Alexander Nevsky cathedral, viewed from the tower of St Mary's Cathedral, Tallinn
Travel

Top Things To Do and See in Tallinn, Estonia

Estonia is a young state with ancient roots and a sturdy hearth. After obtaining its independence from the dismantling Soviet Union in 1991, this country undertakes a broad wave of changes, focusing on technology. Skype and Transferwise are only a few of the multinational companies that started their business in this Baltic State, creating in Tallinn a hub for startups and small industries focusing on software.

Organizing a weekend break to Tallinn is a comfortable and enjoyable experience. Everything can be booked, read, organized online. www.visitestonia.com and www.visittallinn.ee  are the two official websites of the Tourism Office in the country and in the Capital city respectively. They provide updated information, interesting descriptions and lovely pictures of every landmark in the State you may want to visit. We wish every modern country would have something like that!

One of the main access point to Tallinn old town, Viru Gate, Tallinn
One of the main access point to Tallinn old town, Viru Gate

Tallinn is home to a third of Estonian population. The city is relatively new for European standards, with its first mention dating back to 13th century. It’s built around an enclosed city center, called Old Town. The Old Town of Tallinn is one of the best preserved medieval cities in Europe and is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. A magnificent city wall, built in the 13th century and continuously updated over time, surrounds the inner town.

In opposition to its relatively small size, there are many things to do and see here. From the murals of Telliskivi to the dark prisons of  KGB, Tallinn offers endless possibilities for curious tourists. It is also one of the centers of the Nordic food revolution, and we will write about the fantastic meals we had here in another post (spoiler: dark rye bread!).

Delicious tip: TallinnCard yes or no? We always tend to buy the Tourist card of the cities we are visiting. Considering the number of things we want to see, it usually gives us a good discount on the entrance fees, with the bus/metro pass as a useful add-on. However, we can’t recommend buying this card in Tallinn. Several attractions we wanted to check out were outside of the card or free, and most of the hot spots are within walking distance. Unless you have a specific interest in Estonian history, you may be better off without it. Luckily, the website selling these cards (visittallinn.ee) offers the possibility to check in advance if it is worth or not by selecting the attractions you want to visit. Wonderful!

Let’s check out our Delicious Spots for the Capital city of Estonia!

  • Walking tour

We have to say, we are passionate about walking tours. It is very similar to the way we explore a new city. They allow us to get acquainted with the city, understanding the distances between the different points of interest and the general vibe of the place. Furthermore, they are run by young locals, who have passion and juvenile determination. We love to ask questions, and we noticed younger guides are better in answering them. Tallinn has different walking tours available. We opted for the one organized by Traveller. Our guide, a young Computer Sciences student from Tallinn, was the perfect host for this excursion. The tour takes you to Toompea Hill, walking around the Parliament, the two cathedrals, and the viewpoints, and terminate in the Town Hall square. It is far from being a complete tour of the city, but it’s a good starting point to get to know this beautiful town.

  • KGB cells

Inside the KGB museum, Tallinn
Inside the KGB museum

While the city is experiencing a general level of wealth and wellbeing, the past of Tallinn is disseminated with horrors and tragedies. USSR dominated the country for over 50 years, terrorizing its citizens and spreading panic. Patarei Prison, the infamous gulag Soviets used during their occupation, is currently closed for public safety, but two museums testify the city’s tragic past. The new KGB cells museum is situated in the same building where the homonymous security agency had its own chief offices. In the basement of this nice-looking construction, 6 cells hosted citizens waiting to be sent to Patarei or Siberia. This is a small yet very curated museum, something that deserves a visit to remember our past.

After the liberation from USSR, several buildings built by the occupiers were left in ruins, Tallinn
After the liberation from USSR, several buildings built by the occupiers were left in ruins
The entrance to Patarei Prison, the notorious gulag built during USSR occupation, Tallinn
The entrance to Patarei Prison, the notorious gulag built during USSR occupation
  • Viru Hotel and Museum

The big-sized building in front of Viru Gate is called Viru Hotel. It was the only place where foreigners could stay while visiting USSR-occupied Tallinn, a typical example of how Soviets were managing visitors from the Western World. Everything was produced in situ to fake a luxurious lifestyle nobody in USSR actually achieved. Among the different features of the hotel, a widespread espionage system allowed KGB to listen to every word exchanged among the guests. The last floor of the hotel (which officially did not exist) hosted the secret police headquarters. It has been now transformed into a museum, with the possibility to explore in more details the life under the hood in the hotel and the spying techniques used here.

Some of the spying equipment retrieved on the top floor of Hotel Viru, Tallinn
Some of the spying equipment retrieved on the top floor of Hotel Viru
The red phone in Hotel Viru. It was directly connected with the KGB headquarters, Tallinn
The red phone in Hotel Viru. It was directly connected with the KGB headquarters
USSR always negated the existence itself of the top floor of Hotel Viru, Tallinn
USSR always negated the existence itself of the top floor of Hotel Viru
Everything happening inside Hotel Viru was monitored and recorded, Tallinn
Everything happening inside Hotel Viru was monitored and recorded

Delicious tipTickets to Viru Hotel KGB museum must be reserved online. The visit can only be organized with a tour guide, and the number of places available is limited. Even in low season, our group reached maximum capacity. Remember to book your seat in advance!

  • Toompea Cathedrals: Alexander Nevsky and St. Mary Cathedrals

Alexander Nevsky cathedral, viewed from the tower of St Mary's Cathedral, Tallinn
Alexander Nevsky cathedral, viewed from the tower of St Mary's Cathedral

Two churches are among the most prominent features of Toompea hill. Alexander Nevsky Cathedral is an Orthodox church built at the beginning of the XX-th century by the Russian Empire. Its typical black onion-shaped domes create a nice contrast with the red roofs of the city. Inside, we can find several features characteristic of this religion’s worship places, like the profusion of gold and sacred icons.

On a completely different note, St. Mary’s Cathedral. Built by the Danes in the 13th century, it was initially a Roman Catholic church, being re-adapted as a Lutheran one in 1561. Do not miss to climb on its tower. It’s the highest point in Tallinn and offers spectacular views of the town.

St. Mary’s cathedral, the oldest church in Tallinn and in Estonia, Tallinn
St. Mary’s cathedral, the oldest church in Tallinn and in Estonia
Alexander Nevsky cathedral faces the entrance to the Parliament on Toompea Hill, Tallinn
Alexander Nevsky cathedral faces the entrance to the Parliament on Toompea Hill
  • Kalamaja district

Born as a fishing village, Kalamaja district is now one of the most stylish locations where to live in Tallinn. Colored houses and wooden buildings mark the main characteristics of this neighborhood. It’s beautiful to see the mixture of old and new architecture styles, regularly interrupted by old squared soviet style apartment blocks. It is an excellent place where to take a walk after exploring the medieval city center, and a good resource of trendy restaurants and pubs.

The wonderful colors of Kalamaja neighborhood, Tallinn
The wonderful colors of Kalamaja neighborhood
Another amazing artwork near Balti Jaam market, Tallinn
Another amazing artwork near Balti Jaam market
Over the last few years Kalamaja district became one of the trendiest places where to live in Tallinn
Over the last few years Kalamaja district became one of the trendiest places where to live in Tallinn
A typical door in Kalamaja, Tallinn
A typical door in Kalamaja
  • Telliskivi Creativity Center

The map of Telliskivi, painted on the wall, Tallinn
The map of Telliskivi, painted on the wall
A hamster on the wall! Tallinn
A hamster on the wall!

This cultural space is situated next to the Balti Station, between the city center and the Kalamaja neighborhood. It’s a business hub with several art studios,  NGOs, and creative companies. The main reason we recommend a visit here is its focus on street-art. Since its creation in 2009, several artists offered their services to let this former industrial complex get a wonderful colored atmosphere. It is also home to several restaurants, especially for modern-style dining. If weather allows, pick a sunny day to explore this center, as the walls of the building tend toward dark colors and pictures will suffer from lack of lights!

One of the most amazing street art works in Telliskivi, Tallinn
One of the most amazing street art works in Telliskivi
  • St. Catherine Passage

A mandatory stop for every tourist on their first visit to the Capital City of Estonia. This pretty medieval walking lane is one of the most typical photos from Tallinn. On one side, the remains of St. Catherine Guild, an ancient monastery and one of the oldest buildings in Tallinn. On the other side, several artisan workshops. It’s a picturesque view, with grey stone walls on both sides and cute roofed arches between the two. There is no way you can’t miss this beautiful alley!

St. Catherine passage, surrounded by the monastery and the workshops, Tallinn
St. Catherine passage, surrounded by the monastery and the workshops
  • Walk over Tallinn’s wall

The walls of Tallinn surround the entire medieval city, Tallinn
The walls of Tallinn surround the entire medieval city
The view from the Tallinn walls, on their eastern branch, Tallinn
The view from the Tallinn walls, on their eastern branch

The Old Town of Tallinn is surrounded by an enormous medieval defensive wall, originally built in 1265 and enlarged and strengthened over the years. The wall is regularly interrupted by towers and gates, providing additional defensive capabilities to the city. From one of this towers, Hellemann Tower, it’s possible to climb up on the walkway on top of the walls. The view of the town from there is terrific. In winter time, in particular, the red roofs create a delightful contrast with the snow and the other medieval buildings, we just loved it!

The Virgin tower, one of the several towers on Tallinn walls, Tallinn
The Virgin tower, one of the several towers on Tallinn walls
  • Kohtuotsa viewing platform

The red roofs and the white snow create some amazing colour effects, Tallinn
The red roofs and the white snow create some amazing colour effects

Speaking of views, there are two viewing platforms you can’t miss on Toompea hill: Patkuli and Kohtuotsa viewing platforms. The second one, in particular, offers a fantastic view over the Old Town, with the Town Hall and the tower of St Olaf’s church in plain sight. Do not miss the Instagram-perfect picture with “The Times We Had” writing on the wall!

An instagram-perfect corner at Kohtuotsa viewing platform, Tallinn
An instagram-perfect corner at Kohtuotsa viewing platform
Admiring Tallinn Old Town landscape, Tallinn
Admiring Tallinn Old Town landscape
  • Town hall square and Town hall pharmacy

Town Hall square is one of the most suggestive places in Tallinn at night, Tallinn
Town Hall square is one of the most suggestive places in Tallinn at night

At the heart of the Old Town, the Town Hall square was the scenario for public activities in the Medieval Tallinn. Today it’s one of the cutest places in the city, with the Gothic style Town Hall on one side and the beautiful wooden buildings around, painted with bright colors. We recommend a visit to the Town Hall Pharmacy, the oldest pharmacy still in activity in Europe. Inside, several artifacts from Middle Ages “healthcare”.

The entrance to the Pharmacy is situated directly in front of the town hall, Tallinn
The entrance to the Pharmacy is situated directly in front of the town hall
Some of the colored buildings on Town Hall square, Tallinn
Some of the colored buildings on Town Hall square
The pharmacy is still operating, while keeping its original furniture, Tallinn
The pharmacy is still operating, while keeping its original furniture
  • Masters’ Courtyard

This small enclosure tucked in a small alcove from Vene, just south from St. Catherine Passage, could easily win the title of the cutest spot in town (but there are several competitors in this wonderful city!). Masters’ Courtyard is a recomposition of what Tallinn city center could look alike centuries ago. Several craftsmen have their own workshops, hosted in buildings dating back to the 13th century. It’s a beautiful little place, where to stop for a couple of pictures and some shopping.

Inside Masters courtyard there are several artisan workshops, Tallinn
Inside Masters courtyard there are several artisan workshops
During summer the tables outside are always crowded. It’s a bit too cold to stay outside during winter though! Tallinn
During summer the tables outside are always crowded. It’s a bit too cold to stay outside during winter though!
  • Bastion Tunnels

Inside one of the galleries running under the bastions around Toompea, Tallinn
Inside one of the galleries running under the bastions around Toompea

Kiek in de Kök is an artillery tower built in the late 15th century, while the town was one of the most important commercial hubs in Northern Europe in the Hanseatic League. From this tower, we can visit the Bastion Tunnels. This set of galleries is built inside the bastions of Toompea hills. They served as protected passages, weapons storage, and bomb shelter throughout the ages. Now it’s a museum with several relics from the USSR occupation.

Delicious tip: Be aware that the guided tour of the galleries starts from the tower and terminates in Freedom Square, without returning to the starting point. Visit the little museum inside the tower before descending in the tunnels!

  • Kadriorg Art Museum (St. Peter’s Palace)

After the successful conquest of Tallinn during the Great Northern War, the Russian czar Peter the Great bought and renovated this lovely building on the outskirts of Tallinn for his wife, Catherine I of Russia. The house, renovated in mid 19th century, is currently hosting a painting exhibition with minor works by European artists. The most interesting bits are the colored facade and the great hall, beautifully decorated with stuccos and frescos. If you have time, we suggest a visit here followed by a walk in the gardens, connecting the building with KUMU, the National Art Museum.

Peter’s palace, built by the czar Peter I after conquering Estonia, Tallinn
Peter’s palace, built by the czar Peter I after conquering Estonia
The grand hall of Peter’s Palace, covered with stuccos and frescos, Tallinn
The grand hall of Peter’s Palace, covered with stuccos and frescos
  • Toompea Castle

Toompea Hill is the first evidence of the city of Tallinn. A fortress was standing here since at least 1050. Over the centuries, several buildings were added around the castle. After its unilateral declaration of independence from Russia, in 1920, Estonian citizens started the construction of a new parliament hall. Head of the project were two young architecture students, who designed an exquisite building in Expressionist style. This is the only Parliament in the world built in this fashion. It’s a beautiful construction and the best place where to get some information about the organization of this Baltic Republic.

The parliament hall is unique in its genre, with its typical Expressionist style, Tallinn
The parliament hall is unique in its genre, with its typical Expressionist style
The Riigikogu is situated on the remains of the old fortress, the first settlement in the city, Tallinn
The Riigikogu is situated on the remains of the old fortress, the first settlement in the city
Climbing to Toompea Hill, Tallinn
Climbing to Toompea Hill

Delicious tip: the parliament can be only visited with a group tour. Be careful about the timetable, as there are few visits per week. Check online the availability of tours at www.riigikogu.ee.

We loved this city. During winter, the white snow covers every roof with a beautiful dreamy aura. It has several historic buildings to visit, a lovely culinary tradition, and top-notch services, making the Capital City of Estonia a delightful destination for a weekend break.