Are you taking a Helsinki day trip to Tallinn, making a cruise ship pit-stop, or simply tight for time? Either way, these tips for spending one day in Tallinn will help you make the most of your limited time on the ground.
The first fortress was built in Tallinn in 1050. The city experienced successive waves of occupation from the Germans, Swedes and Russians before achieving their full independence in 1990. Tallinn was never fully pillaged or razed and so you can explore Tallinn’s complex history with its intact Old Town and many museums.
In fact, most people want to visit Tallinn for its well-preserved UNESCO old town. It’s a lovely jumble of churches, towers and alleyways perched on a perky hill in the center of Tallinn. However, there are also some cool things to do outside of the historic core which are worth considering as well.
Making the Most of One Day in Tallinn
If you are coming in from the cruise port or you are doing a Tallinn day trip from Helsinki, your max time on the ground is about eight hours. So these itinerary ideas have been designed with that in mind. If you are doing an overnight, then you can build upon this itinerary by checking out my longer list of things to do in Tallinn. It includes more info on museums, places to eat and suggestions for where to stay.
This article is split into three sections, each designed to help you maximize your limited time. The first will give you tips for how to get the most out of Old Town in just a few hours. The second will suggest some additional activities outside of Old Town (depending upon your interests). The third will give you practical advice for how to get around efficiently.
Spend the Morning Exploring Old Town Tallinn
Old Town is the top thing to see in Tallinn for a day trip. Its medieval core managed to survive WWII, damaged but intact, and it has cobbled stones, narrow lanes and great views with red rooftops. Most visiting tourists run the gauntlet down Viru street and end up at Town Hall Square. You should indeed check out the square, but don’t spend all of your time on Viru because there are some cool lookout points, churches and museums in Old Town. Depending upon your interests, pick two or three of the following:
Explore Town Hall Square & The Town Hall Pharmacy
Where everything else in Tallinn is at odd angles, the Town Hall Square is a perfectly shaped square centered smack in the middle of town. You can also visit the nearby Town Hall Pharmacy. It’s a 16th century pharmacy claiming to be the oldest operating pharmacy in the world.
Take a Free Walking Tour of Tallinn
The tourism bureau offers a free two hour walking tour of Tallinn every day. They meet at the tourist information center and start at 11am in the high season. It goes to all of the major landmarks and the tour guides will fill you up with Estonian factoids.
Get Killer Views from St. Olaf’s Church
In the mid 1500’s, this Gothic church was one of the tallest buildings in the world and it’s still the tallest thing going in Old Town. For a small fee, you can climb the 400 foot (124/m) tall tower for mind boggling 360′ views of the Old Town, modern Tallinn and the harbor.
Get Killer Views on Toompea Hill
You can find yet more killer views by going up to the top of the city walls on Toompea Hill. There are three viewing platforms on the hill, each offering a different view of Tallinn. Check your Google Map for: Kohtuotsa, Patkuli or Piiskopi.
Visit Alexander Nevsky Cathedral
While on Toompea Hill, you can also check out the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral. It has an architecturally stunning exterior covered in onion domes. The interior includes displays of mosaics and icons.
Shop at Master’s Courtyard and St. Catherine’s Passage
Go shopping in Master’s Courtyard and nearby St. Catherine’s passage. You can find medieval ambiance with local handicrafts, jewelry and knitted goods at both locations.
Tour the Bastion Passages
Get a lesson on the literal foundations of Tallinn’s history by touring its Bastion Passages. The tour gives information on how the city walls were built and defended and how they evolved for use in modern times. You need a reservation to take the tour, although if it’s quiet, they may take drop-ins. Stop by the museum to reserve or call #644 6686.
Eat Lunch on Rataskaevu Street
Avoid eating on the tourist gauntlet on Viru street. If you want some good grub, check out Rataskaevu street for steak, Estonian favorites, Russian, vegan and Italian.
Spend the Afternoon Doing Something Cool Outside of Old Town
Old Town may be pretty, but if you spend your one day in Tallinn doing only that, you’ll miss some pretty cool stuff elsewhere in the city. Choose one of these activities (depending upon your interest) and spend the afternoon exploring the other side of Tallinn.
For Kids: The Seaplane Museum
This museum covers Estonia’s nautical history with detailed and hands-on exhibits. They even have a yellow submarine! Kids will have a blast there touching all of the exhibits and playing in the aircraft simulator. However, it’s also fun for nautical nerds and history buffs.
For Hipsters: Telliskivi Creative City Arts District
This re-purposed Soviet power plant is full-on hipster. It has a market hall, artists lofts, craft beer joints and lots and lots of street art. In fact, if you are going to visit Telliskivi, don’t eat lunch in Old Town. Rather, catch some street food in the Balti Jaam market or eat at one of the nearby restaurants, like F-Hoone.
If you are keen on street art, then read my Estonian street art guide to learn about how the murals were painted in Telliskivi.
For Art Lovers: Kumu Museum & Kadriorg Palace
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 as well as exhibits on Soviet and modern art. The Kadriorg Palace is located in the park just down the hill from the Kumu. It was the summer palace for Peter the Great and it houses 16th- to 20th-century paintings by Western and Russian artists.
For Spies: KGB Spy Museum
When the Viru Hotel was built in 1972, it was the only place for foreigners to stay in Tallinn. So, the KGB wired the whole building, top to bottom. You can tour their listening station and learn about how paranoia and spy-craft affected the culture in Tallinn. The museum is on the top floor of the hotel and has (yet more) killer views of Tallinn. You must make advance reservations for the museum.
If you have time after the KGB tour, head over to Rotermanni. There are some cool restaurants and pubs in the area. At TapTap, you can get a craft beer and a tasty hot dog.
For Active Adventurers: City Bike Tour
Bike tours are a great way to see ALL of Tallinn. They typically cover Old Town, Kadriorg Park and Telliskivi City. Some of the tours leave right from the cruise dock and some leave from old town. So, check their itinerary carefully to find one that is convenient for you. Check out your options and book it here.
If your bike tour returns you to Old Town, re-hydrate by heading over to Hell Hunt or 100 Olle Koht for a beer.
Getting Around Tallinn
From the Cruise Port
Getting from the cruise port to the exterior walls of Old Town is an easy fifteen minute walk. It’s another fifteen minute walk from Old Town to Telliskivi. If you do Kumu or the Seaplane museum, you’ll want to Uber or take a bus to those locations in order to save time.
Street art alert! While you are in the cruise port, you can spot more cool street art just to the east of your disembarkation point (or to the right as you face the ship). Just walk down along the wall three or four minutes and you’ll find some beautiful murals featuring Estonian folk and music culture.
From the Helsinki Ferry Port
When planning a Helsinki day trip to Tallinn, start by booking your ferry service from Helsinki. The Direct Ferries service consolidates all of your options for the Helsinki to Tallinn ferry service. Rates vary with time and availability but the most common price is €36.
If you are doing the full round trip from Helsinki to Tallinn in one day, then I suggest booking with the Tallink Silja Line service. During the busier seasons, they offer more frequent service out of Helsinki, starting as early as 7:30am for the two hour passage. They have return service as late as 10:30pm.
If you want to spend the night in Tallinn, then shop all three ferry lines to find the best rate and time.
From the Ferry port, it will take about fifteen minutes to walk and six minutes to Uber to Old Town.
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Should You Take the Tallinn Hop-On-Hop-Off Bus?
The Red Buses Hop-on-Hop-Off service in Tallinn offers a 24-hour ticket for €25, (check it out or book here, if you must.) Truthfully, I’ve never been a fan of the HoHo buses. They are convenient for people who have mobility issues, but for anyone able-bodied, it’s nearly always cheaper and more time efficient to use public transportation and your own two feet to get around. Tallinn is no exception.
The Old Town core is closed to all buses and most car traffic, so the HoHo offers no advantage for getting you around the historic center. The buses conveniently stop at 26 locations. But you are only in Tallinn for one day, you don’t have time for 26 things! If you do some version of the aforementioned one day itinerary, say Old Town + Seaplane Museum or Old Town + Kumo, it would be far cheaper for you to take Uber or a city bus between locations. Bus fare is €2 and an Ubering within the urban area is typically €6-7.
Figuring out what to do in Tallinn in a day is hard because there is so much to see there. But I hope that this guide will help you prioritize your time by recommending cool points of interest. Have fun and happy trails.
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