Ten minutes from the Old Town, between fixed geared bicycles, weird beards and modern art, you’ll stumble upon beautiful wooden houses and odd restaurants in abandoned factories. The Kalamaja area has turned into the humble home of Tallinn’s creative crowd, Tallinn’s very own Hipsterville, if you will.
If you get tired of hearing English, seeing amber everywhere and walking on cobble-stones, Kalamaja is a perfect alternative and opposite of the Old Town’s touristy medievalness. The area offers a bohemian wibe with the occasional Soviet architecture, so be prepared.
Fish, Trains and Bankruptcies
The Balti Jaam train station. Photo credit: swaanson
The Kalamaja area has a long history with the first mention of it in the 14th century. Fishermen reigned in the Kalamaja sub-district for most of its existence, something even reflected in the name. „Kalamaja“ simply means „Fish House“ in Estonian. However, in 1870, as trains started roaring between Tallinn and St. Petersburg, the appearance of a humble fishing village changed.
Big investments into heavy industry meant building massive factories in the once quiet Kalamaja area. The factories then became surrounded by simple, yet adorable wooden houses to house the workers. These houses are now the most known and loved traits of Kalamaja. During the Soviet times, the area was meant for proper Soviet people with families, 9 to 5 jobs and responsibilities. Nowadays, the residents of the area apear to be youth with unfinished art or social science degrees. This change happened because of the fall of the superpower known as the Soviet Union. After the Soviet Union collapsed, the factories had to start following actual laws economy. Therefore, most of them declared bankruptcy. This brought about a huge change to the Kalamaja area.
With hectic economy and general disorganization, the area was sort of forgotten in the 1990s. Unemployment sky-rocketed, people to moved away and left the area to its own devices. This was the crucial moment, since it is so close to the city center, but was also dodgy enough to be cheap on the rents, artsy students seized the opportunity.
Have you noticed, how artsy areas always border dodgy and central? This seems to be the case with Kalamaja, too.
The factories morphed into restaurants and museums. Once dilapidated industrial wastelands were flipped into popular hangout spots. Most of the places have kept their Soviet feel, which seems to work well both economically, since not so much is needed for repairs, and architecturally, since thus everything has a bittersweet ring to it. It is nice.
Around the real estate boom, real-estate agents noticed Kalamaja’s sudden awakening from death and thus, the old houses were painted, roofed and fixed up. The Kalamaja area is now a mix of odd and entailing, there is quite a lot to see.
The Wooden Houses
The workers’ wooden houses. Photo credit: rene j
The wooden buildings lining the streets of Kalamaja give the area a romantic and bohemian feel. These houses were built after the 1870s, mostly dating back to the 1920s and 30s. Keep your eyes opened and you’ll notice stark contrasts between buildings that have already been fixed and things that are still waiting for their turn. A weird show of Estonian individualism is also visible on the windows – quite a few houses have new and old windows randomly placed next to each other. This is because every apartment owner takes care of their own windows, this is not a communaly organized thing. Look hard enough and you’ll also see a few burn marks and empty slots – quite a few of Kalamaja’s wooden houses have attracted fire and burnt down every now and again in the decades they’ve been here.
The Culture Kilometre
An abandoned power plant on the Culture Kilometre. Photo credit: DanieleDG
The seaside of Tallinn and the Northern coast of Estonia has, for recent years, been an abandoned industrial wasteland. The different rulers of the country always saw the seaside of Tallinn as a strategically important location and either opened up shipyards, fortification systems or army barracks.
Nowadays, though, we don’t really have a clear plan of what to do with the ruinous leftovers of different eras just waiting by the sea. The Kalamaja area has tried to change this by building the Culture Kilometre along the seaside. The Culture Kilometre is a pedestrian walking path with a few sights, museums and cafes on the way. The road was built to make the seaside a bit more accessible and attractive to locals and tourists alike – this 2,2 km road was built in 2011 when Tallinn had the „Culture Capital of Europe“ title. Take a walk to see dilapidated buildings and have a nice quiet walk away from the old town.
On the Culture Kilometre: A Harbour, a Prison and a Museum
An experimental cafe close to EKKM, the modern arts museum. Photo credit: VisitEstonia
The Culture Kilometre has a few fascinating sights that are worth taking a look at. Most of the time though, you’ll see graffiti and trees and occasionally a bit of the sea will also be visible behind the trees.
At the start of the Culture Kilometre, you’ll be greeted by a concrete Soviet monster known as the Linnahall building. The building is a show of Soviet grandeur built for the 1980 Olympics. Since Tallinn held the Regatta part of the 1980 Moscow Olympics, the city invested heavily into new modern buildings. The Linnahall building was supposed to impress all the westerners as the first thing they would see as soon as they’d step off the ferry from Helsinki. The marvelous structure was built as a concert hall, but now, it just sort of sits here. There’s a club, Lucky Luke, that recently opened up inside the building, but most of the potential of the building clearly not used. The Linnahall building is also the best place to practice graffiti, since the city government will eagerly remove it quickly, opening up a new free wall to try again. Climbing up the stairs of Linnahall will give you a great view of the Sunset! The address of Linnahall is Mere puiestee 20.
EKKM is a modern arts museum located just after the Linnahall building at the beginning of the Culture Kilometre, too. You will never know what is going on over here. It is possible you’ll see art, also possible you’ll find a flea market and an organic foods sale. It is odd. This is not the biggest modern art museum of Estonia, or even Tallinn, yet it is one of the weirdest ones, since it is built inside an old power plant, which is quite interesting. The museum is free of charge, Tuesdays to Sundays 1-7PM and only opened from April to October, since they don’t have heating. Seriously, this place is weird. Here’s the address: Põhja puiestee 35.
The Patarei Prison. Photo credit: laazik
As you continue on your little walk, you will stumble upon a massive limestone building covered with rusty barbed wire here and there – congratulations, you’ve found the Patarei Prison. The prison was originally a sea-fortress opened in 1840, however, as Tallinn saw the lack of a central prison as a bigger problem than protecting the city from the seaside, the fortress opened as a prison in 1920. This will probably be the most memorable thing on your trip to Tallinn, which might not be such a good thing.
The Patarei Prison is still known as the most notorious prison of Estonia, our very own Alcatraz, you might say.
The Paterei prison was active from 1920 to 2002 and has now been turned into a „culture park“. The massive prison is opened up as a museum, so you can just wonder in a cold, dark prison all by yourself for your own amusement for 2 euros, every day from May to September, from 12-7PM. Address: Kalaranna 2. If you’d want to visit the prison, but it is winter, you can just book a tour on their website. If you are incredibly lucky, you might even stumble upon a rave party, we do that every once and a while in the prison.
The Seaplane Harbour. Photo credit: tourism.tallinn.ee
The Seaplane Harbour just next to the Patarei prison near the end of the Culture Kilometre quite a sight. This massive harbour was built in 1917 as a part of Peter the Great’s Sea Fortress – a fortification system built to protect St. Petersburg from attack. The harbour was in use and was just recently turned into a naval museum. On the court or the harbour, you’ll find tanks and armored trucks you can climb into, even without a ticket to the museum. The backside of the museum still works as a harbour with a bit of sights here and there. This area is interesting even for the ones not so inclined on ships and maritime sights. The cafe is reasonably priced and offers good foods and a nice look into the museum as well. You can go look at ships every day from 10AM to 7PM, there are loads of different tickets available and this harbour is opened all year round, unlike many other museums in the area. You’ll find the harbour at Vesilennuki 6.
Neighbourhood Cafes and Restaurants
Sesoon, a restaurant in Kalamaja. Photo credit: VisitEstonia
Kalamaja is known for its local neighbourhood restaurants that are frequented by students drinking wine at 11AM discussing the latest dramas in theatre or politics. The prices of the restaurants are reasonable and you’ll probably actually hear more Estonian than English in them, so they are a nice change from the old town. Next to the international foods such as pizza and pasta, the places offer genuine Estonian foods. All of the restaurants have excellent instagramability, too.
Instagramability means the foods and interior are perfect for iPhone photos with weird filters, if this is something you’re looking for.
The F-Hoone restaurant located in the Telliskivi factory area has a big outdoor area and a fascinating interior design. How could it not, if it is built in an abandoned factory building? The Telliskivi area the restaurant is housed in is worth a mention in itself. The factory that used to operate in the area produced quicksilver rectifiers, but hasn’t been in work for the last few decades. As an abandoned place next to the city center, it quickly became Tallinn’s hipster-mecca. Some of the rooms have been turned into band rehearsal spots, others hold a massive rave party on odd times every now and again, and there are just car workshops in some. The Telliskivi area has a lot of local designers’ shops and good cafes as well. You’ll find them at Telliskivi 60A, opened every day from 10AM to at least 10PM.
Sesoon is a restaurant a bit away from everything – this place is never on a tourist’s usual trail and rarely on a local’s one as well. This makes the success of this place really amazing. It is incredibly difficult to find but the food is very worth the hassle, thus Sesoon is always filled with people. The foods can take a bit of time and the design a bit blank, leaving the place a bit loud, but the food is worth it. While you’d be having a stroll in looking at the wooden houses anyway, why not put Sesoon on your way for a coffee or a meal? Opened every day from 11AM to 11PM, exept Sundays, when they close at 5PM already, address: Niine 11.
Boheem, situated just next to the train station market and before the Telliskivi factory area, is a neighbourhood cafe which can feel like you’ve stepped into your friends’ place… If your friends place is relatively small and constantly filled with people.. and your friend cooked very well. It is really recommended to book a spot here, otherwise hipsters will fill up the place and you’ll have to find another restaurant. Boheem is known by the locals for its bohemian atmosphere, which is not surprising looking at the name . Try and get a spot! You’ll find Boheem opened Monday to Friday 9AM-11PM and on weekends, they’re opened from 10AM to 11PM, located at Kopli 18.
Weird Weekend Markets
Kalamaja area is also a big promoter of markets selling fresh goods from local distributors and entrepreneurs, because it would not be a hipster area without doing this. There are three different markets opened every Saturday during summertime. The flea markets are also a place to buy weird homemade soaps and jams, all sorts of different eco-friendly and locally produced foods and goods you will probably not find anywhere else. On top of that, there is a permanent market as well..
The Culture Cauldron Garden. Photo credit: VisitEstonia
At the back of EKKM, in the Culture Cauldron garden you’ll find a flea market on Saturdays throughout the summer. The market gets filled with the and people opening up small stalls for random clothes, Soviet memorabilia or even their own art work. Also, there will be a light smell of pancakes, but you will never find the pancakes themselves, never!
Telliskivi Loomelinnak, the previously mentioned abandoned factory area, also organizes a market on Saturdays that fills up the inner area of the whole factory complex all the way to the skate park in the back. Yes, did I mention there is a skate park in the back? The weekly flea market is a place to scout for local fresh foods, odd antiques and all sorts of weird interesting things. The market is only there during summertime.
The fish market gathers different seafood every Saturday at the Fish Harbour. So.. If you like fish, buy some fresh fish. There’s no other point to be made here, really.
Old clocks found at a flea market. Photo credit: Mkorho
The train station market close to the city center, near the Telliskivi factory area is also a good place for fresh vegetables as well as Soviet weirdness, you’ll never know what you’ll find here. Well, actually, you will know: Soviet medals, weird clothes and gas mask bags, that’s about it.
Future for Kalamaja
Photo credit: rene j
By the looks of it, city officials are also planning on keeping the Kalamaja area the Hipsterville of the city, adding bicycle lanes and investing money into alternative art centers and concert halls. So the district seems to have developed from a quiet fishing village, to a busy industrial area and now finally a bohemian heaven. Enjoy the restaurants, museums and weird sights, by looking at the future plans the city has developed for the Kalamaja area, there will be more soon!
If you feel like something is missing on the list or something is unjustly on it, leave a comment!