Our Visit to Tallinn, Estonia
and the Top Seven Things You Should Do There
Whenever we travel, Michael and I always strive to squeeze in a visit to one destination that’s somewhat less traveled, at least by American standards. During last year’s summer vacation across Northern Europe we chose the quaint little medieval city of Tallinn, Estonia as our slightly off the beaten path destination. It ended up being one of our favorite cities we’ve ever visited.
Tallinn, Estonia’s capital, can easily be reached via a quick 50 mile ferry ride from Helsinki across the Gulf of Finland, or by an overnight ferry ride from Stockholm. With Stockholm, and Helsinki both being on our original itinerary, we thought it would have been a crime, figuratively speaking, not to make time to visit Tallinn while we were in this part of the world. In hindsight, it really was our best decision.
To set the scene, let me add that our trip had started in Helsinki, and unfortunately it began on a rather sour note after a missed connection at Washington Dulles Airport, which ended in us arriving in Helsinki a day late, and without luggage (made even more infuriating seeing as we were unable to get booked on earlier flights due to limited time to transfer our luggage, only to learn it was still sitting in DC after the longest nightmare getting to Helsinki, but I digress….). For added fun, it was super cold when we arrived in Helsinki around 1:00am and our coats were in our luggage, as it was a sweltering summer day in the south when we departed the U.S. We never did have luggage during our stay in Helsinki, and the airlines were of zero help tracking it down, but kindly offered to forward it to our next destination once it arrived in Helsinki (nope. nope. nope….it never would have caught up with us.). We instead opted to get up bright and ridiculously early the day we were due to ferry over to Tallinn to attempt to get help in-person at the airport (which is a whole other, pretty funny story in hindsight).
Long story short, we followed through with our plan to return to the Helsinki Airport, and after some concerning moments our beloved luggage suddenly made an appearance on the baggage claim conveyor belt. It was really early in the morning, so nobody was around aside from Michael and I, and of course our lovely new Helsinki Airport customer service BFF, so we literally danced around the baggage claim area and hugged our new hero, who had worked so diligently making call after call for about 30 minutes to track our belongings down. There’s so much more nightmare to this missed flight/lost luggage ordeal, but alas, this post is supposed to be about our wonderful stay in Tallinn, so let me get back on track.
With our luggage finally in tow, and a new lease on life (err…vacation?) knowing I was done with the whole giving-my-clothes-and-undies-sink-baths thing, we hurriedly taxi’d to the Helsinki port, all Amazing Race style, to catch the next ferry to Tallinn. Thankfully, we got to the port in a nick of time and secured ferry passes for the next departure. Success again! Twice in one day, and it was still early….we were on a roll now and nothing could stop us;)
With our vacation officially back on track, we could finally breathe again. We took this large Viking Line ferry from Helsinki to Tallinn, which takes approximately 2.5 hours. We really appreciated this time to regroup and enjoy some food and wine in the large dining room. It was definitely not gourmet cuisine, but not too shabby either. We also made some friends on board (after a few glasses of wine, of course;)), who were Helsinki residents traveling to Tallinn for the day to go shopping. Apparently this is a pretty common activity, as the cost of living in Helsinki is extremely high (we definitely felt the pain in our wallets during our visit), so it’s totally worth it to make the trek to Tallinn to get some great deals on clothing, and other goods (including alcohol, evidently).
Upon our arrival in Tallinn, I could tell that our vacation had officially recovered from the flight/luggage mishap, and would continue on the upswing. It was easy to catch a taxi at the port, and within five minutes we were being dropped off at the beginning of the pedestrian zone in the Old Town. This place was freaking ADORABLE! Our Airbnb host was awesome, as was our flat, which was located just a two minute (if that) walk to the Old Town Square. After getting cleaned up and putting on some fresh threads, which felt AHHHmazing, we set out to get lost in the nooks and crannies inside the historic walls of this medieval city.
The sun was shining, and the temperature was glorious. One of the first things I noticed during our aimless wandering is that this city is really quite popular among tourists, though we did not hear too many American accents, which wasn’t a huge surprise. So while Tallinn is touristy, it was the right amount of touristy for us at that point in time.
After a brief stroll we settled in at one of the many welcoming cafes that border the Old Town Square and devised a game plan on how we’d spend our time in Tallinn over a couple of local beers. Yes, these cafes in the Old Town Square are a bit touristy, but if you’re looking for a friendly atmosphere, some good beer or wine, and amazing people watching opportunities, this is where you want to be.
While we were relaxing at the first cafe we’d stopped at, we noticed another cafe across the town square serving what appeared to be large towers of beer. Intrigued, and still recovering from a very rough few days of travel and luggage hunting, we decided to investigate. Indeed, this other cafe served beer in two liter “towers.” So of course, we ordered one. I mean, when in Rome, right?=\
The sun was beginning to set, and about halfway through our beer tower we were feeling pretty jovial, needles to say. Actually, about half of the patrons at this particular establishment were feeling rather giddy at this point. This is when we struck up a conversation with a couple of Dutch guys at the table beside us, who we later learned were brothers traveling around Europe in a modified late model fire truck. Interesting characters, to be sure. We ended up joining forces to finish off our beer towers, and of course had some pretty compelling conversations. This is always my favorite part about traveling–getting to know people from other countries.
We probably spent a good two to three hours getting acquainted with our new Dutch friends, and discussing ideas on where they should head next on their road trip, when we realized we needed to find a decent place to eat before all the kitchens closed down for the night. We lucked out with another location in the Old Town Square, and then happily turned in for the night to prepare for some exploring the following day. We were also hoping to meet up with one of Michael’s former interns, who’s Estonian and now lives a couple hour train ride away in Tartu. Thankfully, it all worked out and he was kind enough to make the trip from Tartu to meet up with us for dinner the next day and then treated us to a local bar experience, which was…interesting (and not in a bad way).
We really feel that our time in Tallinn was perfectly spent, so I’m going to attempt to summarize most of what we did during our remaining two days with our list of the top seven things to do in Tallinn. If you have more time, there are certainly more sights to see, but completing this list should leave you satisfied, especially if you’re short on time.
1. Take the free guided tour
Every day at noon, a free two hour walking tour departs from the Tourist Information Center located just outside the Old Town Square at Niguliste 2. The guides work strictly off tips, and we were happy to tip generously, as it was truly an informative, yet enjoyable experience. The guides are entertaining and great at giving an overview of Estonia’s somewhat tumultuous history, as well as showing you all the highlights of the country’s medieval gem, Tallinn. We highly recommend taking this tour before you begin sightseeing so you’ll have a good lay of the land, and can get an idea of what sights you want to return to for a more in-depth look. There are more tour times offered during peak summer tourist season, so it’s best to check a head of time to see what options are available. More information can be found here.
2. Find a cozy cafe in the Old Town Square to rest your legs and people-watch
Try to opt for one of the locations that doesn’t have costume clad employees aggressively recruiting patrons. If necessary, take a couple laps around the square to find a place that suits the vibe you’re looking for. Then get comfortable, and enjoy the view.
3. Pop in for a visit at the Russian Orthodox Cathedral
While the Alexander Nevsky Russian Orthodox Cathedral is relatively young, having been completed in 1900, it is quite the spectacle due to both its extremely grand, if not imposing exterior, and also the symbolism of its construction as one of oppression by the Russian Empire amongst the Estonian people. Estonians disliked this cathedral so much, authorities ordered its demolition less than 25 years after it’s completion when Estonia enjoyed a brief period of independence after the fall of the Russian Empire in 1917, before being overtaken by the Soviet Expansion during World War II. Obviously the demolition never occurred, so this towering structure stands proudly today for all to see.
4. Visit the Dome Church
The exterior of this Northern European Gothic style church is not as noteworthy as the striking Russian Orthodox Cathedral that seems to dominate Tallinn’s skyline; but St. Mary’s Church, also known as the Dome Church, is notably the oldest church in mainland Estonia – with the first wooden structure dating from approximately 1219. Though it has gone through many expansions and reconstructions since the first structure was built, the exterior stone walls you see today have been standing since the 15th century. Inside you’ll find several old coats of arms dating from the 1600s, tombs and memorials, and a stunning view of Tallinn at the top of the bell tower. You will likely be one of just a few visiting this historic sight, which is one of the best aspects of this experience. So take your time taking in the somewhat cold ambiance of the stone interior, then make your way up the tower and prepare your camera for some amazing views. Have a seat and gaze up at the large beams supporting the four large bells dating from the 17th and 18th centuries and look for old carvings in the rafters by those who wished to leave their mark in history, while enjoying a nice cross-breeze during a warm summer day.
5. Take a stroll through Kadriorg Park
It’s just a short tram ride, or an easy walk from the Old Town to this small, idyllic palace that was constructed in the early 1700s for Peter the Great’s wife, Catherine. The expansive, and meticulously manicured palace grounds are the true highlight, and where you’ll find locals picnicking, reading a book under a tree, or feeding the resident ducks. Take your time strolling through the park, enjoy the green-space, and quite literally stop to smell the roses. Note that Estonia’s Presidential Residence is also on these grounds. Art enthusiasts will also enjoy the Kumu Art Museum, which is just a few minute walk from the Palace. There are cafes available on site for refreshments.
6. Dine at Rataskaevu 16
This tiny restaurant serves some truly divine cuisine, presented to you by an exceptionally friendly, yet professional staff. This meal was the highlight of our 17 day trip across Northern Europe, AND it didn’t break the bank. Again, this place is tiny, so it’s best get there as soon as they open (there will likely be a line), or try to make reservations. Visit their website here.
7. Get Lost
That sounds slightly derogatory, doesn’t it? I’m not sure how else to put it, but the best aspect of Old Town Tallinn is Old Town Tallinn, so wander its narrow, stone cobbled streets and get lost in time. Escape the crowds of tourists in the Old Town Square and roam outward. Marvel at the medieval architecture and imagine what it must have been like living in Tallinn during various points in its turbulent history, and thank yourself for choosing to visit this magical little city and having the opportunity to witness Estonia as a thriving, independent nation.
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Planning a trip to Tallinn? Let me know if you have any questions…I love to help!