Hidden in the northeastern corner of Europe, Tallinn is one of the best-kept travel destinations where medieval meets modern. The capital of Estonia is a fascinating combination of plucked-out-of-fairytale charisma, beautiful medieval architecture, surviving memorials of Russian occupation splashed with a modern touch. Personally, I love Tallinn so much that I hop on a ferry from Helsinki to visit Tallinn every time I have a chance. And I’m here to make sure you will also fall in love with this amazing Baltic city.
If I’m being completely honest with you, Tallinn is magical and beautiful all year round. Moreover, it doesn’t matter which time of the year you visit Tallinn, there are always a ton of things to experience and get yourself enchanted by this city.
Wander the medieval cobblestoned streets in the Old Town
No trip to Tallinn is complete without a visit to the Old Town. Sure it is the most touristic spot in the city, but it doesn’t mean the crowd diminishes its charm and beauty. Even on the busiest day of the year, Tallinn is just as captivating and delightful, and I have never for a second felt suffocating as in other European Old Towns (say Gdansk or Prague in July). What’s more? This part of the city is not only for tourists, the locals Estonians do spend time here.
Tallinn Old Town is simply an alluring mixture of fairytale atmosphere, long snaky cobblestoned alleys and mesmerizing medieval architecture dazzled in a strong sense of authenticity.
Admire the charming panoramic views from various viewpoints
Observing the beauty of the Old Town on street level is one thing, admiring it from higher places brings about much more dramatic and exciting feelings. I visit Tallinn at least a dozen times and every time is like the first time: My heart skips a beat upon seeing the Old Town from above.
Check out at least one of Tallinn’s coolest museums
It is always a good time to visit a museum, especially if you stumble upon Tallinn on a cold winter day. Here is our list of recommended museums to make your time in Tallinn more well-worth:
- Kiek in de Kök and Bastion Passages Museum: Love history, architecture and exercise? This is the real deal you can’t afford to miss. Also, do you know that the tower acquired the name Kiek In de Kök, meaning “peep into the kitchen”, due to the ability of tower occupants to see into kitchens of lower houses?
- Lennusadam Seaplane Harbour: Quirky, unique and unusual are the words we would use to describe this museum. This is the place to visit if you are interested in Estonian maritime history. Moreover, there are a lot of interactive and educational activities that are interesting for both adults and kids, so welcome aboard!
- Kumu Art Museum: Tired of old rusty buildings? Let’s go freshen up at Kumu! Not only is this museum a striking modern piece of architecture, it also houses a rich and intriguing collection of Estonian art ranging from the 18th century to present times. And when you are ready to feel nostalgic again, check out the next door Kadriorg Art Museum – a beautiful baroque palace hosting foreign artworks and situated magnificently in a well-kept beautiful garden.
- KGB Museum: This is a total no brainer for those intrigued by Tallinn’s secret history. The 23rd floor in the 22-floor hotel (no, that’s not a typo) was where the KGB spied on foreign guests during the Cold War. Talking about vintage James Bond’s spyware, right? BTW, do not forget to take a glimpse of the city from the balcony!
Get cozy in a medieval tavern
With medieval architecture comes medieval taverns to spice up your experience!
Two names immediately cross my mind: Olde Hansa and Ill Draakon, and both give me the awestruck Games of Thrones impression.
Beloved by many tourists, Olde Hansa claims to celebrate true period music, original interior decoration and 15th century recipes and cooking methods. This is an ideal destination to spend a long, exciting evening with friends and family.
On the other hands, if you just look for a brief stop and a quick bite, Ill Draakon is your place. I stop by this lovely tavern almost every time I’m in Tallinn. My favorite combo: elk soup and wild meat pie washed down with a pint of dark beer. On a sunny summer day, I prefer siting at the benches outside and behold the hustle and bustle of the square.
Enjoy a stroll in the quaint Bohemian Kalamaja
Just a stone’s throw away from the Old Town, Kalamaja is now the ever-evolving hipster spot. Abandoned Soviet factories have transformed into modern bohemian cafes and restaurants. Wooden houses have been renovated with facades sparked vibrant colors. Old ruined structures are covered in colorful graffiti. What once an industrial ruin has emerged into a lively bohemian meeting point brimming with activities for young adults to explore. Personally, I find Kalamaja the intriguing combination of industrial history, art and culture.
Relax at a local cafe
This is my favorite part of visiting any city. After a long walk through various attractions, I fancy nothing more than finding a lovely cafe to rest my legs, enjoy a cup of tea and simply observe what is happening around. Having been to Tallinn again and again means that I have already established my list of great cafes, which I’m so happy to share:
Café Maiasmokk: Being the oldest cafe in Tallinn, Maiasmokk boasts the unique travel-back-in-time interior design and a rich selection of mouthwatering patisseries. More importantly, it is the Mecca for marzipan worshippers!
Gustav: I first bumped into Gustav when I visited the bookstore in Virukeskus shopping center and only found out later that there were many of them in different parts of Tallinn. What I love about Gustav is the wide range of delicious savoury and sweet pastries at extremely affordable prices.
- Boheem: Located in the hip Kalamaja neighborhood, this bohemian cafe got me fell head over heels with its vibrant wooden facade, minimal interior and scrumptious food in big portions. Since it is very popular, I recommend reserving a table before hand or avoid walk in during peak hours.
- Pierre Chocolaterie: This is no doubt a little paradise for chocolate lovers. I stumbled upon this quirky yet cozy cafe when wandering the quiet cobblestoned streets of Tallinn once rainy summer day. I immediately fell in love with a peaceful atmosphere in the courtyard and then left impressed with the unusually cool interior.
Savor the world’s best pancakes at Kompressor
On my first visit to Kompressor, I had to share a table with a couple of mom and daughter as the place was fully packed. It turned out to be such an interesting encounter when they told me that they used to live in Tallinn before moving to Budapest and their family came to here on a weekly basis. At that time, the daughter was about to move to America for her university and it was her wish to visit Kompressor again. It was right that moment that I knew this little cafe is a true gem.
In case you didn’t know, Kompressor’s pancakes is second to none! Every bite literally takes you to heaven. This lovely cafe/pub is always crowded with both locals and tourists, so be prepared for quite a long wait, but I promise you it’s totally worth it. Nothing is more awesome than super yummy pancakes served in giant portions and cost almost nothing. I do recommend sharing because sharing is caring, and yes, you may not able to finish one whole pancake yourself.
Shop like a local at Balti Jaam Market
I discovered this market about 4 years ago, before the renovation. At that time, it was almost an open-air market that reminded me of those in Vietnam. Nowadays, it is a modernized sheltered structure comprising of many kiosks and shops. Just a few minutes walk from Tallinn Old Town, Balti Jaam Turg is a great place to meet locals and kill time by roaming through secondhand and antique stores, snacking some street foods or doing a bit of grocery shopping. I do sometimes visit this market to grab some seasonal products such as berries or mushrooms.
Marvel at the city from a different angle from Tallinn TV Tower
Though I don’t highly recommend this for those suffered from acrophobia, visiting Tallinn TV tower is a good excuse to explore beyond the stone walls of Old Town. At 314m height, this is the tallest structure in Estonia, which undoubtedly gives you the most breathtaking views of the entire city. If your time, budget and bravery allow, do not hesitate to take the walk on the edge and the best pictures from there.
Take a day trip to Helsinki
As a Helsinkian, I must say people usually do the trip the other way round. However, if you visit Tallinn from some other place and haven’t seen Finland, going for a day trip to Helsinki is absolutely a great idea. It is approximately 2 – 3 hours to go from Tallinn to Helsinki by ferry. I suggest an early start in the morning and heading back in the evening, which will give you 6 – 12 hours on land to discover Helsinki. In case you are still clueless of what to do in Helsinki, feel free to check out our complete guide here.
Bonus: Visit the Christmas market at Tallinn Old Town’s Square
Although I totally love Tallinn in the summer, being in Tallinn during the festive season does make me incredibly thrilled. Tallinn’s Christmas market may not be the best one in Europe, but it has its own charm and magic. You will definitely love strolling around the cute little kiosks, hunting for some high-quality handicrafts and filling your tummy with delicious local cuisine.
In a nutshell, I guarantee you it doesn’t take long to fall in love with Tallinn and I won’t be surprised if you keep coming back. In case you happen to have a long holiday, why not exploring the whole Baltic region at once? Check out our Baltic trip in a week itinerary here.