Located on the Baltic Sea, Estonia’s capital city of Tallin is, to put it quite simply, breathtakingly beautiful. History here is ancient and diverse. Only gaining independence in the 1990s, Estonia has over the centuries been under the control of the Danes, the German Teutonic Knights, the Swedes and the Russians. All have left their mark on this sensational destination and every chapter of its history is there to be explored with elements of everything from the thriving Hanseatic merchants of the Middle Ages to the secret espionage of the Soviet’s KGB.
The ultimate jewel in Tallin’s magnificent crown is its UNESCO World Heritage-listed Old Town whose medieval buildings and churches are so well-preserved the whole presents itself as something of a fairy-tale like vision. Cobbled streets, tiny hidden passageways lined with artisan studios, ancient spires, a castle, encircling stone walls, a series of centuries-old towers –wherever you wander within this fantastic labyrinth will make you feel as if you have stepped back in time. Enhancing Tallinn’s whole are such things as its modern cultural hubs like the vast mural-splashed Telliskivi Cultural City, a multitude of museums and galleries in spectacular and historical venues, a seemingly infinite numbers of cafes and bars -some of them highly unique -and a food scene considered the best in the Baltics.
A Morning in Tallinn
Tallinn may not be the only European destination which has an old town to explore but there are few places which offer such an entire and well-preserved scene as this city. The major highlights alone are enough to keep you occupied for several days so the entire morning’s itinerary is dedicated to unearthing its treasures.
Quite where you fit in your pause for morning coffee is up to you and although we have slotted it into a specific part of the route you can adjust this according to your own schedule and quite what delights you find along the way. The Old Town is packed with cafes and restaurants so you won’t be hard pressed to find somewhere no matter when the need arrives to take a break.
A Walking Tour of the Old Town
As already mentioned, there are few destinations which can match the enchanting medieval splendor you will find in Tallinn. Designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site, Tallinn’s Old Town is considered one of the best-preserved examples on the whole continent. It is an endless series of magnificent medieval spires, stunning and highly picturesque Hanseatic architecture and a collection of beautiful buildings that can tell stories spanning centuries. As you wander these ancient cobbled streets, labyrinthine alleys and secret corners you will find yourself constantly spellbound.
The Old Town is made up of two separate parts –its lower town and the hill perched area known as Toompea. The lower town was once a prosperous trading center of merchants from Germany, Denmark and Sweden along with Estonians who made up their workforce. Fortified Toompea, whose history dates back 1000 years, was home to both nobility and the otherwise most powerful as it served as the administrative center for whichever power ruled Estonia in any historical period. This has included the Danes, the German Teutonic Order, the Swedes and the Russians. Today, Toompea continues that same role –home to the Estonian parliament and the seat of the government. Until the late 1800s both the lower town and Toompea functioned as two entirely separate bodies with unification not arriving until the late 1800s.
Pretty much everywhere you turn in this easily-walked compact area offers something to gaze upon or explore but there are also some especial highlights. This walking tour covers each of those but as you wander it is highly possible you will stumble upon all kinds of other treasures which you might want to investigate closer instead in which case you can adjust the itinerary to suit your own interest. Several of the most significant historic sights are also home to museums which you might want to give some time to as well.
Your historical walking tour begins after passing through a medieval archway at the Old Town’s north end which was once the principal coastal entry gate. Here you will find the 16th century Fat Margaret’s Tower –the fortification which guarded that gate. Today it is home to the Maritime Museum.
The long street which leads from here and eventually to the hill –Pikk Street –was once the main merchants’ streets and is lined with historical buildings its entire length. Just four minutes’ walk from Fat Margaret’s you will find St. Olaf’s Church whose soaring spire dominates the skyline and is thought to date from the 13th century. The church’s interior details mostly date from the 1700s but the highlight here is the tower which you can climb for free during the summer with the reward for your effort magnificent Old Town views.
Continuing along Pikk Street you will encounter the 15th century Hall of the Black Heads Society,today a concert hall,followed by the Great Guild Hall which was the meeting venue for wealthy medieval merchants, constructed in 1407. Today it is home to a branch of the Estonian History Museum where you can explore 11,000 years of Estonian history through their main ‘Spirit of Survival’ exhibition.
The next point of interest you will encounter is the ancient Church of the Holy Spirit which is known to be at least 750 years old. Somewhat plain from the exterior, one of the church’s principal gems however is its stunning carved clock from the 17th century set into a wall. A highlight of the interior is the 15th century altar while the painting-decorated galleries from the mid 1600s are also worth a look.
While you are in this vicinity you might like to make a three minute detour to St. Catherine’s Passage.While much of the Old Town can make you feel as if you have stepped through a portal into the past this narrow, completely tucked away and highly atmospheric passageway is the epitome of that. In appearance almost exactly as it would have been in early medieval time, St. Catherine’s Passage is today home to many artisans selling a wonderful array of hand-crafted goods which include hand-painted silk, glassware, jewelry and ceramics. Not simply shops but also studios (housed in buildings which are themselves at least 400 years old) you can also watch artists in the process of creating their beautiful pieces, all of them using traditional methods. If you would like some unique reminder of your visit to Tallinn or are hunting for high quality gifts there is perhaps no better place to find it than here.
From here just a two minute walk will bring you to the lively and lovely Town Hall Square.For hundreds of years the prosperous trading town’s principal market place, this open area is surrounded by picturesque buildings on every side, the most distinctive of which is the 14th century Town Hall with its spire. Although it is unlikely you will be able to see it clearly the spire is topped by one of the city’s most beloved symbols –the weather vane known as Old Thomas. Watching over the town since 1530, legend has it that the figure is that of a youth who despite winning a contest of crossbow skills was unable to be rewarded for his prowess, being of humble peasant birth rather than of the nobility classes. His prize instead was to be given the post of city guard for his lifetime.
It is possible to climb the Town Hall’s tower to arrive at an open-air balcony which gives great views from above of the Town Hall Square and the rest of the Old Town.
Once the scene of tournaments, public festivals and even public pillary punishments, today the square is still used for various events in the city’s calendar such as its famous Christmas Market. Otherwise the square is at its liveliest in the summer and as the warmer weather arrives tables from the surrounding cafes spill out onto the pavement enabling their customers to enjoy some alfresco refreshment.
Morning Coffee in Tallinn
It may suit you best to continue your Old Town explorations and simply pause at the point where both the need for a break and the perfect cafe both arrive together. However, the square is a particularly lovely place in the summer to have a morning coffee with several options. These include Vana Toomas and the Kehrwieder Saiakang Chocolaterie with its cozy cave-like interior, and outside terrace where hand-made chocolates and delicious cakes can be accompaniments to your freshly-roasted coffee.
However, as is often the case, stray just a little away from a place where the most tourists converge and you can often find something ideal without the inflated prices. One such is the exquisite Cafe Pierre Tartu Town Hall Square–part of the Pierre Chocolaterie -which has an interior which can only be described as sumptuous. The décor recalls to mind the decadence of 19th century Paris, the coffee here is excellent and there is a mouth-watering selection of sweet and savory treats which are displayed in such a way as to make choosing almost impossible. It also has one of the prettiest terraces in the city if you prefer to be outside.
Even closer to the Town Hall Square, just three minutes away, is the colorful vintage-styled Kohvik August which is exactly what it is intended to be -a cozy, relaxing space where customers can enjoy high quality coffee. This very reasonably priced spot is popular with locals –something which almost always signifies you have found a gem.
A Continuation – A Walking Tour of the Old Town
After your chocolate and coffee pause you can continue your walking tour which after five minutes will bring you to the 13th century St. Nicholas Church. This majestic building is now home to the Niguliste Museum which forms part of the Art Museum of Estonia. The collection is a treasure trove of ecclesiastical art made up of medieval altarpieces, wooden carvings and chandeliers with the most significant exhibit here the Danse Macabre painting of Bernt Notke which dates from the 1400s.
From St. Nicholas Church you can start your climb to Toompea by way of the cobbled steps of Short Leg Lane. If you are on the look-out for good quality souvenirs you might like to check out some of the craft shops located here such as Lühikese Jala Gallery with its fantastic collection of glass art, jewelry, textiles, ceramics and prints.
At the top, the gate that you will arrive at with its original door was once one of only two portals which allowed passage from the lower town to what was then the separate town on the hill.
The hill of Toompea is home to some of the Old Town’s most treasured historical gems –the distinctively onion-domed Alexander Nevsky Cathedraland the pink-hued Toompea Castle which are located across from each other. The 18th century castle -whose roots stretch all the way back to the 9th century -when viewed from the outside is really just a series of unadorned walls and while visits to the interior of this seat of the Estonian Parliament are possible they have to be arranged in advance.
The incredibly beautiful Russian Orthodox cathedral however is open to visitors and free to enter. As the majority of the Old Town’s treasures date back many centuries, Alexander Nevsky, at just over 100 years old, is considered ‘recent’, built during the era when Estonia still formed part of the Russian Empire. The exterior is exquisite, topped by three towers capped with black onion domes –a classic feature of Russian architecture. Its interior –as is traditional with Russian Orthodox churches -is richly ornate and full of exceptional mosaics and religious icons.
The Danish King’s gardens next to the cathedral, offer seclusion and tranquility if you want to take a pause in your explorations. From here you can also see another of the Old Town’s defensive towers –the Kiek de Kok –which dates from 1475. If you decide to take a closer look at this historical landmark you will see very obvious proof that it has played a defensive role in centuries past; the tower still has several cannonballs from the 1500s buried in its masonry which are easily visible. The tower and its 17th century tunnel system have served a number of roles over the centuries including that of ammunition storage, prison, air raid shelters during World War II, as a bunker equipped ready for nuclear attack, a storeroom for sculptures and even a hideout from the police. Today it is a Tallinn history museum covering the story of the town’s beginnings, its multiple fortifications and the military campaigns it has been involved in. For many the major highlight here is a tour of the secret tunnels.
St Mary’s Cathedralis another Toompea Hill sight worth seeing. Known to have been originally consecrated in 1240, this ancient church is the city’s oldest although it has been considerably rebuilt and added to over the centuries which has given it something of a piecemeal architectural appearance both outside and in. The main reason for visiting here however is to see the remarkable collection of more than 100 carved funerary coats-of-arms dating from the 1600s and 1700s, the largest of which is more than 3.5m tall.
The 69m spire is yet another of the Old Town’s towers which you can climb for some stunning views. This particular one will give you wonderful photo opportunities for capturing the glory of the magnificent Alexander Nevsky Cathedral.
Where viewpoints are concerned the upper part of the Old Town in fact has several. It even features some especially constructed platforms which are intended to give the visitor the most stunning vistas over the lower Old Town. About 200m from St. Mary’s Cathedral can be found one such of these platforms –the Patkuli Viewpoint. Arguably the best of them all –also around 200m from St. Mary’s Cathedral –is the Kohtuotsa Viewpoint which allows you to take in a vast array of landmarks of the Old Town such as the Town Hall and St. Nicholas Church as well as tracing the entire route of all your morning’s exploration so far and even beyond to the harbor and the sea.
Free Walking Tours
While many choose to make their own walking tour of the Old Town there are also free guided walking tours which set out at midday every day and last for about two hours. Such tours allow you to not just see all the main sights but also give you the opportunity of hearing tales of legend and myth along with gaining some fascinating insight into the centuries-old stories which accompany all of Tallinn’s historical gems.
In case you are not familiar with the ‘free walking tour’ concept it is worth pointing out that such things would be better named as a pay-what-you-feel-it-is-worth tour. There are no set fees but guides will expect some kind of voluntary tip at the end, the amount of which is left entirely up to you.
Lunch in Tallinn
Tallinn is considered the best of the Baltic states for its food scene which has quickly evolved into a destination that attracts both the gourmet and the gourmand. The city offers something for everyone whether your idea of the ideal is quaint and cozy or elegantly refined.
The Old Town easily has the highest concentration of restaurants and cafes and during your morning meanderings you may well have come across something which you have earmarked to return to once lunchtime arrives. Many different cuisine types are on offer in this area but if you are hoping to experience typical and traditional Estonian a top pick is Kuldse Notsu (The Golden Piglet Inn). Charmingly rustic, this restaurant’s interior is made up of wooden floors, tables and long cushioned benches with a lovely street-side terrace in the summer as well for alfresco fans. Serving up dishes made from authentic recipes handed down from Estonian grandmothers’ grandmothers and incorporating fresh local ingredients, Kulde Notsu is every bit as popular with Tallinn locals as it is with city visitors.
Another district which has recently established itself on the foodie scene is Kalamaja which is a rejuvenated industrial neighborhood of traditional wooden houses and somewhere quickly evolving into the hippest part of town. The Seaplane Harbor Museum, which is your first stop after lunch, is located in this district so finding a lunch spot here has you perfectly placed. One of the choices here is the elegantly understated Cafe Moon which offers modern Russian cuisine.
On the western edge of the Old Town and the southern edge of the Kalamaja district can be found the Telliskivi Creative City. This fantastic complex of old warehouses is now a collection of artist studios, shops, restaurants and cafes and the heart of Tallinn’s artistic community. Infused with a Bohemian vibe, the exterior walls of the buildings are a collection of incredible giant murals which have become a visitor attraction in themselves. There are plenty of great lunch spots here but one which offers a distinctly different dining experience is the charming Peatus where you can enjoy lunch inside vintage railway carriages. If you prefer to be outside but still want the romantic ambiance of the railways of yesteryear take a seat at one of their tables located between the two carriages.
An extra-elegant finer dining choice in the Telliskivi Creative City is the industrial-chic Sfaar with its white-washed brick walls, splashes of greenery and sparkling glass.
An Afternoon in Tallinn
If you happen to be a fan of museums and galleries you are going to feel especially spoiled in this lovely city. It is home to more than 60 of them ranging from the tiny, niche-themed and quirkier choices to larger award-winning options offering high quality exhibitions.
Some of the options within the museum and gallery category you may have already chosen to explore during your morning meanderings in the Old Town such as the Estonian History Museum in the Great Guild Hall, the Estonian Maritime Museum in Fat Margaret’s Tower and the Niguliste Museum in St. Nicholas Church.
However, as your entire morning was spent in the Old Town, this afternoon’s suggested museum and gallery choices take you to different parts of the city so you can experience an alternative side to your destination. While each of the options listed here are large and immersive enough to occupy the entire afternoon you can also choose to mix and match a little if you can’t quite decide what you want to see most. This is especially true with the major gallery choices –three of which are located together.
The Seaplane Harbor Museum
Sometimes a city has a museum which is so unusual it is worth a visit even if the theme of the museum is not typically something which would pique your interest. Tallinn’s exceptionally wonderful maritime-focused Seaplane Harbor Museum –the city’s most popular museum -is one such example of this and almost certainly some distance removed from what you might envisage it to be before you arrive.
Exceptionally well-designed and full of high-tech inclusions, the museum is housed inside an historical seaplane hangar built during Estonia’s days as part of the Russian Empire. When this building was constructed in the early 1900s under tsarist orders it was unlike anything the world had previously seen. Not until the 1930s, when aviation advancements boomed, did similar buildings begin to be constructed elsewhere in the world.
While the museum’s exhibits are both unique and high standard it is in fact the building itself which most impresses visitors. Utilizing super-modern sound and light techniques, visiting here feels at times like actually being beneath the ocean while fantastical light shows create sensations of planes flying overhead.
Arguably the most fascinating of the museum’s highlights is its 1930s submarine which was part of the Soviet naval force during World War II. Despite being the oldest submarine still working when it was retired in 2011, the ‘Lembit’ is extremely well preserved and completely explorable.
Another museum centerpiece is a replica of a British pre-WWII seaplane known as a Short Type 184, the first plane ever to attack enemy vessels using torpedoes fired from the air. There are no originals left of this plane type but the full-size replica here is the only one of its kind on the planet. Other highlights include an exhibit of the country’s oldest recovered shipwrecked vessel dating from the 16th century and an historic ice-breaker vessel which is part of the outdoor exhibits.
There is also the opportunity to try your hand on several flight simulators and even dress up in old replica uniforms. Both of these attractions may have originally been intended for the museum’s younger visitors but have proved just as popular (if not more so) with the more mature visitors.
While the Seaplane Harbor Museum is unquestionably the city’s most visited museum it is far from being its only offering. Another choice and one ideal for those interested in the Soviet era and how the secret police operated might like to check out the highly absorbing KGB Museum.
From 1940 until 1990 Estonia was continuously and forcibly occupied by the Soviet Union. During that period just one hotel was open to foreign visitors –the Sokos Hotel Viru -and here, on one entire upper floor during the 1970s the KGB operated from secret headquarters. In the early 90s the collapse of the Soviet bloc began and during this period the KGB team occupying the hotel fled under the cover of night. They left behind many of the exhibits you will see while visiting which include ingenious surveillance devices straight out of a James Bond movie. Other exhibits include uniforms, documents, propaganda and various artifacts from the era. Today the Viru still operates as a hotel but with one floor given over to the KGB museum which recounts the episode in Estonian history when outwardly citizens lived idyllic lives while underneath the reality was something very different.
Not far from the KGB Museum is another option for exploring the Soviet era history –the Estonia Museum of Occupation which also recounts the period of occupation by Nazi-led Germany in between the Soviet occupations.
Other museum options include the Open Air Museum which covers rural culture and smaller niche offerings such as the Museum of Estonian Drinking Culture. An Alternative Afternoon – Tallinn’s Galleries and the Kadriorg Palace
If you are more a fan of art than history you may choose to give your afternoon over to exploring Tallinn’s excellent gallery offerings. The superb Estonian Art Museum has four branches in the city, all of them worthy of a visit and their beautiful venues every bit as much the draw as the art works they contain. The four branches are the Kumu, the Kadriorg, the Mikkel and the Niguliste.
The Kadriorg Art Museum
For many visitors the Kadriorg which displays art from outside Estonia –principally Europe and Russia -dating from the 16th century tops the must-visit list. While the 9,000 or paintings, graphic arts and sculptures here are without doubt impressive the major draw here is the venue –the Kadriorg Palace. Considered the grandest building in the country, the palace was originally constructed in 1718 on the orders of Russian emperor Peter the Great for his wife Catherine. The building remained unfinished in 1725 when the tsar died and although subsequent members of the Russian royal family occasionally visited it only took on its final appearance after restoration in the early 1800s. Majestic and beautiful from the outside, the Petrine baroque palace is also a feast for the eyes inside while the classic formal gardens and surrounding woodland add to the overall effect of grandeur.
The Kumu Art Museum
Opened in 2006, the modern building of the Kumu Art Museum in the palace’s park is every bit as fantastic as Peter the Great’s mansion but in an entirely different style. Its spectacular design and creative exhibitions saw it scooping the European Museum of the Year a couple of years after its inauguration. With a circular footprint, seven floors and its 21st century vision of curved glass, the Kumu is home to the Art Museum’s modern Estonian art which dates from the 1700s to the present day and represents the Baltics largest art museum. The museum also hosts temporary exhibitions which feature contemporary art from all around the globe.
The other two branches of the Estonian Art Museum are the Mikkel, also within the palace park grounds, which exhibits mainly ceramics and Chinese porcelain donated from a private collection and the Niguliste. This latter is found within St. Nicholas Church in the Old Town which you may already have visited this morning. The Niguliste is home to an extraordinary collection of ancient religious art made up of altar pieces which date back to medieval times, centuries old carvings and a glittering array of church chandeliers.
Pre-dinner Drinks and Dinner in Tallinn
A multitude and grand diversity of drinking establishments and a food scene fit to satisfy everyone from those looking for simple, low-priced charm to exclusive and sophisticated restaurants -Tallinn has all of this. Many of the choices are concentrated in the romantic Old Town so you can wander and check out several venues until you find something which suits your own personal description of perfect.
Like many of the northern European nations, here in Estonia, beer is a large part of the culture. More to the point -if you happen to be a beer fan -it also has a well-established craft beer scene which is continuously growing and with microbreweries springing up everywhere. Sampling the fine brews of the region can be done in practically any pub or restaurant but there are some which are especially well known for their selection. Põrgu, in the Old Town, is one such and while the name is Estonian for hell its clientele of beer lovers are more inclined to think of it as paradise. Subterranean and atmospheric, Põrgu offers a large variety of quality Estonian brews on tap while the bottled beer selection is comprehensively international.
Estonia takes its beer so seriously that there are even fine dining establishments which offer food and beer pairings much as you might find with wine elsewhere. One such is KOMA which you will find in the Kalamaja district.
While beer might be the city’s mainstay for drinking there are also plenty of choices if sundowners for you mean cocktails. One of the classier options is the Old Town’s Deja Vu which is elegant enough to have a dress code and also has a lovely terrace for the warmer summer nights.
If you happen to be a cocktail connoisseur to whom quality is everything head to the Butterfly Lounge where the multi award-winning mixologists behind the bar are the owners themselves. Relax in the comfortable easy chairs and sofas while rubbing shoulders with the many locals who frequent this popular and stylish venue.
Known as having the best food scene in the Baltics, Tallinn may not be a large city but its density and diversity of restaurants might make you think otherwise. The Old Town has the greatest concentration of restaurants but other areas are now evolving their own scene such as the revitalized and artsy Kalamaja district. Another hot spot is the Telliskivi Creative City which is a series of buildings converted from former warehouses into work studios, independent shops and some of the most stylish and unusual restaurant choices to be found in the entire city. One choice here is the excellent F-Hoone where the ambiance is relaxed, the food quality high and the prices exceptionally reasonable which explains why it is so popular with Tallinn locals.
As already mentioned previously if you are a serious craft beer fan and also a lover of fine dining you might want to check out Kalamaja’s KOMA where experts will guide you through the best beer pairings for your food choices.
For those to whom dining with a view registers as the ideal there is one choice which stands out above all others –quite literally. Soaring more than 300m into the sky, the TV Tower is the city’s tallest structure and is home to an elegant restaurant located 175m up. Not surprisingly fantastic panoramas are a standard inclusion here as is the warm and attentive service.
While experiencing the local cuisine is possible at any number of Tallinn’s restaurants there are also several choices which focus on medieval regional cuisine and atmosphere and so match perfectly the air of the Old Town. One such option here is the highly regarded Olde Hansa where every effort is made to make you feel as if you have stepped back in time several centuries. Candles replace electric lights, waiting staff are in period costume and your entertainment is delivered by live musicians playing medieval music on instruments relevant to the time period. There is one set menu but it is a true feast with dishes created using old recipes and cooking methods.
An Evening in Tallinn
Tallinn has an impressive menu of things to see and do and this continues into the evenings. So, if you are looking for ways to fill your after-dinner hours there are plenty of options.
Eightteen hours of daylight in the summer gives you the opportunity to do all kinds of things at night which you may not have had time to fit into your day. Perhaps you would like to check out the amazing murals on the exterior of the Telliskivi Creative City buildings. Some of the artwork here covers the entire four stories of the exterior walls and is both impressive and beautiful. Afterward you can always pop inside this wonderful complex of restored warehouses to relax with a drink at one of its artsy and cozy bars. Or perhaps you would prefer something much older; if you didn’t have a chance to see Peter the Great’s stunning baroque palace and formal gardens during your day now perhaps is the time to fit it in with a visit to Kadriorg Park.
If you feel like taking an evening stroll to work off any dinner excesses there are stretches of Tallinn’s ancient defensive walls which are open into the evening. Dating back to medieval times, the town walls stretch for almost 2km, punctuated along their length with old towers and offering wonderful views of the Old Town.
Should you prefer some laid-on entertainment instead the city has a full calendar of events which includes such things as concerts, special exhibitions at museums and art galleries and several annual festivals. These include lively celebrations of the town’s Hanseatic medieval heritage, a week-long international jazz event and the Nargen Festival. This latter runs from June until September and stages a range of classical concerts at some stunning venues. The city is also home to the National Opera which offers subtitles in English.Visit tourist information centers or official Tallinn tourism websites such as to see what is happening while you are in town. Perhaps one of the most enjoyable ways to spend your evening is to take in the sunset which doesn’t happen until around 10pm in the summer. Make your way to the Old Town’s upper section –Toompea Hill –and head to one of the magnificent look-out platforms where you can enjoy both sunset and majestic views of the Old Town’s medieval splendor at the same time. If that sounds like too much effort perhaps you would prefer to head to the Raddison Hotel’s Lounge24. Here you can relax with a cocktail while taking in the sunset views of the Old Town’s ancient spires and domes with the sea beyond from the roof terrace, 24 floors up.