With its fairytale-esque old town, friendly residents, and quirky mix of historical and modern neighbourhoods, the Estonian capital of Tallinn is worth your precious travel time. The city is vibrant – a perfect balance of old and new, bursting with history and a photo opportunity on every adorable corner. As such, locking in a quick, one day visit became a priority on a recent city break to Helsinki. If you’re looking for the best way to spend the day in Tallinn, here are my top tips to make the most of your time.
The Old Town
Always listed firmly at the top of every must-see guide; and not without good reason – the old town of Tallinn looks like you’ve walked straight into a Fairy-tale. Complete with an old timey market square, Gothic spires, winding cobblestone alleys and tall, iced Gingerbread houses, it’s not hard to imagine the events of Cinderella or Sleeping Beauty unfolding here. It’s one of the most well-preserved medieval towns in Europe, and you can spend several hours exploring the various walls, passages and churches.
Certainly the most popular area of the Old Town, the Market Square (Raekoja Plats) boasts a huge array of local sellers peddling their wares – think amber, furs, and sweet treats as the main commodities. The square is overlooked by the oldest, continuously running pharmacy in Europe, and the towering, 614 year old Town Hall, which adds a real element of grandeur to the place. Sit down with a pint of mead (or beer – but mead feels more on brand) at one of the various pubs and enjoy watching the daily hustle and bustle pass you by.
The KGB Museum
If you’re looking for something a little different, head down to the KGB museum. The top floor of Hotel Viru plays host to a secret set of rooms, used by the KGB as a listening station during the Soviet occupation of Estonia. While there’s not a huge amount to look at, the backstory of the Hotel is fascinating – from its thousands of staff and important foreign guests, to the impressive, extensive lengths the KGB went to in order to glean information from visitors. Particularly if you don’t know much about the Soviet occupation of the Baltic States, the museum makes for a fascinating hour of your day – and also offers some killer views over the city. You can only view the museum with a guide, so make sure to book tickets in advance.
In all honesty we didn’t have a lot of time to spend lingering in stores, but that didn’t stop us from having a nosey. In the Old Town you’ll find a lot of jewellers selling local Amber, wood and lots of gorgeously fluffy winter clothing. However we did love sifting through the wares at Oma Asi – a design store selling small quirky pieces from local artists.
If only every happenstance restaurant was just as magical as this one – we stumbled upon Rataskaevu 16 at lunch time, and were just blown away. The food was insanely delicious – made from all fresh, locally grown, sustainably sourced ingredients. Our favourites were the homemade bread with the beef tenderloin pate, the elk soup, and the blue cheese cake (you read that right – somehow it just worked, with the most perfect mix of tangy, umami, sweet, and creamy) – all washed down with an excellent glass of wine. On top of that, our waitress just went above and beyond – she was so chatty, told us all her favourite spots to check out in the city, and left us a cute wee thank you note at the end of the meal.
Not so much eating, and more imbibing – we hit Hell Hunt in the late afternoon to see if Tallinn’s craft beer scene was all it was cracked up to be. And we are pleased to report that yes, in fact it is. With an impressively extensive bottle menu and 11 taps on the go, you won’t be too hard pressed to find something you like (and the bar staff are more than happy to help). My personal local brewery recommendations are Sori, Põhjala and KOLK – all of which have a few brewskies stocked at Hell Hunt.
Unfortunately 8 short hours was just not enough to see all that Tallinn has to offer – it was a bit of a shame to be distracted by the Old Town for so long (even though it was gorgeous). Next time (this is one of my favourite things to write down, as it implies I’ll be lucky enough to go back someday – and after this quick trip, the Baltics have definitely been booted to the top of my list) I would love to check out the Tsarist architecture in the neighbourhood of Kalamaja and see what’s going on in the Telliskivi Creative City.
Travelling between Helsinki and Tallinn by sea is fairly straight forward – all it takes is a chilled out, 2 hour ferry ride to immerse yourself in a completely new culture. The advantage to travelling by ferry is that it’s incredibly easy to get to each respective port on foot, and with about 12 ferry crossings a day (season depending), it’s easy to find a sailing time that works with your schedule.
The three main ferry operators are Tallink, Viking Line and Eckerö. We opted to sail with Tallink both ways, as it was the cheapest option – it cost 39 EUR per person for a round trip. The prices fluctuate depending on travel times and the ferry company – a round trip can range from as cheap as 35 EUR, all the way up to 80 EUR. The earlier you book, the cheaper your trip will be.
Of course you can also fly, or go the long way round by bus – but to make the most of your trip, I definitely recommend going by ferry. It’s cheap, you have the option to take a car if you want to make a roadie out of it, but most of all the journey is fast and comfortable. Just make sure you’re there at least half an hour before your crossing for check in.
What to Bring
- Your Passport or ID Card: Assuming you’re travelling from Helsinki, you’ll need to show your respective ID document as you check in – you are traversing international waters after all. Both Finland and Estonia are part of Schengen, so you shouldn’t run into any problems travelling between the two.
- Backpack/Larger Bag: It’s quite likely you’ll be tempted by a piece of amber jewellery or some other souvenir, which you’ll have to tote around. However it’s handy to note (if you’re a drinker), that the ferry between Helsinki and Tallinn has a huge selection of duty free alcohol available for takeaway purchase, at considerably lower prices than you’ll find at the government-run liquor stores in Helsinki. Save some pennies and get yourself a nice bottle of wine or a few beers on the way back to Helsinki.
- Flat shoes: Do yourself a favour by wearing practical footwear, or you’ll be doing the dreaded ‘cobble hobble’ in the Old Town, and bare in mind that some areas of Tallinn are a little hilly. In general though, the city is fairly flat and quite compact – it’s definitely made for walking.
Useful to Know
Language: The most widely spoken language in Tallinn is Estonian, however English is also excellently and widely spoken – particularly around the Old Town and similarly touristy areas.
Currency: Estonians use the Euro, which makes life easy if you’re coming from Helsinki. Although tipping is not mandated, it is common practise to leave a tip around 10%.
Population: Tallinn is home to some 426, 500 residents.
- Hello: Tere!
- Goodbye: Hüvasti
- Thank you: Aitäh
- Please: Palun
- Where is…?: Kus on…?
- May I have 2 beers please?: Kas mul on kaks õlut, palun?