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Don’t get us wrong, those are great European destinations. But they’re not the only great European destinations – Europe is full of hidden treasures like Tallinn.
We say this because we had an awesome time in Tallinn during our recent week-long visit and highly recommend the city for a European city break or vacation. Most people back west have probably never heard of the Estonian capital. In fact, most people we know probably have no idea where Estonia is at all.
The country’s valuable position and rich resources left it open to conquest by the Danes, Russians and Germans over the years, with the country annexed by the former Soviet Union for much of the 20th century. Since Estonia gained its freedom from the USSR in the early 1990s, the country has been on the rise and is currently a member of NATO and the European Union.
Luckily, Tallin’s medieval Old Town has been left relatively intact despite the many occupations, and its rusting Soviet manufacturing infrastructure has been converted into a burgeoning hipster center.
Truth be told, we didn’t have high expectations for Tallinn. Actually, we didn’t have any expectations at all when we planned our Tallinn holiday.
We chose to visit Tallinn because we needed a place to spend a week between Helsinki and Naples, and Tallinn fit the bill based on its proximity to Helsinki and the international Tallinn airport. However, our expectations started to rise as we researched the city.
We soon realized that Tallinn has a vibrant food scene, not to mention over 60 museums and galleries. Tallinn is a happening place – and it’s growing!
Perhaps Tallinn has been under the radar because it was formerly part of the Soviet Union. Or maybe it’s because of the city’s Baltic location at the farthest East end of the continent.
Whatever the reason, we’re so glad that we ended our year with a week-long Tallinn holiday. Although the daylight was limited during our visit, we got to experience Tallinn’s festive Christmas market, not to mention an awesome New Year’s Eve celebration.
Plus, now we know that we want to spend time in Tallinn during the summer when the days are longer.
7 Fun Things to Do During A Tallinn Holiday
Don’t worry about being bored during a Tallinn city break at all times of the year – even in the winter. Here are our favorites things to do in Tallinn.
Explore Old Town
It’s no shock that Tallinn’s Old Town has been designated an official UNESCO world heritage site – it’s the quintessential European city with rambling cobblestone streets dotted with perfectly preserved old buildings, some of them dating back over 1,000 years.
Despite its many charms and an abundance of churches (many used for other purposes now), Tallinn Old Town is a thriving neighborhood with trendy shops, excellent restaurants and even schools.
Hang Out in the Telliskivi Neighborhood
Many people who visit Tallinn for just a day as a stop on a cruise or a side trip from Helsinki never get beyond Old Town’s walls, and that’s a shame. Tallinn has so much more to offer.
Home to companies like Skype, Tallinn is a city that attracts digital nomads and young professionals, resulting in a lot of cool things to do in Tallinn beyond the touristic center. We loved exploring newer neighborhoods like Telliskivi, a vibrant neighborhood that reminded us of Portland with its hipster vibe and varied culinary offerings.
We liked Telliskivi so much that we filmed a YouTube video during our lunch at F-hoone in the Telliskivi Creative Campus complex.
Visit Museums & Sites
Tallinn has an inordinate number of museums and sites for its size, with museum themes ranging from music to art to marzipan. We were inspired to check out several Tallinn attractions during our week-long visit. These are the three that we enjoyed the most:
Located on in the Viru Hotel, the KGB Museum provides a fascinating peek into life in Tallinn during the USSR years when the hidden 23rd floor of the hotel was used by the KGB to spy on foreign guests.
Locals like to joke that the Viru, constructed in 1972, was built using a special substance called micro-concrete which contained 60% concrete and 40% microphones. Conversations were so closely monitored that guests who ran out of toilet paper would complain in the ‘privacy’ of their rooms only to be greeted the next moment by a ‘coincidental’ knock on the door by the housekeeping staff with a replacement roll in hand.
Since the KGB had to scramble to leave when the USSR regime crumbled, they left the office space relatively intact with an array of reel to reel recorders, mysterious red phones and bugging equipment. Tour guide Margit Raud (yes, the same tour guide as our walking tour) expertly led the KGB Museum tour and showed us some of the devices that the Soviets used on the 23rd floor to spy on hotel guests.
As part of the epic propaganda facade, the hotel hosted lavish nightly entertainment with multiple employees assigned to every guest. As we learned, the Soviets used the hotel as propaganda to show the country’s prosperity. We also learned about the strict control and monitoring of all hotel guests, both foreign and Soviet, who flowed in and out of the hotel.
Interestingly, the workers used the hotel as a conduit for western goods. Guests would leave items like American blue jeans on their beds when they exited their rooms and find cash on the beds once they returned.
The impressive Kumu, a branch of the Art Museum of Estonia, greets visitors with its sleek building designed by Pekka Vapaavuori and dazzles with its vast art collection of Estonian art dating from the 18th century until today.
Although our visit was cut short due to an early holiday closing, we had just enough time to whiz through the Socialist Realism wing before we were chased out by the overly efficient guards barking “hello!?” when they should have been saying ‘goodbye.’
Lennusadam Seaplane Harbour
Situated in repurposed airplane hangars and located on the waterfront, this interactive Lennusadam Seaplane Harbour museum focuses on Estonian maritime history over the centuries.
The three-story museum is chock full of educational displays and has several historic ships to explore just outside of the museum walls. We especially enjoyed the Viking exhibit that was on display during our visit.
Eat Estonian Food
The food in Tallinn delighted us at every meal. This is a city where chefs embrace Estonian food traditions, many with a Russian twist, while also integrating global culinary trends.
During our week in Tallinn, our favorite dishes blended locally sourced meat with the bounty of wild mushrooms and berries. As a bonus, Tallinn restaurants are less expensive than those in most European cities including nearby Helsinki.
We ate standout meals at restaurants like Moon and MEKK as well as consistently solid food at cute eateries both inside and beyond the Old Town walls. We found great coffee both at traditional cafes and at specialty coffee shops. And we can’t forget Vana Tallinn. This flavorful dark rum liqueur provided a satisfying end to many of our Tallinn dinners.
Tallinn Holiday Lunch Video
Watch our YouTube video for the inside scoop about our visit to Tallinn. In the video, we dish about Tallinn while we eat bellinis and borscht.
Drink Craft Beer
Like most cities, Tallinn has a booming craft beer scene.
The surprise, at least to us, is that Tallinn’s craft beer is exceptionally good. We enjoyed the suds from local brewer Põhjala – especially their Öö porter which we drank on our very first night in town.
In fact, the dark, rich beer became our go-to for the entire week. We loved Põhjala beer so much that we made arrangements to visit the brewery and meet head brewer Chris Pilkington.
Celebrate at the Christmas Market
Rumored to be the city that invented the Christmas tree tradition back in the 15th century, Tallinn takes the holiday season very seriously.
Old Town sparkles with colorful lights starting in late November, with the main attraction located in Town Hall Square – a huge festively decorated Christmas tree surrounded by over 50 vendors selling a variety of local crafts, tasty treats and hot mulled wine.
Santa Claus often makes appearances at the Tallinn Christmas Market. Savvy folks can find him among the throng of holiday shoppers or at the aptly named Santa Claus Cabin.
Although the Tallinn Christmas Market is especially pretty when the city is covered with snow, we were perfectly happy to enjoy the market during an abnormally warm holiday season without snow.
The relatively balmy Tallinn weather did not stop people from having holiday fun. We were thrilled to leave our gloves and hats in the hotel room while we enjoyed the best of the holidays in Tallinn.
Kick Off the New Year in Style
Tallinn may be famous throughout Europe for its Christmas Market, but the city is also a fun destination for New Year’s Eve. On the last night of the year, revelers celebrate at parties all over the city like the one that we attended at the Park Inn by Radisson Meriton Hotel.
Our party even had a Las Vegas style cabaret! Like most people, we ended the night and year with fireworks at Freedom Square which is free to attend.
Book Your Tallinn Hotel
We stayed at two wonderful Tallinn hotels and loved both of them for different reasons.
Solos Sokos Hotel Estoria
Just beyond the Old Town walls, the Solos Sokos Hotel Estoria is a unique gem of a hotel nestled in an adjacent wing of the larger Viru Hotel (the hotel that houses the KGB Museum described above). We were a little confused about the hotel’s location when we arrived, but our confusion quickly went away once the genuinely warm staff greeted us and showed us to our spacious room with a view.
Each of the hotel’s 93 rooms tells a unique Estonian story, and our room was no exception. In addition to loving the hotel’s central convenience, we also loved the colorful room design, the overflowing breakfast buffet and the 24/7 cappuccino machine just steps away from our room.
Park Inn by Radisson Meriton Tallinn
The Park Inn by Radisson Meriton Tallinn is a large hotel with 465 rooms, but it feels smaller thanks to its attentive staff and their attention to details. We felt comfortable in our cozy room, and we enjoyed the extensive breakfast buffet each morning as well as the free high-speed internet.
Our favorite part of staying at this hotel was the huge spa area with saunas, steam rooms and hot tubs. We could have stayed in the spa for hours, so that’s exactly what we did.
Getting to Tallinn
Why not combine a trip to Tallinn with a trip to Helsinki? Although both cities are located on the Gulf of Finland, they couldn’t be more different if they tried.
It’s just a short two-hour ferry ride between the two capital cities, and we found our comfort class seats on the Tallink Superstar ferry to be comfortable as advertised.
Plus, time goes by quickly on the short journey from Helsinki to Tallinn thanks to the ferry’s numerous restaurants and duty-free shops.
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About the Authors
Daryl & Mindi Hirsch
Saveur Magazine’s BEST TRAVEL BLOG award winners Daryl and Mindi Hirsch share their culinary travel experiences and recipes on the 2foodtrippers website and YouTube. The married Food and Travel content creators live in Lisbon, Portugal.