Tallinn, also known as Reval, is the capital and most densely populated city of Estonia. In mere ruins after the Soviets left in 1991, the young government took a series of smart decisions, which eventually lead to extensive digitalization and restructuring. Today, Estonia is flourishing.
Each year it attracts millions of international visitors, many more than it’s 1.4 Million inhabitants. This is in part due to Tallinn’s stunning medieval core, it’s business scene and the fact that Estonia- as a tourist destination- can be stunningly beautiful in both summer and winter.
Estonia is also quite affordable- and green. Glamping is a favorite for both locals and tourists.
Tallinn itself offers a range of beaches- both sandy and rocky- across the city, making it a favorite even for those who remain to spend their holiday within it’s borders.
The capital of Estonia has become synonymously known as the “Silicon Valley of Europe”- due to the high number of startups and successful unicorns per capita (Skype, Transferwise, Pipedrive and Bolt among them) that are based here.
Yet whether it is business or sightseeing you’re after- there is plenty to do, see and experience- and visiting Tallinn may just be one of the most interesting trips you might take this season.
Things to Do and See
Tallinn Old Town- a medieval gem
Vana Linn, as the locals call it, is an UNESCO heritage protected district in the city centre. For any non-European tourist, this must look like the essence of “Old Europe” within just a few square miles- and it is a pretty stunning sight indeed. Every single building holds a story, and each step across the cobble-stoned streets feels like you’re trapped inside a fairytale.
Ghosts? Check. Castles? Check again. There are even dragons and ghost monks, and a house where the devil celebrated his wedding.
Tourist tours are plenty: there are those that reenact history, the ones that will introduce you to the most instagrammable spots (of which Old Town has many), and tours covering the Soviet part of history (which is rather scary, yet very informative for those who love to learn about history).
After two or three hours exploring the Town Hall, the town hall Pharmacy, or any of the churches and museums, it is time to have a bite at one of the many cafes or medieval themed restaurants in the centre.
Olde Hansa’s Cinnamon Almond Ice Cream
Like all of their dishes since 1999 created in cooperation with historians- became so widely popular it is now being sold in all the major supermarkets in the country.
Telliskivi- The Young Startup Scene
Before Estonia was invaded by the Danes, Germans, Swedes, Poles and Russians, the country was inhabited by a few loosely governed, freedom-loving Hippie tribes. Or so the story goes.
Telliskivi (Meaning “brick” in Estonian) is where history and modern-day commerce meet.
The small quarter, made up of old factories and contemporary glass and concrete structures, has been self-sustainable since 2009. No outside funding taken, all profits raised by the community go back into the community- governed by a general idea of sustainability and responsibility towards the community.
The place has definitely profited from this attitude: the refurbished factory buildings now house a free theatre, a photography museum, companies like Sony Music, and a variety of shops.
Walls exhibit brightly painted murals by famous street artists like Mexican painter Boa Mistura, and other artistic experiments- such as the hamster below, made out of old scrap metal parts.
In the middle of it all: Startup facilitators and meeting spaces for the young tech crowd like Lift99, and Palo Alto club.
Telliskivi is also known for its (Saturday) fleamarkets (especially in autumn), eateries and small boho shops selling incense, organic fashion and craft materials.
Tallinn is home to no less than fourty-three different museums. Some of them are tiny, and many of them cover aspects of war, such as fortification, medals, armour, or torture. Many of them are churches, and quite a few are about art, crafts and technology. In short: there is something for everyone to be seen.
For those who do not like to spend a lot of time in a museum, there is a place in old town that satisfies both your purchasing habits, and offers a glimpse of culture at the same time.
The Raeapteek, or Old Town Pharmacy, is the oldest continuously operated pharmacy in Europe.
A small room next to the actual store, which sells contemporary medicines, many of them German, and old-style bitters, hosts a small pharmaceutical museum. If you have ever wanted to learn what unicorn horn, or snakeskin potions were used for during medieval times- this is your shot. There are many curiosities to be explored here.
If you are more interested in technology, the Lennusadam and Energy museums are full of hands-on technology to play with, and even an original submarine to explore. For those interested in communist history, Patarei Vangla and the KGB museum provide immersive glimpses into Soviet surveillance techniques and torture. Art lovers interested in modern art might want to explore KUMU and KAI museums instead.
Back in medieval times, Tallinn had the advantage of being a strategic port in the North. The rich German merchants running the city had introduced a law that obliged each ship harboring in the port to present its goods at the local market.
This made the supply of produce available to Tallinners incredibly rich- and spices or foods as valuable as gold in mainland Europe were less expensive and more ubiquitous here. Already back in medieval times, salt, saffron, cinnamon and other spices were popular.
This partially explains why Tallinn sports such a range of salted, pickled and spicy dishes- and they are still foodies to this day! Bit by bit, the city aims to become the Cork of Ireland within the Baltics.
Each year, Tallinn hosts the Tallinn Restaurant Weeks, where people can try dishes at different high-class restaurants at a reduced price.
It is worth mentioning that there is no such things as “Estonian” cuisine- the country has been ruled by half a dozen different nations in the past, predominantly German and Russian. Hence, much of the food exhibits German and Russian influences- with a bit of Scandinavian flavor on Top.
Local favorites are bread, honey, or desserts like kama (a flour mixture used for desserts and meats), mustika kissell (blueberry soup) and kohuke (curd bars covered with chocolate or jam- which are popular with both locals and foreigners alike.
Sweets specifically are a thing for Tallinners, and cafeterias are as plenty as beauty saloons in Tallinn.
Potato-, fish and meatbased dishes can also be found in abundance, as well as- not my personal favorite- blood sausage.
There is a new wave of modern-style Estonian and Russian restaurants in Tallinn, which are fairly pricy, yet offer a Michelin worthy experience- find some of them along Rataskaevu street.
Tallinn Nightlife (and Beyond)
When it comes to the more quiet side of Nightlife, like hanging out in bars with friends to catch a drink or two and watch the crowd, Tallinn Old Town has plenty to offer. Just try the aptly named Sessel (=chair), that serves delicious cocktails and often hosts local artists, DJ-s, and open mic events. Beer lovers might enjoy frequenting the city’s oldest pub, Hell Hunt, and as for strip clubs, there are quite a few of those available as well. However, Tallinn isn’t great for dance clubs, with a few exceptions like Vabank or Club Hollywood.
As an alternative to strolling through the narrow streets of Vana Linn- why not explore a hidden gem located about an hour from the city? Of all the magical, unique spots Estonia has to offer, this place is worth visiting even when you’re in town for just two or three days.
Rummu is a small village less than 1 hours drive from Tallinn and it is famous for the former Murru prison and Rummu quarry. The prison was closed in 2013 and the area is now private territory. Its new owners preserve the area and keep it clean for visitors, and the place is popular among locals and foreigners alike.
At night, Rummu offers visitors the opportunity to join illuminated boat tours across sunken ruins, set in the middle of a peaceful lake. A stunning sight and an unforgettable experience for visitors of all ages. If you like, you can even bring a tent and camp next to the water- or in a fully equipped caravan park (opening in 2022) nearby.
Tallinn Cost of Living
Since 2018, costs for rent, food and amenities have risen sharply. For foreigners specifically, who find it hard to rent cheap flats due to the language barrier, salaries haven’t kept up with that. Since Covid, prices have gone down a bit, which is a big advantage for those relocating to Estonia in 2021 and beyond.
For tourists, however, Tallinn is still quite affordable. Eating out on Town Hall Square specifically can be expensive, but accommodation and food are quite affordable compared to most cities in mainland Europe, or the US.
Small flats can be rented from between 260-500 Euros warm, food is between 100-300 Euros a month, depending on how much you will eat out. As a tourist, one should budget with 300-400 Euros per week and person to live, eat and pay for various entrance fees.
A note on Souvenirs: when buying souvenirs, try to buy from shops with the “Eesti Käsitöö” sign. It guarantees that the goodies sold are handmade in Estonia, and are authentic to the local culture.
Tallinn is a very safe city, unless you live on the edges of Lasnamäe, the former Russian district- which is conveniently far away from most tourist’s spots in Old Town.
Pickpocketing is quite rare, and apart from a few drunken locals or tourists in summer, the city is a quiet place.
As for alcoholism- like everywhere in the Baltics, this is a huge issue, especially among the youth. However, chances are you won’t take notice if you’re only staying for a few days.
If you are a woman traveling alone, my advice for you is the same as everywhere: try to avoid lonely spots at night, watch your drinks, and don’t trust strangers.