When I first told people I was taking a trip to Tallinn, Estonia, I received a few different responses. The most common of which was curiosity about why I would pick that destination. I won’t go into the long explanation as to how my husband and I landed on Tallinn as a vacation spot. What I will say is that confusion should not be the first thing that comes to mind at the mention of Tallinn as a destination. Instead, it should be excitement.
My experiences with this Baltic city were beyond what I expected. I was smitten with the history, architecture and beauty throughout Tallinn. After three days exploring the city and surrounding areas, I realized it doesn’t take much to fully experience the city. In fact, the simplest activities inspired the most memorable moments of our trip.
If you’re planning a visit to Tallinn, Estonia, there’s plenty to fill your days. But here are seven things to do in Tallinn to get you started.
Get the Tallinn Card
I’ve contemplated using city passes before, but never bit the bullet. This time, however, I thought I’d give it a try. And it was the best decision I made. The Tallinn Card gets you free or reduced-price access to dozens of Tallinn historical sites, museums and attractions. On our first full day in Tallinn, we visited Niguliste Church (6.00€ entrance fee); the Kiek in de Kök tower and museum (5.00€ entrance fee); took a tour of the underground tunnels or Bastian Passages (6.00€ ticket), visited the Cathedral of Saint Mary the Virgin (5.00€ entrance fee); and made a stop at the Museum of the Estonian Drink Culture (10.00€ ticket).
Within the first day, the card almost paid for itself. But the best part is that it encouraged us to go places we may have otherwise passed up because we didn’t want to pay. (We try to maintain somewhat of a budget when we travel.) In the next couple days, we visited the Kadriorg Palace & Kadriorg Art Museum, Kumu Art Museum, the Estonian Open Air Museum and the Hellemann Tower and Town Wall. All of which are included in the Tallinn Card. I felt that I got a better introduction to the city with the card. I didn’t avoid an attraction because of cost, and I enjoyed more museums than I think I’ve ever visited on past trips. The bastians tour was the most fun, as it gave us a nice background into the use of the underground tunnels, the role they played for the city throughout the years, and their importance to Tallinn’s history.
There are a variety of card options to choose from, and it all depends on how much you want to do and the length of your visit. We purchased the 48 hour adult (37.00€), which worked perfectly for our three day visit. The website is easy to use and even offers a calculator so you can see just how much the Tallinn Card will save you on all the attractions you want to see.
Another bonus: There’s no need to print off your card. You can keep a digital version on your phone, because every location can easily scan the QR code. However, if you want to have a physical card in hand, you can print it off the website, or pick it up at the visitor center.
Go to Toompea Hill for a View of the City
Tallinn is known for its church steepled-, red-roofed skyline. The best place to snap a shot of the city is from Toompea Hill. Located southwest of Old Town, Toompea Hill dates back to the 13th century. It’s enclosed by limestone fortifications and houses Toompea Castle (home of the Estonian Parliament), and Alexander Nevsky Cathedral. There are a couple viewing points from the hill, each one offering similar, but slightly varying aspects of Old Town.
The best way to reach the hill is to access it from the main portion of Old Town, and there are a couple different paths you can take. Another option is to access it from the backside, where there is a set of stairs leading up to the Patkuli Viewing Platform. If mobility is an issue, this is not the option you want to take. However, if you don’t have any physical limitations, I recommend this route, as it gives you the best shot at some of Tallinn’s famous word art that can be found sporadically throughout the city.
The second vantage point, Kohtuotsa, is quite popular with tourists, mostly because it has some more of that word art I mentioned. The phrase “The Times We Had” is painted neatly on the edge of the building nearest the stone ledge overlooking the city. It’s become a highly coveted spot among social media influencers and Instagramers, as well as the general public. As a result, it can take a long time to get your chance at the perfect photo. I wasn’t willing to wait (or shove people out of the way as I witnessed others doing) to get my picture with the wall and the city view. But I’m not losing sleep over it.
If you don’t want to wrestle with the crowds on Toompea Hill, you can get a wonderful view of the city from some of Tallinn’s church bell towers or the cannon towers located on the city wall. Often these include a small fee to climb, but with that wonderful Tallinn Card, it’s not an issue.
Get a Photo in Tallinn’s Main Square
It may sound cheesy, but snagging a photo in Tallinn’s picturesque main square is an absolute must. It doesn’t really matter which direction you face, you’ll get a wonderfully colorful, quaint backdrop. Probably the best building to get a picture in front of is the Town Hall Building with it’s dragonhead waterspouts, a small yet unique detail that adorns the structure. I suggest taking a photo in the early morning or late evening hours, to capture the wonderful pinkish hue of the sky behind the medieval facades.
Try a Bowl (or two) of Elk Soup
Some of Tallinn’s dishes didn’t sit too well with me or my husband. But one dish we absolutely loved (and could probably eat on a regular basis) is the elk soup. Recommended to me by a fellow blogger (thanks Lindz), elk soup is exactly as it sounds. We picked up our helping from III Draakon, located in Town Hall in the main square. The tavern is lit with soft candle light and filled with large wooden tables and bare stone walls. The staff is dressed in traditional attire, making for a fun, medieval dining experience. Be prepared to get a little messy, as no utensils are provided for the soup. We had to drink it straight from the bowl. When we reached the bottom, where all the delicious bits were hiding, we had to use small sticks to shovel it in our mouths. It may sound primitive, but I found it to be a fun, authentic experience I’ll always cherish.
If you go, be sure to pick up some of their handmade pastries filled with meat, vegetables or fruit. I grabbed the spinach one and my husband opted for apple. Both delicious!
Enjoy Tallinn’s Outdoor Spaces
Within and around Old Town you’ll find lovely green spaces where you can escape the crowds and enjoy nature. Toom Park next to Toompea Hill features a small pond (Snelli Pond) and short trails that weave through the lush greenery. We stumbled upon this park on our first day and found ourselves returning there a few more times before we left. There’s even a cute, quiet cafe where you can grab a cappuccino or a glass of wine after a day of exploring.
Another spot worth checking out is Kadriorg Park. It’s home to Kadriorg Palace, which was built as a summer residence for Peter the Great and houses the Estonian Art Museum’s foreign collection. You can go inside the palace to view the unique art exhibits and admire the buildings Italian Baroque architecture and decor. If you don’t want to pay to enter the palace, you can wander the gardens and fountains outside completely free of charge.
Even if you have no interest in museums, you’ll still enjoy wandering the park’s forested paths to see it’s many ponds, gardens and statues. The affluent surrounding neighborhood features some impressive homes that are definitely worth a glance, and some of them have been re-purposed as museums dedicated to Estonian literary figures.
The park is a short walk from Old Town, but there are also buses that will drop you off there, if you prefer.
Check Out a Museum
Tallinn has a number of museums to explore, but some are better than others. Art lovers should definitely visit the Kumu Art Museum. Opened in 2006, the museum is built into a limestone bank at the edge of Kadriorg Park. The five floors feature exhibition halls with art throughout the centuries. The fifth floor is usually dedicated to the latest contemporary art exhibition. One of the rooms that stood out the most to us was the one filled with dozens of busts (a sculpted representation of a human figure), all staring eerily in one direction. We weren’t really sure what the purpose of it was, but it was fun to see who was lucky enough to be featured.
History buffs will love the Kiek in de Kök Tower. It was once the strongest cannon tower in Northern Europe when it was built back in 1475 as Toompea’s main bastion. The tower now houses five levels of Estonian history and includes hundreds of artifacts from over the years. Another one for history enthusiasts is the Estonian Open-Air Museum, located a short drive from Old Town. It’s spread out across acres of land on what was once the Rocco al Mare summer estate. It showcases rural structures from all over the country, ranging from 18th to 20th century, giving you an interesting perspective on how rural architecture developed. You can enjoy a walk along the nature trails or take a horse and carriage ride through the grounds. If you’re hungry, make a stop at the restaurant, which serves up traditional Estonian dishes and homemade ciders.
The one museum we didn’t get to, which I really wish we had, was the Estonian Maritime Museum. The museum, dedicated to studying and preserving Estonian maritime culture, has two major exhibitions. The main one is located in the Fat Margaret cannon tower in Old Town, while the newest one (opened in 2012) is housed at the Seaplane Harbour. The latter is home to the Lembit submarine, built in 1937; the Maasilinn ship, the oldest sunken ship discovered in Estonia’s waters; as well as sail ships, boats and naval mines. It sounds pretty interesting, but for whatever reason, we couldn’t find time to get there. Oh well, maybe next time.
Enjoy a Local Beer
If you’re a return reader to this blog, you know I always have to try a local craft beer in every place I visit. This vacation was no different. My husband and I referred to our Untappd app to find some of the most highly rated beers in Estonia. We soon discovered Pohjala. Founded in 2011, this craft brewery was started by three friends who wanted to create flavorful, small batch crafted ales that were a far cry from the watered-down lagers brewed by the major corporations.
The brewery is located a decent distance from Tallinn, but lucky for us, they have a tasting room in the city. Located outside Old Town, across the railroad tracks near Balti Jaam station, is Pohjala’s speakeasy-style tasting room. It doesn’t look like much from the outside, and the inside appears unfinished, but that’s the idea. They have a large selection of their beers on tap, and even more available in bottles. The girl behind the bar was super friendly, very knowledgeable and happy to provide us with recommendations based on our beer preferences. We loved everything she suggested, and I’m now seeing if they distribute anywhere in the U.S. At this point, you can only get it in Kentucky, Michigan, New York and Washington, D.C. and only in certain stores (according to RateBeer.com).
Another brewery located in Old Town is Brewery Maja Ölled. They don’t have too many beers on tap, but it’s still a good option if you want to try some of Tallinn’s local brews. We sampled a few, along with some of the breweries fish and chips. It’s a nice pub filled with friendly locals and visitors. If you’re wandering through Old Town, and are in the mood for a local beer, this is a good place to stop in.
There are many more attractions and activities you can experience in Tallinn, but this list of ideas should help you get started. By no means was this enough for me, and I fully intend to go back to see everything I didn’t get a chance to visit, and perhaps even spend some time in other parts of the country. But that’s for a future trip.
Have you ever been to Tallinn? What was your favorite thing to do?
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