15 things in Tallinn you can’t miss – the medieval, the memorial and the modern
I’m beginning to form a love affair with countries in Eastern Europe. After visiting Warsaw at the start of winter, this trip has brought me to Tallinn in spring. A city full of surprises, this post outlines 15 top sights you should see when visiting Tallinn.
Traveling to Tallinn – what every traveler needs to know
Where is Tallinn?
Tallinn is the capital of Estonia, and is situated in the north of the country. It in fact sits on the shore of the Gulf of Finland, allowing easy access between the 2 countries. Estonia borders several countries, namely Russia to the east, and Latvia to the south. It’s also one of several countries surrounding the Baltic Sea, with Sweden to the west.
Tallinn also holds the title of being the largest city in Estonia, and is the country’s political and financial center.
What to see in Tallinn? What languages do they speak?
Most of the people we met in Tallinn have a good level of English. You’ll probably find it’s younger people that can speak well, but you shouldn’t have any problems in general in communicating. Aside from Estonian, many can also speak Russian and also Finnish.
What’s the main international airport in Tallinn?
Tallinn Airport (Lennart Meri Tallinn Airport) is the largest airport in Estonia, and most likely where you’ll be flying into. As airports go, it’s modern, very clean and a pleasant welcome to the country.
Transportation to the center is excellent and varied. The trams and buses are regular and can take you to the city center for €2 ($2; £1.74) per person.* Even for travelers on a tight budget, getting around by taxi service, Uber, is very reasonable. We paid around €5 ($5.59; £4.36) for a 22-minute ride to the city center. This is in stark contrast to the over €40 ($45; £35) we paid for the same ride in Marseille.
Extra tip: we took the no.4 tram on our return to the airport. There’s no physical tram stop, given the trams pass in the middle of the road. So, when you see the tram arriving, do as the locals do and cross the traffic to board. Just like Moses parting the Red Sea, the moving traffic comes to an ordered halt, and lets pedestrians pass. Lastly, you can pay on board directly to the driver, but try to have the right change. It speeds up the process and also means you can spend more time enjoying the ride.
Best things to do in Tallinn – walk the old town
15 attractions you must see in Tallinn
Visit Tallinn Old Town – what to see in Tallinn?
The Old Town of Tallinn has become my favorite of all the Eastern European old towns I’ve visited. As well as being one of the best-preserved Medieval cities in Europe, it also holds a UNESCO title. What’s more, Tallinn Old Town draws you in even before you land, with views of church spires from the plane.
Taking a trip to the Old Town is also one of the best free things to do in Tallinn. Meander through the cobbled streets and admire the Scandinavian-style architecture as you go. There’s also something reminiscent of Stockholm for me in Tallinn, which isn’t that surprising consider the country’s history connection.
Churches you must visit in Tallinn Old Town
As someone who grew up in the Catholic faith, I’m always intrigued to see different Christian denomination churches. There are several in Tallinn Old Town, and I urge you to see them all if you’ve got time.
Alexander Nevsky Cathedral – top things to see inTallinn
“The coastal town of Pirita is a favorite among the locals in Tallinn. It doesn’t feature in that many travel guides I came across, but it’s worth seeing.”
Alexander Nevsky Cathedral Tallinn
Alexander Nevsky Cathedral is one of the most striking in Tallinn for 2 reasons: its size and design. Once you lay eyes on the structure, you’ll notice a Russian influence in the architectural style, and you’d be correct. For it was built in a traditional Russian Revival style during a time when Estonia was part of the Empire. Worshipers that pray at Alexander Nevsky Cathedral are Russian Orthodox.
St Olaf’s Church – what to see in Tallinn
St Olaf’s Church showcases a completely different architectural style. Built in the 12th century, it draws on Scandinavian influences, and was dedicated to King Olaf II of Norway. The church’s main draw is its 405ft (124m) tower, which you can climb to reach the observation deck. While the views may be Insta-worthy, bear in mind the number of steps you’ve to climb to reach the top! There’s an entrance fee of €3* ($3.35; £2.62), but it’s a small price to pay for the views waiting ahead.
St Mary’s Cathedral Tallinn
I can’t write about churches in Tallinn Old Town without mentioning St Mary’s Cathedral. It’s one of the oldest, dating back to the 13th century. The church was originally a Roman Catholic cathedral, before becoming Lutheran in 1561. It now belongs to the Estonian Evangelical Lutheran Church, and is also the seat of the Archbishop of Tallinn.
The standout St Olaf’s Church in Tallinn
What to see in Tallinn – Tallinn Old Town
Toompea Castle – Parliament of Estonia
Standing atop Toompea Hill is a castle that’s been in use going as far back as the 9th century. The decision to build the structure on a hill was a strategic one, as it made it easier to defend against invaders.
Its parliament building was built in 1918, after the Estonian Declaration of Independence. You can see from its exterior that’s it’s ‘newer’ than other structures in Tallinn Old Town. Visiting Toompea Castle is also one of the best free things to do in Tallinn. Guided tours in Estonian, English and Russian are free and open to the public. Inside is an art space, that exhibits Estonian art, along with a parliament reading room and archives. Visit the website for the most up-to-date opening hours and visitor information.
Feeling very small standing by the walls of Toompea Castle in Tallinn
What to see in Tallinn – Tallinn town hall
There’s no chance you can miss Tallinn Town Hall when traveling to the city. It’s the oldest town hall in Scandinavia and the Baltics region, and sits next to the Town Hall Square. Its tower measures around 64m (210ft) in height, and the vane, Old Thomas at the top, has been there since 1530.
You can only visit the town hall on weekdays by making an advanced appointment, preferably 3 days in advance. The timetable varies, so check the website before planning your visit.
Speaking of the Town Hall Square (Raekoja Plats), this grand plaza is a central hub in Tallinn Old Town. Concerts and small festivals take place here, and come Christmas, the square transforms into something quite magical.
Entering Town Hall Square in Tallinn
Top things to do in Tallinn – eat medieval
Just a short walk from Town Hall Square is the medieval restaurant, Olde Hansa. An impressive building from the exterior, it’s the place to visit if you’re intrigued about Medieval cooking.
Once you enter the front door, you can instantly see you’re in a medieval-style restaurant. From the large wooden beams and candlesticks on the ceiling, to the staff in costume, the intrigue builds further.
In truth, Olde Hansa is a little on the touristy side, given its medieval novelty. However, it’s also a selling point of the restaurant, which makes you keen to try the experience for yourself.
Olde Hansa food menu – must-try things in Tallinn
On the menu is everything they would’ve eaten during medieval times — and potatoes are nowhere in sight. Even for a curious foodie, I’d no idea what to order.
In the end, I took a salad with smoked herring and salmon, and a forest mushroom soup. My other half daringly ordered the game sausages made from bear, elk and wild boar. All dishes come with traditional freshly baked bread, which is excellent.
Another selling point at Olde Hansa are the choice of ales and the large clay mugs in which they’re served. I highly recommend trying a mug of the dark honey beer. It’s light, slightly sweet and accompanies the dishes well.
Whatever you end up ordering, Olde Hansa is one of the top places in Tallinn, and for good reason.
Eating medieval at Olde Hansa – one of the most unique experiences in Tallinn
What to see in Tallinn – Telliskivi
From the Medieval to the contemporary for this next must-see area in Tallinn. If you’re a hipster, or just hip at heart, you should visit Telliskivi. It’s actually the name of a street, but as you move further into the center, you notice a stark transformation. Sides of buildings plastered in symbolic street art, sit alongside retro bars and foreign restaurants. There’s something very similar to the Shoreditch area in the east end of London, and the similarities don’t stop there.
It’s fitting then that Telliskivi is also the home of the creative center of Tallinn. Telliskivi Creative City is a former industrial complex, home to studios, creative companies and even NGO offices. It’s the place where you can find photo galleries next to small designer shops. A flea market also takes place on the grounds every Saturday, attracting hipsters and locals alike.
Browse the antiques at Balti Jaama Turg in Tallinn
Balti Jaama Turg – free things to see in Tallinn
I love everything about this former railway storehouse turned market. They sell everything here from fruits, vegetables and fish, to vintage clothes and antiques.
Balti Jaama Turg is for anyone that adores markets, and browsing everything there is on offer. Depending on whether you buy anything, this market’s one of the best — and free — things to do in Tallinn.
My favorite bar in the Telliskivi area of Tallinn – Peatus
Two vintage railway carriages form the unique bar/restaurant that’s Peatus. Achingly hipster in feel, we stopped here for a cold beer and to experience a mix of nostalgia and modern. There’s also an outdoor terrace, which I’m certain is popular come summertime.
While Peatus is labelled as a restaurant, we only saw a drinks menu. Saying that, if you plan to eat here, check in advance whether it’s serving food that day.
Unique bars in Tallinn – Peatus Bar
Visit an exhibition about Estonia’s Soviet past – what to see in Tallinn
This next must-see in Tallinn is unfortunately time relevant, given it’s an exhibition. The ‘Back in Time’ exhibition delivers exactly as its name suggests, showing you a glimpse of life under Soviet rule.
Incredibly interesting, it’s a harsh reminder of the bleak living conditions that many Estonians faced.
Bananas were seen as ‘exotic’, chewing gum was the number 1 thing all kids wanted, and TV commercials were nonsensical.
While the exhibition won’t be there forever, you can check Visit Tallinn for anything similar that may be on.
Visit a former Soviet exhibition in Tallinn
Free things to do in Tallinn – visit the Memorial to the Victims of Communism
Bringing to light the reality of Soviet rule, is this moving tribute to the many Estonians who lost their lives. The coastal town of Pirita is home to the Memorial to the Victims of Communism. It’s a must see in the city, and one of many free things to do in Tallinn.
This grand space overlooking Tallinn Bay consists of 2 parts. ‘Journey’ lists all the names of the Estonians that died, on a plaque stretching across a black wall. ‘Home Garden’ is the informative text and stone tablets in the park that mark where the events happened.
It’s an open space, meaning you can visit at any time. We went in the early evening, which was ideal as there were only a few people around.
Memorial to the Victims of Communism – free attractions in Tallinn
Watch the sun set in Pirita – what to do in Tallinn
The coastal town of Pirita is a favorite among the locals in Tallinn. It doesn’t feature in that many travel guides I came across, but it’s worth seeing. By car, it takes around 10 minutes from the city center.
A sandy beach meets the shores of Tallinn Bay, which becomes packed once the temperatures heat up. However, I’m here to share with you the mesmerizing sunset from Pirita beach. What makes it so special is that there’s nothing — and no-one — to distract you from the view.
If visiting during spring, sunset doesn’t happen till around 8.30pm. Even then, the colors continue to dance around each other, before finally merging into one.
Witness an incredible sunset from Pirita Beach in Tallinn
Excellent restaurants in Tallinn – A fine dining experience at Tuljak
Tuljak is the place to visit if you want a restaurant with fine dining and sunset views on the menu. Also based in Pirita, the food, wine and service here are excellent. Its building is an example of Estonian Modernist architecture, and has also been recognized as a well-restored monument.
One important thing you should note, is where to park at Tuljak. We unfortunately parked in the wrong place and received a ticket. There are free parking spots for Tuljak on Pirita Tee (26E and 28E), or paid parking at Pirita Tee 25.
Finally, when making your booking at Tuljak, be sure to request a window table. It’s a scenic way to spend an evening, and also watch the sun set over Tallinn.
What to do in Tallinn – dine at Tuljak and book a window seat
Take a day trip from Tallinn – top things to do in Tallinn
It doesn’t take long to get out of Tallinn and into the surrounding counties. By car, we were already driving into forests and remote roads after just 20 minutes.
My number 1 recommendation for a Tallinn day trip is to visit some of the beaches along the coast. Given Tallinn’s location, driving west brings you past several pretty, and very local, beaches. Some include the beaches at Vääna-Jõesuu, Kloogaranna and Laulasmaa. Depending on the time of year, and weather pending, there’s a high chance you’ll have these beaches all to yourself.
Time pending, it’s also possible to visit Helsinki in Finland on a day trip from Tallinn. It’s a journey than many Estonians and Finns regularly make, and takes around 2 hours by ferry. Again, the timing can depend on several factors, such as which ferry service you choose, the weather etc.
Extra tip: If you want to visit Helsink from Tallinn, book the ferry in advance. We found the ticket prices too expensive as we were looking at last minute trips.
Top things to do in Tallinn – take a day trip to Kloogaranna beach
Where to stay in Tallinn – Luxury boutique hotels
Right in the heart of Tallinn Old Town are 2 luxury boutique hotels, ideally located for a short Tallinn break.
Hotel St. Petersbourg and Schlössle Hotel may belong to the same hotel group, but they’re totally different in style. The former embraces a modern decor design, while the latter is more traditional luxury. There are 27 and 23 rooms and suites respectively in each hotel, and bookings go quickly.
What do you think of Tallinn? Is it a city that you’d like to visit? Let me know in the comments below.
Till next time, happy boutique travels x
*Prices correct at time of publishing
Disclosure: This post may contain affiliate links, which means I may receive a commission if you click a link and purchase something that I’ve recommended. Thank you for your support.