Tallinn is a hidden gem in Europe that may not be on the travel bucket list of many. I had no idea about what to expect in Tallinn, and I only aware of this city when I was in Helsinki. I mean, I knew that Estonia is one of the former Soviet nations and the first republic within the Soviet sphere of influence to declare state sovereignty from Moscow in 1990; and I knew that Tallinn is emerging as a “hidden gem” of travel destination in the last decade and it is featured in travel magazines – I had no idea what is so special about this small country and it is certainly not enough for me to make a stand-alone trip to Estonia.
Why go to Tallinn?
- A day trip to Tallinn is easy! (and a discount for me, who had a Helsinki Card) A cruise trip from Helsinki to Tallinn is convenient. It takes about 2.5 hours to travel across the Baltic Sea, making Tallinn a wonderful day trip destination, and for wanderlusts to conquer one more country on their list.
- It is still “mass-tourism-free“. Compared to popular destinations like Paris, Rome, Vienna, or Amsterdam, Tallinn is certainly a capital city that is much less crowded as it’s not in the center of the mass tourist travel radar.
- Having said that, Tallinn’s Old Town is a historic gem that has a lot to offer. Besides, it’s a compact UNESCO Heritage Site that is very close to the cruise terminal, very easy to navigate on foot, and very photogenic with various viewpoints, and photo spots.
More, as the former Soviet Union nation, the Old Town showcases a unique history and culture, manifesting through its Eastern Orthodox architecture. If you would want to see (or taste) something different from the rest of Europe, Tallinn is one of the closest cities in continental Europe to do so and one of the best due to its friendly traveling policies, infrastructure, convenient internet connection, and transportation network.
Lastly, Tallinn is also one of the cheapest cities in Europe. While both living and traveling costs in Tallinn are low, it has high-quality travel accommodations and lots of restaurants that are really good in value for money. It is also a city where fresh, clean, and organic food is very easy to find. If you are planning to stay in Estonia for a longer time, the country has many untouched and fascinating wile nature.
So, without further ado, let’s check out Tallinn’s Old Town and discover how to get there, what to see and do, and more!
Something about Tallinn
Tallinn is the capital, primate, and most populous city of Estonia on the Baltic Sea. The city is the country’s cultural hub that retains its walled cobblestone Old Town at its waterfront. Tallinn means “Danish Town” in Estonian, and it was Estonia was part of Denmark in the 13th and 14th centuries, with some parts remaining under Danish rule until the 17th century.
In 1558, Ivan VI of Russia invaded the region and it was a warzone between Sweden and Russia. After Sweden was defeated in the Great Northern War in 1721, the Russian Empire gained control of the Baltic territories (Estonia and Livonia). After World War I, the Estonian War of Independence took place during the Russian Civil War between 1918 and 1920. A treaty of Tartu was signed in 1920 after Estonia won the war.
Shortly after, World War II began and the Soviet power was once again at large and gained control of this Baltic State, until Estonia finally regained its independence in 1991, by declaring the establishment of the Republic of Estonia.
As you see the country has a strong influence and ties with Russia. Tallinn’s Old Town area is now the best tourist area that witnessed the struggle for the last hundred years, and this is also the home to many exciting cafes and trendy shops. Its Gothic-style Town Hall and its 64-meter high tower are the focal points; Saint. Nicholas Church is a 13th-century landmark exhibiting ecclesiastical art. Check out below for more about these attractions.
How to get there
Tallinn is connected to the rest of Europe via the Lennart Meri Tallinn Airport. Direct flight destinations include London, Helsinki, Vienna, Frankfurt, Brussels, Copenhagen, and so on. As for me, I reached Tallinn from Helsinki by cruise.
There is much information online and there are a few service providers available, such as:
- Viking Line: http://www.vikingline.com/en/Book-and-travel/
- Linda Line: http://www.lindaline.fi/en/?p=1408
- Tallinn & Silja: http://www.tallinksilja.com/en/web/int/helsinki-tallinn-one-way-trips
Linda line claimed itself to be the fastest route commuting between Helsinki and Tallinn in 1.5 hours with speedboats. YET! Note that different ferries took off at different terminals. I selected Tallink & Silja Line cruise for 19 Euros in the morning after balancing the benefits of location and price, with a discount for having a Helsinki Card 🙂
The voyage is about 2 hours. For a day trip, boarding at 7:30 a.m. in the morning and returning at 5:30 p.m. gave me about 8 hours to explore Tallinn.
Although it should have been a shuttle service – the vehicle was a cruise. Yes, a modern Titanic kind of cruise with pools, bars, restaurants, performance theaters, etc. Sadly, for the Helsinki-Tallinn route, none of those was in service except for the snack bars. In general, the seating areas on the cruise were all open and free for grabs. I got an entire booth in a public restaurant and had some space for myself.
Tallinn’s Old Town
Nice walk in the Old Town – I didn’t plan any specific for the day (and I usually would yet I suggest other fellow visitors do the same for Tallinn); Because of the cruise drop, everybody off at the terminal and then the old town would be just 10 to 15 minute walk away.
Tallinn is compact, and most of the iconic attractions are within walking distance from each other, it’s easy to navigate and explore on foot, even during winter in the snow.
After my successful free walking tour in Moscow, I discovered another free walking tour online after my visit to Tallinn, interestingly. I didn’t join it myself, and I welcome feedback and comments regarding the tour!
Tallinn Free Tour: http://www.traveller.ee/tour/tallinn-free-tour
Unlike the big Russian cities such as Moscow and Saint Petersburg, Tallinn is a second-tier city with a fusion of modern and medieval times– ancient Orthodox churches, baroque palaces, and old wooden townhouses were popped out in between modern commercial malls, designer shops, and appealing eateries and cafes.
The route for me kicked start at the Estonian Maritime Museum > Three Sisters > Saint Olaf’s Church (Probably the highest building in the old town?) > walked along the stone wall at Laboratooriumi > and through the shopping streets to the Tallinn Town Hall (Town Hall Square) > Slowly strolled my way uphill to the Kohtuotsa viewing platform
where visitors had a picturesque bird’s eye view of the city (Highlight – yeah, high, I like high). I kinda like the gifts I bought from the shops around this area, too.
After that, I returned passing the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral and Kiek in de Kök artillery tower.
Tallinn’s Old Town Attractions
Saint Olaf’s Church
Saint Olaf’s Church, or Oleviste Church, was built in 1250. The Baptist church features a 405-foot tower surviving several lightning strikes.
It was the tallest building in Europe during the Middle Ages, and so, the striking building could be spotted in various parts of the Old Town and you have to go there that admire this architectural masterpiece.
Enter the church and you may participate in one of the masses or other ceremonies as it is still actively functioning as a religious worshipping venue.
Town Hall Square
As I mentioned, Tallinn’s Town Hall Square is the Old Town’s focal point. Have a walk in the Christmas Market if you are there in December – like how it also served as a public marketplace since the 11th century.
St Mary’s Cathedral
The Cathedral was built in the 13th century and is the oldest medieval Gothic church in Estonia. It has great historic value to the country and it was converted into a Lutheran church in 1561, from a Catholic church.
Aleksander Nevski Cathedral
One of my favorite pieces of architecture in Tallinn. The cathedral was built to a design by Mikhail Preobrazhensky in a typical Russian Revival style between 1894 and 1900.
The Alexander Nevsky Cathedral is Tallinn’s largest and grandest orthodox cupola cathedral. It is one of the most iconic churches in Tallinn, with its colorful exterior and striking black onion domes that demand passersby’s attention.
The Alexander Nevsky Cathedral crowns the hill of Toompea – which is another top spot in the city that you should not miss!
While you take a walk through the old town, make your way finally to Toompea Hill, this is the best viewpoint in Tallinn to take in the breathtaking view of Tallinn Old Town from the higher ground. This is the most popular place among visitors and your trip to Tallinn is complete for having your last picture taken here.
Enjoy food in Tallinn
Excellent dining @ a reasonable price – After the walk and there was some time left before boarding the cruise back to the hustle and bustle of Helsinki, we were looking for someplace to eat. Budget travelers would know that Northern European countries are the most expensive in the world and dining in Northern Europe is outrageous. As Tallinn started developing into a tourist hotspot (not long ago), restaurants, eateries, and atmospheric hotels were booming which makes visiting a breeze and dining out a surprisingly high, and economical experience.
(I have a tip about where to eat in Helsinki, though :P). I walked into one restaurant randomly, and the food and service were nice, for more than half the price if I were dining in Helsinki.
How about you? Do you have any dining places or cafes to recommend in Tallinn?
Leave a comment below and share with us!
Overall, I think Tallinn did retain some of its historic elements but continuously moved forward to be a fascinating and vibrant hub on the Baltic Sea.