Estonia – the little country on top of Latvia and under Finland – is quite the odd one out. Lacking both the Balticness of its southern neighbors and the nordicness of the Scandinavians, it has a lot to offer. I have made it my goal to make sure you – a visitor of this amazing place – know everything in order to survive and excel in this mysterious mass of land.
When most of Estonia is just trees and rocks, Tallinn is almost the only place in Estonia with less fauna than concrete and asphalt. The 156,3 square kilometers on the Gulf of Finland that 417 150 locals proudly or not so proudly call a bustling capital differs radically in most aspects of life. Tallinn’s districtual differences range from the medieval merchants’ houses to beautiful tsarist palaces and dilapidated concrete Soviet-time monsters. So do its bars, restaurants, hotels and hostels.
Getting info about Tallinn
If you don’t happen to find a map at the port, airport, train or bus station and feel the need to exchange your black and white miniature homemade printout, you can get one from the Tallinn Tourist Information Centre. Like A Local maps offer all sorts of help from the greatest museums to the dodgiest bars of the city. You can find the official tourist information in the old town, right next to the Town Hall Square at Niguliste 2. Their office is opened on very different times, so check the homepage first.
What to see in Tallinn?
Image credit: visittallinn
The old town is clearly the thing Tallinn boasts about. Taken under UNESCO World Heritage Sites in 1997, this is something unique and amazing. Little galleries opened up in medieval houses, cobble stones breaking heels whilst looking ever so romantic, church bells depending on the time being either beautiful or annoying and admiring visitors being in the way of busy locals with with the notion of everydayness of this amazing place in their eyes. The condition of cobble stones indicates whether the street is a commonly walked one or a forgotten one. So does the lack or visibility of the Amber Mafia – if you haven’t seen a Baltic Amber store in a 100 meters, you clearly have stumbled on a street even Tallinners might not be aware of.
Ignore the Viru Street and the Town Hall Square as much as you can and you might even meet a local.
After you’ve visited the mandatory Old Town, filled yourself up with sweet almonds and other sorts of medievalness, you can either opt for the most beautiful area of the city – Kadriorg, or the dodgy reminiscence of Soviet times – Kalamaja.
Kadriorg – Parks, museums and wooden houses
Image credit: visittallinn
In Kadriorg, you can enjoy the beautiful wooden houses of rich people and say hello to our president living in the area. Be sure to hop into KUMU, the biggest art museum of the Baltics. The Song Festival Grounds is where all Estonians meet up after practicing singing for 4 years – after that we have the Song festival. The Song Festival Grounds is in every Estonians heart as a symbol for freedom, unity and the love of song. Right at the same spot, we also have our very own provincial Octoberfest that almost looks like a mockery of great beer festivals, yet locals take it very seriously – ÕlleSummer puts up tents and fills them with drunken people every summer.
Kalamaja – Everything alternative
Image Credit: Alexei
The other option is for the Soviet lovers and shock-hunters. Visit the dodgy area of Kalamaja – take a walk on the Culture Kilometer next to the seaside to see a bit of different Soviet factories turned museums. If you turn away from the little road onto streets, you’ll find the exact same beautiful wooden houses as in Kadriorg, but these aren’t owned by rich people. You can also find the epicness of Patarei Prison now turned into a uh… nobody really knows, they call it a culture park, so I guess, a prison museum. The Seaplane Harbour at the end of the Kilometer is filled with interesting things for boat and architecture lovers. It’s a Maritime museum in a unique building. If you wonder around in Kalamaja area long enough, you’ll find plenty of fun examples of Soviet architecture as well.
Getting around in Tallinn
Image credit: Juan Andujar
Most places worth visiting in Tallinn are just either a medium to a long walk or a short tram-ride away. Trams, trolleys and buses wake up along with the people of Tallinn and start their days at 6AM-ish. Public transport can take you almost anywhere from the touristy and busy city center to small suburbs in the outskirts of Tallinn. The buses, trams and trolleys for most lines run regularly and their interiors and users are just as wide in difference as their routes. Public modes of transport usually disappear from the streets a bit before midnight.
You can buy a one-ride ticket on the spot from the really grumpy driver. You can also get yourself the Tallinn version of the Oyster card and get a daily or weekly ticket with that at any R-kiosk, you’ll find them scattered around the whole city.
After hours you either have to walk a bit (don’t worry, everything is close by anyway) or get a taxi. The start price is 2-5 euros and probably and the price for one kilometer is 0,50-1 euro. Be ready to practice your Estonian or Russian as most taxi drivers only think they can speak English, depends on your luck though.
Sleeping in Tallinn
Image credit: Unique Hotels
Tallinn isn’t really well adjusted to the huge amounts of tourists that arrive during high season. From July to August might be a bit tricky to find something in the city center and the old town without thinking ahead or having huge amounts of money. So if you don’t want to enjoy the August stars sleeping on a park bench (could result in an interesting story or a terrible cold), I suggest you book something in advance.
Hotels differ from huge international chains to local ones. It is usually cheaper to stay on the verge of the old town contrary to the Town Hall Square and you can get really good deals booking in advance. There are numerous hostels scattered around the city as well – they vary from styles and sizes and once again – book in advance.
Eating in Tallinn
Image credit: Kalev Külaase
The local food has always been sort of simple and similar to German foods – potatoes and meat, possibly sauerkraut as well. This is due to Estonians spending most of history being peasants, singing praise songs to trees and pagan forest-gods, not having any time to wonder about cooking fancy meals. Secondly, the simple and very basic choices during Soviet times have left their impression. Black bread is never absent from an Estonian’s table and it’s weird taste is defended and glorified in hundreds of proverbs.
If possible, find a drink-dessert „Kama“. This untranslatable mix of miscellaneous grains is one of the things that reminds you why national foods are national – it’s too weird to become a worldwide sensation.
Prices range from place to place, the general rule is that if you avoid the Town Hall square, you’ll have restaurants that aren’t touristy and overly expensive. The locals do in fact have dinner in the old town as well. You can find cheap student places with main dishes less than 5 euros, if you only know where to look.
You can find all sorts of different restaurants here: Like a Local – Eating in Tallinn
Image credit: Dmitri Korobtsov
Tallinn has quite a wide range of bars from your traditional Irish pubs and Karaoke bars regularly visited by Finnish tourists to weird places you wouldn’t find without a locals guidance and leave without thinking „What the hell?“. Locals do actually hang out in the old town, too. The party street, also called „the Bermuda Triangle“ by the local youth and police alike, is Suur-Karja, there’s tons of bars, pubs and even a few nightclubish things in walking distance. Most places stay open for a long time, closing around 4AMish in the weekends (usually they also don’t up if the bar is filled to the brim). Ask a local or your hostel, hotel for recommendations.
This will help you out: Like a Local – Tallinn Nightlife
I hope this helps you getting started exploring Tallinn. There’s plenty to discover, good luck!