Don’t you love it when you have zero expectations for a place, and then it blows your mind? That was Tallinn for me. I had absolutely no idea what to expect of the capital of Estonia, but a fascinating mix of old and new definitely wasn’t it.
Not only is Tallinn one of the best preserved Medieval cities in Europe, it is also a major tech hub. Did you know that Estonia is a world leader on cybersecurity and basically the Silicon Valley of Europe? Because I sure didn’t!
As a result, Tallinn is a surprisingly modern and tech-savvy city, making it super easy for travelers to get around. All facilities as well public transport are great and easy to use (download the app), and most people speak decent English. Which is great, because Estonian is a very difficult language. If you’re looking for an off the beaten track destination in Europe where you can experience rich history and culture without struggle, Tallinn is the place for you!
Unfortunately, I only had two days to explore this beautiful city as I toured around the Baltics, but I made the most of it. I’ll definitely be back in summer to see more of the beautiful Estonian countryside as well. Tallinn really wowed me and I highly recommend you visit. When you do, make sure you do these things in Tallinn:
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Step back in time in Old Town of Tallinn
The Old Town is undeniably the best thing about Tallinn. It’s one of the best preserved Medieval cities in Europe and basically a living museum. Strolling through the little cobblestone streets, lined with beautiful old buildings, it’s easy to imagine what life in Tallinn might once have been like.
I didn’t know much about Estonian history when I visited Tallinn, so I decided to join the Tallinn in a Nutshell walking tour. It’s a free walking tour based on tips, run by local volunteers. My guide was really fun and very knowledgeable. I highly recommend this tour to anyone who wants a bit of context and background information with everything they’re seeing in the Old Town.
The Old Town of Tallinn in divided into an Upper and Lower part. The Upper part is where the rich merchants and aristocrats used to live, elevated above the “common folk”. Because of the natural elevation, Upper Town has a couple of great viewpoints from which to see the city sprawled out below.
As lovely as it is to just walk around and let yourself get lost, there are a few main highlights to see in the Old Town:
- Town Hall Square
- The Cat’s Well
- The Bastion and old city walls. Some say these are haunted.
- The Three Sisters. Arguably the most Instagramable houses in Old Town and a cute boutique hotel.
- The City Gates
The people of Tallinn has really gone all in on the Medieval theme in Old Town. It’s obviously for the sake of the tourists, but it’s still really fun. I had a lot of fun eating at III Draakon, a Medieval Tavern below Town Hall.
Tallinn is great in summer, but especially charming around Christmastime. The Medieval Old Town is even more festive and magical with holiday decorations in November and December. Especially Town Hall Square with its delightful Christmas Market. Did you know that the first public Christmas tree stood here? That’s why it’s one of my favorite Christmas destinations in Europe!
Check out some churches
Unlike the other Baltic countries, Estonia is no longer a religious country. Over 50% of people identify as atheist, with Christianity as the dominant religion among believers. Historically, Estonia has a Lutheran country so churches tend to be a bit sober and understated. But that doesn’t mean they’re not visiting, although most ask an entrance fee. St. Olaf’s church was once the tallest building in Europe due to its 124 meter spire. The St. Nicholas church has been turned into a museum where you can admire Medieval art.
But with a big population of Russian descent, the Russian Orthodox church is relatively strong. And orthodox churches are even more lavishly decorated than Roman Catholic ones. The Alexander Nevsky Cathedral in the Old Town is a beautiful example of Russian Orthodox architecture. The church is free to visit, so make sure you take a look inside and admire all the glitter and gold. But no pictures allowed!
Stroll through Kadriorg Park
Just outside the city center of Tallinn, at the end of tram line 1, lies Kadriorg Park. This pretty park is the perfect place to escape the bustle of the city, if the weather allows. The park covers 70 hectares and was built on the orders of Tsar Peter I in 1718. As it grew over time, you can see different landscape elements from the 18th, 19th and 20th century.
The park is a great place to go for a stroll or have a picnic. There’s a playground for children and several great museums within the park. It’s a very pretty park, especially around the Kadriorg Palace.
Go museum hopping
Aside from Kadriorg Palace, the KUMU art museum is another great museum in Kadriorg Park. It houses an extensive collection of Estonian art from different periods. It’s almost as good as the National Art Museum in Riga.
If you’re more into history than art museums, Tallinn has got you covered. How about a tour of the KGB Museum located at the top floor of the Viru Hotel? This is where KGB agents used to spy on the international guests of the hotel!
With its prime location on the Baltic Sea, Tallinn has a long maritime history. The Maritime Museum is one of the largest museums in Estonia, dedicated to the seafaring ways of the Estonians throughout history. It’s a really cool museum for kids as they can see tons of old seaplanes in the hangar.
For a real view of Estonian life and culture through the ages, you have to visit the Estonian Open Air Museum. Much like the Open-Air Museum in Riga, you can see Estonian history come to life here. Wander through historical buildings and look at cultural expositions. Estonian culture is unique, almost like a blend of Baltic, Nordic and Russian influences.
Join the hipsters in Kalamaja
Of course, there’s more to Tallinn than history. It is also a modern and technologically advanced city. Much to my surprise! You can really feel the proximity to Scandinavia, in the design, the shops, the food and the hipsters.
Nowhere is this more evident that in Kalamaja, the hippest part of Tallinn. This is you can find the Telliskivi Creative City, an area filled with cool shops and art studios. The street art and industrial buildings form a stark contrast to the nearby Old Town.
I recommend walking the Tallinn Culture Kilometer, to explore this side of the city properly. Make sure you visit Balti Jaam Market, which is a great place to shop for souvenirs and check out Tallinns exciting food scene. The market hall is filled with street food stalls and vintage shops. All around Kalamaja you’ll find tons of hip bars, cafe’s and restaurants. They serve delicious modern takes on Estonian food, international cuisine and lots of plant-based options.
Tallinn is a must-visit in Europe, so make your way to this increasingly popular spot asap! If you enjoy old European architecture, you should definitely spend a few days here. There is so much to do in Tallin, the city is full of art and history.
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