Estonia still feels ‘undiscovered’ and wonderfully removed from the traditional European tourist track. Home to a 14th-century fortress and the origin of the Christmas tree, there’s no shortage of captivating things to do in Tallinn.
Resting on the eastern coast of the Baltic Sea, Estonia itself has a beautiful coastline dotted with an archipelago of over 2000 unspoilt islands. Neighbours Latvia, Finland and Russia are a hop, skip and a jump away whilst the capital city, Tallinn, is a medieval gem just waiting to be explored.
Want to make the most out of your Baltic adventure? Add these things to your ‘to do’ list when you visit Tallinn.
1. Enjoy the views
Tallinn’s Old Town is a UNESCO World Heritage site, and little wonder. It’s probably the most complete and well-preserved example of a medieval trading town in all of Europe. Tallinn attractions that you should seek to include on your sightseeing visit include an astounding collection of castles, cathedrals, church spires, monasteries and colourful merchant houses – all protected by those impressive 14th-century walls. For sweeping views of this beautiful city, make your way to:
- Kohtuotsa viewing platform on Toompea Hill: Its winding approach through narrow streets and famous wall sign makes this one of the most popular places to catch the sunrise over Tallinn.
- Patkuli viewing platform: A little less crowded than Kohtuotsa, Patkuli delivers fairy-tale views over Tallinn’s old town and iconic towers.
- Piiskopi viewing platform: Quieter still, this hidden square on the west side of Toompea Hill offers wonderful views over Pelgulinn and Kalamaja (Tallinn’s hipster quarter).
- St Olaf’s Church: One of Tallinn’s top attractions, St Olaf’s Church dates back to the 12th century. If you’re brave enough to navigate the church’s narrow staircase you’ll be rewarded with wonderful views over the city and port (open from April until October).
Alternatively, hop on Tallinn’s SkyWheel. This impressive Ferris wheel elevates you 120 metres into the air for staggering views over Tallinn, the Gulf of Finland and Lake Ülemiste.
2. Explore on foot – and underground
Wander through Tallinn’s maze of medieval streets, exploring hidden alleyways and marvelling at the town’s different architectural styles, Gothic Town Hall and historic Guild Houses. Here every building has a story, including the old Raeapteek (Town Hall Pharmacy) which opened in 1422 – 70 years before Columbus discovered America.
Below the Old Town, and closely guarded by the Kiek in de Kök (an old artillery tower, now museum), lie mysterious tunnels and passageways. These tunnels were built in the 1670s to conceal the movement of soldiers, ammunition and equipment – before coming back into use as bomb shelters during World War II. Visitors to Tallinn can explore the underground passageways during a tour of the town’s fortifications and bastions.
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3. Head portside
Nautical enthusiasts will delight in yet another popular Tallinn attraction, the Seaplane Harbour. This cavernous concrete space houses an impressive collection of seaplanes, boats and submarines – not to mention a 100-year-old icebreaker.
It’s a memorable outing for the whole family and includes a cinema, simulators and aquarium, all set in Tallinn’s busy port with great views of yachts and ships in the harbour.
4. Visit the markets
Estonia’s capital is easy to navigate on foot, and you’ll never be short of Tallinn attractions to discover. The city’s wonderful Town Hall Square is packed with cafés and restaurants, but true to its medieval market place roots, it’s a great place to meet, socialise and shop. In July, you can browse the town’s annual craft market, whilst in December, the square is transformed into one of Europe’s most beautiful Christmas markets. And at its heart? That famous Christmas tree.
Enjoy an artisanal beer on tap
The Baltics are becoming increasingly well known for their craft beer scene, and Estonia is no exception. Tallinn even has its own dedicated Craft Beer Weekend (May) and the city is brimming with speciality breweries, pubs and beer gardens.
Hops not your thing? Give Vana Tallinn a try. This sweet, rum-based liqueur is Tallinn’s signature drink and often enjoyed over crushed ice, in coffee or poured over ice cream. Ever so slightly bitter, with aromas of cinnamon, citrus and spice, it’ll warm your heart during Estonia’s icy winter.
6. Try smoked sprats … followed by semla
In addition to Estonia’s signature drink, there are some traditional meals that visitors to Tallinn should definitely try. With German, Russian and Swedish influences, Estonia’s hearty and wholesome dishes (think dark rye bread, pork, potatoes and fresh produce) will surprise and delight. At the top of the list? Smoked sprats.
The Baltic Sea is swimming with sprats – a small, oily, silver fish closely related to sardines. Sprats are a simple, delicious Estonian staple. Enjoy on fresh bread with lashings of butter, or try battered sprats with dill mayonnaise. Spiced, smoked, marinated or baked, Estonians have been enjoying sprats for centuries.
Finish off with semla, a sweet cardamom-spiced bread roll filled with almond paste and topped with whipped cream and icing sugar. Utterly delectable, this indulgent treat appears around Christmas and is traditionally enjoyed until Easter, when painted eggs and pashka become the order of the day.
Be sure to visit Tallinn’s Kalamaja District, which is thoroughly enjoying its ‘hipster’ reputation. Vibey restaurants, cafés and bakeries stand shoulder to shoulder with traditional wooden homes, and visitors can enjoy great coffee, Baltic fare and trendy street food.
7. Have a go at bogshoeing
Although Tallinn is renowned for its museums and art galleries (see below), there are some more active, outdoorsy activities which are unique to the Baltics (barracuda diving, anyone?). Perhaps our favourite of all is bogshoeing.
Lahemaa National Park, about 60 km outside of Tallinn, is known for its rich plant life and legendary bogs. Here you can try your hand at bogshoeing. In other words, donning a pair of bog shoes (racquet-shaped footwear similar to snowshoes) and exploring the park’s natural landscape and fascinating bog pools.
8. Take a dip in the warm waters of Pärnu Bay
Despite the Baltic’s reputation for freezing waters and unforgiving conditions, Pärnu Bay in the Gulf of Riga, can be relatively balmy. Its warm water and long swimming season, which starts in June and runs until September, make it an ideal day trip from Tallinn.
Visitors can enjoy its long sandy beaches, beautiful promenade and surrounding pine forests.
9. Soak up some history and culture
Culture vultures will love Tallinn. There are countless museums and galleries across the city, all celebrating the history and art of the region, including such Tallinn attractions as:
- The Estonian Open Air Museum
- The Estonian History Museum
- The Museum of Occupations
- The KUMU Museum
Have you ever visited Tallinn? Share your top tips, attractions and Estonian experiences in the comments below…