Tallinn is definitely one of my favourite cities in Europe. It’s clean, affordable, safe, relatively compact, has tonnes of history and culture, fantastic food, and loads of quirky, fun bars and cafes. At the very centre, Tallinn Old Town is one of the best-preserved medieval cities in the world.
Tallinn Old Town is incredibly atmospheric, with beautiful old buildings, cobbled streets, and ancient city walls. The skyline, punctuated by castle towers and old church spires, looks like something straight out of a fairytale.
Much of the historic centre dates from the 13th century. Wandering through the winding alleyways and backstreets feels like you’ve stepped back in time.
Tallinn Old Town is every bit as impressive as Prague – and I’d say even more atmospheric, with a fraction of the number of tourists. While it’s currently still something of a hidden gem, people are slowly starting to discover this place. Come soon, before everyone else does!
* If you’re looking for other alternative city break destinations, check out some of my other posts, including:
** Estonia is in the Schengen Area. Many nationalities can visit visa-free for up to 90 days. If you require a visa, I recommend using iVisa.com. Their online visa processing service is quick, secure, and easy to use. **
(Very Brief) History Of Tallinn Old Town
The area around Tallinn has been inhabited for thousands of years.
Between the 13th and 16th centuries, Tallinn (then called Reval) was a major trading outpost of the Hanseatic League. Its strategic location on the Baltic Sea made it an important city in the region. During this period, the city changed hands several times.
Once a Danish fief, it was later sold to the Teutonic Order, and subsequently incorporated into the Swedish Empire. There are many beautiful medieval buildings in Tallinn Old Town which date from this period, including the town hall, pharmacy, several churches, guilds, houses, and the city walls.
Tallinn was captured by the Russian Empire in 1710. It remained a Russian city from then until 1918, when Estonia declared its independence during the Russian Revolution. Estonia was later annexed to the USSR from 1940 to 1991, during which time it was called the Estonian Soviet Socialist Republic.
Post-1991, Estonia has flourished as an independent country, joining both the EU and NATO in 2004. Today, Tallinn is a modern, high-tech city, often described as the Silicon Valley of Europe due to the huge number of start-ups and tech firms based here.
Tallinn Old Town - Things To See & Do
Ever since 1997, the entirety of Tallinn Old Town has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The Historic Centre is an “exceptionally complete and well-preserved medieval northern European trading city” (UNESCO).
Tallinn Old Town is split into two levels. The upper town sits on a steep limestone hill (called Toompea) and has been the administrative centre of Estonia for over 1,000 years. Here you’ll find many governmental buildings, an imposing castle, St Mary’s Cathedral, and the Russian Orthodox Alexander Nevsky Cathedral.
Surrounding Toompea Hill, the lower town is a maze of winding medieval streets, colourful buildings, towers, marketplaces, squares, and churches, all protected by the city’s towering walls.
Town Hall Square (Raekoja Plats)
Town Hall Square (Raekoja Plats) is the beating heart of the lower half of Tallinn Old Town.
A central marketplace and meeting point for centuries, this lively square is surrounded by colourful old buildings. Here you’ll find many cafes and restaurants, shops and the odd street performer.
Toompea Hill (also known as Cathedral Hill) splits Tallinn Old Town into its upper and lower halves.
The hill itself is only about 50 metres tall, but there are several viewpoints which offer fantastic views over the city and out to sea.
Toompea lies at the very centre of Estonian politics and history. It is where the rulers of Tallinn and Estonia have lived for centuries.
Here you’ll find the Estonian Parliament, administrative buildings, two cathedrals (one Lutheran, one Russian Orthodox), an 800 year-old castle, immaculately manicured gardens, and several sections of the city’s impressive walls.
I’d definitely recommend checking out Toompea Hill in both the daytime and at night. In the day, many of the buildings are open to visit, although it can get a little crowded – especially around the viewpoints.
At night-time, the whole place empties out and becomes incredibly atmospheric… You might just have the whole place to yourself – I did.
Walk the City Walls
The medieval defensive walls surrounding Tallinn Old Town are some of the largest and strongest in Europe. The oldest sections date from the 13th century and range from 3-5 metres thick.
Several sections of the city walls are open to the public. Walkways running along the top offer great views over both Toompea and the lower town. It costs €3 to enter each section, and most are reached via a narrow spiral staircase (best avoid any large bags etc.).
Primarily built for defence, the many towers dotted along the walls also served as storehouses and prisons. Today, some have been converted into museums and art galleries.
Great Coastal Gate
The Great Coastal Gate, on Pikk Street, is one of the best-preserved and (in my opinion) most beautiful of all of the city’s gates. This impressive structure controlled access to Tallinn Old Town for hundreds of years.
On one side of the gate, the large round fortified tower (called “Fat Margaret” after one of its giant cannons) helped to protect the city from invasion by sea.
Today, the tower houses the Estonian Maritime Museum. It’s definitely worth climbing up to the top – the views are great.
Danish King's Garden (Taani Kuninga Aed)
On the slopes of Toompea Hill, the Danish King’s Garden is a pleasant landscaped garden enclosed by a section of the city walls and two towers.
Named following the Danish invasion in 1219, the garden is a peaceful, slightly secluded corner of the Old Town. It’s a pretty place to rest, sitting on one of the benches and admiring the view out over the city. You can also climb up and walk along a section of the city walls from here.
Fun fact: Legend has it that this is the birthplace of the Danish flag – the oldest continuously used national flag in the world.
Kiek in de Kök Museum and the Bastion Tunnels
Next to the Danish King’s Garden is a large round artillery tower called Kiek in de Kök.
Built in the late 15th century, this six-storey tower was another of the city’s key defensive structures. On the outside, you can see several cannonballs embedded in the tower which date from a battle in 1577.
Today, the tower contains a museum and photography exhibition.
In the basement of Kiek in de Kök is the entrance to the Bastion Tunnels. These were originally built by the Swedes in the 17th century to hide and transport troops, supplies and ammunition in case of a Russian invasion. Since then, the tunnels have served many purposes, including as a bomb shelter during the World War II, and a hangout for punks and other “dissidents” during the Soviet times.
You take a guided tour of certain sections of the Bastion Tunnels. They also have an audio guide if you’d prefer to explore at your own pace. See here for more info on admissions, times, and guided tours.
This well used to be an important source of drinking water for the city during medieval times.
However, certain superstitious townsfolk came to fear that an evil spirit lived inside the well… In order to pacify the spirit and prevent it from flooding the city, people threw sacrifices into the well – often stray cats. 🙁
Eventually, the well became so contaminated that people could no longer drink its water (go figure), so it was boarded up.
Enjoy Traditional Estonian Food
Traditional Estonian food is both unique and delicious. With certain similarities to both Scandinavian/Nordic and Russian cuisine, there’s a strong focus on locally sourced ingredients. Typical dishes feature venison and elk, fresh fish from the Baltic Sea, sausages, fresh fruits and berries, and lots of dark rye bread.
You’ll find many excellent restaurants in Tallinn Old Town, catering to all budgets and tastes. Rataskaevu 16 is one of the best (try to book in advance) and serves a range of traditional and contemporary Estonian dishes. Their menu changes seasonally, although braised elk is one of their specialities – it’s incredible.
Tallinn has a few medieval-themed restaurants. Olde Hansa is the best known of these. Here you can enjoy a medieval feast of hearty food made from 700-year-old recipes, served by waiters wearing medieval costumes, in an atmospheric old chamber lit by candlelight. Think piles of boar and other roasted meats, sausages, barley, lentils, cheeses and jams, all washed down with flagons of traditional local beer. It’s more than a little touristy, but still a fun and unique experience.
Traditionally, Estonian cuisine features quite a lot of meat. However, there is a growing number of vegetarian and vegan restaurants offering tasty and inventive takes on local classics. Vegan Restoran V (next to Rataskaevu 16) is a great option.
As an aside, I don’t think I’ve ever been anywhere with restaurant staff quite as friendly as Tallinn. Literally everywhere I ate, the people were incredibly welcoming and hospitable. Good job, Tallinn.
Churches and Cathedrals in Tallinn Old Town
There are many beautiful churches and cathedrals in Tallinn Old Town.
Alexander Nevsky Cathedral – on Toompea Hill – is one of the newest (built in 1894), and arguably the prettiest. Named after a 13th Century Russian prince, this impressive Russian Orthodox cathedral has a colourful, ornate exterior with iconic onion domes.
St. Mary’s Cathedral – also on Toompea Hill – is the oldest church in Estonia. It has been modified and transformed several times over the centuries. Originally built as a Roman Catholic cathedral in the 13th century, it was subsequently converted to the Estonian Lutheran Church, and features a Baroque bell tower built in 1779.
The tall tower and sharp spire of St. Olav’s Church dominates Tallinn’s skyline. Visible from most parts of the city, this iconic church was (reportedly) the tallest building in Europe between 1549 and 1625. During the Soviet era, the KGB used the spire as a radio tower.
St. Nicholas’ Church was first built in 1230, but was largely destroyed during World War II. The building was subsequently restored, and today houses a fantastic art exhibition. Here you can see the only surviving fragment of the late fifteenth century painting Danse Macabre (by Bernt Notke). The church also has excellent acoustics and regularly hosts concerts and recitals.
Tallinn Old Town - Practical Info & Tips
Best time to visit Tallinn
Tallinn is a beautiful city to visit at any time of year.
Summer (June-August) is when the weather in Tallinn is most pleasant – with daytime temperatures of around 20°C. This is also the busiest season for tourism. Whilst it’s never exactly heaving (compared with other European tourist hotspots), more and more people are discovering this fantastic city. If you want to avoid crowds as much as possible, come midweek.
Spring and Autumn (April-May / September-October) can also be good times to visit. Visitor numbers are much lower during these months, which is a bonus – although the evenings get fairly chilly.
Winters in Estonia can be very cold (Tallinn is only a 5 hour drive west from Saint Petersburg). But if you’re happy to wrap up warm, Tallinn Old Town looks especially magical in the snow. Accommodation is often cheaper during the winter months too (except during the Christmas-New Year period).
How to get to Tallinn
Tallinn is a perfect destination for a city break. Located just across the Gulf of Finland from Helsinki, it’s really easy to get to. Both cities are well served by the major European airlines, and are linked by regular ferries (which take about 2.5 hours).
Tallinn Airport is only 3.5 kilometres south-east of the Old Town. Frequent buses and trams link the two. Alternatively, grab an Uber/Bolt taxi (or walk!).
If you’re already in the Baltic region, Tallinn is connected to the other major cities (e.g. Riga in Latvia, or Vilnius in Lithuania) by regular bus services. There are also trains, although these tend to be slower and often require you to change trains mid-journey.
(See my guide to the best things to do in Riga here!)
How to get around Tallinn Old Town
Tallinn Old Town is fairly small, and easily explorable on foot. Much of it is pedestrianised, and the best way to experience it is just to wander and see what you find.
It’s easy (and fun) to get lost in the winding backstreets and alleyways of the Old Town. You can use the various towers and church spires to orient yourself, though if you keep walking in one direction you’ll eventually reach the city walls.
To get to Toompea, just walk uphill!
If you’re keen to explore other parts of the city, there’s an efficient network of trams and buses which operate between about 6am and 11pm. Check out the maps located at tram stops for details of which line to take. Public transport is free for residents of Tallinn (again, good job Tallinn), but visitors pay €1.60 for a ride (or €3 for the day). You can buy a ticket from the driver or at a kiosk.
The ferry terminal is less than 1 kilometre from the edge of the Old Town, so easily walkable.
Where to stay in Tallinn
There are many excellent places to stay in Tallinn, with something to suit all budgets and preferences.
You’ll find a large number of Airbnb properties in and around the Old Town. Most of these are high quality and relatively affordable. Prices are somewhat lower outside of the Old Town. I stayed in a great place in the Rotermanni Kvartal district, just east of the Old Town (sub-5 minute walk).
Alternatively, Tallinn Backpackers is a popular hostel in the Old Town. It’s super cheap, clean, and has great facilities (including free Wi-Fi and a hot tub – nice 🙂 ).
Further Info & Useful Links
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