I spent two weeks in Tallinn, the capital of Estonia, wandering its streets mostly during the evenings, long after the sun has set and the moonlight took rein. Things like this happen when you travel for work and have to spend the days in an office. After all the night time photos and passing by closed attractions, when my free Sunday arrived, I was ready for a whole day of Tallinn bathed in sunlight.
After almost two weeks in this city, I think the best way to enjoy Tallinn and get a good picture of the history and architecture is to check out the these are the five parts everyone should visit when in Tallinn to . To be perfectly honest, I think a long weekend during late spring or summer time is enough for a visit. However, if you want to enjoy it at a leisurely pace and actually spend several hours in many parks, then I would suggest five days.
Old Town is divided into two areas – the lower town and the upper town (aka Toompea). The most famous landmarks of the lower town are the two towers right at the entrance to the Old Town and the Town Hall Square which is turned into a Christmas market during early winter months. Here you will find mulled wine and the best stalls for affordable and handcrafted souvenirs.
I enjoyed Old Town, it reminded me a bit of Zagreb Centre and the main square (eventually I will write a post on the capital of my homeland, I promise) – cobbled streets passing by small local craft shops, narrow passages leading to hidden nooks worthy of exploration, restaurants enticing you with its smells or pubs with their extensive beer collection. Even the architecture is similar and the buildings are in same colours. While walking down Old Town you see history all around you.
Toompea part is a bit quieter and has the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral (Orthodox) which will dazzle you with its spires and flawless façade. This is also where you will find the viewing platforms and meet Steven the seagull. Tallinn has its own feathery celebrity in a form of a seagull that prowls around Kohtuotsa platform and comes to take selfies with you. Check out the Instagram hashtag #steventheseagull if you don’t believe me this is a thing. Contrary to usual seagull behaviour, he does not try to peck at you and will patiently wait if you want to give him some food.
Photos of Old Town – Alexander Nevsky Cathedral, me in front of the Croatian embassy and some hidden places in Old Town
Best way to get to Toompea is by taking two historical streets, Pikk Jalg and Luhike Jalg. The usual way is taking one of the roads up and then the other one back down. There is a third way down which will get you out of the city walls on the far side of the Old Town, close to the sea front and Balti Jam train station. This is the way from one of the panoramic points called Patkuli and it gives very nice photo opportunities of the town with the old limestone walls as a detail.
The rest of the Toompea is quite uninspiring unless you’re really into churches and spend copious amounts of time admiring them. I mentioned the viewpoints of Tallinn are up here, however, there is one more.
This one is from the tower of St Olaf’s church down in lower town and, from what I have read, this one is not as well known with tourists so you might get a better experience. I did not have an opportunity to go up – the tower is closed in winter time; probably due to the winds and ice. From what I have seen online, you stand on the ledge of the tower and it does not look like a place where you want to be when it is covered in ice.
Keep in mind – Google maps are utterly useless in Old Town and will most likely get you even more lost. Your best bet is to grab a map from a tourist office and use that to get around.
Originally known as V. I. Lenin Palace of Culture and Sport, it shows socialist architecture in all its enormousness. This concrete giant right on the sea front has been built to accommodate the Moscow Summer Olympics in 1980. Since then, it has started to crumble and show the years of neglect and disuse; it is too big to be used regularly. However, the arena is still used from time to time when a large enough event comes to the country, but generally the huge structure sits empty, covered in graffiti. I think I have seen something that resembles small offices through several windows so it might be used for other purposes as well as storage space.
In my opinion, this is one of the must see parts of Tallinn, especially if you are not familiar with socialist love of concrete and their aspiration to grandeur, or if you just enjoy history. It is a five minute walk away from the Old Town and it offers wonderful photo opportunities. It is probably much better in summer when you can sit on the steps and enjoy the view without getting your bum cold. Honestly, I can easily see a thriller being filmed here or a really artsy music video.
The Creative centre of Tallinn (and the largest one in Estonia) is located in a former industrial complex. There is a “culture trail” that takes you from Linnahall to Telliskivi but I did not take it, I was too cold, grumpy and wanted a hot drink so I took the tram.
The creative centre is where you get the hipster crowd but don’t be a hater and let this dissuade you from visiting. There are several markets (vintage and general bric-à-brac), shops with handmade items, artisan cafes, restaurants and bars. Here is where the crowd goes out on weekend nights and parties in repurposed old factory chimneys. From here you can roam the streets of Kalamaja and soak in the history represented with old wooden Tallinn houses. There are about 500 of them left in town and the grand majority is in Kalamaja.
The Seaplane Harbour was a must see for me. Due to their opening times, the only time I had for it was the Sunday afternoon, just as the last sun rays were dying out. It is situated in Kalamaja so you can walk around Telliskivi, see the wooden houses and then pop into this amazing museum that was opened back in 2012 after extensive refurbishments.
It has quite a significant historical significance as Charles Lindbergh landed here in 1930s. The centrepiece of all the exhibits is the Lembit submarine built in Manchester in 1936 for the Estonian navy. You can climb on board (do you climb on board a submarine?) and walk the length of it. Just watch your head as the ceiling is a bit low. Apart from Lembit there are many sea mines, anti aircraft guns and missiles, simulator of a flight over Tallinn, old types of boats and generally maritime history of Estonia.
There is also the video of the extensive refurbishments and repurposing of old hangars and turning them into this magnificent museum where you can lose yourself for hours. The coffee at the museum café is not bad either and the place has a relaxing vibe to it.
Outside, at the back of the hangars you will find the steam powered icebreaker ship called Suur Tõll. I suggest going on board as it gives a quite detailed insight to life on the ship. To the left of it, after passing several boats on dry dock, you will find another ship, this one seemed military and I believe its name is Valvas. This one, unfortunately, you cannot go in, only climb on board and make 5 steps to the left and to the right
Kumu & Kadriorg park
Finally, some nature at the end of the post. Kumu art museum is situated in a beautiful park (yes, it is beautiful even in the dark). It is the largest art museum in Estonia and its permanent exhibition is Estonian history from 1881 to 1991. I must say, I really enjoyed the art in the socialist era; I like the art of socialist propaganda posters. They have also displayed some subtle criticisms of the regime by the artists themselves.
Kumu museum with its contemporary design is right next to Kadriorg park. Tsar Peter the Great built this park for his wife Catherine I., thus the name – Kadriorg means “Catherine’s Valley” in Estonian. This I did not have time to see on Sunday during daytime as it was not on my way, I would have lost too much precious time. Even in the evening the park looks very nice and like the place to spend hot summer days. The presidential palace is here too and it is not surrounded with massive fences and security, it is just a splendid, big, pink house by the park.
If it is easier for you to pop to London than to Estonia or any other ex USSR country and you love socialist propaganda posters (another term for it is Agit-prop) then you’re in luck! Tate Modern has a few posters in its collection and they can be seen a a part of Artist and Society – room 6 – Soviet Photobooks.
During my eleven days in Tallinn I have seen quite a lot of this city, but unfortunately, I did not have time to see all I planned to, mostly due to lack of daylight. Some buildings and sights are better seen in their full glory, not squinting and letting your imagination fill in the details obscured by darkness. I wished I had time to see the Tallinn Song Festival grounds, the birthplace of the Singing Revolution and Pirita Convent Ruins along with that part of the city. Maybe next time, when I visit for a long weekend during summer.
Have you ever travelled to any of the Baltic countries? I think my next one will be Lithuania so if you have any tips, please leave them in the comments below 🙂