Spend the night | Monocle
/

thumbnail text

Natalie Mets knew that it was only a matter of time before she became a politician. But in the end it happened “accidentally”, she says. For more than a decade, she worked in culture and music management in and around Tallinn. Mets had spoken for years about how the Estonian capital needed its own night mayor; the local government, she believed, was indifferent to the city’s nightlife and didn’t appreciate its economic and cultural benefits. Then one evening, during Tallinn Music Week, a festival-cum-industry-fair, she ended up at a party with the country’s former president Toomas Hendrik Ilves. They were still talking when the hosts had gone to bed. “He was really eagerly saying that I had to join the Social Democratic Party,” says Mets. So she did. And when the party entered Tallinn’s local government coalition in 2021, she was appointed to her dream job.

Tallinn is relatively small, with a population of less than 500,000, but it punches above its weight when it comes to nightlife. Hall, its flagship techno club, hosts not only local DJs but the best from around the world, including many who usually play at Berlin behemoths Berghain and Tresor. The likes of German DJ Marcel Dettmann and Detroit collective Underground Resistance are attracted to Hall, founder Elena Natale explains, because it’s one of the few places left in the world with an authentically “diy” ethos. Tallinn’s size has encouraged the formation of a friendly, tight-knit scene. “Whenever you go into a nightlife place, it’s only a matter of minutes before you meet the owner,” Mets tells monocle. “It all just feels like an afterparty at someone’s apartment.” (An afterparty where you might meet a former president.) “It feels like a city where you can know your neighbours,” says Jirí Mališ, a Czech transplant who moved to Tallinn in 2020 and is now assistant manager at speakeasy-style bar Whisper Sister.

The city’s nightlife – more intimate than in western European club hotspots such as Berlin and Amsterdam, and still cheaper – is attractive to foreigners too, whether they’re long-term expats or simply tourists in town for a long weekend of dancing. Tallinn is well served by its airport, which flies direct to more than 50 destinations. And currently under construction is Rail Baltica, a high-speed rail line linking the Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania with Poland. Due to partially open in 2028, it will invigorate travel to and from the Baltics – and allow potential clubbers from abroad to get home without having to lug their sore heads and aching limbs through airport security.

_br58159.jpg
Paavli Kultuurivabrik founder Roman Demtšenko
_br50886.jpg
Nighttime advisor Natalie Mets
_br51011-enhanced-nr.jpg
_br69084-enhanced-nr.jpg

Mets’ appointment came as Tallinn faced a challenge: how to keep world-class nightlife going through tough economic times. Between 2011 and 2021, Tallinn’s population grew by 11.3 per cent. The city led Estonia’s tech-fuelled economic miracle – the country is now home to more billion-dollar technology “unicorns” per capita than any other European nation. The branding of one of them, the ride-sharing firm Bolt, adorns the sides of many of the cars roaming the capital. This all helped Estonian real incomes to grow by 44.8 per cent, the third-highest level in the oecd, from 2007 to 2021. Tallinn became a destination for young go-getters from the rest of Estonia and beyond – in 2020 the country even introduced a digital nomad visa, allowing anyone in the world who earns more than a certain amount a month (currently €4,500) to live and work remotely there for up to a year. All those go-getters wanted places to party. Nightlife figures talk of a golden era beginning around 2015. Roman Demtšenko, a veteran live-music promoter, says that those years heralded “a revolution in the cultural scene”. Natale, who set up Hall in 2017, says that the city’s start-up mentality “was very good for us”.

But the years since the pandemic have been trickier. Estonia’s geographical position and its dependence on food and fuel imports mean that it was badly affected by the economic shockwaves from Russian’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine. Inflation hit 19.5 per cent in 2022, while the recession that started the same year isn’t forecast to end until 2025. Many nightlife venues haven’t survived this rocky period. Sveta, a much-loved club co-owned by Demtšenko, shut at the end of last year, in part due to financial pressures. It has been “one crisis after the other”, says Natale. The city is hardly unique in this regard: night-time economies around the world have been badly hit by the pandemic and more recent cost-of-living pressures.

Nearly three years since her appointment, Mets’ work on precisely this issue has attracted the attention of Urbact, an EU-funded urbanism institution, which included Tallinn in a recent survey of the bloc’s nighttime economies. The city is “a great laboratory for innovation”, says Simone d’Antonio, the study’s author. “It is doing a lot of things that can set an example, not only for the other Baltic capitals but also for other medium-sized cities in Europe.” Mets spent her first six months in office “explaining [within] the city government itself why [her] position is needed” – in 2022, for example, Tallinn’s nightlife-related sectors employed 14,792 people and generated a taxable turnover of €738m. One early priority was a fund offering grants of up to €30,000 a year to live-music venues. Tallinn also used to be the only EU capital without any public transport running through the night but, after a successful 2023 pilot scheme, it now has a network of weekend night buses. In the spring sunshine, the Estonian capital is picturesque, even sleepy. Modern buildings are broken up by streets of traditional wooden houses that give some neighbourhoods a rural feel. Tourists sit in the cobbled streets of the medieval Old Town nursing tall, gleaming glasses of lager. But the city stirs to life when the sun goes down, especially in its northern quarter. Telliskivi Creative City, just northeast of the Old Town, has led the way: since 2007 a cluster of nightlife and cultural destinations has been built up in a complex of former industrial buildings.

At Fono, a cosy bar in the area, monocle meets Mark and Villiam, two 27-year-old native Tallinners. Mark, a software engineer at payments company Wise, says that the spot “is as fresh as you can get”: in May, Fono opened a dance floor, Fonoteek, in the adjoining space. Further north is Paavli Kultuurivabrik (“culture factory”), a venue set up in June 2023 by Demtšenko. It has already been admitted to Liveurope, an EU-backed association of 24 of the continent’s best concert venues. For Demtšenko, economic issues were an opportunity as well as a challenge: Paavli Kultuurivabrik occupies a former fish cannery, which he snapped up on a 10-year contract after the previous tenant, a firm that exported to Ukraine and Russia, went bankrupt after the 2022 invasion. Since then the site has hosted everything from Swedish punk to poetry readings.

_br59806-enhanced-nr.jpg
_br59939-enhanced-nr_1.jpg
On the dance floor at Fonoteek
_br60488-enhanced-nr.jpg
DJ keeping the crowd moving
_br60240-enhanced-nr.jpg

When monocle visits Paavli Kultuurivabrik’s outdoor space – a riot of flowering trees and red-and-yellow tulips – Demtšenko gestures over the fence at the building projects that surround the venue on almost every side. Northern Tallinn is following the classic development arc: first the cultural venues move in, attracted by cheap rents, then come residential blocks. Hall occupies a hulking industrial building that used to serve as a clubhouse for dock workers next to Port Noblessner on the Gulf of Tallinn, where the city meets the Baltic Sea. Since the club opened, the port has filled up with smart modern apartments.

Mets is currently working on measures to stop venues being shut down when residents of newly built apartments complain about noise. Not that the relationship between development and cutting-edge culture is always negative. Ivo Arro, an architect in the city government’s spatial planning and design department, points out that the developers near Hall used the area’s cultural amenities as a selling point. “Estonian people, their taste has evolved,” he says. “They’ve travelled more, seen the world more – new generations, they have different ideas of what they want in the city.”

Tallinn’s nightlife also has a unique political dimension. Owing to the country formerly being part of the Russian empire and the Soviet Union, about a third of the city’s population is ethnically Russian. If you clamber into a Bolt, there’s a good chance that the driver will have their app set up in Cyrillic. These Russian-speakers tend to live parallel lives to the Estonian majority; most don’t even speak Estonian. But club culture can transcend the language barrier. Mets recently wrote a master’s thesis on the topic; her research found that nightlife “is perhaps one of the best ways to integrate Russian- and Estonian-speaking youth”. Demtšenko knows this first-hand: he is ethnically Russian and became fluent in Estonian only when he started getting involved in Tallinn’s music scene. The government throws “shitloads of money” at integration, he says, but nothing is as effective as people hanging out and bonding over music.

Giving temporary visitors a similarly warm welcome is one way Tallinn’s nightlife scene plans to ride out the current economic winter. Mets wants the city to become a destination for “high-quality tourists” who’ll party at the weekend but also go to museums and restaurants. Hall is diversifying its programme beyond weekend club nights by hosting concerts by the likes of the Estonian Symphony Orchestra and opening a restaurant to the public. “The way you survive is to offer a space for everything,” says Micaela Saraceno, Natale’s daughter, who DJs at the club. 

On the Friday night when monocle is in town, Hall’s main room is filled with thumping techno and strobe lights. The following afternoon is a touch more relaxed: the team are setting up tables for a staff dinner on the leafy terrace, which doubles as the smoking area. Someone’s dog and someone’s toddler gambol about as trays of freshly baked focaccia are produced. It might not be typical Baltic fare but Natale is half-Italian, so good food is non-negotiable. Among those helping are Micaela and her sister, Alessia, a duty manager at Hall. The club is a family business. “It’s all very logical and natural.” Natale, who presides over Hall’s literal and metaphorical family as an affable matriarch, has even started to see the children of regulars coming to nights. “It’s a village here,” she says. “A dancing village.” — L

Europe’s nightlife hotspots 

1. Braga: Portugal’s third-largest city has seen its tourism business increase fivefold over the past decade. Since being named European Youth Capital in 2012, it has invested in venues that stay open into the night. A 24-hour nursery serving university and hospital employees provides for the night economy’s prosaic needs. 

2. Málaga: The southern Spanish city recently banned the sale and consumption of alcohol in public spaces between 22.00 and 08.00, drawing people back into bars and discouraging irresponsible drinking. Since 2019 the city has organised activities between 22.00 and 02.30 on Fridays and Saturdays for local youth, including museum visits. 

3. Paris: The French capital boasts more than 15,000 bars and restaurants, and more than 600 venues that stay open later than 02.00. Since 2014 its nightlife has been managed by a municipal night council, whose policies have included clamping down on non-reusable plastics in venues and campaigning for better understanding of sexual consent at clubs and festivals.

Share on:

X

Facebook

LinkedIn

LINE

Email

Go back: Contents
Next:

Inventory & Expo: Where to go, buy and eat

/

sign in to monocle

new to monocle?

Subscriptions start from £120.

Subscribe now

Loading...

/

15

15

Live
Monocle Radio

00:0001:00

  • Monocle Weekends