Tallinn is, in this TripGourmets humble opinion, one of Europe’s underrated cultural gems. Tom and I spent a weekend in Tallinn in March, and within the space of three days, we both managed to fall completely in love with the place.
Why spend a weekend in Tallinn?
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 north Europe. We decided to visit for a weekend in Tallinn 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. The city of Tallinn 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 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 the things we did during our weekend in Tallinn.
Day 1 – Exploring the Medieval city
We spent all of the first day walking around, exploring the old city of Tallinn. 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 things to do in Tallinn is just 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.
We started 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. The vast open space was originally used as the market place, however today it is lined with open-air cafes.
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 childrens 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 it’s 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.
Danish Kings Garden
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 knarled 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.
St Catherine’s Passage and Hellemann Tower
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.
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.
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 elkmeat 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!
So ended a very busy first day of our weekend in Tallinn.
Day 2 – Furry feline fun and maritime history
Cat Cafe Nurri
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, this should be high on your list of things to do in Tallinn! 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.
Seaplane Harbour Museum
We found the Seaplane Harbour Museum on the very north edge of the city, by the sea. 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 weekend in Tallinn!
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 thinking about visiting Tallinn.
Golden Piglet Restaurant
During the evening, we ate at a traditional Estonian restaurant called the Golden Piglet (Kuldse Notsu). In contrast to the medieval-themed tourist attraction 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.
Day 3 – Medieval tower museums and segway adventure
Kiek in di Koek
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 for a weekend in Tallinn: book in advance if you want to tour the Bastion tunnels!
Segway to heaven
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 things to do in Tallinn.
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 stones 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 in Estonia, we decided to visit the Horisont bar at the Swissotel 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. I had a mango, chilli and coriander martini, which was the perfect tipple to warm up after a cold weekend in Tallinn!
Tallinn is really a perfect place for a short weekend getaway. The city is small enough that you can see and do a lot in a few days. At the same time, it is still a great centre for 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.
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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