Tallinn is arguably THE most beautiful city in the Baltic States. The Estonian capital has seen a boom in tourism over the past decade drawn to the charm of where the old-meets-new. Interested? Then find out what to do in Tallin from the pretty historical cobbled streets to the darker Soviet past.
The city is still rich in medieval charm, the area inside the Old City Walls has been lovingly restored. In contrast, the surrounding areas feature both ultra-modern and hipster districts. You can also feel the influence of Scandinavia, (Helsinki is a quick ferry ride away) in the stylish interior décor of hotels, cafes and restaurants as well as various design shops popping up around the city.
In 1997 the Old Town of Tallinn became a UNESCO World Heritage Site and it’s clear to see why.
I’d initially only planned to spend a couple of days here, but I loved the city so much that I ended up staying 4 days to see as many of the best sights in Tallinn as possible. So, wondering what to do in Tallinn? Or more to the point, where to start? Then read on.
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Where is Tallinn?
Three countries make up the Baltic States; Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. Estonia is the most northern of these. Around 1/3 of the population of Estonia live in and around Tallinn, that’s just over 466k inhabitants (data source, United Nations, 2017).
When is the best time to visit Tallinn?
You can visit Tallinn all year round, although summers are better for the longer and warmer days. However, this also coincides with peak season. July and August are the busiest when the schools in Europe break for summer, so expect tour-group dodging and queues for all of Tallinn’s top attractions.
If you do happen to be in Tallinn in summer, then the best time of day to get out and see stuff in the early mornings. By 9 am the crowds are begging to grow, head out at 10 am and you’ll be sharing it with what feels like the rest of the world.
Winter in Tallinn can be chilly, although heading there in late November and December, you’ll get to experience the Christmas Markets popping up around the Old Town. Whatever time of year you decide to visit Tallinn, there will be plenty to add to your Tallinn itinerary.
Is the Tallinn Card worth it?
Like most cities, Tallinn also has a tourist card that gives you entry to a ton of attractions. If you are planning on seeing more than a few attractions on this list or using public transport, like I was, it might be worthwhile investing in one. I bought the single-day pass and had pre-planned my route to encompass all the ‘expensive’ attractions in one single day. This saved me a fortune compared to if I had paid individually for them.
For the rest of Tallinn’s attractions, I just paid the regular admission price. There would have been no financial saving on just visitng a couple of attractions in one day using the Tallinn Card. Some attractions are only 3 or 5 Euro to go in, so I’d have to cram a lot of attracrtions in to the day to make purchasing an additional card beneficial.
It’s worthwhile spending little bit of time working out which attractions you want to see and how much each would cost, if it’s only a handful of 3-5 Euro attractions, then it’s probably not worth paying for the Tallinn Card.
Check out the Tallinn Card website, to work out if it’s worth purchasing one or not.
Best Things to Do in Tallinn
1. Walk around the Walls of Tallinn.
The cities defence walls date back to 1265, standing less than 5 metres high and only 1.5metres in thickness. Compared to the Tallinn City Wall that stands today, it was a pretty feeble attempt. Tallinn’s Defence Wall would once have encompassed the whole of the city (it even used to have a moat around it!).
Around half of the City Wall, 1.85km still remains intact and has been preserved and parts are open to walk along (the Nunne, Sauna and Kuldjala towers are connected). There are 26 defence towers, 2 complete gates, as well as fragments of another two gates. This is probably one of the top things to do if you only have one day in Tallinn.
2. Marvel at Seaplane Harbour- the Lennusadam
This is arguably the most modern and interactive maritime museums in Europe, if not the World. Situated in Sea Plane Harbour, the museum features over 200 genuine items on display, including a 100-year-old submarine, seaplanes hanging from the ceiling and parts of the oldest ship found in Estonia. As you enter the museum, you’ll walk over a suspended walkway looking out over the museum.
The museum has a real focus on interactive exhibits, with things to climb inside of, simulators, dress up, hands-on activates and cinematic experiences. It’s ultra-modern and certainly worth a look, even if you normally aren’t a museum buff.
3. Get some retail therapy at Rotermann Quarter
A few years’ back, the Rotermann Quarter was an industrial wasteland, left abandoned and filled with unoccupied and crumbling buildings. The buildings are situated between the Old Town of Tallinn and the Port were factories built in the 1900s.
The area has been given a massive overhaul and is now one of the trendiest places to go. It’s filled with trendy apartments, restaurants, cafes and shops. The quirky modern-looking architecture in the area still features many of the old factories.
4. Kiek in de Kok!
I can’t say or read this without a little snigger and smirk across my face. The translation of Kiek in de Kok is actually German for ‘peek in the kitchen’ and got this name from the soldiers who were stationed here peeking into the kitchens in the towns below. It’s nothing as sinister as my mind wanders too.
The rotund building contains the Kiek in de Kok Fortification Museum. The giant cannon tower is filled with several floors of armour, weapons and artefacts covering war events from the 13th-18th centuries.
5. Explore the underground world at the Bastion Passages
The entrance to the Bastion Passages is at Kiek in de Kok, you can buy a separate ticket or a combined one which will get you into both attractions. The Bastion Passages were originally built in the 17th and 18th centuries to hide the movements of Tallinn’s soldiers from the enemy. They were also used as air-raid shelters during the Second World War.
The Bastion Passages take you on a journey through time, with various mock-up ‘rooms’ to show what life would have been like when they were in use. The use of multimedia, including projected images, eerie sound effects, models and videos brings the Bastion Passages alive and were one of my highlights in Tallinn.
6. Visit the iconic Alexander Nevsky Cathedral (Aleksander Nevski Katedraal)
Before arriving in Tallinn, you will probably have seen this cathedral donning any sort of advertisement for the city. The Alexander Nevsky Cathedral in Tallinn is stunning. The Russian Orthodox Church is situated on top of Toompea Hill, opposite the Government Buildings was built in 1900 Estonia was part of the Russian Empire. During the Soviet era, the cathedral was left to decline due to the USSR being non-religious, there was even talk of demolishing it at one point!
Despite the interior being lavishly decorated with mosaics, for me, the outside was more impressive. The Cathedral has been beautifully restored and maintained since Estonia’s independence from the Soviet Union in 1991.
7. Get lost wandering about the pretty cobbled streets of the Old Town
The best way to explore any new city is by foot. Inside the Old City Walls, it’s pretty much traffic-free and perfect for aimlessly wandering. You could spend hours wandering about the maze of cobbled streets, though alleys and passages. It’s a picturesque city, so wherever you wander, you’ll find plenty of photogenic places. Don’t forget to look up – some off the architecture is stunning!
9. Check out some of the Museums in Tallinn
There are SO MANY MUSEUMS in Tallinn that even if you aren’t usually a museums type person, you will find something to interest you here. Some of the more popular ones (depending on your interests, there are too many to list them all)
- Tallinn City Museum – housed in a 14th-century merchant house, this museum tells the story of Tallinn’s history,
- NAKU Museum of Puppet Arts – featuring puppets used in theatre all over the world, showing how they work and create fire and water on stage. There are also gore puppets in this slightly creepy museum.
- Luscher & Matiesen Museum of Estonian Drink Culture – A museum dedicated to the Luscher & Matiesen Distillery, in the 1930s it was the nation’s leading winery which is now making a comeback……this is my kinda museum 😊
- Kumu Art Museum – Estonia’s most cutting edge museum showcasing Estonian art from the 18th-21st century. The building was opened in 2006 and is one of Tallinn’s most prized modern architectural masterpieces.
- Estonian Open Air Museum – A living museum set in recreated 18th – 20th century Estonia. This one is great for families, situated in a forested park with actors dressed up to interact with to see what life was like in historic Estonia.
Day Trips from Tallinn
10. Marvel at the grandeur of Kadriorg Palace & Kadriorg Art Museum
A short tram ride out of the main Old Town of Tallinn and you’ll find the stunning estate of Kadriorg Palace. The pink and red baroque-style palace was a gift from Tsar Peter 1sr to his wife Catherine. Building work for this grand palace started in 1718 and was named Kadriorg (in German, Catharinenthal) after this wife. Not a bad gift if you ask me?
It’s situated in lavish grounds complete with manicured flowerbeds and fountains
There is a museum attached which houses the Kadriorg Art Museum featuring both Estonian and foreign pieces of work.
11. Find sun, sea and sand at Pirita Beach
So, depending what time of year you are visiting Tallinn, you might not find the sun here. Pirita is only a short tram ride from the capital, the sandy beach is situated next to pine forests, so it’s a great chance to escape the city and get back to nature if the crowds get a bit too much.
This is the biggest beach in Estonia so is well equipped with beach lockers, changing cabins as kiosks selling basic supplies. It’s a perfect escape from the bustle if you have more than 48 hours in Tallinn in summer.
12. Catch the ferry across to Scandinavia, and visit Helsinki the capital of Finland
If you are in Tallinn for more than a couple of days then it’s a really easy day trip to pop over to the Finnish capital of Helsinki. The ferry takes just 2 hours. Several companies are offering the Tallinn – Helsinki – Tallinn journey, so you’ll find a variety of departure times throughout the day. Prices starting from about 15-20 Euros for a day return.
Things to see in Tallinn Old Town
13. People watch in the bustle of people in the Town Square
There’s nearly always something happening in the Old Town Square in Tallinn. Buskers, singers, musicians, magicians, re-enactments, market stalls and so on; there is usually something happening. The Town Square is surrounded by restaurants and cafes, so it’s the perfect place to grab something to eat and drink and take in the vibe.
14. Check out the artisan quarter and cute arched lane of St Catherine’s Passage
Probably one of the most photographed and picturesque of lanes in Tallinn because of the cute archways spanning between the narrow lane. Katariina kaik (St Catherine’s Passage) connects Vene street with Muurivahne street and is home to St Catherine’s Guild.
The street is home to a variety of craft workshops, where artists and designers use traditional methods to produce glassware, ceramics, jewellery, quilts and hand-painted items. Be sure to wander in and around all the little workshops and studios here. You WILL NOT find a ‘made in China’ sticker on any of the items round here, so if you are looking for authentic Estonian hand-crafted souvenirs, this is the place to come.
15. The Hidden Gem of handmade artwork under the Dominican Monastery
I ended up stumbling upon this place just on an afternoon wander. It wasn’t something set out to go and find, in fact, I didn’t even know it existed. The hidden gallery is down a steep little flight of stairs and wooden door in the little courtyard of St Catherine’s Dominican Monastery. It’s one of the oldest buildings in Tallinn and the gallery honestly looks like it hasn’t changed much since that time.
Inside, it’s dark and smoky from the candles which light it. Complete with eerie chant music playing quietly the place is jam-packed with religious artworks, books and scriptures by the artist that rents the space. Quite often he will be down there at work.
16. Danish King’s Garden (and the three creepy monk statues)
Situated next to Toompea and the Kiek in de Kok you’ll find the Danish Garden. An old local legend, states that this is where a flag fell from the sky in this exact spot during the Danish invasion. The flag gave hope to King Valdemar II (1170 -1241, he was King from 1202) when the battle turned to his favour. The Danish reign lasted over a century in Tallinn and it was this, that gave the Danish King’s Garden its name.
creepy monks you’ll see dotted around the gardens are just plain weird. Having watched too much Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings, hooded monks never bode well. They’ve got names; Ambrosius, Bartholomeus, and Claudius. Although I can’t tell the difference between them they are a homage to the numerous ghost stories of hauntings in the city.
17. Have a ‘Dance with the Death’
If you’re even the teeniest slightest bit interested in artwork, then it’s worth checking out the painting ‘Dancse Macabre’ by Bermt Notke at the Niguliste Museum at St Nicholas Church. The only part on display is a small fragment from an original 30-metre-long piece of work. Dated from the late fifteenth-century it’s listed as one of the most valuable pieces of medieval artwork in Estonia.
18. See the quirky medicine of a bygone era at the Town Hall Pharmacy (Raeapteek)
A building relatively understated from the outside, apart from the giveaway hanging sign, is the Town Hall Pharmacy. The old apothecary is filled with cabinets of medical bits-n-bobs and dates back to 1422. Today it sells modern medicine (thankfully!) but the side room houses collections of medicine and related artefacts dating from 17th right up to the 20th centuries.
What are the Top Sites in Tallinn for City Views?
19. Catch breath-taking panoramic views of Tallinn Old Town
There are various viewing platforms dotted around the city Toompea Hill gives views of the lower part of the Old Town, whereas, Kohtuotsa will give you views of the east and the Patkuli viewing platform will give views of the west of the Old City.
Look out for Steven the resident seagull (a play on words for actor Steven Seagal) at the Kohtuotsa platform.
20. Climb up Tower of St Olav’s church for views of Old Tallinn and the Port –
It’s a steep and narrow climb, but the iconic white and teal spire of St Olav’s church can be seen from most elevated places around Tallinn. The gothic steeple is also one of the buildings that feature on any skyline photo of Tallinn and is synonymous with the Old Town of Tallinn.
Built in the 16th century, at the time it was one of the tallest buildings in the world. It’s only natural, that going up the tower, will reward you with great views of the city and the Port of Tallinn. To get the views, it’s a 232 step climb.
21. Spiral your way up the Tallinn Town Hall Tower (Tallinna Raekoja Torn)
If you’ve been to the Old Town Square, you will have noticed the Tallinn Town Hall and its Tower. True, it’s not the tallest tower in Tallinn, however, it is in a great location. The Town Hall & Tower, built between 1402 – 1040 are the oldest in northern Europe. It’s a tight squeeze going up the spiralling 64-metre tower with a cramped viewing platform at the top, it’s comfortable for about 6 people to move about up there, any more than that and you’ll have to squish into the archways of the windows to let people manoeuvre.
The views great, looking down over the Town Square and if you get the angle right, there are some great framed shot opportunities of rooftops and the spires of several of the iconic landmarks.
22. Get a head for heights at the Tallinn Television Tower
Measuring 314 meters, the Tallinn Television Tower just outside of the Old Town is not only the tallest building in Tallinn but also Estonia. It boasts panoramic views of the surrounding area, as well as an outdoor terrace on the 21st floor and the adrenaline-filled edge walk.
Best places to eat in Tallinn & (including Cafés and Bars in Tallinn)
23. Work your way through the craft beer selection at Beer House
If Disneyland made a beerhouse in the style of Medieval Europe, this would be it. Yes, it’s a little bit kitsch with its movie-set-like mock-up of a medieval courtyard and costume-wearing waitresses but it’s fun and light-hearted. Plus the beer is good!
The beer is brewed on-site, there are 7 craft beers to choose from. They refer to the beers as ‘living’ meaning that they are non-filtered and unpasteurised.
24. Try the delicious cakes and pastries at Café Maiasmokk, the oldest café in Tallinn!
You can’t help but miss the huge turning Ferris wheel in the shop window of the oldest café in Estonia. There’s usually a large crowd of people stood in the street outside taking photos of the window display. If you head to Café Maiasmokk at peak time (late morning until early afternoon) you will most likely have to wait for a table. It gets busy.
The interior of the café is pretty much unchanged since its opening in 1864, with its cute tiled floor and traditional wooden counter, so it’s worth the queues just to have look inside. The pastries are delicious too, I can certainly vouch for the apple Danish pasty, it was one of the best I’ve ever eaten.
25. Drink the locally roasted coffee and eat the handmade delicious chocolates at Kehrwieder Chocolaterie and Rotisarery
Worth it for the interior alone, from the outside, the café looks small, head inside and it’s a rabbit warren of cave-like rooms. Super cosy and jammed packed with mismatched furniture, it’s got a great atmosphere. The coffee is roasted on-site, so they have a decent selection on offer along with the wonderful selection of handmade chocolate truffles.
26. Watch artists at work in The Marzipan Room
Just a single room plays host to the Marzipan room. It’s actually next door to Café Maiasmokk. In cabinets dotted around the room, you can see the back catalogue of cute little marzipan figures, over 200 of them in this museum come café. The Marzipan Room is over 100 years old, you can read about the history of it on the information boards on the walls.
On the counter, at the back, you can watch the artists carefully shaping, decorating and painting the Marzipan figures. Sometimes they will offer free tastings of their Marzipan – yum!
27. Eat your way through Balti Jamma Turg market trying out artisan foods
Wondering where to go in Tallinn for the freshest artisan food? located outside of Tallinn Old Town to the northeast you’ll find Tallinn’s main train station. Titled Balti Jamma which translates to Baltic Station you’ll find the local artisan market; Balti Jaama Turg.
You’ll find fresh fruit, vegetables as well as baked goods on sale here alongside small eateries catering for every type of cuisine possible. There are so many options, you could eat somewhere different for a good few weeks. The market attracts hipster locals as well as tourists and is reasonably priced.
Next to the artisan market, and inside the large building, you’ll find all sorts of other market-type stalls and a good proportion for vintage fashion and bespoke clothing. This would be a fashionistas heaven!
Hipster places in Tallinn
29. Check out the traditional colourful wooden houses around Kalamaja
This is one of the most popular residential areas in Tallinn and certainly worth heading here to take a look. Despite Kalamaja being part of the nation’s capital, the roads are quiet and it’s free from the bustle of the tourist hub in the Old Town. Kalamaja is a polar opposite to Tallinn Old Town.
The whole area is incredibly photogenic, this is down to the myriad of colourful wooden houses which line the streets, lime green dusty pink, sky blue and any other colour you could probably think of. To get here, continue heading north from Telliskivi Creative City (it’s 5 minutes from here) if you end up at the Baltic Sea, you’ve gone too far!
Soviet Tallinn & KGB sites in Tallinn
30. See where Soviet Estonia began at KGB Prison Cells and & KGB Headquarters
From the outside, this building is visually stunning, the Art Nouveau façade hides a sinister tale. The KGB Prison Cells & Headquarters are situated in the heart of Old Town Tallinn at Pagari 1.
Before becoming the KGB headquarters, this building was residential, regular families lived here. It was in 1941 that the Estonian Soviet Socialist Republic Commissariat for Internal Affairs converted the basement level of the building into prison cells. The cellar windows were bricked in and suspected enemies of the state were held here, interrogated and tortured. They were then either moved on to concentration camps or shot. It was used as a prison until 1950. If walls could talk, I would hate to hear what they witnessed.
Original fittings such as cell doors, wall partitions are still intact. The basement of Pagari 1 is now open as a museum displaying images and information about the prisoners who were held there.
31. Get spooked out at Patarei Prison
Even on the sunniest day, this building would be creepy. However, the day I visited happened to be one of those stormy summer days, angry dark skies, lashing with rain and complete with flashes of lightning and the rumble of thunder in the background. I arrived here soaking wet and the weather outside just enhanced the spine-chilling atmosphere inside. In a nutshell, the minute you step foot inside Patarei Prison you’ll notice that it feels oppressing and certainly ticks the boxes for anyone interested in Dark Tourism sites in Tallinn.
The Patarei Sea Fortress was initially built during the 19th century. It was during the Soviet rule that the fortress was made into a prison. Patarei Prison gained notoriety as one of the worst prisons within the Soviet Union and used for the internment of Political Prisoners.
An exhibition titled ‘Communism is a Prison’ is located inside Patarei Prison, covering nearly 1,200 square metres along the east wing. The original fittings and prison yard are still there, pretty much untouched since its abandonment. Around the museum, informative boards are stating who various prisoners were, what they did as well as their fate. There is a very sinister feeling room downstairs where prisoners would have been executed. I won’t spoil what happens inside the room, but it’s truly haunting!
32. Visit the crumbling ruins of the ill-fated Linnahall
I can’t resist a crumbling abandoned building. Built during the Soviet era for the 1980 Moscow Olympics for the Regatta, the Linnahall is a massive monster of a 4000 seater stadium. It’s situated right on the port of Tallinn, so it’s pretty hard to miss it.
In the early 2000s up to 2009 it was converted and used as an ice skating rink however since then it’s been left to the elements to take over. The inside of the building is closed off currently, but you can wander around the outside of it. Currently, no investor has come forward to convert the dilapidated building, so it’s just sitting and waiting until that day comes. The Linnahall does seem to be a hub for young couples to hang out, sitting arm-in-arm on the many stairs leading up enjoying the views. Head up the stairs to check out the panoramic views for yourself. It’s also a great place to watch the sunset from.
33. Head to the 23rd Floor of Hotel Viru to discover the KGB Radio Centre
The ugly 1970s block building of Hotel Viru located just outside the Old Town of Tallinn hides a secret. To general visitors, there are just 22 floors to the hotel. Floor 23 was a secret floor which housed the KGB Radio Centre.
The hotel was the KGB espionage base, where everything in the hotel was bugged with microphones hidden in every possible location to listen to guests for potential information. 60 rooms in the hotel were fitted with listening devices. There were even what was called ‘special rooms’ for certain ‘special guests’ who the KGB may have been trying to dig some dirt on. This is also where radio communication signals were intercepted and information passed back to the Soviet government.
At the collapse of the Soviet Union, the 23rd floor was suddenly abandoned. The top floor is now open as a museum and is pretty much how it was on that August night in 1991.
Where to stay in Tallinn
Regardless of your budget or travel style, you’ll have no problem finding accommodation in Tallinn.
Check out the map below for availability.
My views of Tallinn
Although Tallinn can feel like Disneyland at times, in particular during peak season, the city still has plenty of charm. It’s easy to tell why people fall in love with the Estonian capital. It’s still quaint, with pretty cobblestoned alleyways, wonky houses and tons of history. It’s also small enough that’s its easy to see everything in a 2 or 3-day trip to Tallinn., making it an ideal weekend trip.
The downside to Tallinn being such a captivating city is that if you do happen to be in Tallinn Old Town during the peak of the day during high season, you’ll be sharing the picturesque town with the umbrella-holding tour groups.
I hate crowds, so to make the most of my trip I started my days early to avoid the busiest times, did the touristy stuff early in the day and headed to the more off beaten places or outside of Tallinns City Walls at peak times.
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Have you visited Tallinn, did you do all of these things? Or is there anything I’ve missed off? Let me know, what you think in the comment section below.