The amounts of people who stop in Tallinn to admire the city for a few hours is huge. The cruise port of Tallinn is one of the busiest of Europe during summertime and a busy cruise port of course equals being extremely touristy. You can probably feed everyone in Tallinn with sweet almonds given out on street corners of the Old Town, fill warehouses with the postcards sold next to every church and build an amber mansion reaching skies from the amber found in every souvenir shop you’ll hop into. So how do you navigate between all of this?
Lets figure what isn’t Estonian first
Since we are abundant with tourists buying things during high season, we sell random stuff because people like them. The Jurassic Park style insects inside of millions of years old fossilized tree resin is fascinating but the yellow stone so conveniently called „Baltic Amber“ isn’t really Estonian to be honest. That’s why we call it Baltic – because we mostly get it from Latvia and Lithuania. The Russian nesting dolls that go into each other (matryoshkas) are fun, therefore sellable, however not Estonian at all.
Estonian souvenirs have to apply at least one of these seven rules:
1. It’s possible to survive a -20 Celsius winter with it
Image credit: Kärt Kübarsepp courtesy of Visit Tallinn
An Estonian winter is tough. The Estonians who don’t hibernate (there are serious thoughts of teaching hibernation-skills in middle school) have their own ways of surviving the winter – either start drinking or live in a sauna – we tend to try to do both at the same time for maximum efficiency.
For the ones who still sadly have to go to the outdoor-land (the poor sobs who still don’t work via Skype at home), to survive extreme colds every Estonian has a grandma who makes mittens, scarfs and hats.
A traditional Estonian piece of clothing is therefore woolen, knitted and packed with interesting patterns ranging from flowers to reindeer motifs and beautiful traditional Estonian patterns that have been in use for centuries.
You can find beautiful handicraft sweaters, mittens and socks as long as you try hard enough. There are quite a bit of shops on Pikk street, find the sign that says „Eesti Käsitöö“ for authentic stuff. You can also try „Eesti Esindus“ on Viru steet for different handicrafts.
2. It is simple and reserved
Estonians for some reason love linen. It’s simple and reserved (read: gray and dull) like the Estonian peasants used to be. Linen was the unavoidable protest against the lavishness of the nobility, since there just were no other options for the simple folks. Nowadays it plays a huge role in the traditional Estonian clothing. We make everything from it – you can find a lot of uncomfortable hats, pants and shirts. Exactly like the peasants liked it!
So once again, Pikk street with „Eesti Käsitöö“ will help you out, there are also shops specifically focusing on linen around Pikk street.
3. It’s juniper
Junipers, junipers – they are small and cute, smell amazing, their name sounds funny and adorable in Estonian (try saying „kadakas“ a few times without laughing from the cuteness). Even though we don’t have that many juniper trees central Estonia, there’s plenty on the islands and coastal areas. We use the berries as spices and tell ourselves they are healthy, therefore should be eaten regardless of the terrible taste.
Besides that we constantly try to cut them down to make spoons, table-mats and other kitchen equipment, but they just keep on growing back. Your kitchen will smell excellent after putting a hot pot on a juniper trivet!
There is a really cute and small shop in the Master’s Courtyard that is focused on woodcraft. The shop is called „Puu ja Putuka Pood“ which translates to „Wood and Bug Shop“ – cute!
4. It was made right in front of you
Handicrafts – the beauty of it is it’s all different and mostly pointless (read: decorative) . Tallinn’s Old Town is filled with little secret gardens, pathways and unnoticeable streets where craftsmen spend their hours blowing glass, making pottery or hats, knitwear or almost whatever your mind can come up with. Keep your eyes open and find some of Tallinn’s masters showing their craft.
Find Katariina käik and Meistrite hoov amazing handicrafts. Just hop into small cellars and little workshops to see what are they making. You can ask the artists questions and leave with a beautiful piece. The price doesn’t really differ from the things just sold in shops as well.
5. It’s made by Kalev
Image credit: Kalev
Kalev is the biggest candy and chocolate maker of Estonia. Even though the company was bought by Norwegian conglomerate a few years ago the chocolate remained the same (except for the packaging – only try to mention the packaging to an Estonian and they’ll go into a furious ramble about simpler times!).
Kalev, at one point, was also the only company in the whole Soviet Union that made bubble gum (but only white bubble gum, colored gum was considered a capitalist item, obviously).
Nowadays Kalev is loved by young and old, their candies and chocolates come in different sizes, shapes and tastes.
You can find the chocolate in most souvenir stores, but it’s definitely cheaper in normal grocery shops. If a shop doesn’t have Kalev, that shop shouldn’t exist in the first place. Definitely try Kalev’s white chocolate with blueberries – it’s heaven!
6. It’s called Vana Tallinn
Image credit: liinetx
Even though the name indicates centuries of tradition (Vana Tallinn is Estonian for Old Tallinn) we started making Vana Tallinn only half a century ago in 1960.
During the Soviet times, Vana Tallinn was a celebratory drink, for some reason mostly enjoyed together with champagne. This genius mix (read: bad idea) was called „Hammer and sickle“, because that’s what it does, hits you on the head and sweeps you off your feet.
Vana Tallinn has tens of different spices, you can put it into tea, coffee or anything your mind comes up with and enjoy! There are many different versions varying mainly in alcohol content from 40% to 50%. There are also some special editions and a cream liqueur version available.
Nowadays this sweet liqueur has become the drink we take with us if we visit friends in other countries. Finding it is pretty easy: it’s in every shop you go to. Souvenir stores have them but the prices are more reasonable in a food or an alcohol store. Keep in mind you can buy alcohol from 10AM-10PM, so do your shopping in that time frame.
The most known Estonian drink has its own website: Vana Tallinn
7. It’s weird and soviet
For those looking for something different and odd – visit the Balti Jaam train station flee market. This is our Diagon Alley. If there’s something you need – you can find it there!
From normal fruit and vegetables, clothes and shoes to old Soviet memorabilia and weird rusty tools and generally pointless things with indeterminable uses, it’s here.
Keep in mind haggling is not common in Estonia and the shopkeepers usually aren’t fluent English speakers as well.
The market is open every day 10-19, but the people with the awesome crazy things usually leave a bit earlier. Get there before 4PM just to be sure and follow the signs to the second floor and look for “Antiik” (“Antiques” but it’s still mostly Soviet stuff just that “antiques” makes it sound a bit more legit). Don’t be put off by the modern look of the market. Balti Jaam has gone through a little pit of a face lift but you can’t root out all the strangeness. Some dodgy stalls with no telling what they sell still persist behind the new looking market. Check them out!
Hopefully this will sway you away from the amber and magnets and help you find real Estonian things. Good luck!
For a complete guide of what to do and see in Tallinn read this post.
Cover photo courtesy of Visit Tallinn
Is it safe to go to Tallinn
Tallinn is very safe.
In Tallinn and most everywhere else in Estonia you can get by with English.
All the best with your travels!
My God. I loved yr blog. So funny. Will go to Baltic States on Monday and Talinn will be last
Thank you! So glad that you enjoyed our blog and hopefully it had given you some inspiration for your trip.
All the best for your travels!
I from Australia Sydney
Would like to try Traditional food
Which places do you recommend
Is it any grandmother cooking at home for travelers.
I enjoy your blog page
Very detailed information
In Tallinn a there are several restaurants that offer traditional food. Some are quite touristy but that doesn’t make the food not good. You could try Kaerajaan or Vanaema juures (at Grandma’s) in the Old Town. Directed more towards the locals there is Pööbel, little out of the Old Town and with a very laid back relaxed vibe, more a pub than a restaurant but they do all the Estonian classics.
You can also try our food tour: https://www.traveller.ee/tour/tallinn-estonian-food-tour-through-kalamaja
or get in contact with a local (I recommend Rain) who might cook with/for you: https://www.likealocalguide.com/tallinn/locals
Thank you for enjoying our blog!
Good luck with your travels!
Best places to eat in Tallinn?
We purchased aprons made into pigs when we were in Tallin in 2013. They were Pink and beige, pig face with ears and the belly had for flaps for feet and a deep pocket. We were on a Cruise and the Vendor was outside the ship selling there wares prior to our departure. Would love to surprise my daughter with new ones.
Wow that is really very useful souvenirs!I would like to have lovely souvenirs! Good souvenirs always make our any journey memorable! I do had hobby to collect unique souvenirs from all over the world!
How I love Tallinn! I feel like I’m surrounded by long lost relatives when I’m there – probably because I am (my Grandmother was born there and my family came from there and fled the Russians during the war)! I was there this Christmas – mainly just getting in touch with my heritage – especially since I’m actually an Estonian citizen by birth and I’m working on getting my Estonian ID and passport.
I just wish my Grandmother were still around – she would have loved to show me the places she would play as a child, I am sure.
One thing about the Christmas market which I found does not appeal to all people – like my wife (she is Chinese) – is that it is of course small and the Vanalinn area is very much about tourism these days. She complained that the stands at the Christmas market were all the same, and claimed the scarf I bought with reindeer on it was not hand-made in Estonia at all but probably made in China or somewhere else. I, of course, have no way of proving her wrong, sadly, though I’d love to.
Definitely stay away from the amber shops if you want traditional Estonian-made stuff. As has been said…the amber isn’t really coming from there but from the south. Ironically, my wife showed most interest in buying amber there. I *knew* I should have married an Estonian woman 😉
Hi! I was wondering if you could recommend places where one may find quality paint brushes and waxed linen threads (I’d use them to hand sew thick fabric)? Thanks!
Two quality shops pop to my head:
1. Arte kunst ja hobi http://www.arte.ee/et/home at Telliskivi, quite close to the old town
2. Vunder http://vunder.ee/ it is little further out but easily reachable with public transport and in my opinion if they don’t have it it doesn’t exist
I loved your post! helped me I fron Brazil and intend to visit your city. you could inform shops that sell real amber?
Thank you for your kind words 🙂
There is no one shop we can name for ‘real’ amber. Just read up on what is real amber and keep a sharp eye.
You can find info on Baltic amber here: http://www.thenaturalamber.com/blog/6-tests-for-identifying-real-amber-from-fake/
Thank you SO MUCH for suggesting Balti Jaam market, it is not a thing the shows up on most people’s “things to do” radar. I just went to Tallinn with my friend and it was one of her absolute favorite things. She loves useless old “bric-a-brac”, and *actual* Soviet-era junk was almost too much excitement for her to handle. You made our day 🙂
Can one find Haapsalu lace shawls in Tallinn? Unless we travel to Haapsalu…
Well, gotta say the real Haapsalu lace shawl must come from Haapsalu ;). This little fact aside though, you can find these shawls also sold in Tallinn, at a place like this: https://www.facebook.com/heaeestiasi/
Good luck! These shawls are amazing.
I will be visiting Tallinn for only one day this summer while on a cruise. Any recommendations on what to do, where to shop, where to eat, etc? Cannot wait to visit after everything I have read about Tallinn.
For all the best local tips go to this page: https://www.likealocalguide.com/tallinn
You can download Like a Local app to your phone before you come and it has info on so many cities not only Tallinn.
And, of course, the bests way to see all the sights is to take one of our tours 😉
All the Best!
I am going to be in Estonia next month from the 12th -18th minus 13=15 to take the St Peters ferry loop. I enjoyed reading this, some good ideas the knitted gear(we have very cold winters also) and Kalev chocolate will be great to bring home to the grandchildren unfortunately, due to us customs limits I most likely will not be able to bring home Vana Tallinn for the adults, but they will enjoy Kalev chocolate also.Thank you for the helpful suggestions. ttwa
Thank you for the kind words!
P.S. Kalev also makes candy that has Vana Tallinn inside 😉
I lived in Estonia for 5 months during the winter and one of the first things I bought was a pair of mittens. As I really like sheep, my mittens were with sheep of course :P. I survived in -30 and still use them, although our Bulgarian winters are not that cold. Vana Tallinn is what I took as a present to Bulgaria and Kalev’s chocolate is one of the best I have tried! I really miss Estonia and Tartu… I hope to visit you soon! 🙂
I visited Tallinn in August and bought some delicious rope/string candy from a small stand. There were many different flavors…chocolate, caramel, banana, strawberry, etc. The inside might have been Iicorice?? They were pencil thin and sold in about 2 or 3 foot lengths. I would love to know if anyone knows if they can be purchased online. I don’t know what they are correctly named but they are wonderful! I wish I had bought more.
We are going to visit Tallinn in early July and would like your help with the following:
1. We are going on a cruise and will be staying only a few hours. How far is it from the dock to Old Town? I think we will have three hours to kill.
2. Do you know if they ship items to the USA?
Enjoy your day,
Having only visited Tallinn for a few hours during a cruise ship stop, I can pretty much corroborate all that you say about it. It is a beautiful place, and yes, has lovely things to buy.
I am an ESL teacher: your post, while informative, has some errors in it. Would you like me to correct them for you? I love doing that!
I am going to Tallin in 2 days with my wife and daughter (2yrs() what eating, souvenir and activities can you suggest for our quick 3 day Estonia trip? Also do you know where I can purchase an orthodox Christian cross for my friend? Also we want to know which is better The African restorant or Mekk?
Ah, how i miss Tallinn. I remembered about my beautiful time spent in Estonia ( 7 whole months on an Erasmus grant last autumn/winter in TU). I miss it so much and would love to come back and pack a whole lot of goodies and souvenirs! 🙂 I hope to make it to the 2014 Song Festival.
I love the white Kalev chocolate with blueberries. It was one of the favourite tastes for my family and friends also. And Vana Tallinn I best enjoyed when mixed with milk. I can’t remember the name right now, but i used to love the small cottage cheese chocolate bar in small supermarkets.
Can’t wait to visit this beautiful country again!
When I have foreign friends visiting, I usually offer them a shot of Vana Tallinn with milk, most of them are really skeptical at first but will want to try a second one really quickly.
I think the small cottage cheese chocolate you mean is Kohuke, delicious!
Hoping to see you on the Song and Dance Festival!
Good to see that Kalev made your top seven list. On the “food topic” though a bit more of a subtle item… Tallinna bread and Atleet cheese. Each time returning home to Estonia, I can literally live on just that for a couple of days.
Little home made pies filled with apple, cabbage, carrot (to limit to just three delicious possible fillings) are also wonderfully Estonian. But then, “home made” is not exactly tourist readily available.
I would never forget about Kalev. Tallinn dark bread and Atleet melted cheese are a good idea, as well!
Some souvenir stores have recently started selling home-made goods, too. You would probably not find pies, but the choices of different, delicious and sometimes very surprising jams, dried fruit and other goods are definitely not modest. I think I once found garlic chocolate next to some raspberry jam. The Eesti Esindus store on Viru street will provide tourists with a variety of home-made things, for example.
Just got home to Arizona, USA two weeks ago. We were enchanted with Tallinn! Yes, we bought Amber. I chose a white piece and everyone loves it. At least I can say “I bought it in Estonia.” We sampled the local beer, took our picture next to a life size rag doll, and bought a linin pillow cover, ogled and marveled at the buildings. And the clean! Loved the clean. I live in a desert, complete with dust storms. In short, had little time to do anything except be a tourist. Last but not least the people were super nice. I wish I could have stayed for a few weeks. Love
I’m glad you enjoyed Tallinn a lot. The fact that a thing is touristy doesn’t mean it’s less authentic, cliches are cliches for a reason.
Since you were here for such a short time, be sure to plan Tallinn into your next trip. And make the stay longer!
Good advice. Honest and very funny too. Some one we need to hang out with!