This post has been updated in Summer 2022 following my second visit to the city on our Baltic Road Trip, following on from a short weekend visit which this post previously covered in 2017.
Today my travels are taking us to the final stop of our road trip – Tallinn. 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 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 (POST HERE).
1. Tallinn City Walls
When visiting Tallinn, one of the best things to do is ‘walk the walls’. You can do a large section of the walls at Kiek in de Kok (see below), or you could just do a short section at Hellemann Tower. Tallinn’s walls were originally founded for defensive purposes in the 1200s, and almost 2km is still in tact making it one of the best preserved medieval walls in Europe.
2. Toompea Castle & Governor’s Garden
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’t enter the castle, but there is a beautiful garden called the Governor’s Garden to enjoy, and to see Tall Hermann (another of the towers in the city).
3. 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. You can’t take photos inside though.
4. Viewing platforms
There are two lovely viewing platforms quite close together – Patkuli and Kohtuotsa. It’s a little bit of a climb up to them but well worth it for the beautiful views.
5. 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.
6. 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.
7. 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.
8. Bastion Passages
We absolutely loved exploring Tallinn’s amazing underground passages. Over the year they have been used as everything from defense, to bomb shelter, to 1970s/80s punk meeting place, to homes for the homeless. Today the museum tells all of their stories through almost 400m of passageways with lots of information board and videos. We easily spent an hour here.
9. 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 Elevant, Contravento, Stenhus, Om.House, 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. Yes I eat a lot!
10. 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.
11. 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.
12. Olde Hansa Medieval Experience
Olde Hansa is a restaurant in the old town which if you want a unique experience can’t be missed. The menu includes everything from elk to bear (!), wine is served in goblets, beer by the litre and the entire place is decorated (and dark) like it would have been in the 1500s.
13. The Great Guild Hall
Tallinn has a long history of guilds in the city. The old guild hall is now the Estonian history museum – telling the story of both the building and more about Estonia and its role in various wars and its ownership over the centuries. It was an interesting way to spend an hour.
14. The King’s Garden
Danish King’s Garden is a park in Tallinn Old Town, Estonia. The park is the place where the flag of Denmark, Dannebrog, according to tradition, is said to have floated down during battle to conquer Tallinn. Every year on 15 June, Dannebrog or the Day of the Danish Flag is celebrated in the garden.
15. Kiek in de Kok
Kiek in de Kok is a museum located in one of the old towers. Here you can walk a large segment of the Tallinn city walls, as well as explore up in the tower – the exhibits include one on Tallinn’s wars and weapons, one on the history of Estonia and various other temporary exhibits. We also loved the view from the top.
Thank you for reading! I hope you found this post helpful if you’re planning a visit to Tallinn. And if you have longer in the city you may also want to check out my posts on:
- Things to do in Tallinn outside of the Old Town
- Paterei Prison, a Soviet exhibition in Tallinn
- Lahemaa National Park, Estonia
- Tartu, Estonia
Stay safe and happy travelling everyone!