Sitting across the Gulf of Finland about 50 miles south of Helsinki, Tallinn is an overlooked European capital. Estonia’s largest city has a long history of rule by various foreign powers which has resulted in an intriguing mix of everything from medieval German architecture to 19th century Russian influences, making a holiday to Tallinn a perfect city break.
The pretty Old Town is impressively well conserved, while just over the train tracks from the city center is an alternative outpost for contemporary designers and hipster coffee spots. Best of all, Tallinn’s museums, parks, castles and cathedrals, as well as its modern Estonian cuisine and vibrant cultural events can all be enjoyed at a fraction of the price of getaways to other European cities, and everything can be found within close distance to your Tallinn hotel.
Here is where to explore and what to see on your next break in Tallinn:
Filled with spires and cobblestone lanes, Tallinn’s Old Town is one of the best preserved medieval cities in Europe. This part of Tallinn still laid out exactly as it was in the 13th century when the city was settled by German merchants. Tallinn was once a walled city and more than a mile of the fortified barrier remains standing. It is possible to visit some of the 26 defense towers and walk through two of the original gates.
Town Hall Square
Tallinn’s Town Hall Square at Raekoja plats in Old Town has been the center of city life for more than 1,000 years. A market was first established on the spot in the 11th century and today the area remains a vibrant public square in front of the gothic town hall that was built in 1404. In the summer, the piazza is full of outdoor café tables, while in the winter it serves as the backdrop for the city’s Christmas market.
This hill overlooking Old Town offers great views of the city center and old city wall, particularly from the Patkuli viewing platform. The small limestone mountain has long been the seat of power for Estonia’s rulers and its most striking feature is the medieval fortress known as Toompea Castle. The castle is now the home of Estonia’s Parliament and can be visited if booked in advance. While in the area, stop in to see the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral – a distinctive onion domed Russian Orthodox Church. You will need to take a mental image of the interior which is full of detailed frescoes because cameras are (unfortunately) not allowed inside.
It is hard to resist the appeal of the charming historic quarters, but Tallinn has more than medieval architecture to offer. Estonia has the highest number of startups per person in any European country so Tallinn is a city with a serious tech edge. The youthful vibe and cool coffeehouse culture is most on display in Telliskivi. Known as the “Creative City,” Telliskivi has developed in an area that was once full of abandoned factories. Now the neighborhood is one of Tallinn’s best for boutique shopping, street art, craft beer and specialty coffee shops.
The storybook charm of downtown Tallinn is enchanting but so is the open green space of Kadriorg Park about a mile from the center. The park was commissioned by a Russian tsar, who also built a Baroque palace on the grounds. These days, Kadriorg Palace has been converted into an art museum which can be explored in the same afternoon as the leafy green walkways. Start with a picnic in the tree-lined park before the classic collection housed in the gallery.
While the northern European weather can result in slightly fewer beach days, Tallinn’s location on the edge of the brisk Baltic Sea means it does have lots of sandy stretches for enjoying the sun. Walk along the promenade at Pirita Beach and catch the view of Old Town to one side and the ocean on the other. For the best swimming and activities for kids, pack your beachwear and set out to Stroomi Beach in northern Tallinn. With volleyball courts and picnic spots, the waterside retreat is popular with families and easy to reach from Freedom Square via bus number 40.
What do you recommend for a holiday to Tallinn?