One of the first posts I ever published on this blog was a shameless praise to Tallinn, Estonia – one of my favourite cities in the world. Now, after more than a year of steady blogging and a recent return to the city, I thought it would be fun to write a more comprehensive guide to what to see, do and eat in Tallinn.
Although it is a one-day-itinerary, I can’t recommend it enough that you spend a few more days in the city. Two, if you just want to see everything and maybe visit a museum or two; three to four, if you want to do other activities like take a day trip to the nearby Lahemaa national park or take a tour on a shooting range; even a week, if you want to properly relax, eat out in as many places as possible and explore the suburbs thoroughly. (Besides, the beer is so cheap that the way you’re feeling the morning after might not allow you to leave the city after just one day…).
I also do realise that if you pinned all these places onto the map of Tallinn, the route I’m taking you through in this post doesn’t make any sense. It’s a small centre, though, and it’s quick to walk through unless you get stuck taking pictures of pretty things, like, well, I do. You can also spread out these activities onto a few days – after all we did just make a deal that you wouldn’t only stay for one day, hmmm?
So, here we go: the ultimate, jam-packed one-day guide to Tallinn, Estonia.
Your day is going to be packed with activities, so it’s smart not to start it with an empty stomach. For breakfast, head to Rataskaevu 3 to find what has been dubbed the most legendary pancake place in Tallinn – Kompressor. With a fairly unassuming facade and a simple black sign pointing to the shop, it is easy to walk past if you’re not paying attention. However, the dark wooden interior of the restaurant makes for cozy atmosphere. If you’re really hungry, the fried potato balls with garlic sauce are an excellent snack to have while waiting for your pancake, but hear the warning (and heed it – I didn’t): the pancakes are enormous and will leave you wanting nothing more. My smoked cheese and bacon pancake only cost 4,90 e – all of their pancakes, both sweet and savoury, cost less than 5 euros – and I couldn’t even finish it.
After the breakfast it’s time to explore the medieval centre of Tallinn. Sneak out off the high street onto Müürivahe, a street fringed by traditional handicraft stalls (and maybe pick up a souvenir or two). Along this street you’ll find the entrance to the wall that surrounds the Old Town. The ticket to go up costs 3 euros – 2 if you’re a student – and allows you to explore the medieval city wall for the length of a few blocks. Two dark stairways with uneven steps worn smooth lead you up to two towers with views over the rooftops of the city.
After the wall, continue north towards St. Olaf’s Church. Even though the church is the most visible building in the whole old town with its impressive height of 124 metres, surprisingly few visitors make their way to it to climb the clock tower. 232 steep, narrow steps later the rare visitor is rewarded with a sweeping view over the whole city.
Fun fact: According to some sources, St Olaf’s Church used to be the tallest building in the world for 76 years in the change of the 16th century but was apparently partially destroyed by lightning. It is estimated that lightning has indeed struck the tower ten times during its history, three times leading to a fire.
Entry to the rather austere church is free, but climbing the tower costs 2 euros and is only possible during the summer.
Fill your belly – again
After all the climbing and viewing you’re sure to be feeling hungry again (or maybe not… those pancakes were huge). Head back to the same street, Rataskaevu, but this time to number 12 to find yourself in the quirky, cozy vegan restaurant called V. Even if you’re not vegetarian, their experimental menu is worth a try! The portions are huge, the service extremely friendly and the food delicious. Mains range between 6 and 9 euros, but by choosing a soup or a salad you could end up paying 5 euros or less for your lunch.
If you’re not jumping for joy at rabbit food, head to the other side of the Old Town to Vaike-Karja tn 3. Simply named EAT, this restaurant is known for its cheap dumplings for which you pay by weight. A bowl of dumplings might set you back about 2 euros, which is just the ultimate budget gem for the price-conscious backpacker. In addition, they serve some other small meals, too, but most people come for the dumplings. Unfortunately I don’t have any pictures of the place since I didn’t go there on my most recent trip.
Go to jail
For a different kind of afternoon, join a prison tour at Patarei prison. You can also enter the prison by yourself, but I highly recommend taking a tour since there are no bits of information up for the independent explorer, and the tour takes you to parts of the prison that would otherwise be closed off from the public, such as the isolation cells and the execution room.
The building has never been exactly fit for use. It was built in the mid-19th century as a fortification, but due to the change in warfare it was never used as an actual fortress. For a lack of a better use, it was used as military barracks until it got turned into a prison in 1920. Nowadays the complex is used as a venue for different kinds of events, art exhibits and prison tours that illustrate the life of a prisoner during the Soviet era. Conversations about the complex’s future have been going on for over ten years, though, so whatever the future holds for Patarei prison is still open.
The tour takes you through pitch-black chambers and dimly lit halls, so bring a small flashlight with you or use your phone! After a round in the hauntingly dark execution rooms, return to the main building to walk along the dilapidated halls and admire the paintings that local art students have left on the walls. There’s also a reasonably priced bar behind the prison complex which is pretty much the only place in Tallinn to enjoy a seaside beer. I didn’t stay there, though, because the wind was picking up and it was threatening rain. Well, you always gotta leave something for the next time.
The walk from the prison back to the city will take you about twenty minutes at a normal pace. By now it’s probably around six o’clock – perfect for dinner!
One of the most famous restaurants in Old Town Tallin operates on the Town Square. The employees of Olde Hansa are dressed to the part – that is, medieval – and even speak in a dramatically Shakespearean way. Since the restaurant itself is on the higher end of the price range, the budgeting backpacker can choose the cheaper alternative: Ill Draakon. A small, open doorway in the town hall leads you to a tiny, candle-lit restaurant, furnished with dark, sturdy wood and robust barrels. Order the elk soup for 2 euros and do it like they did in medieval times – just slurp it straight from the bowl without a spoon. You can also pay 1 e for tasty pickles and have as many as you’d like, as well as get apple pie for dessert. They also do ribs for 8 euros if I remember correctly. For drinks you can get beers in huge pints made of clay, and for the price of your meal they will let you taste the house liquor.
For something a bit more conventional, head to Pizza Grande at Väike-Karja 6. Their delicious pizzas start from 4 euros, and even though I didn’t have time to re-visit the restaurant this year, I heard from others that their quality is still on point.
Satisfy your sweet tooth
You really didn’t think you’d get away without dessert, did you? Since all the meals have been budget options, it’s time to splurge a little on your dessert. (Also because I was starting to crave for chocolate to a scary amount I didn’t have time to walk around enough and find a cheaper place). Close to the Town Square you’ll find Master’s Courtyard, an inner yard that my map described as the most beautiful courtyard in all of Tallinn, which I accepted without questions as soon as I saw it. It’s a small, pretty yard covered in cobblestone and fringed by handicraft shops, and on the right hand side you’ll find Le Grand Café de la Ville. The interior reminds you of what you always thought coffee shops in Paris were gonna be like, and the cakes even more so. 5 euros might seem like a lot for a piece of chocolate cake but dear lord I’m telling you, I tasted heaven on my tongue.
Another chocolaterie near the Town Hall is Kehrwieder Saiakang Chocolaterie. Found on Saiakang 1, on a cute little alley where you take a few steps down to descend to a dimly-lit cafeteria. Their selection includes savoury pastries as well as chocolate cakes and, as the picture below shows, has been voted the best café in Tallinn. It moves in the same price range as Le Grand Café.
Stroll through the Old Town
To be honest, after all the touring and eating you’ve done, there probably isn’t much left in you to wander around the town. That’s ok – roaming from place to place during the day has probably given you an opportunity to see the streets around you anyway. Tallinn, however, is one of my favourite places to just aimlessly wander around and see what kind of a pretty scene I stumble into next. My favourite thing about Tallinn is that even though it’s a reasonably small place, somehow it’s still possible to always discover something new, whether it be a hidden little cafe, an alleyway you’ve never noticed before or a cool detail like a piece of street art or fancy ornaments on a house.
And definitely do climb up to the hill to see the city from the viewing platforms. Kohtuotsa is the most popular one and can get really busy during the day, so it’s worth heading there after the tour groups have gone home. If you’re around Alexander Nevsky Cathedral during opening hours, do peek in; it’s brilliantly ornamented with gold and Russian iconography. make sure to also wander to the Kiek in de kök tower, where tourists like to rest their feet chilling by a lovely courtyard. Buy a snack from one of the stalls at the yard or climb the stairs up onto the bastion, where a café has been opened.
To be quite honest… Never have I ever been out in Tallinn. During this visit I made a firm promise to go on a bar crawl, even if it was on my own, but even after I got the Canadian and the English on my side (to be honest – they didn’t need much convincing), we were all too hungover, lazy and scared of possible rain that we just stayed in for yet another night. So I’m not a great authority on the nightlife in Tallinn. There is at least one pub crawl running throughout the summer which might be a good one to join in. Personally I’d avoid places along the high street. Even though many of them probably are nice, I’d imagine most of them cater to tourists and thus flash tourist prices – plus, there’s always a chance you’ll get tricked into a strip club.
However, I’ve always had a blast just staying in my hostel – more on that below…
Tallinn flash round:
STAY: I stayed at Red Emperor’s Bar & Hostel for the third time this June, and I still love it more than any other hostel I’ve ever stayed at. Their international staff has always been helpful, their common room is amazing for meeting other backpackers and their bar even better for meeting locals. The hostel bar has 2 e pints for their happy hour, and for the super happy hour – a half hour period – they sell those same pints for 1 damn euro. (Which is always my doom… How do I never learn.) After the hostel common room is closed, you can move onto the bar where you can play pool, beer pong and giant Jenga, or sit back and enjoy that night’s activities. Sometimes they host quiz nights, sometimes open mic nights. The theme changes every night.
BUY: For souvenirs, handicrafts are the number one product of Tallinn. Winter wear knitted from wool (woolen socks from Tallinn: blogger tested, mother approved), wooden artifacts mostly made from juniper and Soviet-era antics are both popular and unique souvenirs to bring home. For your sweet-tooth, stock up on Kalev chocolate; for your booze-tooth, cheap alcohol.
GO: During May or August. June and July tend to be the busiest months, and as slowly paced, rowdy tour groups block your perfect pictures, they might just leave you with an impression that Tallinn is merely another tourist-infested old town. (Not saying backpackers are not tourists too since we totally are… but you might still want to avoid them.) I’ve been to Tallinn twice in late August and enjoyed perfect weather with close to no crowds, while the hostel was still bustling with backpackers that had just finished their summer-long travels. I went again a few weeks ago in mid-June, and the change in the city was clearly visible.
Have you ever been to Tallinn and have some more tips? Let me know in the comments!
Ps. This is only the second city guide that I’ve written on the blog (the first one was a guide to Gdansk and around earlier this year). Would you like to see more that kind of stuff on the blog?