Travel: Tallinn

It's a funny thing, but turn your back on a city for 12 years and it can change. Especially if last time you saw it, it was emerging from decades of enforced poverty, stagnation and oppression.

The last time I saw Tallinn was in 1998 when I was finishing a year as a student in Estonia, still very much aware of the post-Soviet shadow that hung over the place and its population like a slow-to-dissipate fog.

But time passes and places change - and Estonia has done it in style. This year is the 20th anniversary of its independence - just the blink of an eye in the life of a nation, but in Estonia's case an entire era.

In those two short decades, the northern-most Baltic state has hurtled headlong towards a democratic, free market economy. It has made huge investment in technology (this is where Skype was invented, and the first country to offer internet voting in parliamentary elections) and embraced the West. In 2004 it joined the EU, this year it is European Capital of Culture.

Something in the air has changed too. Once a sober Soviet city, the capital, Tallinn, has burst out of its shell and is now a vibrant place, stuffed with good food and drink as well as historic charm.

One thing that remains intact is the beauty of Tallinn's Old Town. It is the perfect size to wander around without fear of getting lost - eventually, it seems, all roads lead back to Raekoja Plats, the main square.

Neatly contained within a ring of stone defensive walls and towers, it is divided into upper and lower sections, with stunning views from the high parts across the city to the Gulf of Finland. It wears its history on its skyline, from dizzyingly high Hanseatic steeples to the onion-domed Alexander Nevsky Russian Orthodox Cathedral.

One of the old stone watchtowers, Kiek in de Kok, now contains a museum on the city's early history, including a selection of torture instruments guaranteed to enthral children (though their grandparents might get less pleasure from the endless flights of spiral stairs).

Visitors can also take a guided tour into a section of the Passages Under the Bastions - tunnels beneath the city's fortifications which are part of an underground network dating back to the 1600s, and still largely unexcavated.

Tallinn's Old Town might feel as if it's popped straight out of a fairytale, but the Estonians have resisted the temptation to preserve the place in aspic and it buzzes with activity. The largely-pedestrianised cobbled alleyways are lined with cosy coffee shops, fun bars and restaurants offering some incredible food.

Sometimes this new internationalism bursts out in slightly bewildering manifestations - such as the 'English pub,' Scotland Yard, complete with leather, wing-backed chairs and a live band playing in front of a vast fish tank of piranhas.

But sometimes it gets it just right - if you're after a drink, opt instead for Hell Hunt, a straightforward and friendly boozer in the heart of the Old Town where the locals rub shoulders easily with the ex-pats and the holidaymakers.

For the finest of dining, the Tschaikovsky restaurant at the Hotel Telegraaf could beat the socks off many of its Edinburgh counterparts and at a fraction of the price. A delicate starter of salmon and caviar, for example, comes served under a glass dome filled with woodsmoke, which is lifted with a flourish by your waitress to waft past your face before dining. Sound pretentious? Who cares, it smells wonderful, tastes delicious, and is cheap.

If you prefer something a bit more down to earth, Olde Hansa offers a medieval feast served by wenches in period costume, an idea that sounds like a terrible tourist cliche on paper, but is turned into a fine night out by the hearty amiability of the wenches and the delicious food and drink - where else are you going to try bear, boar and elk sausages washed down with honey beer?

There is, of course, life outside the Old Town. Pirita boasts a long white sandy beach and the Olympic Yachting Centre, built for the 1980 Moscow Olympics.

Across the road is the tree-covered Kadriorg Park, where Kadriorg Palace, built as a summer residence by Tsar Peter I, has been converted into an art museum, close to the newer art gallery, Kumu.

A hop-on-and-off tour bus will take you to both districts, as well as giving you a glimpse of some of the tree-filled suburbs, where traditional wooden houses lurk in various states of repair, looking for all the world as if they're waiting for the three bears to come home for their porridge.

The bus will also take you to the Lauluvaljak, or singing stage, where the country's vast song festivals are held.

Estonians love to sing - in fact, their revolution was known as the Singing Revolution, because they sang so many of their own songs at their protest, and they still gather here every summer to sing and dance together in their thousands.

If anything reveals how much has changed since the days of the Singing Revolution, it is located behind a non-descript door on the 23rd floor of the Viru Hotel.

The Viru was built in 1972, primarily for Finnish tourists, and liberally sprinkled with bugs by the KGB, who installed a listening station in a small room at the top.

There they remained, secretly feeding information back to Moscow, until 1991, when independence dawned and they fled overnight.

Apart from the removal of some papers to an official archive, the room has been left just as it was that night, even down to the cigarette butts in the ashtray.

In January of this year - the same month, coincidentally, that Estonia made another leap towards the west and adopted the Euro - the room was opened as The KGB Museum.

It is a fascinating place, with a lively commentary from a guide who describes to a rapt audience what life was like at the Viru in the bad old days. That she refers to it primarily as an 'absurd' era, rather than a cruel or tyrannous one, just shows how wholeheartedly this little country is determined to put the nightmare of the post-war decades behind it.

The good news for Edinburghers is that the airport has changed beyond recognition too. No longer the grey monolith I arrived at in 1996, with its abandoned, echoing hall marked 'domestic departure' - once the spot from which flights left for other parts of the Soviet Union.

Now it has a large, modern terminal, with direct flights to holiday destinations as diverse as Sharm-el-Sheikh - and Edinburgh, thanks to a new direct Ryanair link.

From the airport, Tallinn city centre is a very short drive away and within a few hours you can reach the rest of the country, from the University town of Tartu to the 'summer capital', the beach resort of Prnu.

And so, what was virtually unthinkable to Western Europeans 20 years ago has come to pass: Estonia has become the perfect spot for a lovely little holiday.

More importantly, it has become the country it always should have been. It is small, beautiful, fun - and still just a little bit different.

Where to stay: Independent travellers can book a night's stay at the four-star Merchant's House Hotel in Tallinn Old Town from 89 euros a room, including taxes, breakfast, use of the sauna and internet. The Merchant's House Hotel, Dunkri 4/6 Tallinn, Estonia Tel+372 6977500, e-mail: info@merchantshousehotel.com

How to get there:

Ryan Air flies from, Edinburgh, with fares from 17.99, plus booking fee.

City break package:

Baltic Holidays (0845- 0705711, www.balticholidays.com) has a three- night b&b stay at the Merchant's House from GBP289 per person, based on two sharing, including return RyanAir flights, 15kg hold luggage, breakfast and private transfers.