The Best Things To Do In Tallinn, Estonia
Tallinn was one those places that I had honestly never really thought about visiting until I saw it pop up on the Ryanair website with cheap flights from London. This review of the best things to do in Tallinn will hopefully point you in the right direction when you decide to pay a visit! If you know a bit about Estonia then you’ve almost definitely heard of its historic capital city. The city itself surprised me in so many ways – starting with its beauty. I’m guessing that a lot of you associate Estonia and Eastern Europe with Russia and a generally ‘cold’ feel about the place (not just the weather). I also had this image in my head before visiting. Well, the exact image I had in my head was one similar to how Bratislava was depicted in the film Eurotrip. If you haven’t seen the film, then Bratislava is made to look like the greyest, most depressing place on Earth.
In Tallinn, this definitely wasn’t the case. Sure, there’s still quite a Russian feel about the place and you see the Cyrillic alphabet splattered all over the place, but this is a city and country growing rapidly. Without even looking at the figures and quality of life in Estonia, it was apparent just by being there that massive development has taken place in the last few years. It’s obvious that the Estonians have been trying to match the modernity of several of its other European Union buddies – they have accomplished this and maybe even surpassed some other nations. We were told that Finland has invested a lot of money into the country and there are features of the city that certainly had a Scandinavian feel.
I couldn’t get over the amount of sleek Audis and BMWs on the road, the efficiency of the trams and public transport, and the fact that the country is still relatively cheap (although not as cheap as it once was). Tourism is definitely a huge focus in Estonia and it is definitely working, even in the depths of winter when I was there, there were tourists all over the place. It’s not reached the heights of other major European cities but it wouldn’t surprise me if it gets there a few years down the line.
With its location being at the north of the Eastern European Baltic peninsula, Tallinn makes a great starting point for a potential trip through the three Baltic States and even beyond that through Eastern Europe. Below is a shot of St Mary’s Cathedral.
A Bit About Tallinn
- It’s Estonia’s largest and capital city but is still relatively small with a population of approximately 450,000 (2018).
- The official language is Estonian which belongs to the Uralic family of languages along with Finnish and Hungarian. A huge amount of the population also speaks fluent Russian.
- Tallinn is the birthplace of everyone’s favourite chat software, Skype!
- It’s a cheap capital city but prices are slowly creeping up, so get there now!
- Russia, Finland and Latvia can all be reached in under 4 hours from Tallinn.
- Tallinn hosted the sailing events for the Moscow Olympics in 1980.
- If you touch the old-fashioned attire worn by the chimney sweepers, you are supposed to get good fortune.
- Tallinn is regarded as the best preserved medieval city in Northern Europe.
- Estonia’s currency used to be the Estonian Kroon but has been the Euro since 2011. See exchange rates here.
- Tallinn and Estonia has one of the world’s highest atheist populations.
- English is at a very high level everywhere so communication shouldn’t be a problem.
- Tallinn was previously occupied by Denmark which explains the meaning of the name “Taani (Danish) Linn (Town)“.
- Wrap up well if you go in winter, temperatures are often well below zero Celsius.
- Tallinn was one of the European Capitals of Culture in 2011.
- The city is listed as one of the most digital in the world with excellent quality wireless internet almost everywhere.
- There’s a labyrinth of passages under the city which were used as bomb shelters in WW2.
- The old town is one of the most quaint and beautiful I have experienced in a European capital city.
Let’s now dive right in and see what you cannot miss if you are planning a few days in Tallinn!
Best Things To Do In Tallinn
1. Wander The Streets And Bastion Passages Of The Old Town
This is first on the list for a very good reason.The history of the old town dates as far back as the 13th century with many of the street and building names the same as hundreds of years ago. The old town has been battle ravaged over the years but is still impressively kept in very good condition.
It’s a part of the city that you simply cannot avoid and it is probably where you’ll be spending the vast majority of your time. As soon as I set foot in the place I absolutely loved it and the feeling only grew every day I spent in Tallinn. It’s magnificently preserved and being there in the winter made it feel almost fairytale-like with a dusting of snow on the cobbled streets.
It’s a UNESCO World Heritage Site and is worth spending a good half-day just wandering around and taking photos of the medieval architecture and gothic style churches. Stop for a coffee in one of the dozens of cafes or a lunchtime beer in one of the traditional bars.
The Bastion Passages were actually closed while I was in the city but they are generally considered as a must-see in Tallinn. This maze of underground passages was used in the 17th and 18th centuries to conceal the movement of soldiers and equipment from foes. The passages can actually only be accessed with a guide and a limited amount of people are permitted so, especially in the summer months, it might be a good idea to book ahead. They tend to start in the Kiek in de Kök (meaning ‘peep into the kitchen’ in Old German) museum.
2. Visit The Levier Cakery
This small and very cute ‘cakery’ was home of probably the best coffee I had in Tallinn. The cakes were also delicious but I think I felt my heart-rate slow down ever so slightly with the amount of sugar consumed.
They had actually run out of macaroons when I was there (probably because it was winter and the place was empty) but its a famous cafe in Tallinn for these tasty little treats. It’s also got a very stylish interior and I can only imagine that it would do twice as well if it were located in the old town. It’s a good excuse to take a wander over to to the Kalamaja District and tie in a couple more attractions while you’re in this part of town.
The biggest downside was that there’s no bathroom which you would think is a given for any cafe or restaurant, particularly one of this reputation. I suppose that nothing is perfect! Savoury meals and breakfasts are also an option here. It’s not a budget choice but the few extra Euros are definitely worth it.
3. Check Out The Medieval Von Krahl Pub
Visiting a medieval bar and restaurant (this one definitely ticks off ‘bar’) is an absolute must on your visit to Tallinn. Located on Rataskaevu in the heart of the old town, you’re bound to be passing it at some point.
It has an array of Estonian beers and dishes, ask one of the friendly waitresses for their recommendation and they’ll be more than happy to help. The beer in the photo above is what was recommended to me and it didn’t disappoint! It’s definitely not a budget traveller’s choice but if you want something traditional then you should drop by for a drink if nothing else.
Von Krahl is actually attached to a theatre and is a very popular place for a different type of crowd and different music. The medieval-like interior is worth a few photos and even if you’re just coming in for a drink then I recommend taking a proper look around the place. Reggae, for example, is a popular weekend music choice. When there’s a band playing you’ll have to pay a small entrance fee. Although there is plenty of meat on the menu, the vegetarian dishes here are also very popular.
4. Eat Traditional Cuisine In A Medieval Atmosphere
Well, let’s start off by talking a bit about Estonian cuisine and what it consists of exactly. You may think of dumplings and heavy carbohydrate-based foods when you think of Estonian cuisine and, while this is a part of it, there’s a lot more variety than you may think.
Over 50% of the country is forest and a huge chunk of the rest is farmland. For this reason, a lot of the food is seasonal with plenty of berries in the summer months and meat being a huge part of the national diet. Stews, casseroles and roast pork are massively popular in the winter months. There is also plenty of fish coming from the Baltic coast. Look out for smoked fish and pickled herring in a tin.
The medieval restaurant that you absolutely must experience is Kolmaas Drakon. Situated underneath the arches of the old town hall, this place is a delight. The food is decent but the highlights are the customs of the staff and how you are transported hundreds of years back in time as soon as you enter the door. The local staff have certainly learnt medieval English and here nothing costs euros, it’s ‘units of monies’. It’s dark inside and everything, from the cutlery to the bathroom, is medieval style. Signs like the one in the photo above are all over the place. If you can fish a pickle out of the barrel you’ll get it for free and you absolutely must try the elk soup (see below). The ox and boar sausages are also worth a taste!
Everything is self-service – place your order at the counter and take it over to the small, wooden benches by yourself. If you’re going to have a beer then go for the barrel with a dash of honey! Talking about real money now, the prices are good especially considering that it’s on the main square. Check out the official website here to get a taste of the medieval language and what’s available on the menu.
5. Go To The Telliskivi Loomelinnak (Creative City)
Located in the hipster Kalamaja District, the Creative City is definitely worth a visit if you fancy seeing something slightly less medieval and more modern on your Tallinn visit. It’s actually an old industrial complex which has been completely done up and made into a bustling centre full of trendy cafes, restaurants, food stalls, organic products, private workspaces and much more.
It’s also a prime location for a large variety of cultural events throughout the year and every Saturday there’s a flea market. Many of the younger locals consider this the ‘in’ place to go with the best bars and night scene, not just in the Creative Centre but in the surrounding area of Kalamaja. Located about a 10-minute walk from the old town, right next to Balti Railway Station, it doesn’t take much time to get to and can be a great way to spend an afternoon once you’re done with the historical side of Tallinn.
6. Head Up Toompea Hill To The Kohtuotsa Viewing Platform
Where would any useful city review be without a viewpoint included? This one is no different and when you’re in the old town you should take the time to head up the Toompea Hill. Bear in mind that Estonia is an extremely flat country (the highest point is only 318 metres above sea level) and the ‘hill’ is only about 30 metres higher than the surrounding area. The history of the hill has a lot to do with the old rulers of Estonia and you can learn much more about this on the free walking tour (see number 10). Nowadays, it’s home to the parliament of Tallinn.
The platform is on the north side of the hill and offers great views of the red-roofed old town and its several medieval buildings. The Gulf of Finland can be seen in the backdrop as well as the port. Whatever the time of year and the weather, you’ll get cracking views from the platform and you’ll barely notice the hike up.
7. Get Some Photos At Raekoja Plats (Town Hall Square)
Most major European cities have some kind of focal point and it’s not uncommon that this a big square where the town hall is located. Tallinn is no different and Raekoja Plats is a great start and finish point from the narrow cobbled streets of Tallin’s medieval old town.
The town hall itself is actually so big that it was difficult to get a photo with the whole building in it! There’s a Christmas tree display every year and for several months there’s regularly a market and lots of different stalls selling typical souvenirs. In summer the edges of the square are filled up with cafe and restaurant tables. When we were there the square was eerily empty because it was the middle of winter with temperatures well below freezing.
It is estimated that the town hall was built in the early 14th century and that the Christmas tree display has been ongoing since the early 15th century which, if true, is pretty impressive! If you’re visiting in spring then you might be lucky to catch the Old Town Days festival which is like a medieval carnival. This is usually towards the end of May but times vary so be sure to check it beforehand!
8. Visit The St Alexander Nevsky Cathedral
If you have been to Bulgaria then seeing the name ‘Alexander Nevsky Cathedral’ might make Sofia’s iconic building spring to mind. There also used to be an Alexander Nevsky Cathedral in Warsaw before it was demolished.
‘Who was this guy‘ You ask?
In short, he was a military leader made famous for his victory over the Swedes in the 13th century. He was known for his bravery and defence of Orthodoxy which probably explains why several cathedrals have been built with his name.
In Tallinn, this is a beautiful Orthodox Church which is well worth a few photos. Located on Toompea hill, you can go inside (as long as you keep quiet) and admire the stunning mosaic design. Another interesting fact is that one of the eleven bells weighs a staggering 15 tons.
9. Spend Some Time In The Estonian History Museum
I guess you’re getting the feeling that Tallinn is a very historical city. It really is and it would be a proper shame if you were to visit this beautiful place and not get to grips with some of its past. Probably the easiest and most relaxed place you can do this is in the Estonian History Museum.
Located in the Great Guild Hall, the entry fee is approximately 6 Euros and it takes slightly more than an hour to see everything. There’s an array of items on display with informative placards which help to give you a real understanding of the country’s foundations. The museum is well laid out with different topics in each of the rooms. They have also incorporated a few interactive features which make the small fee well worth it. Below is a picture in the war and weapons room.
I personally thought that this was a brilliant, stress-free way to learn a bit more about Estonian culture and its history. The only downside for me was the rather unhelpful woman at the desk who, when I asked her about something on the map, gave me a scolding and basically told me to look a bit harder. There was a fair bit of this in Estonia so just take it in your stride and smile!
10. Take A Free Walking Tour
I’m sure the majority of you are familiar with the good old free walking tours which have really exploded in the vast majority of Europe’s major cities. It’s a fantastic way to see the city’s highlights and get an intensive course on the city’s history, all in the space of a couple of hours.
The best bit about it all? It’s free.
Well, kind of, a tip is expected but by no means mandatory (in my experience they are almost always worth quite a decent tip).
The Tallinn free walking tour starts every day from just outside the tourist information centre (picture above). During the summer months (May – September) the tour is at 10:00, 12:00 and 14:00 and for the rest of the year it’s just at 12:00. Our guide was a sprite and bubbly blond-haired girl who made every second of the tour enjoyable despite the horrifically cold winter weather.
The tour includes a few things already on this list: you’ll visit some of Tallin’s churches, go to the viewing platform on Toompea hill, check out the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral, go to the Freedom Square and get the interesting history on the victory column, as well as many more intriguing things. I recommend that you do the walking tour early in your visit to Tallinn giving you the chance to get your bearings and ask the guide anything else you want to know about or see in the city.
11. Go On A KGB Tour
This is something that doesn’t spring up on many of the ‘essential things to do in Tallinn’ lists but I think that it should. Just by walking around Tallinn there is kind of an old Russian feel to the place and the KGB Tour gives you the chance to learn a lot more about this.
The tour takes place in the Hotel Viru and lasts a couple of hours. The majority of it focuses on the hotel in the seventies during the communist ruling of the Soviet Union. Stories are told of the two completely different lives led by the Soviets and those suffering at their hands. It also emphasises how important the Hotel Viru really was those days and what it was mainly used for.
At the time of writing the tours costs 11 Euros per person and in my opinion, it was well worth this fee. It’s a great history lesson if you don’t know much about the KGB and a real eye-opener with some of the stories. Click here to check out the tour on Tripadvisor and to see what others said about it.
What Didn’t Make The List
There are several other attractions in Tallinn which didn’t make this list mainly because we simply didn’t have the time to visit them! We spent three nights and four days in the city which still wasn’t enough to see absolutely everything.
Most cities have parks and the decision was to focus on the city’s history and old town rather than go to a park (especially because it was the middle of winter). The park does look beautiful, however, and it’s definitely a place I would visit if I were in Tallinn during the summer.
Kumu Art Museum
For me, there are only so many museums I can visit in a short period of time. Personally, the KGB Museum and Estonian History Museum were enough for three nights in the city. One that’s recommended by many, especially if you’re a fan of art, is the Kumu Art Museum.
Tallinn TV Tower
This is Estonia’s tallest building and supposedly gives fantastic, panoramic views of Tallinn. It’s also an interesting Estonian culture centre with features such as a TV Studio, restaurant, glass floor and a gift shop. It’s located a short bus ride away from the old town.
Seaplane Harbour (Maritime Museum)
Yes, you got it, another museum! This time it’s a maritime museum which is supposed to be a great family day out. It’s got an array of real ships and submarines with proper explanations and interactive features. Again, I decided to focus more on Estonian history and culture than go to a maritime museum but you may find this very interesting!
Day trip To Helsinki
Believe it or not, you can actually take a day trip to Finland from Tallinn. There are several ferries every day and it’s only a couple of hours. I thought it would be best to see Helsinki on its own on a separate trip rather than try and rush it all into one day.
Getting To Tallinn
There are plenty of flights to Tallinn from different cities in the UK and from several of Europe’s major cities. The most popular airlines operating flights to Tallinn from the UK are by far Easyjet and Ryanair. If you get the flights in advance they can be extremely cheap (especially if you just take hand luggage) and this makes visiting Tallinn a great budget option. I always recommend searching and finding the best flight deals on Skyscanner but you can also have a look at the airlines’ own websites.
Tallinn airport is small, modern and very efficient. The tram runs straight to its door and upon arrival to Tallinn be sure to buy a green Uhiskaart for a couple of Euros and top-up to use on the city’s public transport. You can get this at the newsagent’s type shop in the airport. The good thing about the card is that at the end of your stay if you take it back to the same kiosk they will refund you the two Euros and whatever balance is remaining.
Tallinn is also easily accessible by bus from the south, buses run several times a day from Riga, Latvia. You can also make it a day trip from Finland if you are spending some time in Helsinki by hopping on the ferry. Getting around Estonia is relatively easy and cheap by bus, you can also rent a car in Tallinn and see most of the country in a few days.
Accommodation In Tallinn
Accommodation in Tallinn really does vary depending on what it is you’re looking for. There are plenty of options for budget travellers and likewise if you’re looking for something slightly more luxurious.
If you’re looking for a cheaper option then you should definitely check out the Viru Backpackers Hostel.
Another option that you might want to consider is Airbnb. We rented an apartment through Airbnb for the three nights in Tallinn and the prices were quite unbelievable when you take into account the quality on offer. It worked out at approximately £20 ($2.8) per person per night for an entire apartment (for two people). If you’re a couple travelling or a few friends then you should definitely check this out, cheap and great quality apartments in Tallinn.
When To Go
We were in Tallinn during winter and the city is beautiful at this time of year. The only real problem is the freezing temperatures but if you can cope with this then it’s a great time of year to visit. There are beautiful Christmas markets in December and definitely has fewer tourists. Summer is obviously the most popular time for visiting with temperatures in the mid-twenties Celsius. There are plenty of parks, beaches nearby and the national park is meant to have some beautiful, enchanting walks which would be ideal for the summer.
As always, this post is purely based on my experience and opinions of Tallinn. The likelihood is that if you’re visiting Estonia then you’ll spend the vast majority, if not all, of your time in the city. I recommend staying three nights minimum in Tallinn to see the majority of the highlights at a relaxed pace. If you do fancy spending some time outside of Tallinn then you should consider the Laheema National Park which has an array of fauna and wildlife. You can also head to Narva on the Russian border, or to Tartu for a more studenty atmosphere.
As you can see from the photo, Tallinn is beautiful to explore at night. It’s an incredibly safe place and almost everywhere is accessible by foot. I found it a great few days to keep active by walking everywhere to take in the majority of the sights. If you are feeling lazy then you can actually purchase a Tallinn pass which is basically a hop-on/hop-off tram and bus card.
When visiting Tallinn, I recommend that you immerse yourself in the history of this small country as much as possible and try not to be put off by the seemingly curt and impolite locals. This is just on the surface and if you actually try and speak to them, the locals are really quite pleasant.
Thanks a lot for reading and I really hope that this review of the best things to do in Tallinn has been useful. If you have any thoughts or anything that you’d like to add then please write in the comments box below. 🙂