More Brothers Grimm than Soviet grim, the fairytale Estonian capital has plenty of modern as well as medieval charms and is perfect for a cheap weekend away; here are 15 of the best things to do in Tallinn.
1. Toompea Castle
Toompea is no mere castle, but an entire fortified district, complete with epic views. The building now known as Toompea is in fact a candy coloured Baroque palace which houses the Estonian parliament, or Riigikogu, but large stretches of the forbidding medieval stone walls still remain. So stroll up and take in the Old Town unfurling below, as well as the new Tallinn with its glass and steel skyscrapers and the expanse of the Baltic Sea beyond. There are free guided tours, or you can just admire Tallinn at your leisure from the viewing terraces.
Opening times: Mon to Thurs 10am – 4pm; Fri 10am – 3pm. English language tours at 11am, Friday.
Location: Lossi plats 1a, Tallinn Old Town
2. Alexander Nevsky Cathedral
Named after the Russian warrior prince St Alexander, this spectacular Orthodox cathedral is a powerful reminder that Estonia was once part of the Russian Empire. The interior mosaics are just as impressive (and free to view) as the grand onion-shaped domes. Arrive in time for a service to hear the collection of 11 bells chiming out across the rooftops.
Opening times: Daily, 8am to 6pm.
Location: Lossi plats 10, Kesklinna linnaosa.
3. Raekoja Plats
Raekoja Plats is the heart of Vanalinn (the old town), stretching in a swathe of cobbles below Toompea. It’s surrounded by finely preserved Hanseatic merchant houses and home to the city’s tallest spire atop the Old Town Hall, a spectacular sight when floodlit. Take a pew in the pavement cafes and enjoy an Estonian Saku beer.
4. Kiek in de Kok
Relax gents, it’s not as painful as it sounds! This 38m-high artillery tower dates back to 1475 and gained its name Kiek in de Kok (‘Peep into the Kitchen’) from the fact that the tower’s occupants could see into the kitchens of nearby houses. Look out for the cannon balls that have been embedded in its four metre thick walls since 1577. The tower is part of a museum which includes entry to the historic Bastion tunnels.
Opening times: March to Oct: Tues to Sun, 10.30am – 6pm. Nov to Feb: Tues to Sun, 10am – 5pm. Closed Mondays and public holidays.
Location: Komandandi tee 2.
Price: Adults €5, Concessions €3.
5. Tallinn City Museum
Tallinn overflows with museums that shed light on the capital, and on Estonia too. Nine of the city’s museums are part of the ‘Linnamuseum’ group, including the City Museum, packed full of artefacts, artworks and curiosities from the thirteenth century onwards, as well as film footage of the revolutionary events that shaped Estonia in the twentieth century.
Opening times: (November to February) Tues to Sun, 10.30am – 5pm. (March to October) Tues to Sun, 10:30am – 6pm.
Location: Vene tänav-17, Kesklinna linnaosa.
Price: Adults €4, Concessions €3.
Таллинский городской музей. Этот макет купеческого дома ростом с меня – и примерно в таком же находится сам музей: деревянные перекрытия, косые окна, несколько веков времени, сохраненного и оберегаемого. Интересно выглядят между экспонатами картонные рисованные фигуры людей в исторических костюмах. #tallinncitymuseum #tallinn #tartanparty_tallinn #eesti
6. Retreat to Kadriorg Palace
If you don’t have time to explore the Estonian countryside, cheat and head to Kadriorg Palace to get a feel for the grand houses and the laidback clean, green feel you find outside Tallinn. Built by Peter the Great for Catherine I, the building is like a miniature of the Winter Palace in St Petersburg, complete with wedding-cake style Baroque features and manicured gardens, but it’s by no means small: it was an imperial summer residence for many a Tsar and his family until it was seized by Soviets in 1917. Today it houses the Kadriorg Art Museum, featuring works from the sixteenth to the twentieth centuries.
Opening times: (May to September) Tue, Thurs to Sun 10am–6pm, Wed 10am–8pm. (October to April) Wed 10am to 8pm, Thurs to Sun 10am–5pm.
Location: Weizenbergi 37.
Price: Adults €6.50, Concessions €4.50.
7. Join the KGB at the Hotel Viru
Well, ok, not literally. But at least get a glimpse into the fascinating Soviet era when guests at what was the only hotel in town for foreigners were spied on. We can’t, of course, let you know what secrets you will discover, but we can reveal that this top floor KGB Museum offers one of the best panoramas of Tallinn. A visit to the basement nightclub Café Amigo is included in the price and you get discounted tickets if you brave a stay in the hotel itself.
Opening times: Tues to Sun, 10am – 5:30pm (book in advance to visit).
Location: Viru väljak 4, Kesklinna linnaosa.
Price: €11, hotel guests €9.
8. Play at the Children’s Museum
Families should check out the colourful Children’s Museum, another of the city’s inter-connected museums. It boasts all manner of dolls, trains, ships, cuddly pets and children’s books from as far back as the fifteenth century. Handily, there is space where kids can play and parents can take a break.
Opening times: Tuesday to Sunday, 12pm – 6pm.
Location: 21c Koidula st, Kadriorg.
Price: Adults €3, Concessions €2 (under 3s get in free).
9. Indulge in the Tallinn nightlife
In 1991 Tallinn’s nightlife was fairly dull, but thanks to a gaggle of waylaid Scottish football fans (it’s a long story!) things kicked off with the Nimeta Bar (Bar with No Name), which was soon followed by a slew of bars and clubs of all hues. Mull is a champagne bar (that looks like a hipster vintage shop), run by one of Estonia’s top models. For a no-holds-barred club, check out the recently revamped Hollywood.
10. Join the local cognoscenti
The local cool crowd are currently big fans of the Kalamaja district. Join them, and escape other tourists among the elegant old wooden buildings, home to a hip sprinkling of bars, cool cafes and little independent boutiques. You can take the pulse of Kalamaja at the incredibly trendy Kohvik Tops bar.
11. Estonian Maritime Museum and Seaplane Harbour
Don’t be put off if you’re not a natural sea-farer: this popular hands-on museum makes maritime history fun for everyone, including an underwater exhibition in an old seaplane hangar, a look at everything from Viking treasures to Baltic ‘ice-breaker’ ships and a stout old defense tower named Fat Margaret (head up to the roof for more great photo ops). What’s not to like?
Opening times: Tuesday to Sunday, 10am – 6pm.
Location: Estonian Maritime Museum in Fat Margaret, Pikk 70. (Seaplane Harbour is nearby at Vesilennuki 6.)
Price: Adults €14, children €7 (under 8s get in free).
12. Feast on hearty Estonian food
Forget the days of Soviet-era privations. There are many world cuisines in Tallinn these days, but we recommend staying local. You may never have actually had an Estonian grandmother, but you can still feast on her hearty cooking at Vanaema Juures (Grandma’s Place). She’ll be pleased if you finish all your herring with black bread, followed by elk stew.
Opening times: Daily 12pm – 10pm.
Location: Rataskaevu 10/12.
Price: Mains and platters start from €8.
13. Hit Pirita Beach
No, we’re not kidding! Though we concede the Baltic is normally a little, er, bracing, in summer the mercury can really soar in Tallinn. Pirita Beach is the place to head to, a 6km-long stretch of sand with a sprinkling of cafes. And if you’re visiting off season, try a brisk sunset walk along the much quieter shores – the view back across the city will be worth it.
14. Estonian Open Air Museum
Fear not, this is not yet another museum but a recreated rural Estonian village as it would have been in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, complete with traditionally-dressed ‘peasants’, horse and cart rides, home-cooked national dishes at the Kolu Inn and plenty of events throughout the year, from winter folk festivals to dollhouse-making workshops. There’s impressive attention to detail here, including farms, dwellings and displays typical of different regions of Estonia.
Opening times: (Apr 23 – Sept 28) farms at 10am – 6pm, Kolu Inn at 11am – 8pm. (Sept 29 – Apr 22) Only Härjapea, Sepa, Seto farms, Peipus-Russian dwelling, barn-dwelling of Sassi-Jaani farm, Kuie School, Lau Shop, Handicraft shop and museum park are open (see website for varying hours).
Location: Rataskaevu 10/12.
Price: (Summer) Adults €8, Concessions €5. (Winter) Adults €6, Concessions €4.
15. Helicopter to Helsinki
That’s right, you can nip across the Baltic Sea to the Finnish capital in under 20 minutes via a private helicopter. Less flash visitors can take the ferry; prices average between €70 and €90 depending on time of year and ferry company, and the journey takes about 2 – 2.5 hours. Whichever way you go, Helsinki’s grand architecture, sprinkling of islands, swathes of history and design-led shopping await.
How to get to Tallinn
Tallinn Airport is Estonia’s main travel hub, 4km outside of the city and linked to the centre of Tallinn by public bus.
You can fly direct to Tallinn from London, with budget airlines easyJet (London Gatwick) and Ryanair (London Stansted) making city breaks to Tallinn very affordable. There are also stop-over connections from Edinburgh, via Stansted. There are also connecting flights from Manchester, via European airports like Copenhagen, though these can be a bit pricier as they’re with national airlines like SAS.
Compare airlines and fares using our search tool to find the best flights to Tallinn.
Where to stay in Tallinn
With rooms from £50*, you can’t go far wrong with Hotel Euroopa, a sparkling-clean, modern four-star with a good location near to the ferry terminal. Luxury is temptingly affordable in Tallinn though: have a gander at the wood-beamed rooms and restored cellar restaurant of Schlossle Hotel and you may well fall in love with this boutique hotel right in the midst of the medieval Old Town (doubles from £124 a night).
Need a cheap place to bunk for a few nights? Tallinn’s hostels are equally as characterful, with the Old House Hostel a stand-out for its cosy living rooms, period features and free pancakes (yep, that’s right). Stay in a dorm from just £8 or a private from £20.
*Published February 2017. Any prices are lowest estimated prices only at the time of publication and are subject to change and/or availability.
Like the sound of Tallinn? Try these other unusual short break destinations…
Old town? Past meets present? Frank Zappa statue?! Welcome to Lithuania’s capital of Vilnius…
Gateway to the atmospheric Transylvania region, Braşov is Romania’s prettiest city, with its tangle of narrow streets, Baroque squares and fairytale castles, backdropped by the forbidding Tampa mountain.
Been there, done Prague? We’ve picked out ten hidden East European gems that are ideal for a weekend city break or an even longer holiday.