The northernmost city in the Baltics, and previously known as Reval, Tallinn is a wonderful blend of old and new. The medieval centre – a UNESCO world heritage site – is one of Europe’s best kept secrets.
But delve deeper into the city, and you’ll discover just how much it’s leading the way. It’s amongst the top ten digital cities in the world, with video-calling pioneers Skype founded in the city. It won’t be long before we have a few more big names either – the Estonian capital has more start-ups per person than any other place in Europe. NATO have even based their Cyber Defence Centre of Excellence here.
Ranked globally for this kind of prowess, Tallinn was also named European Capital of Culture in 2011, and is home to a rich mix of art, architecture and music to add to its appeal. But as a sightseer, it’s essential you know exactly where is best to go, and what is best to do. Luckily, we’ve got you covered. Read on for our guide to Tallinn in all its beauty.
Getting Around Tallinn
Despite being a culture-packed capital, Tallinn is surprisingly compact. You might not find that you need to use the transport facilities an awful lot within the main areas. Districts like the old town and Kadriorg can be tackled on foot once you’re there. But how about getting to and from these locations? If you want to get the most out of your time in the city, public transport is the best option.
With a public transport network that runs from 6am until midnight, Tallinn is easy to navigate at most times of the day. Tallinn’s four tram and five trolley lines provide a simple passageway to destinations on the outskirts, as well as a number of stops within the city centre. An additional 64 bus lines means you’re always only a short journey away from where you need to be.
Publicly owned, Tallinn’s transport network operates a flat-fare system. This means you can get a single ride on any bus, tram or trolley within the city for two euros. Tickets can be bought from the driver, but there are also electronic smart cards available. Money can be added to a smart card to pay for journeys, but it can also be loaded with an unlimited travel pass, allowing an individual to travel for one, three, five or thirty days.
For just three euros, a one-day pass is a great way to see the city. You just need to validate each journey by swiping the card on the ‘validating’ machine by the vehicle doors. A green light means you’re good to go.
What to See and What to Do
No doubt one of the highlights of Tallinn is the old town. Split into the lower town and Toompea Hill, it’s one of the world’s best preserved medieval towns. The lower town is made up of fascinating buildings and characteristic medieval squares. Raekoja Plats – the town hall square – is the heart of the old town, with Tallinn’s gorgeous Gothic Town Hall overlooking its many festivals and fairs.
Festival or no festival, you’ll find a number of bars and restaurants in the bustling square, which often hosts a selection of market stalls selling traditional Estonian gifts. They include hand knitted woollen jumpers with cute Estonian patterns, and a range of items hand-crafted from juniper wood.
A walk up Toompea Hill will give you a spectacular view of the medieval lower town from above, but that’s not all it has to offer. It’s home to some of the grandest Tallinn buildings, including the spectacular St Alexander Nevsky Cathedral and Toompea Castle. Built at the end of the 19th century, the Cathedral is beautifully crowned by onion domes, and filled with stunning icons and mosaics.
Toompea Castle is a modern-day home to the Estonian parliament, but in the past it has had several occupants – each of whom have left their mark. A baroque-styled wing was added by the Russian empire, while the dominating 48 metre tower Tall Hermann was added by the Teutonic Order – a Catholic religious and military organisation in the middle ages.
About two miles east of the old town, and reachable by tram or bus, is Kadriorg. This commanding area of Tallinn surrounds the Kadriorg Palace, which was originally built to house Russian royalty like Peter the Great as well as governors from the Russian Empire. Now home to the Estonian president, the palace’s beautiful Baroque architecture and peaceful surrounding parks have been very well preserved.
The area boasts a number of notable buildings, commemorative statues and museums. Kadriorg Palace itself displays the nation’s foreign art collection as part of the Art Museum of Estonia. And just a short walk away is Kumu, one of the biggest art museums in Northern Europe. With a collection of Estonian art from the 18th century onwards, it’s a must-visit for art lovers and anyone keen to learn more about Estonia’s culture.
Head in the other direction from the old town and you will find Kalamaja. Easily reached on a bus or tram, the area is a fast developing part of the city. Telliskivi Creative City is the epitome of the laid back vibe of this area. The regenerated complex has a vast array of restaurants, bars and unique shops. In Kalamaja, you’ll also find Seaplane Harbour, Tallinn’s impressive maritime museum. It’s hard to compete with its collection of nautical pieces and exhibitions, including a century-old icebreaker, the remains of a ship from the 14th century and an impressive harbour area.
Something Sweet in an Expanding Culinary Culture
Given its coastal location, it’s understandable that Tallinn has a reputation for great seafood. Vürtsikilu is a popular dish that combines fish with a unique blend of spices including nutmeg and cardamom. Like other parts of Estonia – as well as the rest of Northern Europe – Tallinn is also a great place for hearty meat dishes. Pork is always a popular ingredient along with rye bread. The Estonians like to have rye bread with most of their meals – yes, even Vürtsikilu is available as the filling of a rye bread sandwich.
For those with a sweet tooth, Tallinn has proudly laid its claim as one of the key manufacturers of marzipan. The Kalev Marzipan Museum Room is a great place to learn about Tallinn’s marzipan production, dating back to the mid-19th century – and also to try some of the delicious sweet delicacy. As well as being available at Kalev’s home of marzipan, the sugary confection is available all over the city.
If you’re looking for a tipple anywhere across Northern Europe, you can expect a plentiful supply of vodka. In Tallinn, however, they’re also know for Vana Tallinn. The dark rum-based liqueur is sweet, but certainly packs a punch. Best enjoyed on the rocks, it’s available in Japan and all over Europe. But, of course, it tastes much better in its wonderful home city.
Tallinn has seen a recent rise in craft beers too. The lower town is packed full of bars and gastropubs offering them, but the pick of the bunch is Koht – a small, cosy bar with literally hundreds of different beers on offer. And if you just want the best food, Rataskaevu 16 is for you. This popular eatery offers up a range of mouth-watering dishes using the best Estonian produce. Both our picks are located just outside the town hall square, easily within walking distance of one another.
While tourists often flock to the museums and historic buildings – and quite rightly too – there is also a great musical heritage in Tallinn to be explored. The Estonians have potentially the world’s biggest collections of folk songs, with over 130,000 recorded in writing. Music was even a part of their independence battle. Around a quarter of their population gathered to sing national songs in the late 1980s as an act of defiance against the Soviet rulers.
Every five years Lauluväljak – just slightly further out from the Kadriorg area – plays host to the Estonian Song Festival. One of the biggest events of its kind, UNSECO lists the festival as a Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity. The Estonian Theatre and Music Museum in the lower town is a great place to broaden your horizons when it comes to the musical heritage of Tallinn.
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