Estonia, one of the three Baltic countries located in Northern Europe is often overlooked by European bound travellers as a top destination. This is a travesty. To date, I am yet to have seen such absolute beauty in any other country- this city is a step back in time.
Tallinn, the capitol of Estonia, remains the hub for culture and festivities across the country- including the famous song festival and stunning Christmas markets in the old town square. Tallinn is unlike any other city, it was never considered a ‘vital’ city during the cold war and therefore, lacks in modern architecture. Compared to cities such as Moscow, St Petersburg and Stockholm you can still see much of how the city originally was, which has truly saved its charm. The cobblestone streets, grand city walls and fortress still remains in tact post-war. Although much of the city was destroyed during WW2 and bombings, the city was rebuilt to its true form, with very few ‘grand gestures’.
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SIGHTSEEING IN OLD TOWN TALLINN
First thing is first, head up to Toompea Hill as soon as the sun rises. You will beat the crowds and the regular afternoon fog.
The exception to the lack of ‘grand gestures’ is the St Alexander Nevsky Cathedral, lying on top of Toompea hill in the old town. This Russian masterpiece is often considered an eye saw to Estonians and reminds them of a not-so-wonderful past with Tsarists Russia. The Orthodox church was built in 1900, when Estonia was ruled by the empire and was originally a symbol of the Russian dominance, overlooking the Baltic city. It is still a stunning piece of architecture and should not be missed.
Toompea hill has some of the best views in Tallinn. The raised area overlooks the whole city and has a number of fantastic viewing platforms. My personal favourite (and most popular for a reason) is the Patkuli Platform which boasts views of the tallest church, St Olaf.
While your up on the Hill, also make your way to the Kiek in de Kök. This medieval cannon tower and part of the city walls is stunning and also has (during winter) the BEST glögg, a type of mulled wine that I could find! The 38m-high tower is home to an extensive museum of Tallinn’s medieval history and an interesting place to explore. You will also find the entrance to the underground tunnel system named Bastion Passages beginning here.
One of the best ‘sights’ can be found by simply roaming the streets. You don’t need a map as the Old Town is surrounded by walls, so you can always follow them back to where you started. It is an easy area to walk and you will come across some stunning architecture and shopping. I personally loved walking down the ‘Pikk Street‘ one of the longest streets dissecting the Old Town, it pretty much connects the Toompea hill with the outside gates and I loved the atmosphere.
TOP SECRET: On arriving at the Hellemann Tower and city walls entrance, I didn’t think I would spend over an hour there. The tiny little entryway and low cost of 3 euro entry can have you assuming you will be underwhelmed. Well, here is a secret- it has a second floor! I found this great little spot up the tower (you had to flick the light switch on at the wall!) and had the ‘war meeting room’ all to myself. Sitting with a hot coffee overlooking the city from a cute fortress window- unmissable!
The Raekoja Plats/Christmas Markets (Nov-Jan) is the epic center of the Old Town. A thriving hub of activity, restaurants and old school charm will be found here. This is literally the epicenter to the town and can be found very easily. If you can, plan your trip around arriving in December for Estonia’s largest Christmas market! You will also find some adorable local shopping nearby.
EAT: Olde Hansa is a famous medieval eatery and a perfect way to step further back in time
Another great little stop for the list is a tiny passage named Katariina Kaik. This small lane is very cute and great for pictures. Most tourists will miss it as it is a little hard to find!
Finally, make your way to the skirting Town Walls that connect Nunna, Sauna and Kuldjala towers. There is a little park on the opposite side of the wall and is a great place to take a breather after a long walk. It is, in my opinion, one of the most magical places in town and you really feel like you are in a fairy tale!
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OTHER SITES (OUT OF OLD TOWN)
Kadriorg Palace and gardens are a beautiful and short trip out of the main town- about 5 minutes by local tram or bus, I would only head there on a nice day but it is a very stunning area to walk around, check out the palace and have a little picnic or coffee.
FOR THE HISTORY BUFFS:
Love music and dancing? Love good food too? Well I must say I had an amazing evening at ‘Life is a Cabaret‘ that I would highly recommend! From only 59 euro a head, you get a gourmet 3 course meal and 3 part stage show at the ritsy Merineitsi restaurant. It is a great way gain an understanding of the Estonian entertainment industry, along with a little Tallinn history.
If you are interested in the soviet history, check out the KGB museum in the Viru Hotel. It is pretty crazy how the KGB took over the 23rd (top floor) of the hotel and spied on thousands of hotel guests for over two decades. A great look back at the history and also some spectacular views over the city.
For those with a little extra time, check out the neighborhood of Nõmme established by a “mad duke” Nikolai von Glehn. Reconstructed castles,. vast forest land and great ski fields are all located here and just 20 minutes from Tallinn city! Before 1940 Nõmme was separate town, so it still has an old school village charm (and is in fact, where my Grandmother was born!)
Kalamaja, about 15 minutes from the Old Town is another must see/. Literally translating to ‘fish houses’ this skirting neighborhood is a hipsters paradise. Think old railroad houses turned to markets, coffee shops in abandoned buildings and the finest vegan, gluten free and health food restaurants you can find. So cool. Don’t just wander the streets though, stick to the Telliskivi Creative Center area, otherwise you will find yourself a little lost (like me!)
EAT: I am now obsessed with F-Hoone– I had the best quinoa falafel salad on earth!
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You won’t find anything better, location and price wise, than the Solo Sokos group hotels (Estoria and Viru). I stayed at the Estoria and it was great. the service was 10/10 and I was very impressed.