Tallinn is, in this TripGourmets humble opinion, one of Europe’s underrated cultural gems. Our Tallinn Itinerary was mostly spent among the pristine medieval marvels of the Estonian capital. Within the space of three days, we both managed to fall completely in love with the place.
Table of Contents
- Why should you choose Tallinn for a city break?
- How to get to Tallinn
- Where to stay in Tallinn
- Day 1 of the Tallinn Itinerary – Tallinn Sightseeing in the medieval city centre
- Day 2 of the Tallinn Itinerary – Furry feline fun and maritime history
- Day 3 of the Tallinn Itinerary – Medieval tower museums and segway adventure
- Other recommendable Tallinn Activities and Tours
Around a year ago, all I knew about Tallinn was that it is in Estonia, a Baltic state, formerly part of the USSR, in the freezing part of northern Europe. We decided to visit for a Tallinn city break because I had become somewhat fascinated with the place after applying for e-residency of Estonia last year.
Estonia has a long and often bloody history. Tallinn city dates back to the 13th century when crusading knights first built a castle there. Since that time, the city has stood virtually intact throughout Danish, Russian and German occupations, as well as wars, fires and the plague. What stands today is one of the oldest and best preserved medieval city centres in Europe. Since 1997, it has also been a UNESCO World Heritage site.
Today, Estonia boasts the position of being the worlds most advanced digital economy and has earned the reputation of being the “Silicon Valley of Europe”. It has the highest number of startups per capita in Europe. Skype was in fact developed in Estonia, by Swedish and Danish commercial founders. Residents bank, vote, submit their tax returns and conduct much of their daily business online. Despite being on the cutting edge of the digital culture, the Estonians take a great pride in the long history of their country and its capital. Walking around the impeccably preserved Tallinn old town, it feels like you are breathing in more of the city’s medieval past than the digital culture of the present and future.
This post covers all things to do in Tallinn that we discovered during our city break.
At the time we visited, cheap flights to Tallinn were less available. However, as short breaks to Tallinn have become more popular over the last year or so, flights to Tallinn are becoming cheaper and more available. Tallinn airport is located close to the city centre and takes less than 30 minutes by cab, or around 35 minutes on public transport. The main airlines are Nordica and AirBaltic. Passengers from the UK can fly from Stansted, Gatwick, Heathrow or Edinburgh, and soon from Luton as well.
If you are coming from Finland, you can also take the ferry from Helsinki to Tallinn. The price averages at about US$18-35 and the journey time is between 1.5 to 3.5 hours. Following companies provide ferries:
Budget Choice: Old Town Hostel Alur. This great Tallinn hostel is situated directly in the heart of the city centre, only a 1-minute walk away from the Tallinn Town Hall. It offers free WiFi, free coffee/tea in the morning, a free city map and a free luggage storage. Equipped with a kitchen, a common room and a terrace. Private rooms or beds in mixed dormitories available.
Mid-range Choice: Tallinn City Apartments – Town Hall Square. This Tallinn Accommodation offers Studios and 1-bedroom apartments in the Old Town. Rooms are equipped with free WiFi, a flat-screen TV, a sitting area, a kitchen with a fridge and a stove and a private bathroom. Close proximity to the Toompea Castle and the Aleksandr Nevsky Cathedral.
Luxurious Choice: Schlössle Hotel. This 5-star hotel in Tallinn is housed in recently renovated 13th and 14th-century buildings of the Old Town. A delicious breakfast and entrance to the sauna are included in the room price. The rooms are spacious and offer a lot of comforts. The on-site restaurant serves great food. The luxurious hotel is located close to most of the attractions of Tallinn Old Town.
The first day of our Tallinn Itinerary we spent walking around, exploring the old Tallinn city centre. The old town exists in two parts. The upper town, Toompea, is the site of the castle and the cathedral. Historically, it was the seat of the rulers who looked down over the lower Old Town of Tallinn. The Old Town was the commercial and residential centre. Many of the buildings retain their original names, often indicating the purpose for which it was built as well.
One of the best ways to spend a Tallinn weekend is just to wander around the city centre. It really is so stunning. Red tiled rooftops, pristine grey cobbled streets, original preserved Medieval buildings and traditional artisanal craft shops combine to create a sparkling mix of colour and culture. If you are short on time or just prefer some guidance, we recommend you this Old Town Walking Tour from Get Your Guide. In about 2 hours time you will catch the magical essence of Tallinn with a great guide. The tour itself gets constantly raging reviews.
We started our Tallinn trip on the edge of the old town, at the Viru Gate, which forms part of the original city walls. Flower stalls lined up on our left as we approached the gate itself. (the picture below was taken later in the day, and we wanted to share this one as it looks so pretty all lit up!)
The city centre is mostly pedestrianised. Walking up through the cobbled streets lined with shops selling Viking and amber souvenirs, we soon ended up on the magnificent Town Hall Square, which is one of the most important things to see in Tallinn in one day. The vast open space was originally used as the marketplace, however today it is lined with open-air cafes. Although we visited outside of the festive season, the Town Hall Square is where the famous Tallinn Christmas market takes place each year in December. I cannot imagine how cold it must be to visit then!
On top of the Town Hall itself sits a weather vane, the figure of a medieval warrior called Old Thomas or Vana Toomas in Estonian. He was first put there in the 1500’s and today he is one of the symbols of Tallinn. The story goes that Thomas was the town guard, and all his life he had given sweets to children from his post on Tallinn Town Hall Square. After he died, all the children wanted to know “Where is Old Toomas?”. After the weather vane was erected, parents would tell their children that Old Thomas was watching over them. They would also leave sweets under the children’s pillows as a reward -“from Toomas” – for good behaviour. Vana Toomas is today also the name of one of the restaurants on the Town Hall Square.
From Town Hall Square, we walked up Pikk Jalg, the hill leading up to Toompea. The name “Pikk jalg” literally means “long boot” and refers to the fact that there are two roads up the hill to Toompea, and this is the longer one. It is thought to be one of the oldest streets in Tallinn.
At the top of the hill, the first building we came to was the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral. Constructed in the Russian Revival style during the late 19th century when Tallinn was under Russian occupation, it looks somewhat incongruous compared to its medieval backdrop. It is still used as a place of worship by Orthodox Russians living in Tallinn.
Walking north from the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral, we came to St Marys Cathedral (Toomkirik). This is the oldest church in Tallinn, dating back to the 13th century.
Continuing north, we found the Kohtuotsa viewing platform, one of the best spots for capturing panoramic views over the Old Town and the sea beyond.
We walked back down past the Alexander Nevsky cathedral into the Danish Kings Garden. There are numerous legends about this garden, many linking back to the time when Tallinn was under Danish occupation. The garden is home to three tall monk statues, who are somewhat eerie with their faceless hoods and gnarled hands.
We climbed up some very steep concrete stairs, in order to visit the small cafe within the walls of the garden itself. The room inside is candlelit and very dark, in traditional medieval style!
If you don’t fancy the stairs and have some euros to spend, then you can go into the far more swanky cafe inside the Maidens Tower (Neitsitorn) the medieval defence tower adjoining the walls of the Kings Garden. There is also a museum inside.
We wandered down the hill from the garden back into the Old Town. We made our way to St Catherines Passage (Katariina käik). The small workshops along this hidden lane are occupied by members of the St Catherines Guild, a collection of artists and craftspeople who make and sell jewellery, textiles and glassware using traditional techniques. They are set up in an open style, so you can watch the artists at work. If you are looking to spend some cash, then St Catherine’s passage is one of the loveliest locations for Tallinn shopping.
At the end of the passage, we came to a section of the Old City Walls. We paid €4 each to access the Hellemann Tower and to walk along a section of the 14th-century walls. The tower has been used in the past as a weapons store and a prison. Below the walkway of the walls is a market, where you can buy fisherman-style knitwear. Another great opportunity for traditional shopping in Tallinn, Estonia.
(If you prefer to buy high street, then you can do so but the main shopping area is outside of the old city walls).
Finally, feeling very hungry after all that walking, we headed back to the Town Hall Square and a very heavily medieval-themed cafe/pub called Ill Draakon. Housed in the Old Town Hall building itself, this place is as much a Tallinn tourist attraction as a restaurant, but it is all good fun. All the staff are dressed and act/speak in a medieval style. The place has no windows and lit only by candlelight, so it is very dark.
The menu is basic, comprising pasties, sausages and elk meat soup. The soup came in a terracotta bowl with no spoon – to be slurped directly from the bowl. It was absolutely delicious – hearty and with a deeply beefy flavour. We ordered two beers, which also came served in terracotta jugs. The place is definitely not to be taken too seriously, but I do seriously recommend that elk soup!
We did find in general that Tallinn prices for eating out were in general very reasonable for a European capital. Even around the Old Town Square, there were plenty of places to eat out without breaking the bank.
So ended a very busy first day of our weekend in Tallinn.
The Airbnb we rented for our weekend in Tallinn was in the Maakri neighbourhood, and less than a five minute walk away was the Cat Cafe Nurri (Kassikohvik Nurri). This family-run enterprise is the only one of its kind in Tallinn, and if you are a cat lover, then this answers your question of what to do in Tallinn Estonia! They adopt around ten cats from shelters and have customised the interior of the cafe to be totally cat-friendly, with overhead walkways and human-free areas for the cats to retreat if they wish.
After the cats had enough of us, we walked back through the old town towards the coast.
We found the Seaplane Harbour Museum on the very north edge of the city, by the sea. We chose this visit based on reading a number of Tallinn reviews that raved about the extensive interactive displays. The building itself is actually an old hangar, that was used for seaplanes until the Second World War. I wasn’t expecting to enjoy this so much but the Seaplane Harbour Museum is a really fun experience with a lot of interactivity. It ended up being one of the highlights of our Tallinn city break!
We started outside, where there are a number of exhibits to see in the working harbour. The highlight is a 100-year-old steam-powered icebreaker ship that you can explore inside and out, including the engine room and the crew living quarters.
Inside the hangar, there is much more to see and explore, including the skeletal remains of a shipwrecked Viking vessel from the 1500’s, and a real-life submarine from the 1930’s that you can walk around and explore.
We loved the Seaplane Harbour so much that we made a video of it! We would really recommend this place to anyone who is wondering what to do in Tallinn.
During the evening, we ate at a traditional Estonian restaurant called the Golden Piglet (Kuldse Notsu). In contrast to the medieval-themed tourist attraction Tallinn restaurants, this place was a far more refined offering. Serving up traditional Estonian country-style food freshly prepared from local produce, we can recommend this as a place to eat in Tallinn. Their specialities include home-made cheese and Estonian sausages.
As we had run out of time to do any of the historical museums on our first day, we decided on our last day to visit the Kiek in de Kök. Although the name sounds something like a painful accident for men, it actually means “a peek in the kitchen” in old Low German. It got the name from the fact that those who looked out from the tower could see directly into the kitchens of the lower houses. It was originally used as an artillery tower, built with walls 4 metres thick. Today, it houses a museum about the military history of Tallinn. The views from the windows of the tower became progressively more spectacular the higher we climbed.
It is possible to also do a guided tour of the Bastion tunnels however we didn’t do it. TripGourmets top tip: during the weekend Tallinn gets busy so book in advance if you want to tour the Bastion tunnels!
After we finished at the Kiek in de Kök, we went to Segway Tallinn to rent a couple of Segways. This was not unreasonably expensive, you pay either €20 for 30 minutes or €30 for an hour, per person. We have ridden Segways before but as a guided tour. Here, they let us take out the Segways by ourselves. It is fantastic fun to zip about the streets of Tallinn old town on a Segway. We can seriously recommend this as a great idea for your list of Tallinn travel activities.
Segways were also so much fun that we made yet another video about it! Seriously, this is something that you have to see to experience it.
After we had finished zipping through the city streets on two wheels, we were quite hungry. We visited the Peppersack restaurant, which is another fairly traditional but not-too-over-the-top restaurant located a stone’s throw from the Town Hall Square. They have a great menu of Estonian food, however, we do recommend the local cheese platter as an excellent appetiser for sharing.
At the end of our third day of our Tallinn Itinerary in Estonia, we decided to visit the Horisont bar at the Swissotel Tallinn, which was right next door to our Airbnb apartment. The bar is at the top of the 28-story hotel, which is one of a pair of towers that are the tallest buildings in Tallinn. The views out over the city are just fabulous. I had a mango, chilli and coriander martini, which was the perfect tipple to warm up after a cold weekend in Tallinn!
- Visit the Tallin TV Tower: With its 313-meters, the Tallin TV Tower is both Tallin’s and Northern Europe’s tallest building. It is open every day from 10 am to 6 pm. There is a restaurant on the 22nd floor which opens every day from 10 am to 9 pm and from Thu-Sun until 11 pm. During the daytime, the restaurant entrance is included in the tower ticket (US$15), but after 6 pm you have to pay an additional US$3.5. If you feel daring, you can book a 30-minute walk on the edge of the tower. Tower entrance and digital photos of you walking at the edge are included in the price!
- Enjoy a Food Tour: Estonian food is very unique. It’s generally very northern European, but also has some Russian and German influences. With this Tallinn Food Tour, you will have 6 to 7 food and wine stops during a cosy stroll through Tallinn.
- Survive a sinking ship: No no no, of course not a real one! There is an amazing Escape Room in Tallinn, where the scenario is, that you have to escape a sinking ship. Up to four people can participate for a very reasonable price. We sure love Escape Rooms!
- Get off the beaten path: Estonia has some picturesque places near Tallinn, like for example the Jägala Waterfall. Explore more of Estonia’s nature and culture (for example the mystical Bronze Age graves in Rebala) on this 5-hour tour. Perfect if you want to see beyond Tallinn City.
Tallinn is really a perfect place for a long weekend getaway. The city is small enough that you can see and do a lot in a few days. At the same time, Tallinn holidays make for great experiences in historical culture and maritime adventures.
If you are looking for somewhere a little bit further from the well-beaten tourist trails in Europe, then a weekend in Tallinn should be on your list. Given the increasing numbers of stag and hen parties looking for new stomping grounds in the form of cheap city breaks to Tallinn, as well as the Baltic cruise ships bringing in their passengers for holidays in Tallinn, you’d be wise to get there before the crowds do. Trust us, short breaks to Tallinn will not be peaceful forever!
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Have you visited Tallinn? Do you have any other ideas for things to do during a weekend in Tallinn to add to this list? We’d love to hear your thoughts and feedback in the comments below!
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