16 Charming Things to Do in Tallinn + A Complete City Guide
I never thought that I would visit Tallinn, the capital of Estonia twice. After all, most people don’t even know that this city exists, haha. But why not?
It really is a super fun city break destination, and genuinely one of the cutest cities in Europe!
Time for an extensive travel guide with my tips. In this article you can read about the best things to do in Tallinn like which sights and restaurants you should not miss!
Why is Tallinn So Nice?
As I said, I have been to Tallinn twice now. The first time I was there in the winter, as part of a press trip, and I really fell in love with the fairytale town. You have the historic city center with the winding streets and crooked houses, but you also have this hip vibe of a city full of start ups and young energy. When I was there, there was no snow, but I can imagine that Christmas in Tallinn is completely magical.
When my sister wanted to go somewhere in the Baltic region this summer, it didn’t take much effort to persuade me to return to Tallinn again. I wanted to show her why I liked the city so much, and to experience how I would find the destination when the sun was shining. I thought the city was even more fun if possible, because now we could sit outside on the terrace.
A Short History of Tallinn
Tallinn is already an old city, and dates back to the 12th century when the city was first mentioned. It was then called Reval, a name that stayed until the 20th century. Until the 13th century, Estonia was a free area, where residents lived in freedom as pagan farmers.
When the German Crusaders arrived, the peace was over. They violently converted the population to the Christian faith and established bondage. Hereby the farmers became the property of their stewards, the German elite. This system remained the same for centuries, despite the fact that Estonia often changed rulers at that time.
Over the years, Estonia has been owned by many different countries: starting with Denmark, then Germany, Sweden and finally Russia. Between 1918 and 1940, Estonia was an independent state for a while, but in 1940 it was annexed by the Soviet Union, taken over by the Germans between 1941 and 1945 and then again for decades by the USSR until Estonia finally became truly independent in 1991.
The city center of Tallinn is most influenced by the time that Tallinn was a Hanseatic city. Many buildings in the old center date from this time, and funnily enough, some buildings still have a Dutch name (such as Kiek in the Kök), which was spoken at the time.
16 Things to Do in Tallinn
1. Wander Old Town
As mentioned earlier, the city was mainly formed by the time that Tallinn was a Hanseatic city, and the buildings in the center also reflect that time. Due to the treaties with other Hanseatic cities, and later also with Russia, Tallinn was a very rich city. The medieval Old Town is on the UNESCO World Heritage List.
2. Visit Raekoja Plats
This square, also known as Town Hall Square in English, is the central point of Tallinn: the market square. This has been the place where life in the city takes place for centuries. Since 1322 there has been a town hall, which is the oldest town hall in all the Baltic States and Scandinavia.
One of the proud points of this square is the Christmas tree, which has been there every winter since 1441, making Tallinn (according to my guide) the first city with a Christmas tree ever. Well I have to say that there are several cities that claim this, so do with this information if you want. You will also find a lot of restaurants and cafés here, and it is a good place to start your discovery of the city.
3. See St Nicholas Church
Starting in 1230, St. Nicholas Church was once Roman Catholic, but later became a Lutheran church when the Estonian population revolted massively against the Roman Catholic church.
St. Nicholas and the surrounding area were very affected by bombing during the Second World War, but the church was eventually rebuilt. The adjacent square was once full of houses that did not survive the war. That is now a park. The church eventually became a museum.
4. Visit Masters Courtyard
This is one of the cutest places in Tallinn. Masters Courtyard is square completely dedicated to artisans. It’s filled with workshops and little shops, and during summer you can sit down at one of the many terraces.
5. Visit Dominican St. Catherine’s Monastery Claustrum
In such a small city center as that of Tallinn, I did not expect to discover new places, but I discovered something new during my recent trip. And funnily enough, it is one of the oldest buildings in all of Tallinn.
Once again I went into a side street and stumbled across a very old courtyard with a monastery from 1246. You can visit the monastery, but I didn’t do that. I only enjoyed the mysterious square, which looked like time has stood still since the thirteenth century.
6. Walk St. Catherine’s Passage
If you have to visit one street in Tallinn it is the St Catherine’s Passage: a beautiful medieval street with stone arches behind St. Catherine’s Church, which was the largest church in Northern Europe in the Middle Ages. The workshops of artisans used to be here, and you can still find them here.
The craftsmen who are now using traditional methods to create glassware, jewelry, art and more. You will find the shops in buildings from the 15th to 17th centuries. The nice thing is you can look inside, so that you can actually see your artisans at work.
7. See St. Mary’s Cathedral
This is the oldest church in all of Estonia. This first church, which was entirely made of wood, probably already existed when the Danes invaded Tallinn in 1219. A few years later, a stone church was built on the same spot. You can climb the clock tower for a view of the city.
8. Climb up Toomea
Toompea is a hill in the center of Tallinn. From here you have a beautiful view of the city (see the tip below), but it is worthwhile to discover this part of the city.
You will also find a number of important buildings such as the Estonian Parliament and St. Alexander Nevsky Cathedral here. During a fire in 1684, almost this entire part of the city was lost, and only St. Mary’s Cathedral survived the sea of flames.
9. Take in the views from the Kohtuotsa viewing platform
I thought this was one of the most beautiful places in the city, namely; a viewpoint! From here you can not only shoot some crazy selfies, you also have a great overview of the historic city center, you can count the church towers, and you can even see the ferries and cruise ships on your left. You can find this viewing platform on Toompea.
10. Explore Kiek in de Kök
If this name looks somewhat Dutch, then you are not completely wrong. This is namely the Dutch name for the cannon tower that was part of the city walls. The name means as much as “look into the kitchen” because soldiers could look into the kitchens of surrounding houses in the tower.
At the time of the late Middle Ages, Low German was the common language in the Hanseatic cities, and therefore also in Tallinn. You can climb this 38 meter high tower from 1475.
11. Clim the City Walls
You can also climb the city walls of Tallinn to get a new look. The city wall with its many towers (26 to be exact) is one of the things that gives Tallinn the medieval appearance that it is so famous for.
The city wall of Tallinn was reinforced in 1300 to protect it against attacks from outside. The wall was once 2.4 kilometers long. Of that, 1.85 kilometers of city wall remains, which makes it one of the longest intact medieval city walls in Europe. Although it was once one of the strongest defenses in Northern Europe, it has not been able to prevent Estonia from changing its owners…
12. Visit the iconic St Alexander Nevsky Cathedral
This was personally my favorite church in Tallinn, but it should come as no surprise that I am a fan of the richly decorated architecture of colorful Orthodox Russian churches. Although the church looks very old, it does not date back to 1900.
At that time, Estonia was a province in the Russian empire, and the call for independence rose. This church was built to demonstrate their power and to provide space for the growing group of Russian Orthodox residents.
For a moment it seemed that the church would be demolished in 1920, after Estonia had become an independent country. For residents of Tallinn, the church was a symbol of the suppression by Russia. But there wasn’t enough money to break the church, so destruction was stopped. Many locals now see the church as one of the most beautiful buildings in the city.
13. Visit Kalamaja
We have now discussed the Old Town of Tallinn and its history extensively. But you will not only find cute old buildings in this city. One of the nicest places to visit is Kalamaja, the hipster district of Tallinn. This is the area that you will find behind the train station.
You will find many colorful wooden buildings that were once populated by fishermen. Kalamaja was the fishing port of the city (and the name even means “fish house”). When a rail link with St. Petersburg came in the 19th century, the factory halls popped up like mushrooms, and it was mainly workers who lived here.
Nowadays you will find mainly young creatives here, who are located in the many trendy cafes, stylish boutiques, and tasty restaurants. It is certainly worth a visit to the covered market next to the train station.
14. Enjoy Telliskivi Street
The Telliskivi Street is really the place to be in the Kalamaja district . Here you will not only find Telliskivi Creative City, but also DEPOO: a hip zone full of street food shops and the fun Peatus. This is a restaurant that is located in an old train that used to serve as a passenger train between Moscow and Tallinn. Very nice inside, but in the summer you can also sit outside in the sun.
Then back to the Telliskivi Creative City, which is also worth a visit. This former industrial complex now has all kinds of cool pop-ups, stylish shops, trendy cafes and restaurants and a whole lot of street art. It is the creative heart of the city. You will also find the recently opened Fotografiska, a photography museum where I will tell more in the next section. You cannot miss the flea market on Saturdays.
As far as I am concerned, this, together with the old city, is the nicest part of Tallinn.
15. Visit Fotografiska
I had already visited the photography museum Fotografiska in Stockholm , and I really enjoyed that at the time. So when I heard that there has also been a branch in Tallinn since this summer, I had to stop by.
And I was lucky, because there was an exhibition by Jimmy Nelson, a beautiful exhibition with photos of the most isolated tribes in the world. His goal is to photograph the tribes to capture their cultural identity in a world that is constantly changing. Even cooler was that in every region where he took photos, background noise was played that takes you all the way to that place.
By the time this article comes online, another exhibition is going on, but I thought it was a really cool museum and I would definitely recommend it.
16. Visit the KGB Museum in Hotel Viru
A completely different museum, but also one that I would absolutely recommend, is the KGB Museum that is located in Hotel Viru. In the beginning I found it hard to believe that you really had to go into a hotel to get to a museum, but yes: that’s really true. You just walk through the lobby and there is a hotline in the corner.
You can only visit this museum with a tour and you MUST reserve tickets online in advance. So don’t forget.
The story of Hotel Viru is a special one. At the time of the occupation by the USSR, Hotel Viru was the only hotel where foreigners were allowed to stay. There was a reason that foreigners were only allowed to stay in this hotel: 60 of the hotel rooms were full of eavesdropping devices.
Although the hotel would officially have only 22 floors, there was another staircase that led to the 23rd floor, which is forbidden to visit. Behind a door with the inscription “there is nothing here,” you found the secret eavesdropping office of the KGB.
During a tour on this floor you will learn all about how eavesdropping was done, what it was like to work at the hotel and what it was like to stay as a foreigner in this hotel that was set up to gather as much information as possible about foreigners. A super fascinating insight into the KGB.
Tips for Visiting Tallinn
Where to Eat in Tallinn
In a beautiful historic building with a fantastic garden you will find one of the best restaurants in Tallinn. Here you can eat modern Estonian dishes made with local and seasonal products.
If you can only try one restaurant, make it this one. Trust me. Also try the dark Estonian bread with butter, delicious! This bread is called “Leib”, so the restaurant is even named after it :). A main course is € 15- € 20.
A chic restaurant with a beautiful location by the water, a bit from the center (take a cheap taxi!). The food here was really crazy again. I had one of the best steaks of my life here. The contemporary design of this restaurant is also very beautiful. Main courses cost between €20 and €30.
This is a nice destination for lunch, as it is full in the center of the city. I remember that they had a delicious soup here and some good vegetarian dishes.
Von Krahli Baar
We came here when we were looking for drinks and snacks for a late lunch. This is a bar that also has regular live music. We had an outrageously tasty Mac & Cheese (with bacon) and nachos.
For some reason, Tallinn is packed with Indian restaurants, haha. And since my family has the tradition of eating Indian at least once during trips, that had to happen this time too.
We ended up at Bollywood, after one of the other shops was full and the other mainly served spicy food (and I can’t handle spicy food). This is just a straightforward Indian with lots of curries, rice and naan breads. I can’t fault the food, so if you feel like Indian: tip.
I went here with my acquaintance Sandra who lives in Tallinn. We sat in the sun on the terrace near the water. Here you also eat modern dishes. I ate a tasty Beef Tartare and a Pavlova with summer fruit. Prices are on the high side for lunch, but it is a nice place outside the bustle of the old city center.
I have just mentioned it, but this restaurant is in an old passenger train that ran between Moscow and Tallinn. I have only been there for a drink and then I was sitting outside in the sun, but inside it also looked super cool, just like an old restaurant car. Found the service here quite slow though.
Where to Stay in Tallinn
This is the best choice for budget travelers. This is a small, stylish boutique hotel. The first sources about this building show that it already existed in 1397 (!). After that it has been a home for centuries, until it became a hotel in 2011. We stayed on the ground floor in a room with original vaulted walls, making it look like we were staying in a sort of cave / cellar. Very nice!
Check here for rates & availability
This is the best choice for luxury travelers. This five-star hotel is also located in a historic house that dates back to 1362. It was then a house for rich merchants. There has been a hotel in this building since 2003. I stayed in the suite with balcony, with a vide where my bed was. Pure luxury. The breakfast was also delicious.
What do you think are the best things to do in Tallinn?
General Travel Tips
- For accommodation, I always check Airbnb or Booking.com for the best prices.
- If your insurance at home doesn’t cover travel, you may want to look into SafetyWing for an affordable option.
- I always recommend checking Get Your Guide for the best tours in Europe and Tiqets for specific attraction deals.