Tallinn, Estonia has three layers. The first is bonny Tallinn, with its perfect medieval UNESCO old town. The second is post-Soviet Tallinn, a grey decaying relic, still shucking the yoke. The third is hipster Tallinn, drinking craft beer and spray painting the town. To understand the city, you really should explore all three, and this guide for what to do in Tallinn gives you fourteen cool ways to make it happen.
Tallinn hit my radar for a couple of reasons. I’m a sucker for a pretty view and the pictures that I had seen of their old town were a honey trap for me. I’m also crackers for street art and had heard that they had an emerging street art scene. Furthermore, I was going to be in Europe anyway and simply wanted to bag a new country. It’s part of my 60×60 bucket list project to see more cool stuff before I turn sixty and am too old and cranky to get out of my rocking chair.
Estonia really delivered. I found so many cool things to see in Tallinn, which ticked my boxes and tickled my fancy. I was in Estonia for a week and had 4.5 days in Tallinn. If you have as much time, then do the full list. But if you only have a few days there, you’ll want to prioritize by focusing on one particular area (bonny history, hipster haunts or Soviet wreckage). Alternatively, you can put together a sampler platter of all three. I’ll help you do that by indicating a must-see attraction in Tallinn for each category.
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Things to Do in Tallinn for Finding Bonny History
The first fortress was built in Tallinn in 1050. The city experienced successive waves of occupation from the Germans, the Swedes, the Russians, the Germans (again) and (yet again) the Russians, before finally achieving their independence in 1990. Tallinn was fortunate because it was never fully pillaged or razed, so what you’ll find there is a complex layer cake of history with a very pretty UNESCO heritage frosting on top.
Wander Around Old Town
**Must See Tallinn Attraction**
If you are trying to figure out what to do in Tallinn, then you have to start at its historic core. It’s hard to describe Tallinn’s Old Town center without using tired adjectives like “charming” or “picture-perfect”, but it is indeed both. This medieval core managed to survive WWII, damaged but intact, and it has cobbled stones, narrow lanes and great views of red rooftops. You can take a tour but I chose to wander around on my own, giving me more time for photography and getting lost.
Be sure to seek out some high spots for killer views:
- St. Olaf Church tower: It’s the tallest spot in Old Town and you get 360′ views by climbing 232 narrow steps to the top. Be there when they open at 10am and get the best morning views of Old Town.
- Kohtuotsa viewing platform: The following three platforms are all on Tomea Hill and they get busy during the day. Get the best light and avoid the crowds (and cruise ship passengers), by going later in the afternoon. Kohtuotsa has east facing views of Old Town and the newer parts of the city.
- Pakuli viewing platform: This platform has north facing views of Old Town and the harbor.
- Piskopi viewing platform: This platform faces west and overlooks the park, train station and Kalamaja neighborhood.
Creep Around the Bastion Passages
If you are interested in exploring the literal, dark underbelly of Tallinn, then taking a tour the Bastion Passages is one of the best things to do there. These cave-like passages were built in the late 1700’s in an ill-advised (and expensive) attempt to provide defenses for the city. Like the Bock Casements in Luxembourg, use of the passages evolved over the centuries. In the past fifty years, they have been used as WWII air raid shelters, cold war bomb shelters, punk rock hang outs and as a homeless encampment. The tour will give you more info on all of that, plus an overview of Tallinn’s history.
Tips for visiting: This tour is a throwback to 1990 and they require you to pre-book the tours by phone ( # 644 6686). Bring a jacket because it’s cold down there.
Kadriorg Park and Palace
In 1718, Peter the Great built this confection of a summer palace on 172 acres of park. You can tour the main palace and check out 16th- to 20th-century paintings by Western and Russian artists. The park is quite safe and peaceful and you can spend a lovely afternoon strolling around the park, playground and Japanese garden.
Tips for visiting: Check the Visit Tallinn events page for seasonal celebrations and musical events in the park.
Seaplane Harbor Museum
Tallinn is a major port and this quirky, modern museum offers up its history with a heavy dose of salt spray. It will be one of your top things to do in Tallinn– if you like row boats, seaplanes, subs and military hardware. They even have a yellow submarine attraction!
Tips for visiting: When you are finished with the inside, go around back and tour the boat tied up at the dock. Then, you can walk back toward Old Town along the harbor footpath.
St. Bridget’s Convent Ruins
If you are visiting the TV Tower (more on that down in Soviet wreckage), then be sure to stop off at St. Bridget’s. This convent was founded in 1407 by a Swedish order. It was destroyed in the 1500s but what remains is a lovely, moody ruin.
Tips for visiting: If you are taking the bus back from the TV Tower, get off at the main Pirita bus stop. The ruin is right across the street.
Take a tour: The city offers a free two hour sightseeing history and walking tour of Old Town. Get more info and times here.
Exploring Soviet Wreckage in Tallinn
Old Town is a pretty base layer, which is then topped off by a grey decaying hulk of Soviet relics. Of course, I mean that in the kindest way. I’m into urban exploring (urbex) and am always keen to explore an abandoned this or a worn out that. After fifty years of Soviet occupation, Tallinn has a lot of both. The Estonians are very reticent to talk about their occupation and I had trouble engaging people in any kind of conversation about their powerful neighbor. So, touring these facilities was the best way for me to get an education on the occupation and get my urbex fix at the same time.
Find Estonian Resistance at the TV Tower
When Moscow was selected to host the 1980 Olympics, they built this TV tower as a related construction project. It’s the tallest structure in Estonia and on a clear day, if you squint just right, you can see Finland…maybe. The tower is notable for its views (which are vast), but also because it was the site of a major protest during Estonia’s push for independence when several of the tower’s radio operators occupied it.
The Soviets rolled their tanks up to the tower but the engineers pulled a con and convinced the soldiers that they had the means to kill them with gas or an oxygen depletion device. So the soldiers scuttled away, leaving their tanks at the base of the tower. What chutzpah! In addition to the viewing platform, the tower also has a museum that shows everyday life in Estonia during the occupation. The tower is twenty minutes outside of town, but make the effort to go there because you will learn a lot about Soviet Estonia.
Tips for visiting: Take the 34a bus or a €7 UberX ride.
Crawl Around Linnahall
If you are wondering what to do in Tallinn for a legit (and legal) urbex experience, check out Linnahall. It’s a crumbling husk of a concert venue hunched over the harbor and, like the TV Tower, it was part of the Olympic building boom. The USSR was normally quite expert at making squat concrete structures, but something went terribly wrong with the Linnahall’s construction materials and this building is simply crumbling. So why visit? Well, because there is some cool graffiti on the walls and nice views of both the harbor and old town.
Tips for visiting: Go at sunset for the views but mind your step because there is a lot of broken glass on the site.
Spy on the Spies at the KGB Museum
**Must see attraction in Tallinn**
In 1972, the USSR opened up the Viru hotel. It was the only place in town where foreigners could stay, making it so much easier for the KGB to spy upon them. The hotel was wired top to bottom with listening devices, nosy floor matrons, skulking waiters and prostitutes on the payroll. The hotel has since been remodeled and has (presumably) removed the microphones. However, the exterior architecture still has that ’70’s, tragically functional look so typical of everything in the eastern bloc and parts of Queens, New York. The hotel offers KGB tours with a full history of spy-craft and a peek into the listening rooms. You also get to check out their top floor viewing platform which offers yet more views of Old Town.
Tips for visiting: This is a popular tour so book ahead.
Take a Tour: If you want more Soviet relics, check out this day trip to Paldiski (an abandoned Soviet naval station and nearby coastal towns).
Finding Urban Haunts in Tallinn
Our final layer of Tallinn is the modern one. Hipster Tallinn sits on top of Soviet Tallinn like a colorful coating of fresh (spray) paint. The Old Town might be old, but the neighborhoods surrounding it is a very modern city. If you only visit the historical sights, then you will miss learning about how Estonia is re-inventing itself as a modern economy.
Find Your Vibe at Telliskivi Creative City
**Must see attraction in Tallinn**
Telliskivi is a former Soviet factory and power plant that has been re-purposed into a hipster enclave of boutiques, restaurants, bars and street art. Walls and walls of street art of the concentrated kind that you can find in San Francisco’s Mission or London’s Shoreditch. It was one of my top things to do in Tallinn and I loved it so much that I went back four times. The complex has twenty shops, twelve bar/restaurants, and exhibitions. You can find the street art by doing a circuit around all of the buildings and checking out the back parking lot by the railroad tracks. The murals on the buildings have been commissioned, but the back lot has a constant turnover of graffiti and guerrilla works.
Tips for visiting: Go in the late afternoon and stay for dinner. If you walk there from Old Town, you can take a nice stroll through Tower’s Square park.
Balti Jaam Market
The Balti Jaam market is right next to the railway station. It’s a classic covered market with vendors selling handicrafts, antiques, street food, produce, boutique clothing, fancy cupcakes and coffee. It’s an inexpensive and satisfying place for lunch and a fun spot for picking up souvenirs.
Tips for visiting: Open Mon-Sat 9a-7p, Sun 9a-5p.
For such an old city, Tallinn has a remarkably good modern art museum. The Kumu houses Estonian works as far back as the 18th century. They also have a collection of Soviet art and a full floor of modern art. They have international rotating exhibitions featuring themes like the art of the Baltic states, Baltic printed works and the European Avante Garde. The museum is located at the top of Kadriorg Park and you can combine it with the visit to the palace.
Tips for Visiting: Open Tues, Wed, Fri-Sun 10a-6, Thurs 10a-8p, closed on Mondays.
Nuku Puppet Museum
This itinerary contains some of the traditional “must see” things to to in Tallinn. However, I wouldn’t be paying off my “explore beyond the obvious” tagline if I didn’t suggest something totally weird for you and the Nuku Puppet Museum delivers. I was lured in by the steam punk puppets in the display window and then jetted down a rabbit hole of puppetry history, freaky masks, clacking marionettes and a “cellar of horrors”. It’s great for kids, adults who think they are kids, and travel bloggers who like visiting weird museums (like the penis museum in Reykjavik, the neon graveyard in Vegas and the sewer museum in Paris).
Tips for visiting: Located in Old Town and open Tues-Sun 10a-6p.
Drink More Beer
Nothing pairs better with hipster artsy creativity than craft beer, and they have plenty of it in Tallinn. Here are four places where you can get some local brews:
- Pudel (in Telliskivi)
- Hell Hunt (in Old Town)
- 100 Olle Koht (in Old Town)
- Library Pub (just south of Old Town, attached to the actual library)
Take a tour: If you REALLY want to drink more beer, you can sign up for this pub crawl tour.
What to do in Tallinn if You’re Hangry
- Grab some freshly baked pastry at the Loiri Nunne Bakery in Old Town. I bought a traditional danish to take on the train and later wished for two.
- Eat fresh and healthy at F-Hoone in Telleskivi. I had the oven baked eggplant and it was dee-lish.
- Get Indian food on an outdoor deck at Lendav Taldrik in Telleskivi. Lamb samosas, chicken pakora, cold beer, people watching and small dogs.
- Treat yourself to fresh and local and Vaike Rataskoevu in Old Town. They own two restaurants, each with a similar menu but the Vaike Rataskoevu tends to be less crowded. I had the butternut squash with buckwheat and a blue cheese cheesecake for dessert (which sounds wrong but was just right).
- Artisinally constructed hot dogs and beer at TapTap in Rotermann. The hot dogs took an unnecessarily long time to get, but the beer kept me going and the dogs were delicious once delivered.
- Cocktails with a view at the Radisson Blu Skybar in Maakri. Aperol spritzers with great views of Old Town.
Getting Around Tallinn
Getting around Tallinn is very easy. Most people in the tourism sector speak at least some English. Most of the main sites are walkable, Uber/taxis are cheap and plentiful, and the buses are reliable.
- To/from the airport near the Old Town: UberX is reliable and prolific in Tallinn and the fifteen minute ride will cost ~€7. The bus will take thirty minutes and cost €2.
- Within the city. The buses cost €2 for a walk-on or €1 with a re-loadable card. They are fast, safe and reliable and good for tackling Kadriorg park and the TV Tower.
- On your own two feet. Look, you’re going to need to work off that craft beer, so if you are staying anywhere near the ring surrounding the Old Town, just walk. Much of the charm of visiting Tallinn is seeing it from ground level and the buses and taxis only operate on the periphery of the Old Town anyway.
- Hop on Hop off Bus. Just DON’T. I’m not even going to link to it. You’ll waste your whole day waiting for it and it doesn’t even enter Old Town. Just walk Old Town and take an Uber to the outer locations.
Where to Stay in Tallinn
I traveled to Estonia solo and opted to stay in a hostel. I like the sociability of hostels but am too old for friggin’ dorm beds. Euphoria Hostel fit the bill for me because they are a mellow, music-friendly hostel with well priced private rooms. It wasn’t fancy but it hit my sweet spot for cheap and private with a social vibe. Find review or book on Trip Advisor or Booking.com.
The Savoy Boutique hotel is located smack in the middle of Old Town. It might be a bit loud on weekend nights but they offer a buffet breakfast and great views. Find reviews or book on Trip Advisor or Hotels.com.
If you speak Estonian and know how to work the system, you can get an apartment for the price of a latte and a song. However, most visitors can do neither, so your best bet for independent lodging is AirBnB. They have a LOT of of fully private apartments in or near Old Town for under $80 a night. If you are a couple or with a group, this is the most cost efficient way to go. Have coffee and breakfast in your apartment and then check out the breweries and restaurants above for your other meals. Find listings here.
If you’ve never tried AirBnB, you can get $40 towards your first rental using my special code.
Now is a great time to visit Tallinn. They are experiencing modernization and their rich, layer cake full of history, hipster and relics won’t stay the same for long. Enjoy your trip and report back by commenting below or finding us on Facebook.
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