Tallinn, how we (Olga & I) love this city. We have been here for quite a few times and we always find something new to see or do on every visit. We first visited the city in 2006, two years after Estonia gained European Union membership and on average since then, visited the city every two-three years. Tallinn for us is an all year round destination but we really do love it in the winter months when there is a lot of snow to which the views of the old town rooftops from Toompea Hill are one to treasure (and they sure do look like scenes from Christmas Cards). With a lot of history, good food, fantastic drinks, lovely people and stunning building facades, this is our lowdown on what ‘first timers’ should expect and should do when visiting Tallinn. Believe us, visitors will not be disappointed.
First off the sights. Where is the best starting point? We always say to visitors, start off at the Viru gates on the eastern side of the old town, as this is the ideal place to meet people, start tours and is also an easy landmark to find. The Viru Gates is classed as the main entrance into the old town and is formed off two gate towers.
Tallinn is known for its medieval buildings, walls and towers and the first one to check out is Fat Margaret’s Tower located on Pikk. Built in the 14th century, it’s eighty-two meters in diameter and has five meter thick walls. The tower is a stone-throw away from the harbour, so the tower needed to withstand attacks from hostile forces trying to enter the city here. These days the tower houses the Estonian Maritime Museum.
Nearby on Lai Street is St Olaf’s Church which is one of our favourite points of the city to get a view from the north. The church was once the tallest building in Europe between 1549 and 1625 due to its 124 meter high spire. One of the legends we heard when we were walking around is that the church was built to attract more merchant ships to the city. There are also various reasons why the church is named after St Olaf but is more than likely named after the Norwegian King, Olav Havaldsson. The church was first mentioned in 1267 in local books. After walking around the inside of the church, we went up to the top of the tower and the views of the sea and the old town are worth checking out. A small fee is payable but it goes back into the church.
Talking about views (and the best place to get the Christmas-card wintry scene if there is a lot of snow) is on Toompea Hill. There are two viewing platforms called Kohtuotsa and Patkuli (you can't miss them when walking around at the top of the hill). For us, this is the best place to get the views of the city and probably use a lot of your camera batteries.
Toompea Hill, what’s it all about. Here is where Tallinn started back in 1229 where a gang known as the Knights of the Sword built a fortress here. Our favourite thing to do here as well as checking out the viewpoints and cathedrals is walking around the cobbled streets. There are some courtyards, small lanes and the odd merchant house to check out. Tallinn’s Old Town is split into two, the Lower Town (where the Town Hall Square is located) and Toompea Hill, which overlooks the peasants back in the day. Here on top of the hill is also the parliament (located in Toompea Castle). The power is at the top of the hill folks but as a visitor, we would recommend a couple of hours up here at least to take in the beauty of this medieval centre.
Walking around the Toompea area of the Old Town, one of the main landmarks is the Russian Orthodox Cathedral. However the cathedral is named after Alexander Nevsky who was a duke who led an army into south-eastern Estonia and the Pskov area of Russia in the 13th century. The cathedral was designed in 1894 and was completed in 1900. However despite the cathedral being so pretty and beautiful inside and out, there is some structural damage and this has baffled some people on why the cathedral is damaged (in small portions that is). One reason (and this is legend of course), the cathedral was built on the grave of a hero of the country, Kalev who is probably a little bit cheesed off and is causing all the problems.
Another church to check out on Toompea Hill is the oldest one in the country, the Dome Church (also known as Cathedral of Saint Mary the Virgin). The church was founded by Danish invaders in the 13th century but then had a revamp two hundred years later with the current Gothic facade. However the inside needed another refurbishment due to a fire breaking out in the 1680s. As well as the nearby viewing platforms, visitors can also go up the tower here to get amazing views of the Old Town. (Only open between 1030-1530 every day apart from Monday’s and do not come during the Sunday Service, that is just rude if you do).
Kiek in de Kök is one place which has to be hit up. Reason why it is fascinating, especially if you love checking out old fortresses and tunnels. Here there are passages, a museum, three towers which makes this the ideal place to get an introduction to the history of the defences of the city. The Kiek in de Kök tower was built around the late 1400’s and is a forty-five meter, six storey high tower and its main part in keeping the city safe was to launch cannonballs at those attacking from the south. This was mainly used in the Livonian War and there are still nine cannonballs embedded in the walls of the tower to this very day.
Where did the Kiek in de Kök tower get its name from? Well, another legend, this time it is claimed that medieval soldiers joked that from the top of the tower, they could see right into the kitchens of the houses below.
Underneath the tower is the Bastion Passages which were built by the Swedish Empire in the 17th century to help protect the city and spiral all over the place. Down here is also the Carved Stone Museum which displays carved stone fragments including family crests which date back to the 15th century. Allow a couple of hours to do the museums, tower and all the passageways. Worth paying the fee to go inside.
Cat’s Well - all medieval cities, towns and villages probably had a well in the centre and Tallinn is no exception. However the residents back in medieval days didn’t exactly have the cleanest of waters to drink from. We will explain. Located on the corner of Dunkri and Rataskaevu, the Cat’s Well has a legend behind it. Some of the locals were thinking that an evil water spirit lived at the bottom of the well and threatened to make all the well’s in Tallinn dry if it wasn’t given regular animal sacrifices. The locals kept the spirit happy by throwing carcasses of sheep and cattle down the well but then started to throw stray cats. Locals would round them up on the surrounding streets and then either throw them down the well dead or alive. This happened so much that the local’s started calling the well ‘Cat’s Well’. It was noted that the sacrifices were working as the city always had water to drink from. However the quality of the water was so poor, that the well hasn’t been used since the mid nineteenth century as water was sourced from elsewhere. This also means the cats of Tallinn are safe to wander the streets again.
On the southern side of the Lower Town is Freedom Square. The main point of interest here is the three-nave Saint John’s church which has a neo-Gothic facade inside and out which has stood here since 1867. Inside the oldest church bell with Estonian text from 1872 is found in the church tower. Opposite the church is the monument to the War of Independence (which looks like something out of the film Thor or the television sci-fi show Stargate SG-1). Since the square was built it was known as Heinaturg (Haymarket), Peetri Plats (Peter’s Square) and Volduvaljak (Victory Square in Soviet times). However Freedom Square was first used in 1939 until the Soviets renamed it in 1948. However before Estonia regained full independence, Freedom Square came back to use in 1989.
Town Hall Square is one of the most beautiful old town squares we have come across in Europe. The square has been the heart of city life for over 800 years and has traditional hosted markets (and in recent times, the excellent Christmas markets). With the Town Hall and its marvellous spire overlooking the square to one side, the other buildings surrounding it have some impressive Gothic architecture. One thing visitors should do here is look for the circular stone in the centre of the square which has a compass rose on it. From here (and if you stretch), visitors can see the tops of Tallinn’s five most famous spires.
Now we have to admit, we didn’t get a chance to go inside the Town Hall on all our visits but we love the facade. However, if visitors look up to the sky, one of Tallinn’s most recognised and legendary figures Vana Toomas (Old Thomas) can be seen on a weathervane which is placed on the top of Town Hall Tower. We love stories like this from medieval times. Toomas wasn’t like his namesake (‘old’), as his story started out when he was a boy. He won an annual archery contest that was only meant to have people from nobility to take part. Toomas thought he would get into trouble for winning but instead was invited to become an apprentice guard. The following years he did very well during the Livonian war as he did some heroic deeds but then went to serve the city well past the retirement age. Back to the modern day and the locals of the city started to notice a similarity between Toomas and the weathervane, so Tallinn’s officials decided to honour him by giving his name to the vane. Toomas since then has also become a symbol of the city.
Whilst walking around the square, we noticed in one corner that there are two long cobblestones that make the letter ‘L’ (located near the Raeapteek). Here was one of the most bizarre tales from the medieval era of the city. In the late 1600s a priest named Panicke went to a nearby inn and ordered an omelette. What he got was described as ‘hard as the sole of a shoe’ so he gave it back. The waitress brought two more omelettes but they were even worse. Then a heated exchange of words happened and the priest was so pissed off, he killed the waitress with an axe. For his actions, the priest was taken to the square outside and beheaded. The ‘L’ on the ground was marked for the convenience for tour guides to point out where the beheading took place and is also the mark for the first and only execution carried out within the walls of the Old Town of Tallinn.
However there is another version of the story where a drunken priest killed a barmaid by throwing a ceramic tankard of warm beer at her head. At this point of time, executions were forbidden inside the Old Town but the pissed off onlooking crowd shouted out ‘You must DIE!’ dragged him outside onto the square and beheaded him. Lucky on our visits to Tallinn, the restaurant service Iwe never had a problem with, still a bit slow compared to Western Europe but we don’t think we would start an argument and kill a waitress.
One end of the square is the oldest running pharmacie in Europe. With no actual record of when the Raeapteek was opened, it’s kinda hard to put a date on it, however with some records laying about, the pharmacy was already on its third owner in 1422. Some treatments which could be brought in medieval times were burnt bees and mummy juice (is that breast milk?) and even spiced wine to cure the flu. The pharmacy today does not sell that kind of stuff but plenty of modern day drugs instead and lots of varieties of condoms! Also inside the shop is a museum displaying medical instruments.
Around the old town, every single street will either look pretty or there is something to see. Even if it's the only handcraft shop on the street, it's still worth checking out for a local souvenir to take home. Tallinn has plenty of these gift shops and we have to admit, we do spend quite a bit of time in these. They are probably the best in Europe.
As mentioned earlier, the Old Town is surrounded by the city walls to which a lot of the walls and towers are still intact. Another good section of these walls is on the western side of the city and are called the Nunne, Sauna and Kuldjala towers.
Now Tallinn is fantastic for food. There are so many options here but in the last few years, the city has really stepped it up a level and there is so much choice and variety of restaurants to choose from. Our favourite one which we keep going back to is the Beer Garden located on Inseneri, not too far away from the Viru Gates. The first time we went there, there were murals on the walls of Estonian girls in Bavarian type dresses holding glasses of beer in their hands but they are now gone. Now as well as being a restaurant, it is also a sports bar which is handy as every time we come to Tallinn, the ice hockey world championships is usually on and this is the place to watch it. The food on the menu ranges from the usual salad, chicken, fish, meat, potato meals with a good range of bar snacks, starters and deserts. The choice of beer is great but we always go with the local lager, A le Coq. We totally recommend this especially when with a group of friends.
Just to the east of the Viru Gates is one of my favourite bars in the city. Right at the top of the Radisson Blu Sky Hotel on Ravala Street is Lounge 24, a bar which offers the finest cocktails, beers, wines, snacks with fantastic service as well as amazing views overlooking the Old Town and the Baltic Sea. We came here on the longest day of the year and thankfully the skies were clear. So we managed to get the best sunset ever before 23:00 hours but the sun just dipped under the horizon for quite some time afterwards, not disappearing totally until well after midnight. It was one of the best sunsets we have ever seen in this part of the world.
Outside the Old Town of Tallinn
Don’t just think there is just the Old Town of the city to see, there are also some great places to check out. To the south-west of the city there is Glehn Park to check out which is really good on a summer’s day as we found out. The park was designed by local landowner Nikolai von Glehn who is described as eccentric. He even designed and built the castle (not a bad job we have to admit, looks pretty with all the trees surrounding it). The park and castle was completed in 1886. At the time Glehn designed his own chairs, tables and carved out figurines as decorations for the castle. However during World War I the whole place was looted but the outside walls of the castle survived. The castle now belongs to the local university. There is also a small observatory tower nearby however the most amazing thing we (especially Amelie) loved about this park is the sculptures. There is a tall strange horned man in a small clearing of trees which the locals call the devil, however the statue is that of an mythical hero in Estonian folklore, Kalevipoeg. However this sculpture isn’t the original as it got destroyed during the war because the Russian army were afraid that the horns were a secret transmitter device sending out information to German ships on the Baltic nearby. Nearby is a crocodile sculpture which is meant to represent the beast lurking behind the hero, Kalevipoeg. To get to this park, the nearest train station is Hiiu and then about 10-15 minutes walk from there, or take a taxi from the Old Town and it is about a 10-15 minute drive.
To the east of the Old Town is Kadriorg Park. This is the biggest urban park in the city as well as Estonia. The park was designed, constructed and built around 1718 on the orders of Peter I who was the Russian Tsar back then. This park is a fantastic place to take a walk and get away from the hustle and bustle of the city (well, Tallinn isn’t really that busy if you compare it to the likes of London, Moscow and Paris). We love the flower beds which surround the Swan Pond and the beautiful facade of the president’s palace were the best places for us to see. In the park there is also the Estonian Art Museum and other various museums as well as many monuments dotted around the park to spot.
To the north of the park is the Russalka Monument (which is on the seafront) and is a monument to commemorate the crew of the Russian armoured ship Russalka, which sank in the sea in 1893.
Further east along the seafront is the Tallinn’s Song Festival Grounds which has stood here since the 1960s. The main event to be held here is the Song Festival which is held every five years. 25,000 singers take part and there are usually over 100,000 people inside the venue watching. There is a tower here which visitors can go up (it's forty-two meters high) and the views of the city and the sea are to be had.
Last of all, near the Tallinn’s Song Festival Grounds is the Maarjamäe Memorial (located on Pirita Road) and it is a memorial to those who had died defending the Soviet Union in the Second World War. In the centre of the memorial is a thirty-five metre obelisk and surrounding it are graves to some of those who had fallen and a bronze sculpture of a flock of birds.
Accommodation review: A sky high stay in center of Tallinn
We have been to the Estonian capital on many occasions but never had the chance to stay at the Radisson Blu Sky Hotel until our visit in 2020. We have been to the Lounge24 bar on floor 24 on a few occasions so we knew where the hotel was located and kinda knew what to expect when we walked through the main lobby. However, on our recent trip to Tallinn, we decided to book a stay here and see what the Radisson is all about. We never had the chance to stay in one of the hotels before on our travels, so Tallinn seems to be the fitting place. As we stayed here, the restrictions for Covid-19 were eased a lot by the government here and to be honest apart from signs about the social distancing, the restaurant staff and front of house staff wearing masks, hand sanitiser at certain points in the building and the remote control in our room having plastic covering on it, it just seemed like business as usual (that is how we like it to be honest, we think after a few months of the lockdown etc, it was good to see a business which was operating to near-normal compared to other hotels on our trips).
The hotel is located about a ten minute walk from the Viru Gates. We came to Tallinn by car and Radisson Blu Sky Hotel does have a small (and secure) parking lot for twenty euros per twenty-four hours. However visitors will need to drive to the front of the building, check in first and then park the car downstairs. If the car park is full, the building is shared with another car park with a similar price. If arriving by train and bus, the main terminals are also a few minutes walk away and of course, if arriving by ferry from Helsinki or Stockholm and are on foot, we would say fifteen to twenty minutes walk should be enough. No need for a taxi unless you have loads of luggage.
Front of the house, we (the family) plus the mother-in-law who’s birthday it was (another reason to book a stay here), got a very warm welcome by a friendly lady who was also very professional and helpful. Check in was very swift and after parking the car, we were in our rooms within minutes. As a treat, we got a room on floor eighteen. Our side of the building we got a great view to the east of the city with the television tower and also the Baltic Sea. However in the corridor (right at the end and on the other side) there is a fantastic view of the Old Town of Tallinn. All of the spires of churches and rooftops can be seen. It is a beautiful sight at sunset.
We were staying in a standard room (we got us two rooms in case you are wondering). The mother in law was staying with Amelie whilst we were staying with Isabella. We will review our room of course. Our room was quite spacious with a huge bed and to be honest, with all the pillows, duvet and comfortable mattress, the bed was well worth paying for. Best night sleep we have had in ages now that we have two children in our lives. There is also plenty of space with the bedside cabinets, the desk under the television, table and chairs, mini-bar and a kettle with plenty of tea and coffee to choose from. As we had a seven month old baby with us, we requested a cot in advance to which we got a nice wooden one with a thick mattress. Isabella also had a great sleep.
Also to note in the room, there was an iron and ironing board, television (not many English channels but plenty of Finnish channels showing American programmes with subtitles so we were happy), and an in room safe. For the bathroom, we had a bathtub with a powerful shower, and a huge spacious area around the sink to put our toiletries around.
Breakfast was provided within the cost and this is located on the ground floor next to the Sky Lobby Bar. The buffet breakfast provided the usual continental items like croissants, however there were plenty of salad dishes provided as well as cereals. Here all the drinks are found and the staff were on hand to make sure everything was clean and quickly topped up if anything was running low. Once we sat down we noticed a small menu of hot food which we could order and be served to us. Danik had pancakes with maple syrup which was simply lush and the others had a cooked breakfast which had a lot of scrambled egg on the plate.
After check out, we were hoping to do a return visit to Lounge 24 for a quick lunchtime soda before driving out of the city. However, as it was midweek, the bar on floor 24 is open from 1700. On weekends it is open from 1100 until late. We were disappointed but we have been here twice before and managed to get served excellent cocktails whilst sitting on the outdoor terrace, sipping the liquid whilst looking at the stunning old town skyline. So that didn’t happen this time round but the bar manager who was already there gave us the chance to have a quick walk round to see if anything had changed since our last visit and to take photos.
I was very satisfied with my stay and I can tell the Radisson, as well as catering for business clients, are very good at catering for families and know what the needs are. Would I stay here again? Of course I would. Would I stay in Radisson anywhere else in the world? Well, put it this way, it would be one of the first hotel brands I would look for. Book up your stay here.
There you have it guys, these are my recommendations of places to hit up with the odd bar and restaurant to eat out. I have been here for quite a few times and I can’t wait to visit the city again very shortly. There is always something new to see and do every time I come here and I can tell my readers now, you will get a warm reception from the locals. They are amazing, nice and helpful. Also one last thing, don’t even bother looking for a phone box, there isn’t any in Estonia. They are all gone! The first country in the world to get rid of all their phone boxes. Thought I will chuck that in there.
Looking for more inspiration from the Baltic region. Please check out my blog posts below:
Getting to Tallinn: Tallinn is very well connected and easy to get to. With flights to the airport (which is located not too far away from the city centre), airlines such as Ryanair, Finnair, Air Baltic, Lufthansa, and Scandinavian (SAS) all fly here from various parts of Europe. Visitors can also arrive by ferry, the most common routes are from Helsinki and Stockholm with Tallink. The international coach services are excellent and comfortable in the Baltics and there are services to Riga, Vilnius and Saint Petersburg. Most popular coach companies are Lux Express and EcoLines.
Currency: Estonia uses the Euro currency which is also widely used in most European countries. Currency can be exchanged at the airports and train stations (for a huge fee) so I would recommend either going to a currency exchange place downtown, to a bank (if they have good rates) or if you got a good bank account with fantastic exchange rates, then use an ATM machine (may incur a small fee but I always do this option as I got good bank accounts).
Language: It’s Estonian, however a lot of the younger generation can speak English. Never been an issue there. Russian is spoken by older generations.
Watch out for: British stag do's at weekends and tourists from Finland looking for cheap beer.
Flying into this area? Then I would recommend using Skyscanner to find flights as that is my first point of call. Then if necessary use the airlines directly to find a good deal. I sometimes use Momondo as well to compare prices before booking.
Travel insurance: Need insurance? Safety Wing offers coverage for a lot of adventure activities as well as emergency medical, lost luggage, trip cancellation and so forth. I never travel without travel insurance. I highly recommend them for those who need travel insurance.
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