With so many things to do in Tallinn, you need to make sure you’re planning to spend at least a few days in this lovely medieval city.
As one of the most beautiful capital cities of the Baltics, Tallinn is one of those destinations you have to check out.
Located on the tip of the Baltic peninsula, and just across the water from Helsinki, Tallinn is an interesting place to visit and offers a unique blend of Northern European and Central European medieval cultures.
It’s also a great European budget travel destination if you’re looking to stretch your hard earned cash a little further, especially if you just finished exploring Scandinavia and you’re looking to visit somewhere that isn’t as mind-blowingly expensive.
In this post I want to share with you some great recommendations on what to do in Tallinn during your visit.
The Old Town Square (Raekoja Plats)
Right in the center of the Old Town of Tallinn is a large, sprawling square.
This is Raekoja Plats and it’s where you’ll find some of the oldest buildings in the city, such as the Tallinn Town Hall, which is actually the old town hall in all of Scandinavia and the Baltics.
The current building was built during early 15th century, though there was a structure in its place previously that was built in in the 1320s.
There is definitely a medieval vibe here in the city center and it’s the heartbeat of the city where everything seems to happen.
During the winter you can find one of the main parts of the Tallinn Christmas Market here and throughout the year there are small markets and festivals that are always taking up space.
Lining the square are a series of restaurants, small shops, and cafes, though these are mostly geared towards tourists so you’ll want to venture into the surrounding streets to find something better to eat or drink.
In the summer, however, you might want to consider spending a bit extra and enjoying some coffee or a nice, cold beer right on the square itself for some fun people watching.
This is a very vibrant area of the old town and I recommend using the main square as your starting point for exploring the rest of the city.
Towering over the main square and the rest of the old town is Toompea Hill.
This hill is actually featured in a lot of Estonian legends and plays an important role in history of the city as well as the country itself.
Today, it’ll find the most important Estonian government offices as well as the Parliament Building (Riigikogu), although despite all of this it’s still a very quiet place where you can get away from the busy city centre.
Many of the buildings on Toompea Hill were built during the 18th and 19th centuries, so the architecture isn’t as old as the old town down below, but it’s still a very interesting place to walk around and explore
Along the outside edge of the hill are a series of different viewing platforms offers some of the best views of Tallinn down below and on a clear day you can easily watch the ferry ships coming in and out of the Harbour from Helsinki, St. Petersburg, and other Scandinavian cities.
There really isn’t much else going on up on the hill, so if you’re looking to escape the busy tourist crowds of the Old Town area and you just want to get some great photos then you’re definitely going to want to make your way up to the top.
Alexander Nevsky Cathedral
The Alexander Nevsky Cathedral is an impressive cathedral that’s located right at the beginning of Toompea Hill if you make your way up from the main old town pathway.
The famous cathedral was built in 1900 and at the time Estonia was still part of the old Russian Empire, so the building looks very much like something you would find much further East.
It’s an Orthodox church and the architectural style doesn’t look like much else in the city, especially compared to the other religious structures the Old Town and surrounding area.
The outside of the cathedral is very inspiring and there are vantage points for photos 360-degrees around it.
On the inside you can admire some lovely mosaics and other religious icons and you might even get to hear the largest bell in Tallinn start ringing depending on what time of day you visit.
Unfortunately, taking photos inside isn’t allowed, but entrance is free so you should still check out the interior if you get the chance.
Right beside the cathedral is a lovely park and this is a great place to sit down and relax if you’re visiting during the warmer summer months so that you can admire the view of the cathedral in front of you.
Another one of the interesting features up on the hill is the Toompea Castle.
This is located directly across from the cathedral, so it’s really easy to find, and the Castle is currently home to the Estonian Parliament.
All the way back in the 9th century a much smaller fortification was built here and over the years it was expanded and renovated into what you see today.
Every day there are free excursions of the inside of the castle if you book your ticket ahead of time and it’s even possible to watch sessions of parliament if they happen to be going on during your visit.
The front of the castle looks very modern and renovated, and if you want a more historic photo then I recommend walking down to the bottom of the hill and grabbing a photo of the castle closer to ground level.
The Tallinn Town Walls
The entire medieval old town area of Tallinn is surrounded by city walls and you will probably notice a few gates as you walk around the city centre.
These walls once provided defence to the city and these days they’re part of a museum where you can learn more about the history of Tallinn and the importance of its location between three geographical regions of Europe.
Depending on the time of year that you visit you can actually walk along the walls, basically walking around the entire outside edge of the historic centre of the city.
This walk provides some incredible views and offers up some great vantage points for taking photos.
Make sure to keep an eye out for some of the old cannon balls that were left behind during the Livonian War.
There are a few different small restaurants and cafes in various sections of the city walls and you’re definitely want to check one of these out for some nice views and to relax after spending so much time walking around the exterior.
Unfortunately, when I visited in February the city walls weren’t actually open so double check to make sure that they’re open when you visit before setting your mind on it
Explore the Old Town
The historic centre of the city is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and it’s one of the best things to do if you’re wondering about what to see in Tallinn.
Here in the centre you’ll find some of the best preserved medieval architecture in all of northern Europe and you can’t help to be impressed by the winding cobblestone streets, Gothic spires, and the magical layout of all the Merchant houses.
Many of the buildings are hundreds of years old and date back to the time when the city was an important port the Hanseatic League.
For some reason, many of the buildings were able to escape damage or destruction during the countless wars over the centuries that plagued the city and today you can walk around and just admire everything.
There are so many different passageways and tucked away side-streets so it’s a good idea just to wander around without any plans and take all the photos you want while taking a step back into history.
Take a Day Trip to Helsinki
I arrived to Tallinn from Helsinki, but the journey by ferry was short and you could definitely make a day trip out of it if you were so inclined.
It’s only about a 2-hour ferry ride to reach the main port in Helsinki and this means that you can leave early in the day, spend the time walking around the capital of Finland, and make it back to Tallinn just after dinner.
The ferry terminal in Tallinn is just a 20 minute walk from the city centre and it’s a very calm journey to get to Helsinki.
Although Helsinki is one of the cheaper cities in Scandinavia, it’s still an expensive place to visit, so if you want to head to Finland for the day without having to pay for a hotel then doing the day trip from Tallinn can definitely be worth it.
It’s also an interesting trip because both of the cities are seemingly completely opposite of one another, with Helsinki having a much more modern and urban vibe compared to the historic feeling you get in Tallinn.
Head to the Cats Well
A few steps away from the old town square, tucked away in a little square of its own, is the Cat’s Well.
This well actually has a really interesting story behind it.
Legend has it that some of the people living in Tallinn thought that there was an evil spirit living in the bottom of the well.
At one point, apparently of course, the evil spirit decided it was going to flood the city unless a sacrifice was made to keep it happy.
The locals obliged and started out by throwing some sheep down the well, and eventually they decided it would be better to just toss a cat down into the watery depths every so often.
This happened quite a bit and the well came to be known as the “Cat’s Well”, probably because so many of the furry creatures were tossed down it.
These days the well is closed, because the water didn’t remain potable with so many rotting animal corpses at the bottom, and I guess the evil spirit has left since no one is worried about it anymore.
The square surrounding the well is quite picturesque as well, so be sure to stop here and grab some photos as you’re making your way around the old town.
Grab a Medieval Meal
There are a surprising number of medieval and traditional Estonian restaurants in the city center of Tallinn that you’re going to want to check out if you’re looking for an interesting food experience.
The most memorable one for me was actually located right in the main square, Ill Draakon. This is the best place for cheap eats in Tallinn.
Compared to the other medieval restaurants in the city, Ill Draakon definitely offers the best atmosphere as well as the most reasonable prices.
Here you can try out some interesting meal options such as elk soup, homemade bread, and elk jerky among others.
Don’t worry if you’re not given any cutlery, at Ill Draakon you have to eat everything with your hands just like they did in the Middle Ages.
If you’re looking for something a little more formal where you can spend your time enjoying your meal indoors that also has a medieval vibe to it, then I would recommend checking out:
- Olde Hansa
- Kuldse Notsu Kõrts
- Kohvik Must Puudel
Danish Kings Garden
Right along the city walls is a small garden known locally as the Danish Kings garden.
This is apparently where a Danish flag descended from the heavens in 1219 during the Danish invasion of Tallinn and supposedly this flag eventually became the national flag of Denmark after the Danes were successful in the battle.
This makes the Danish flag, or the Dannebrog, the oldest flag in the world and it’s a pretty cool fact that the idea for it was conceived here in Tallinn.
These days there are a few Danish flags hanging from the city walls in the supposed location where this event happened and you can also begin your walk along the wall from here as well.
At the very top of the wall there is a small restaurant and cafe and if you’re visiting during the summer I recommend heading here to enjoy a cold drink and admire the view down below.
Hidden away between two different rows of buildings is a picturesque walkway known as the Katariina Käik.
One end of the walkway is where you can find the ruins of the old St. Catherine’s Church and as you walk along the passageway there are a few different stores that sell a variety of different crafts and other pieces of artwork.
Keep your eyes looking upwards because there are a series of beautiful stone gables that run above part of the passageway and make for a very nice photo to take.
This is a pretty inconspicuous area of the city so try not to forget about it while you’re walking around or you might miss it entirely.
Explore the Churches of Tallinn
Up on Toompea Hill as well as scattered across the lower part of the old town are quite a few different churches and cathedrals.
Unfortunately, many of them suffered some damage during World War II, but thankfully they have all been restored since then and completely renovated inside and out.
The churches that I would recommend the most include the:
- St. Nicholas Church
- St. Olav’s Church
- St. Mary’s Cathedral
If you’re looking for another great view over Tallinn then you’re going to want to make your way to the St. Olav’s Church and head up to the tower for some great vantage point of the surrounding city area.
Go On a Free Walking Tour in Talinn
Going on one of the free walking tours in Tallinn is a great way to start your visit and familiarize yourself with the layout of the city.
Just about every day there are walking tours available to go on and they’ll help you to learn more about the history of the city while at the same time bringing you to some of the top sights.
This way you can get a better idea of where you might want to check out on your own and you don’t have to worry about wandering around without any idea of where to go.
I’m a huge fan of walking tours because the guides tend to be very passionate about the city that they’re showcasing and you get to learn about a more unique perspective of wherever you’re visiting.
There are a few free walking tours in Tallinn and I recommend checking out the following:
Also, although it’s a free tour, don’t forget to tip the tour guide at the end of the walk – especially if you had a good time.
Head Up on a Balloon
If you’re looking for one of the more fun things to do in Tallinn then you’re going to want to go up on a balloon ride over the city.
You don’t actually get to freely float in the sky, because the balloon remains attached to the ground by a thick cable, but you do get to soar more than 120m off the ground and enjoy an incredible view of the city down below.
The view of the harbor is also magnificent and if you’re lucky to go up on a clear day then you’ll be able to see more miles and miles off into the distance.
For the best weather you’re going to want to take the balloon ride in the spring or summer, and if you’re traveling in the fall or winter then you’ll want to consider doing the ride in the morning or in the evening when the sky is clearer.
The total trip time is about 15-minutes and it’s definitely an enjoyable experience if you’re looking for something fun and a little off the beaten path to do during your trip.
Tips for Getting Around in Tallinn
The city center and old town area in Tallinn isn’t super big so you can easily just walk anywhere you need to go.
Even the ferry terminal and bus station are within an easy walking distance to the center.
If you have a lot of stuff to carry or the weather isn’t good then you can consider taking a taxi – they tend to be pretty affordable but make sure to agree on a price beforehand to avoid getting scammed.
As for public transportation, it’s very reliable and easy to use to get around the city if you want.
A ticket costs about $1.60 USD and you can pay the driver directly or buy one from one the kiosks nearby to a bus stop.
There are also trams and trolley buses that you can take, which cost the same and are just as easy to figure out.
Where to Stay in Tallinn
When I was visiting I stayed at the lovely CRU Hotel.
This hotel was just a few moments walking to the old town square and in a very central location with restaurants, cafes, and plenty of small shops nearby.
Alternatively, there are plenty of reasonably priced hotels and hostels to choose from and I would also recommend checking out AirBnb to see if there is anything you’d prefer.