Happy Friday everyone! Hope you’ve all had a good week, are all staying safe and are able to enjoy some sunshine this weekend!
Today my armchair travels are taking us to Eastern Europe. This part of Europe is definitely a bit more off the beaten mass tourist path than its Western counterpart. When people think of Europe, they think of Paris and Rome and London well before they think of Tallinn. Though I think that’s a shame, as Eastern Europe is one of the most beautiful parts of the world.
Tallinn is the capital of Estonia, a country which was under German and then Soviet rule from 1940-1991. It gained its independence in my life time, and was ‘behind the iron curtain’ for a long time. Tallinn definitely captured my heart – from the magical old town to the stories of such strength during its dark modern history, this country and its story are amazing.
If you’re visiting Tallinn just for the day (Tallinn is a common day trip from Helsinki), then spend your time in the old town covering the 10 of the top sites listed below. If you’re visiting Estonia for a bit longer, then please also check out my post on what to do outside of the old town.
1. Toompea Castle
This site has been in use as a fortress since at least the 9th century, and today is home to the Parliament of Estonia. Legend has it that the entirety of Toompea Hill was made by a lady called Linda who built it boulder-by-boulder with her own hands.
Nowadays you can find sections and pieces of the castle walls all around Tallinn old town, and you can also climb the walls for lovely views out over the red rooftops at certain points.
2. Alexander Nevsky Cathedral
This cathedral was built in traditional Russian style, while Estonia was part of the Russian Empire. It is dedicated to Saint Alexander Nevsky who won the Battle of the Ice on Lake Peipus (part of present day Estonia). Given the cathedral was built during a period of ‘Russification’, it was seen for a long time as a symbol of oppression by the Estonians. However, whilst demolition was scheduled, it never happened – and instead the cathedral has been painstakingly restored and remains one of the main attractions in Tallinn.
3. Toompea Hill
The steep climb up this hill is well worth it, for beautiful views out over the city. It’s also the site of the famous insta spot next to the ‘The times we had’ wall. I didn’t bother with that, and walked as far away from the queue of social media butterflies as possible to the opposite end of the wall and just enjoyed the red rooftop views.
4. KGB Prison Cells
This beautiful building is a reminder of Estonia’s dark past. For almost half a century, this house was the HQ of the KGB in Estonia, and its cellars were utilised for a long period as prison cells, torture chambers and interrogation rooms. The exhibition inside tells the story of the people interrogated and murdered there, and shows the shocking conditions in which prisoners were kept, and the even more shocking brutality with which they were treated. A very sobering experience, but a worthwhile one none the less.
5. Old Town Square
This square is the heart of the old town, and is flanked by the Town Hall on one side, and restaurants and bars galore. If you’re visiting in winter, it’s also the site of the Christmas markets. It’s a lovely place to sit and enjoy a drink and watch the world go by.
6. St Olaf’s Church
Before Tallinn was independent, before it was occupied by Russia or Germany – it was also conquered by Denmark and Norway. St. Olaf’s Church is named after King Olaf II of Norway, and was built in the 12th century as a centre for old Tallinn’s Scandinavian community before Denmark took over in 1219. I think this is what I found so striking about this city – it’s absolute mixing pot of history. As a bonus, you can also climb the church tower for lovely views out over the city.
7. Escape Rooms
Another thing I love about Eastern Europe is the abundance of escape rooms you can find everywhere. I’ve played escape rooms in lots of different countries and now completed (not always successfully) around 50. The ones we played in Tallinn were definitely worth a visit – we played at GetAway zone which is right in the heart of the old town.
8. Eating and drinking
Tallinn had some really delicious restaurants. We had our first meal at The Farm – a totally lavish place where where a stuffed boar and wolf greet you in the window – and where we found ourselves eating raspberry jelly and rabbit parfait. All washed down with vodka. What a start to the holiday!
We also loved Vanaema Juures (Grandma’s Place). Here the food is hearty, traditional, and very generously portioned. Estonia isn’t known for its wine production, but there are now a few growers across the country. To support local, we also tried ‘Fest’ – an Estonian sparkling wine. It was delicious and perfect with our meal.
Other restaurants we really liked included Parrot Minibar (shout out for the decor), Rataskaevu16 and Estonian Burger Factory. We were really surprised at the choice and variety of food in Tallinn, and it’s definitely worth experiencing.
9. Freedom Square
Freedom Square is a plaza where military parades and celebrations take place. The Victory Column commemorates the Estonian War of Independence in 1918-1920.
10. Tallinn City Museum
If you want to learn a bit more about the city, The City Museum is a great introduction. The cellars of the medieval merchant house store objects depicting the city’s history – from porcelain to metalwork. The top floors host exhibitions on the history of the city.
Thank you for reading! I hope you found this post helpful if you’re planning a visit to Tallinn once lock down is over. I hope everyone has a nice weekend, and please stay safe!