art (with an impressive collection of Socialist Realism), as well as special exhibitions of top international contemporary artists. Cold War enthusiasts should check out the KGB Museum, actually located inside the Hotel Viru.
Tallinn is also a considerable epicurean city, with chefs drawing on the considerable bounty of the Estonian countryside (their local black bread is to die for). Art Priori is the avant-garde choice, focusing on creatively realized (mostly) vegetarian dishes in a stunning, art adorned space; MEKK specializes in inventive seafood plates, and its sophisticated bar is a bit of a scene; for something a bit more…Middle Ages, Olde Hansa cooks up wild boar, elk and venison, in an interior that could only be described as 13th-Century chic.
Stay in Tallinn: Both the Telegraaf Hotel and the Hotel St. Petersbourg combine classical elegance with cool postmodern design, and each has a notable restaurant (Tchaikovsky and Heritage, respectively.) The chic Three Sisters hotel has strikingly theatrical rooms – one even has its own grand piano.
Clockwise from top left: Island in the Mur; Graz City Hall; Hotel Wiesler; Kunsthaus Graz
After losing its Empire in the wake of WWI, Austria pretty much keeps to itself now, content to have traded influence on the world political stage for more, shall we say, sybaritic concerns. Yet the fact that right wing demagogues have been angling for power there does genuinely matter within the scope of the wider EU situation.
The country’s “second city,” Graz, is actually one of its bastions of left-wing ideology, home to more than 30,000 university students, out of a total population of 270,000. A UNESCO City of Design, its rather imperial looking city center, with its elegant baroque edifices, is complemented by some of Europe’s most radical works of contemporary architecture.
Indeed, the Island in the Mur is literally a steel island in the middle of the river of the same name that splits the city, with a designy cafe and amphitheater; the Chapel of Rest is a stunning minimalist cathedral by Hofrichter-Ritter Architects; and the Dom im Berg is a spectacular performance space carved literally into rock. The Kunsthaus Graz contemporary art museum (by British architects Colin Fournier and Peter Cook) is the city’s showpiece, and looks like a giant blue heart and valves.
Not much of a foodie destination, Graz is more of a cafe town – and you’ll find dozens of boho spots as you stroll the streets, many packed with students. Mitte is one of the artier ones, while Aiola Upstairs has a chic crowd and awe-inspiring views. Design junkies should hit the Kunsthaus museum’s namesake cafe. For nightlife, there’s great bar-hopping around the area nicknamed the Bermuda Triangle.
Stay in Graz: The Augarten Hotel (a member of Design Hotels) has stylish, loft-style rooms, and a pool that doubles as an art gallery. The Hotel Wiesler‘s Philippe Starck designed restaurant hosts a “soul brunch” every Sunday, while the rooms have a cool-minimalism and river views. And Hotel Daniel has affordable rooms, a lobby espresso bar and Vespas available for guests.