To me, Tallinn will always be the fairy-tale city of twinkling lights. Thousands of sparkling lights come up in the Old Town daily as the day metamorphoses into the evening. With its charming alleys, well-preserved historical town centre, and medieval houses, Tallinn seems like the city where dreams comes true. Don’t believe me? Check this photo we clicked one evening in Tallinn:
We arrived in Tallinn towards the end of our roadtrip through the Baltics and loved the vibe of the city almost immediately. By the end of our stay Tallinn had us wrapped around its little finger – so much so that we decided to extend our stay by a couple of days. Here’s some of our favourite things about Tallinn and tips and tricks to making the most of your city break in the city:
Getting in & Parking in Tallinn, Estonia
If you like us, are driving to Tallinn from Jurmala or Riga, then you could opt for the ‘Coastal Road’ to Tallinn but let me warn you, the name is a bit of a misnomer – the road snakes past the Baltic Sea but for most part the view is completely obscured by trees. You will spot a blue sea at lots of places but do keep in mind that woodlands are the draw here. Try to find a spot in a forest for a quick picnic. We took a slight detour right after crossing Estonia and found ourselves a little clearing in the woods 🙂 Spend your afternoon picking wild berries and mushrooms in the woodlands, wandering amongst wild flowers or just walk past the lakes.
If you’re on a road trip of the Baltics, then you will need to park your car as most of Tallinn’s Old Town is reserved for pedestrians. Car Parks in Tallinn can be very expensive but we found a great car park near the Old Town called AHTRI 3. It is next to Hotel Euroopa and you can park your car there just for 3 Euros/24 hours. This will save you over €20/day. Score! The car park is a bit of a local secret, and we’re glad we stumbled on it!!
Accommodation in Tallinn, Estonia
There are no 2 ways about it – if you’re visiting Tallinn on a city break or on your Baltic Road Trip, you must pick a hotel in or around the Medieval Old Town.
We chose a mid-range hotel less than a 5 minute walk from the Old Town – Sokos Hotel Tallinn is the newer wing of the legendary Viru hotel, which is a landmark in Tallinn. Viru Hotel was the first foreign owned hotel during Soviet times. Apparently the entire hotel was wired by the KGB, so secret agents could eavesdrop on guests’ conversations. It’s even possible to pore over Soviet memorabilia in the KGB museum that is housed in the building. This unique story first drew us to the complex.
Despite its Russian connection, Sokos Hotel Tallinn is resolutely Estonian. There are little stories i.e. facts about Estonia, inscribed in each hotel room. Our wall had information about Saaremaa and Muhu islands and reading about them every day intrigued me to look up Estonia’s islands for a future visit. Each room also has a storybook that includes amazing facts about traditional Estonian culture, its history, and islands, which makes for perfect bed-time reading in a new country! I wish more hotels would do this kind of thing.
Another fun thing at Sokos Hotel that I wish was more common in mid-range hotels across the world – a twenty-four hour lounge, with a coffee machine, plenty of snacks, dried fruits, candy, and books – on every floor! As for the rooms, they were spacious and comfortable. There was something very Scandinavian about the aesthetic – minimal yet colourful. Our rooms had everything we could possibly need – a good coffee machine (yep, Vid was a happy camper here!), colourful bathrobes, ergonomic beds designed by NASA, comfortable chairs to sit by the window and stare at the gorgeous view of Tallinn’s Old Town. Make sure you ask for a room with a view of the Old Town!
Things to do & see in Tallinn
- Tallinn’s Medieval Old Town is nothing short of magical. Spend your first day exploring it on foot. The Town Square (Raejoja Plats) is the focus of all activity in Tallinn. Work your way towns the square for a lazy lunch.
- Tallinn’s Town Hall Pharmacy (Raeapteek) is one of the oldest in Europe. It dates back to 1422 but is still a working pharmacy. There’s also a small museum in the pharmacy where you can see weird remedies that were doled out to patients a few centuries ago including errrm dog faeces 😉 Entry is free. Highly recommended!
- Toompea Hill: For a perfect panoramic view of the city of Tallinn, walk over to Toompea Hill. It offers an amazing view of the city and the surrounding gardens. Make sure you go there twice – once during the day and once at sunset.
- Alexander Nevsky Cathedral: A stark reminder of Estonia’s Soviet era, this orthodox Russian church boasts of unique architecture. Make sure you visit it.
- KGB Museum: If the Cold War fascinates you or you’re a James Bond fan, then visit the KGB Museum, housed inside Viru Hotel. It’s a stark reminder of the ways in which the KGB tried to control Soviet Estonia and its citizens. It provides a good introduction to the KGB’s secretive activities and one can see phones, microphones, and other knick-knacks which were used at the time. However it’s a bit of a letdown if you go with high expectations. Entry fee – €10/person
Tallinn’s bohemian mecca is reminiscent of uber-cool areas such as London’s Hackney Wick and Berlin’s Kreuzberg. Kalamaja literally translates to ‘Fish House’. True to its name, this area was home to fishmongers. But it has recently witnessed a revival and what a revival! The area is now packed with independent coffee shops, graffitti-laden alleyways, local breweries, art galleries, and experimental eateries. We loved it there!
Getting there: Just walk across Toompea Hill and you’ll reach Kalamaja. Take Train 1 back to the City Centre if you don’t wish to walk back.
Take a Food Tour
If there’s one thing you do while you are in Tallinn, make it this. Take a food tour to introduce yourself to the nuances of local food in Estonia. We booked the “Tallinn of the locals” tour with Food Sightseeing Estonia. It started with a traditional Kirju Koer (literally ‘spotty dog’), an Estonian candy bar with quite the history. Apparently this was first made by dads to treat kids during harder Soviet times. Traditionally the bars were made using the only indulgent ingredients that could be found at grocery stores back then: cocoa, marmalade, and crushed cookies. Today they are sold as candy bars all over the country. A bottle of local Estonian Seabuckthorn Schnapps continued the party.
It is no secret that Estonians love their open sandwiches. Breakfast comprised of a variety of open sandwiches that pay homage to Estonia’s stunning forests. Canapés were served with a variety of bedazzling berries, mushroom, and wild cranberries. Dainty open sandwiches assembled on rye bread were laden with Estonian sprats from the Baltic Sea. The surprise installment? Kama smoothie, a traditional drink, more than 1000 years old. A finely-ground powder with wheat, rye, barley, green peas is mixed with buttermilk and sugar. The resultant smoothie is nutritious and filling. Kama is breakfast for a lot of people in Estonia, so we really enjoyed sampling it for ourselves.
After a short walk around the Town Square and its historical buildings we found ourselves at Luscher and Matiesen wine cellar museum in the Toompea area. A few glugs of wine later, we explored a Soviet style market in a hidden part of Tallinn and walked across Toompea Hill to Tallinn’s bohemian mecca – Kalamaja.
Kalamaja is dotted with breweries, cafés, and restaurants. My favourite stop here would have to be a rustic bakery where we tried traditional Estonian seeded bread with butter. I love dense Estonian breads and this would have to be the best I’ve ever tasted! We went on to have Kali (root beer) for lunch at an imaginatively titled restaurant called Foody Allen. Vid tried Estonian style fish & chips – sprats coated with kama mixture, served on a bed of beetroot purée. The dish, while contemporary, paid homage to kama, sprats, and beetroot, 3 ingredients that are intrinsic to Estonian cuisine.
We spent the afternoon walking around Kalamaja, exploring its street art, exhibition spaces, and art galleries. That’s how we wound up at Reval Café, an art space and café. We sat down to savour fresh sea-buckthorn juice (yummy!) but Reval is famous for its Estonian dumplings and we couldn’t leave without trying some. Salmon and lamb dumplings were served with a dollop of sour cream. Of all the things we tried, this would have to be my least favourite. I’m not fond of stodgy dumplings and the rich texture might be perfect for a cold winter day but it was all too much for a warm September evening.
Of course we had to wash down all that food with some local beer. We ended the day by trying 5 kinds of local beers at a quirky beer bar called Pudel (literally ‘bottle’). Needless to say, it was midnight by the time we finally sauntered home 😉
Day trips from Tallinn
Make sure you rent a car and explore these places around Tallinn:
This gorgeous waterfall makes for the perfect day trip from Tallinn. Jagala Waterfall isn’t overwhelmingly impressive but its quaint location makes it the perfect picnic spot. It’s just a 30 minute drive from Tallinn and entry is free. Carry a waterproof raincoat and hop over behind the waterfall for a unique experience. Jagala Waterfall is also absolutely spectacular in winter when it is completely frozen.
Lahemaa National Park and Viru Bog
For a taste of typical Estonian countryside, head over to Lahemaa National Park. It’s limestone cliffs, magical forests, and seashore views will leave you fascinated. There are a number of hiking trails and cycling paths in the area. We loved the famous Viru Bog Walk, a 3.5 km trail that starts in woodlands and goes over the bog. The boardwalk passes swampy marshland and lagoons. There is a viewing tower that provides excellent views of the bog.
If you have some more time at hand, drive onto Vihula Manor. It boasts of a colourful history and dates back to 1501. Today it houses a luxury hotel but visitors can wander about in the scenic grounds and even visit the coffee shop. It’s famous for its marzipan and schnapps – make sure you try some. While you’re driving around in the Baltics, try to visit the Altja Fishing Village in Vihula Parish as well. This traditional Estonian seaside village redefines the word quaint. There aren’t any fishermen in the village any longer but traditional houses and seaside views make it a must stop.
That’s it – Tallinn is perfect for a stop-over on your road trip of the Baltics or a city break. It’s so easy to fall in love with this under-rated yet stunning city!
Need more help planning the perfect Baltic road trip? Read all our Baltic road trip posts
Love city breaks? Read our Guide to Riga, Latvia