I wasn’t particularly sure how to best share the city of Tallinn with you. As the capital of Estonia and its major tourist destination, if you’re heading to Estonia there’s a good chance you’re going there. Unlike my previous entries on Estonia, if you like European travel there’s a fair chance you’ve actually heard of it. This is for good reason as it is a vibrant city with a remarkable old town that’s hard not to like.
So I figured if I’m not trying to convince you to go there, then maybe I could at least provide some tips based on my visit there in August of last year. So here’s my advice that will hopefully help you with a visit to Estonia’s beguiling capital.
Get Ready to Wander
If there’s one place in Tallinn you’re certain to visit on a trip there, it’s the city’s wonderful Old Town. Surrounded by formidable walls and impressive towers, this historic part of the town is bound to delight visitors. True to its medieval nature, the old town is a web of streets and lanes that are perfect for wandering through. I could have given you a list of sights to find throughout the city, but I figured most of them would be spots you’d inevitably find walking through the Old Town anyway.
Most of the central streets are pedestrian only, with vehicles mostly restricted to the roads closest the walls. In my opinion this makes Tallinn’s Old Town much more inviting as your free to absorb your surroundings, rather than be mindful of cars and the like. Best thing is, if you get lost, simply walk until you find a wall and follow it around.
Tip: Be prepared to walk a fair bit because most of the Old Town is pedestrian traffic only.
A Tale of Two Towns
A fact I didn’t learn until I arrived in Tallinn is that the Old Town is actually two towns, Upper Town and Lower Town. Historically, the Upper Town belonged to the wealthy Germanic aristocrats while Lower Town housed the poor ethnic Estonians. As such, the two towns are considerably different in character and look, reflecting this centuries old divide.
This is why you will find things like Toompea Castle in Upper Town, while the market square besides Old Town Hall in Lower Tower. This divide explains why there are effectively two different old town walls and also explains why you’ll find cathedrals in both halves of town. It certainly gives Tallinn a standout distinction compared to other old towns in Northern Europe.
Tip: Take different paths up and down between the two towns, eg. take the path from the The War of Independence Victory Column up and Pikk Jalg “Long Leg” path down.
Free Walking Tour
I’m a big advocate of free walking tours as more often than not I’ve found them to be a great way to learn about places beyond the superficial. With them, you get to learn about the place’s history, local culture and get some great stories. Tallinn’s Free Walking Tour is no exception. Despite having to leave it half way in (see below for why), I learnt a lot about the city in a brief time.
Our guide shared plenty with us, from the clever way the locals tricked the Soviets into letting them build St. Nicholas’ Church, to their views on the Victory Column Monument and how Kiek in de Kök Tower got its name. You’ll come away with a greater insight into this fascinating city afterwards.
Tip: Take the Free Walking Tour that leaves opposite the Tallinn Tourist Information Centre at 12:00.
By the time I had reached Tallinn, I had learned that a Baltic summer didn’t necessarily mean unending sunshine and stifling heat. However, I wasn’t prepared for the torrential downpour that would rob me of roughly a third of my time sightseeing. Arriving to glorious sunshine in the afternoon my first day, I explored a decent portion of the Lower Town before calling it a day.
Little did I know that it would then rain nonstop for a day and a half, forcing me to abandon my walking tour and seek shelter because I didn’t have appropriate wet weather gear. It eased off in the afternoon on my last day so I was able to make up some lost ground, but the weather definitely put a dampener on my visit, pun certainly intended.
Tip: Even in summer, ensure you have appropriate wet weather gear, including footwear.
Not Just a Day Trip
Tallinn is an immensely popular day trip destination, as regular ferries run between the city and Finland’s capital, Helsinki. As the ferry ride is only roughly 2 hours each way, many people include a day trip to Tallinn as part of their Finnish holiday. While sure, you can probably cover a fair bit of ground in a single day, an overnight stay allows you to see more of the city and take it at your own pace.
With plenty of accommodation options in old town, plus a quality public transport network of both buses and trams, spending more time in Tallinn is straightforward and worth it. You could even stay in the cosy Master’s Courtyard like I did above.
Tip: Tallinn has more to offer than what can be comfortably covered in a day trip, so spend the night and enjoy your visit.
Escape Old Town
Simply put, Tallinn’s old town is pretty spectacular. With its monumental walls, towers, traditional buildings and the like, it has to be one of northern Europe’s best old towns. And yet, there’s more to the city than just its old town. Even in my weather-limited exploring, I was able to visit some interesting parts of the city outside the walls. While I regrettably missed the Kadriorg Palace that looks quite grand, I did manage to visit both the Kalamaja neighbourhood and the Rotermann Quarter.
Kalamaja is the neighbourhood on the opposite of the train station to old town with a history all its own. A working class neighbourhood that sprung up in the late 19th century, it boasts plenty of old-fashioned, wood panel houses, typical of Estonia. I didn’t find any big attractions here, but it was nice just to walk through the neighbourhood and appreciate century-old houses that are still lived in.
Also worth visiting for its architecture is the Rotermann Quarter, found on the far side of Tallinn’s Old Town. Initially an industrial area in the 19th century, it’s seen a significant revamp in recent years, now blending industrial and modern architecture to staggering effect. Beyond the architecture, it’s also a shopping precinct for those looking to shop.
Tip: Venture beyond Tallinn’s Old Town to learn more about the city and modern life there
Have you had the opportunity to visit Tallinn before? Agree with my tips or have ones of your own? Please share them in the comments below.
*Disclaimer: This post contains affiliate links. If you click on one and make a booking, I may make a small commission, but at no extra cost to you.
This article is now available as a mobile app. Go to GPSmyCity to download the app for GPS-assisted travel directions to the attractions featured in this article.
Why Not Pin It for Later