Tallinn, the capital of Estonia, is rarely mentioned in „Top 10” places to visit in Europe. First of all – it’s small comparing to other European capitals. Second – the Estonian climate is a little cold and windy, and third – it is situated in far Northeast part of Eastern Europe, while most of the tourists visiting Central and Eastern Europe are heading in rather different direction – Prague. So what is so unique about Tallinn and why I want you to give it a try?
Tallinn is different. It’s not Barcelona, it’s not Berlin, Paris or London where I would like to spend for example Christmas, if I was ever to spend it away from home. It’s Tallinn with its small, narrow street, medieval, Hanseatic architecture and the old town so small that you can see almost everything in one day. Tallinn is a perfect city break if you want to escape from everything you got used to in Western, touristic capitals.
Was I ready for Tallinn that when I booked my first flight to Estonia? No way, not at all. With a friend, with whom I used to go for a city breaks to places like Vienna, we booked five nights in Tallinn just because it sounded exotic (and because non of our friend have been there). With no deep research, we just bought some guidebooks, read some history and took our flight.
First of all, we didn’t expect the old town to be so small! We dropped our luggage at a hostel and went out for some orientation. We managed to run through the old town in 30 minutes and reached the coastline. And then, the fist crisis came: „What? That was it? Only this?” I was awfully disappointed. My friend, as she admitted some time later, was doing her best to hold back tears, worried „what the hell are we going to do here for five days!?„. We felt we were stuck. No one spoke a word and we came back to our hostel in a complete silence.
The second day was much better. Simply speaking – there was nothing wrong with Tallinn. It was our expectations that didn’t match the reality. Because Tallinn is not about sightseeing. Its about spending time. Something I didn’t really know much about, and something I needed to learn as soon as possible. It was a hard lesson for both of us – two young, ambitious workaholics living a hectic life. But we managed! What’s more, now we laugh about our panicking on the first day of the trip 😉
5 ways to spend quality time in Tallinn:
The old town and the medieval Tallinn
Spending quality time in Tallinn is about the medieval spirit of this Hanseatic place and you need time to feel it. Although all medieval, Hanseatic cities have similar architecture, there’s something special about Tallinn – the history here is kept alive. Be prepared to see many fancy dressed people. I’m not sure about the 'proper’ medieval dress code, but such colorful long dresses always look great. And about the code (as long as you’re not a historian) – who cares? 🙂 Where’s music, there’s dancing!
Tallinn is a place where you can easily find an unusual mosaic of different styles – Gothic and Baroque, knight castles and monasteries, heavily ornamented orthodox sanctuaries and simple constructions from the Medieval Age coexisting together in absolute harmony.
Old Tallinn’s Upper and Lower Town seen from the bell tower of St. Olav’s Church. Far in the middle – Alexander Nevsky Cathedral (really worth visiting! – remember to cover your hair, girl). On the right – Dome Church. Which one is higher? Think of the history of Estonia and the ethnic groups who live here.
View on the old town and the St. Olav’s Church towering over the red roofs. Because of its height (124 meters) it was hit by lightning already eight times (resulting in fire in several cases). It’s a great viewing spot for the whole city center. Just don’t go there during the thunder, please…
Saint Catherine Passage (on the left below) is considered to be one of the most romantic streets of the old town of Tallinn. There are many workshops and shops of craftsmen waiting for you to be discovered.
Cozy cafes and restaurants
Tallinn is a place where delicious and unique food can be found on every corner. Dozens of restaurants are waiting for you in sometimes very unexpected places. Here, on the top of the old town walls you will find a nice, cozy place to hide from the wind. You can drink something warm (or strong), or strong & warm at the same time. But be careful – sooner or later you need to get down, and after a few drinks this huge, medieval stairs do not look as friendly as at the beginning 😉
My number one: Street vendors selling sweet, roasted almonds with honey, cinnamon and other spices. Yummy!
Rocca al Mare – folk open air museum
Similarly to the musical instrument museums, any folk open air museum is a must-see place for me. Rocca al Mare was not an exception. The area of this open air folk museum is quite big and you can spend here a lot of time, especially on warm, sunny days. It’s a perfect destination for solo travelers as well as families with children. And when you get hungry, you can always grab some nice meal in the local tavern.
Read more about my trip to Rocca al Mare.
Rocca al Mare Open Air Museum is the place where you can relax well and eat well.
Pirita, the Soviet Olympic village
Pirita is a large and green district on the East side of the city – a Tallinn’s destination for summer fun. It’s a popular spot for active outdoor sports like jogging and water sports (especially yachting). The strong sports traditions of Pirita are at least 25 years old – in 1980 a sailing regatta of the Moscow Olympic Games was held in Pirita, there was also a Soviet Olympic village.
For those less active, there’s a Tallinn Botanic Garden located on the right bank of the Pirita Rive, as well as a very romantic ruins of the Pirita Convent – a used-to-be monastery for both monks and nuns dedicated to St. Brigitta.
If you wish to spend more time in Estonia, there are also other interesting places you should visit.
Trip across the Baltic Sea
Taking a one day ferry trip from Tallinn is a popular attraction. Most trendy destinations are Helsinki in Finland and Saint Petersburg in Russia. If you decide to go by ferry to Helsinki without staying overnight, you can take a ferry in the early morning and come back the same day on one of the last ones. This is what I did. There’s also another option – up to three days trip to St Petersburg. Of course for St Peter you need more than one day, but because taking a ferry you can stay in the city up to three days without paying for Russian visa. There are some special regulations allowing tourist to visit St Petersburg on a short stay when coming by the sea. Just remember, if you decide to go to Russia, check the timetable in advance, because ferries depart only a few days a week. We just missed ours…
Read more about the Tallinn – Helsinki journey across the Baltic Sea on my friend’s blog.
Tallinn – Practical Information
- When heading to Tallinn in late Spring or early Autumn, don’t forget your hat, scarf and gloves.
- It’s windy in Tallinn. Think of that when packing your suitcase.
- Don’t worry about WiFi. It’s Estonia. WiFi is almost as common as the air!
- The prices in Tallinn, especially in the old town, are not so budget friendly. Estonian currency is Euro.
- I recommend you spending in Tallinn 3-4 days:
1st & 2nd day – the old town, Pirita and souvenir shopping,
3rd day – Rocca al Mare Open Air Museum,
4th day – one day trip by ferry to Helsinki (or three days trip to St Petersburg).
Popular souvenirs from Tallinn are handmade scarfs, mittens & fancy, long hats, but also handmade sweets, chocolates and of course famous liquor „Vana Tallinn” (if you’re not sure if you need one, follow my advice and buy two. Or three. Try it and be sure it was a really good decision!) The only thing I regret not trying in Estonia is a Rhubarb wine. I was so fascinated by the taste of local ciders so much I forgot to buy a bottle of wine…
Will I go to Tallinn again? Definitely!
I wonder how lovely Christmas markets must be in there!
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