The city of Tallinn in Estonia has become one of the most popular tourist destinations in the Baltic states and in fact in Europe. Much of its newfound popularity is due to its beautifully preserved old town and easy access to its port for large cruise ships.
Riga and Vilnius, the other Baltic state capitals, have for various reasons lost much of their original buildings and town walls over the years due to war and occupation. Although Tallinn has itself been subject to such hardships, it has fortunately been able to preserve much of its medieval old town buildings and its impressive town walls.
I’d hazard a guess that many visitors making a quick trip to Tallinn don’t make it out of the old town, particularly if they are doing a quick pitstop on their cruise. That’s a shame because Tallinn has a lot more to offer if you’re prepared to explore a bit more. With a little more effort you can learn a lot more about its history and visit some of the up and coming areas within the city.
We were very fortunate that our good friends Brendan and Susanna live in Tallinn and were keen to show us around. They helped us get a much better feel for the city and gave us the inside scoop on the best things to see and the best places to eat and drink.
So if you’re heading to Tallinn and want to see more than just its old town, here are some ideas for things to do.
Kalamaja, Tallinn’s Hipster Area
If you head north-west out of the old town, cross the central train station heading towards the sea, you’ll enter the Kalamaja district, one of Tallinn’s most hip and upcoming areas. Kalamaja is home to artists, tech startups and co-working spaces. Not surprisingly it also contains a number of cool bars, cafes and restaurants to serve the needs of those living and working there.
Befitting its trendy nature, Kalamaja has a large amount of cool street art, including some Instagram friendly ones.
One of the best things about visiting Tallinn during spring and summer is that the sun sets very late. This makes it perfect for chilling out with a local beer in Kalamaja and enjoying the vibrant, upbeat atmosphere.
The Presidential and Japanese Gardens
Because Estonia is quite a small and safe country, there’s not much need for high security around its government institutions. So it’s quite easy to walk around the outside of the president’s residence and enjoy the parkland that surrounds it.
The Japanese Gardens are close to the presidential gardens. They are a very tranquil place to enjoy a bit of peace and quiet. The best time to visit would likely be around June when the flowers are in full bloom. We visited in May and they were just starting to flower.
If you fancy a long walk it’s definitely doable but your best bet is to grab a tram to get there. If you’ve bought the Tallinn card, it’s a simple matter of tapping it on the reader once you board the tram.
The Seaplane Museum
This museum is set in a very impressive concrete hangar that used to hold seaplanes. Inside the museum is a display of various parts of Estonia’s maritime history. What’s especially cool is that it contains Estonia’s first submarine which you can go inside to get a feel for what life under the seas is like. Not for the claustrophobic!
Outside on the docks, there are a number of old ships that you can board and walk through. When we were there they also had an exhibition of search and rescue techniques which to Cindy’s great joy included cuddles with search and rescue Newfoundlands and Leonbergers!
Tickets: 15 Eurosfor adults or free if you have the Tallinn Card.
Estonian Open Air Museum
The Estonian Open Air Museum gives you a chance to appreciate rural life in Estonia during the 18th century. You wander around a large wooded area next to the water where a number of old farmhouses, a school, fire station and a church have been set up. They have been transported there from all around Estonia over the last sixty odd years since the museum’s creation.
Several of the farmhouses are staffed by ladies in traditional outfits who spend the day engaged in traditional craftwork such as weaving. You also learn about some of the rural Estonian traditions such as marriage ceremonies.
There is a restaurant where you can try traditional Estonian food and drink and a shop where you can buy souvenirs and sweets.
If you get a nice day, this is a delightful way to spend an afternoon or even the whole day. About 50% of Estonia is covered by forests which you won’t appreciate if you simply stay in the centre of Tallinn.
The museum is a little way out of the old town. Probably the easiest way to get there is to take an Uber or a Bolt. They both cost about six Euros each way.
However, getting there by public transport is also pretty straightforward as there is a bus stop right next to the museum. You may want to choose this option if you have purchased the Tallinn card to take advantage of the free public transport it provides. Take bus 21 from Viru, just outside the old town and get off at Rocca al Mare, just across the road from the museum. You can see the full timetable on the Tallinn Transport website.
Tickets: 8 Eurosfor adults or free if you have the Tallinn Card.
The KGB hotel
For several decades, Estonia was under Soviet occupation. This meant that there wasn’t a lot of tourism in the country. However, there were some tourists and the Soviet government wanted to make sure that they knew who was coming in to make sure that they weren’t spies or activists causing trouble.
What better way to spy on your tourists than to set up a KGB surveillance office in the only major hotel in Tallinn. Hotel Viru, just outside the old town is a large multi-storey hotel built in 1972 that was where visitors to Tallinn during Soviet occupation would stay.
On the top floor of Hotel Viru, the KGB had a large surveillance office where they could listen in to conversations all throughout the buildings. They had special hotel rooms that had listening posts right next door and they also bugged dinner plates and ashtrays in the dining rooms and lobbies!
You can do a one hour guided tour of the top storey where you’ll learn more about the history of the hotel and the KGB office there. You also get some nice views over the city of Tallinn as a bonus.
The Viru hotel is on the eastern side of Tallinn, just outside the old town. If you’re staying in the old town, it’s an easy walk.
Tickets: 11 Euros for adults.
The KGB Prison Cells
The KGB Prison cells are located in the basement of a beautifully renovated old building in Pagari street, in Tallinn’s Old Town. The building’s outer beauty stands in stark contrast to the ugliness of what went on inside.
In these cells, political prisoners were put through torture and gruelling interrogations during the Soviet occupation of Estonia.
These cells have now been turned into a museum, which you can visit to learn about their sordid history.
The museum is located at 1 Pagari Street in the north of the old town
Tickets: 5 Euros for adults
The Museum of Occupations and Freedom
Located on the edge of the old town, the Museum of Occupations and Freedom tells the story of Estonia’s occupations under both the Nazi and Soviet regimes. By telling the stories of those who lived under these evil regimes, the museum hopes to spread a central message about the fragility of freedom.
I particularly liked how one of the displays noted that freedom is not as simple a concept as we might imagine. For example, granting absolute freedom to one person may ultimately impinge upon the freedom of another. Any free society will constantly face decisions on how best to regulate its people lives so as to ensure as much individual freedom as possible.
Because we only had a couple of full days in Tallinn, we could only spare just over an hour at this museum. However, to fully appreciate it you should budget at least a couple of hours, especially if you want to listen to all of the personal stories.
The museum has a free audio guide included in the ticket price.
Tickets: 11 Euros for adults or free if you have the Tallinn Card. You can also get a combined ticket if you want to visit the associated KGB Prison Cells Museum on the other side of town.
Kiek in de Kok
If you’re an English speaker, you’ll probably want to learn how to pronounce the name of this place before saying it out loud. Just warning you! Technically, this is still part of the old town but it’s hidden on the outskirts and many people may not find it or explore the tunnels below.
The name Kiek in de Kok actually refers to the artillery tower which at one point was a lot more imposing than it currently is because part of it is now covered up by the adjacent hill. Inside the tower is a museum that explains some of Tallinn’s military history with a range of displays, including showcasing instruments of torture and various weapons used over the years.
Perhaps the most interesting part of the museum is the underground tunnels that run beneath the tower. Constructed in the 17th century, over the years these tunnels have been used for a variety of purposes such as a prison, an air raid shelter and a Cold War bunker.
Tickets: 6 Euros for adults or free if you have the Tallinn Card.
Where to Stay in Tallinn
While there are a range of hotels in Tallin’s city centre (just outside of the old town), such as the well-rated Metropol Spa Hotel, we recommend staying in the Old Town if you can. It will allow you to fully enjoy the atmosphere there throughout the day. There are plenty of apartments at different pricepoints that you can find on booking.com. For example:
If none of those are suitable, you can use hotelscombined.com to search across all major hotel sites using the search box below. We use it all the time.
Where to eat and drink in Tallinn?
There are plenty of places to eat and drink in Tallinn, but for the best options, it pays to avoid the tourist areas such as in the main square. The one exception might be the Old Hansa where staff dress in medieval outfits and seem to have a lot of fun acting the part. Go there only for the atmosphere though, we weren’t blown away by the food.
With the help of our friends Brendan and Susanna, we’ve put together a list of great places to eat and drink in Tallinn.
- Whisper Sister (kind of a secret, you have to call them to be let in)
- Frank Underground
- Infusion Mixology Bar
- Puudel (Estonian for “bottle”)
- Koht (cool small hidden place with a friendly owner and loads of specialist beers)
- 100 Õlle Koht (House of 100 Beers)
- Põhjala Brewery & Tap Room