Tallinn is without a doubt one of the most underrated destinations in Europe. Not many capital cities are as picturesque and as enjoyable as this little pearl and Tallinn should therefore definitely feature on your next European adventure. Here are some suggestions on what to do in Tallinn.
History and overview:
Tallinn’s origins date back to the 11th century when the first wooden castle was built on the hill Toompea. Since then, Tallinn has been part of the kingdoms of Denmark and Sweden as well as the Russian Empire before becoming the capital of the Republic of Estonia from 1918 to 1940. After that, Estonia was incorporated into the Soviet Union and thereby into the communist bloc.
Estonia regained independence in 1991 and joined the European Union in 2004. In 2011, Estonia adopted the the Euro as its currency.
All those historical periods have influenced and shaped the architecture and urban structure of the city as well as the mentality of the locals. Estonian is one of the oldest languages in Europe, it is close to nothing apart from Finnish and both languages are completely unintelligible. Most Estonians have an excellent command of English though, this is usually not the case for the large Russian community in Tallinn. All in all, communication is usually not an issue neither with Estonians nor with Russians.
Estonia is a technology crazy country, free wifi is extremely widespread and every Estonian will remind you of the fact that an Estonian invented Skype, congratulations 😉
Estonia considers itself a Nordic country because of its close ties to Finland even though their flat tax system and history underlines the differences between them and the other Nordic nations.
The best area to stay is in and around the Old Town where most of the city’s attractions are located. Tallinn is very walkable which means that you can easily choose a hotel right outside the main medieval core since it won’t be a very long walk.
Sokos Hotel Viru: the first ‘intourist‘ hotel that allowed tourists in during Soviet times. The history and atmosphere of this redeveloped Soviet institution make this an authentic place to stay with all the new era facilities. As a bonus, the KGB museum on the last floor will give you the opportunity to learn about Soviet tourism and how the rooms were bugged to find potential spies.
Hotel St Barbara: a nice little mid range hotel that has everything you need for avery reasonable prices. The rooms are nicely decorated and the hotel also has a small German restaurant.
Old town hostel Alur: The budget option for solo travellers. Its great location and its kind and helpful staff make this one of the best hostesl in Tallinn.
Cultural offer and activities :
Tallinn has numerous cultural sights a traveller should see, located mainly in and around the Old Town.
Old Town: in itself a sight, a medieval masterpiece, one of the most beautiful old towns in Europe, complete with several fortification complexes and churches.
Bastion Passages: (Komandandi tee 2) The Bastion Passages are mysterious corridors built in the 17th and 18th century between the fortifications which were aimed at hiding the soldiers’ movements. The passages are today lined with pleasant green spaces.
KGB Museum on the last floor of Viru Hotel: (Viru väljak 4) a guided tour definitely worth doing, a chance to see how the KGB worked and recorded hotel guests during Soviet times. The tour can be booked on-site and is available in multiple languages. It is not possible to ascend to the old KGB headquarters without a guide.
Seaplane Harbour Museum (Lennusadam): (Vesilennuki 6) An enormous museum exhibiting ships, weapons and other military vehicles, you can simulate flying an old fighter plane, board an original Soviet submarine and much more. One of the most surprising places in Tallinn, a fantastic museum that can truly compete with anything in Western Europe and that easily beats most other maritime/military museums which makes it an obligatory addition to your culture bucket list.
Contemporary Art museum of Estonia (KUMU): (A. Weizenbergi 34) Near the Presidential Palace, well worth a visit for art lovers. the KUMU displays Estonian and international art and also promotes alternative local artists.
Toompea Hill: the limestone hill on which St. Mary’s Cathedral is located, a favourable viewpoint for photographers and travellers equally. On the northern side of the hill, you will find Kohtuotsa viewing platform, one of the best viewpoints of the city.
Kadriork Park and Presidential Palace: (Harju maakond, Kesklinna linnaosa) Easily the most impressive park in the Baltics. Built in the 18th century on the orders of Tsar Peter 1st, the park features design elements from several architectural eras and styles in addition to multiple landmarks and monuments. The Park is close to the aforementioned KUMU and contains the beautiful Presidential Palace.
St Olaf’s Church: (Lai 50) The largest medieval structure in Tallinn and a stunning example of ancient architecture. First mentioned in 1267, lightning is known to have struck the tower ten times, three of which led to wide-ranging fires.
Wine and dine:
Estonian cuisine is much like other Baltic cuisines hearty and heavy. In addition to the various meat and potato-based dishes, you can also eat excellent fish in the Estonian capital. In terms of drinks, Estonia produces great beer and traditional strong liquor. Here are some suggestions.
Olde Hansa: (Vana Turg 1) A great traditional restaurant in the heart of the Old Town where you can try all the local dishes and a wide variety of local beers in a typical medieval tavern atmosphere.
Rataskaevu 16: (Address is the name) This small and very cosy restaurant serves all the traditional local food but also trendy modern creations in a comfortable yet elegant ambiente with wooden chairs and brick walls. Rataskaevu is a very popular restaurant among locals and travellers alike and it is therefore best to book a table in advance.
Von Krahli Aed: (Rataskaevu, 8) In the same street as our previous pick, Von Krahli Aed is another mouthwatering local restaurant where you can savour Estonian stews and other delicacies for very reasonable prices.
III Draakon: (Raekoja plats 1) Located on the other side of the building containing Olde Hansa, III Draakon offers several meat-based delicacies such as elk meat in a very cosy medieval setting. If you liked Olde Hansa, you will love this one even more.
Tallinn’s nightlife has flourished in recent years with drink tourism being a problem but far less than in Riga. You will find a wide variety of bars and clubs for every taste in the Old Town. Here are a few spots for nights owls and party animals.
Mad Murphy’s Pub: (Mündi 2) a good place where Estonians only make up a small proportion of the customers but nice to enjoy a pint in a cosy atmosphere. The meeting point for Tallinn’s expat population right in the heart of the Old Town.
Hell Hunt Bar: (Pikk 39) a nice bar to taste craft beers and meet some locals. The bar resembles a medieval tavern with a modern/rock touch to it.
Most Puudel Bar: (Müürivahe 20) FWB’s favourite bar in Tallinn, definitely worth a visit, it also features a disco in the basement and has an excellent selection of local and international beers and loong drinks.
Karja Kelder: (Väike-Karja 1) A medieval basement with lots of wooden tables and a great food and beer selection. The perfect place to have a drink in a traditional setting with a mixed clientele of locals and tourists
Hollywood Club: (Vana-Posti 8) a sizeable club which attracts a young, hip crowd, definitely recommendable for millenials and everyone who likes a more wild style of partying in a large setting with a great atmosphere and well-priced drinks.
Venus Club (Vana-Viru 14) (not a stripclub): the locals’ favourite, a perfect club to party in style with the locals. This is the more high-end equivalent to Hollywood. The crowd is much older and the prices are higher but the club is certainly a great place to party in Tallinn.
Final tips and verdict:
Tallinn is a jewel of a city. Its fairy-tale like medieval Old Town, its beautiful green spaces and its highly intriguing cultural institutions make it one of the most underrated cities in Europe. No doubt Tallinn will get more touristy in the future which is why NOW is the time to visit this lovely city.
As a comparison, Tallinn is smaller but has a lot more to offer than Helsinki, which can be reached on a 2h boat trip. Tallinn is in our opinion the most charming and most beautiful of the 3 Baltic capitals and therefore highly recommendable.
The Old Town and the city centre are easily walkable while taxis are cheap and thereby a good option to get further out. The Estonian capital also has an excellent tram system which covers large parts of the city and certainly adds to its high liveability.