Now’s not the time to debate whether Tallinn, the stunning capital of Estonia, is still an up-and-coming European destination or is already firmly there. Whatever the answer, I’ll contend here that it’s best to just pack your bags and find a way to visit Tallinn before the next mega tourism wave sweeps upon the city. (And it is coming, I can assure you!)
Whether you’re looking to wander among the infinite Northern European medieval graces of Old Town or discover why Tallinn might well become next modern European hipster hotspot, get your bearings with this quick guide to the best things to do in Tallinn…
Table of Contents
- What to do in Tallinn: The top attractions & best places to visit
- Where to stay: The best hotels for sightseeing in Tallinn
What to do in Tallinn: The top attractions & best places to visit
Trot around Old Town Tallinn
When I first briefly wrote about Estonia’s capital, I remember getting criticized for expressing by undying love for Old Town Tallinn. The commenter went on to throw the lame “traveller vs. tourist” demoralization into my face, claiming that Old Town was nothing more than a tourist wonderland with no real value.
I have a simple retort to any naysayers: If you can’t enjoy Old Town Tallinn, you can’t enjoy life.
Sure, it’s getting more crowded with tourists by the day, and well on pace to become the next Prague (whoops, I said I wouldn’t do that!), but Old Town Tallinn got a whole barrage of its own tricks up its sleeve.
To throw in another cliché: There’s truly no place like Tallinn in all of Europe. And I’ll say that with conviction.
Old Town Tallinn is unique in its architectural palette, showcasing the continent’s best-preserved medieval buildings. It’s hardly a stretch in walking about Old Town to imagine blacksmiths hammering away horseshoes from hole-in-the-wall workshops or knights in chain-link armour mounting upon their steeds to disappear into the sunset through the city gates.
Needless to say, if you’re visiting, especially if you’ve only got one day in Tallinn, you simply need to spend time getting to know all the nooks and crannies of Old Town. I can guarantee (despite the whiny musings of a ungrounded certified travel snob) that you’ll fall in love with this place.
Woo at the panoramic views from Toompea Hill
One of my favourite things to do in any city is to check it out from above. And in Tallinn, there’s no better place to gaze upon the city than from Toompea Hill in Upper Town. Dating back to the 10th-century, Toompea Hill features several viewing platforms that each offer stunning views of Old Town, the Baltic Sea, and the surrounding modern city.
Even beyond its panorama points, Toompea is a delight to wander around on its own. Like Old Town, Toompea’s a maze of cobblestoned alleyways lined with show-stopping historical architecture. A few places to keep on the lookout for in Toompea include Riigikogu (Estonia Parliament), Alexander Nevsky Cathedral, and St. Mary’s Cathedral.
Enjoy an Estonia craft beer at Hell Hunt
Walking along Pikk, one of the main drags of Old Town, there was no way I could avoid stopping in to quench my thirst at the outlandishly named Hell Hunt.
Now, you might be a little disappointed to find out that the pub’s badass moniker echoes something more akin “gentle wolf” than referring to a demonic elk-searching expedition. But what won’t disappoint you here is the fantastic selection of Estonia craft beers & pub food.
Fans of lighter brews should try the pub’s own Hell Hunt Nisuõlu, a springy wheat beer, while those craving something a little heavier will love Hell Hunt Tume, a slightly darker ale.
Satisfy your inner tourist with a hearty meal at Olde Hansa
If you’re not against throwing at little kitsch into your day in Tallinn, don’t miss out eating a meal at Olde Hansa, a popular medieval-themed restaurant in the heart of Old Town.
Situated in an 15th-century merchant house, Olde Hansa is hardly like your run-of-the-mill Medieval Times. It’s all about atmosphere here where everything from the decor to the servers to the food & drink attempts to recapture the spirit of Tallinn from the Middle Ages.
For an insanely popular tourist haunt, Olde Hansa’s meals are surprisingly good even if a little expensive for the city (remember: you’re paying for the prime location and the ambiance).
Choose between hearty mains like wild game, duck, and salmon, all prepared to mimic the cooking methods & tastes of the bygone era. Don’t forget to pair it off with suggestions from Olde Hansa’s comprehensive international wine menu or with a local spiced beer.
Peer back into the Cold War at Hotel Viru and the KGB Museum
Maybe you’ve noticed from my previous writing that I’ve got a habit of recommending places that evoke Cold War nostalgia. While I can’t quite explain my borderline obsessive fascination, I can push you towards visiting Hotel Viru, the most infamous hotel during Estonia’s Soviet era.
While the hotel is still in operation (rebranded as the Sokos Hotel Viru) and is actually now quite lovely, the real reason for a visit here is the 23rd floor KGB Museum.
Under Soviet occupation, Hotel Viru offered the only official accommodations for foreigners visiting Tallinn. The KGB, being the untrusting & paranoid bunch that they so famously were, set up a surveillance operation on the 23rd floor to ensure any “enemies” of the state wouldn’t be able to spread their propaganda in the newly “acquired” Baltic state.
Although not large by any means, the KGB Museum provides a ton of insight into the clandestine spy agency’s operation in Tallinn with more than a dash of Soviet nostalgia to go with it. To get your spot on a tour, you’ll need to book in advance at the Tallinn Tourist Information Office (€7).
(And as an almost completely unrelated side note to fellow Toronto Maple Leafs fans, if you choose to stay in the Sokos Hotel Viru, set your sights on The Hockey Lions theme room featuring decor that pays homage to former Maple Leaf and everyone’s favourite Estonian agitator, Leo Komorov.)
Where to stay: The best hotels for sightseeing in Tallinn
Thanks to its relatively compact size, choosing where to stay in Tallinn isn’t as difficult as in other larger European destinations. Since many of the top points of interest in Tallinn revolve in & around Old Town, this is a good place to start your accommodations search.
- Hotel Imperial: One of the most budget-friendly choices in Old Town, this lovely hotel offers spacious rooms with a classic Baltic vibe. In true Northern European fashion, there’s also an on-site sauna and hot tub to take your relaxation up a notch.
- Savoy Boutique by TallinnHotels: Delightful inside and out, this superb boutique hotel showcases an Art Deco design with a barrage of modern amenities. Foodies will love the popular on-site restaurant, MEKK, serving up delicious local & international dishes.
- Hotel Telegraff, Autograph Collection: Occupying a 19th-century heritage building, this 5-star luxury hotel is one of the finest in the entire city. Extra amenities like an on-site Russian & French restaurant and spa (including a sauna, hot tub & steam bath) add significant value.
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