16 Essential Things to Do in Tallinn, Estonia on Your First Visit

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When it comes to charming European capital cities (and yes, I know that’s a cliche phrase, but sometimes it’s just the right one), I want to make sure you’re not overlooking Tallinn, Estonia.

Located on the shore of the Gulf of Finland in the Baltic Sea, Tallinn is not only a beautiful seaside city, but also a fascinating world capital. It has a population of just over 460,000 people, and yet manages to feel like a small town in many ways. Its UNESCO-recognized medieval Old Town is the sort of place to inspire fairytales, while the city is also very tech-forward and regarded as one of the top digital cities in the world.

Tallinn is cool to visit for several reasons – and I’ll tell you all about them!

Old meets new in Tallinn

An introduction to Tallinn

When trying to understand Tallinn, you first have to know a little about its history. There are so many different cultural influences here; the Teutonic Knights, German Hanseatic League, Danes, Swedes, Russians, Nazis, and the Soviets have all, at one point in history, ruled over Tallinn. These layers of history can be seen throughout the city, if you know where to look.

Tallinn wasn’t even called Tallinn until 1918. It went by several names in its early days (there was a town and fortress here by at least 1050), but when Denmark conquered Estonia in 1219, the town was named Reval. And it went by Reval up until Estonia gained its independence in 1918 and renamed the city Tallinn.

Tallinn was occupied by Nazi Germany from 1941 to 1944, and then by the Soviet Union from 1944-1991, but you’d hardly notice this today – except maybe in some of the brutalist architecture that still remains from the Soviet days. Today, Tallinn is a vibrant and hip city with more startups per capita than any other city in Europe. It has an almost Scandinavian feel despite being in a Baltic country, and recently was named the European Capital of Culture (in 2011) and awarded the European Green Capital Award (in 2023).

Church tower in Tallinn
There are lots of things to do in Tallinn!

I spent 4 nights in Tallinn on my first visit, which is probably more time than most people would recommend spending there. But it allowed me to take my time to really soak it all in, and also venture beyond just the historic Old Town.

Top things to do in Tallinn on your first visit

If you’re planning your first trip to Tallinn, here are all the things I would consider to be must-dos there!

1. Wander through the Old Town

Tallinn Town Hall Square on a sunny day
Tallinn Town Hall Square in the Old Town

Tallinn’s Old Town is undoubtedly the reason why most people visit this city. The UNESCO-recognized cobblestone streets and 13th century buildings make up one of the best-preserved medieval towns in all of Europe. And it’s compact and walkable, making for the perfect place to start off any Tallinn trip.

You’ll want to see the Town Hall Square, and definitely stop in to the Raeapteek, or Town Hall Pharmacy, which is the oldest pharmacy in Europe, dating back to 1422. It has an interesting free museum where you can learn about the pharmacy’s history and medicine over time.

I would also recommend making a stop for a treat at Maiasmokk Cafe, the oldest cafe in the city with beautiful decor inside that hasn’t changed for 100+ years. They even have a small marzipan museum (Estonia is said to have invented the treat), where you can watch someone painting marzipan by hand every day.

Maiasmokk Cafe exterior, a yellow building in Tallinn
Outside Maiasmokk Cafe
Interior of Maiasmokk Cafe with decorated ceiling
Maiasmokk Cafe interior

2. Eat medieval food

Speaking of tasty treats, one of the best things to do in Tallinn is to eat medieval food at a historic tavern. Two of the best places to go are Restoran Olde Hansa and III Draakon. Both of these historic restaurants have a medieval theme that will make you feel like you’ve traveled back in time, complete with historical performers working as waiters.

But these spots aren’t simply tourist traps – they actually serve medieval food, cooked using actual medieval recipes. Olde Hansa serves sit-down meals of things like deer steaks and wild boar – and even bear meat! – while Ill Draakon offers “fast-casual” medieval options like elk soup and savoury pastries.

Interior of III Draakon, a medieval restaurant in Tallinn
Inside III Draakon

You can usually walk in to Ill Draakon, while you might want to make a reservation at Olde Hansa. Both are fun and unique options that are a bit touristy, yes, but still very cool to experience.

3. Visit St. Nicholas church

Originally built in the 13th century, St. Nicholas Church was mostly destroyed during WWII (thankfully the majority of the Old Town was spared the Soviets’ bombs!). The church was painstakingly restored, however, and today houses the Niguliste Museum, which displays a large collection of religious art from the 15th century that was saved from the bombing.

The most famous piece on display is a large fragment of Danse Macabre, an eerie work by artist Bernt Notke that illustrates the universality of death.

St. Nicholas Church and tower in Tallinn
St. Nicholas Church with its recognizable tower

There is also an observation deck at the top of the church tower accessible by elevator that provides 360-degree views over Tallinn.

The church and tower are open daily except for Monday, and are worth the admission fee if you enjoy medieval art.

4. Shop outside the Viru Gate

Tallinn Flower Market outside the Viru Gate
Tallinn Flower Market outside the Viru Gate

Located at the eastern end of the Old Town, Viru Gate is part of the Tallinn city wall that was originally built for defence in the 14th century. The “gate” is flanked on each side by round stone watchtowers.

The gate leads onto one of Tallinn’s popular pedestrian streets, and right outside you’ll find a vibrant flower market, with more than a dozen market stalls selling colorful stems year-round.

5. Take in the views from a viewpoint

Tallinn view from the Patkuli viewing platform
Iconic Tallinn view from the Patkuli viewing platform

The St. Nicholas tower isn’t the only place to get an excellent view over Tallinn. There are also several viewing platforms (really just cobbled squares instead of actual platforms) that offer panoramic views of the city, including the colorful buildings, red roofs, and spires of the Old Town.

One of the best viewpoints is the Patkuli viewing platform. To reach this spot, you’ll need to walk up a bit of a hill, but it’s not too bad and the view is worth it.

Another similar place to see the city is the Kohtuotsa viewing platform. It’s also in the Old Town and just a couple of minutes from the Patkuli viewing platform, so be sure to stop at both for some great photos and scenic views.

Kohtuotsa viewing platform view in Tallinn
Kohtuotsa viewing platform views

During the summer months, there are outdoor cafes at the viewing platforms where you can sit and enjoy a beverage while you admire the views.

6. Kiek in de Kök Museum and Bastion Tunnels

Originally built in the 15th century by the Swedes, the Kiek in de Kök Museum and Bastion Tunnels are an interesting attraction on the edge of Tallinn’s Old Town. The museum is housed in a restored cannon tower, and its name, which translates to “peek into the kitchen,” comes from the fact that the tower was tall enough to give guards a view into the kitchens of people in the lower town.

View from the walls at the Kiek in de Kök Museum
View from the walls at the Kiek in de Kök Museum

Today, the tower houses a museum with various historical exhibits about Tallinn, and offers access to some of the old walls.

The museum also has access to the bastion tunnels, which were built in the 17th century to conceal the movement of soldiers underground. The tunnels were used over the centuries by all manner of people, though, and have scenes set up to reflect this history (not gonna lie, this part is kind of creepy!).

Creepy display in the bastion tunnels in Tallinn
Creepy bastion tunnels display

Also in the tunnels is the Carved Stone Museum. You can visit the tunnels on your own, or on a guided tour. The museum is open every day from May through September, and Tuesday-Saturday from October through April.

7. Visit the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral

Alexander Nevsky Cathedral in Tallinn
Alexander Nevsky Cathedral

Just outside of the Old Town, right across from the pink, 18th century Toompea Castle that today houses Estonia’s Parliament, you can’t miss Alexander Nevsky Cathedral. This striking Russian Orthodox church with five onion-shaped domes was built at the end of the 19th century when Estonia was part of the Russian Empire.

The church is open every day and free to visit, making it worth at least a quick stop.

8. Hotel Viru and the KGB Museum

During the Soviet occupation of Estonia following WWII, Hotel Viru was promoted as a tourist hotel – but secretly was a hotspot for KGB espionage. The KGB had recording devices in most of the rooms, and used public spaces at the hotel to eavesdrop and spy on foreign guests.

There were also hidden rooms in the hotel that were not discovered until years after the Soviet occupation ended. Today, a small museum here (located in one of the former hotel rooms) is dedicated to the history of the Soviet occupation and KGB espionage.

The Hotel Viru KGB Museum is open every day, but advance bookings are required as visits are guided. Book here.

9. Take a walking food tour

Dumplings in Tallinn
Yummy dumplings
Chocolate shop in Tallinn
Chocolate tasting

One of the best ways to discover Estonian cuisine – and learn about all its various interesting influences – is to go on a food tour. This three-hour Tallinn food tour is a great way to try lots of different dishes and learn more about Estonian food.

You’ll stop at a medieval taverna, a food market, a local cafe, a street stall, and more, sampling a wide variety of food. During the tour, you’ll also learn more about Estonian history and cuisine and what makes it unique.

I did this food tour on my first full day in Tallinn, and it was an excellent introduction to the city! (Book your tour here.)

10. Shop at Balti Jaama Turg

Produce stand inside Balti Jaama Turg market in Tallinn
Inside Balti Jaama Turg market

One of the places you’ll stop on the aforementioned food tour is the Balti Jaama Turg, a market hall located about a 15-minute walk from Tallinn’s Old Town in the boho Kalamaja district. It’s a great place to shop for unique souvenirs or try some delicious food. (I returned on my own after my food tour to explore more.)

Spread out over three floors, the market features more than 300 vendors. On the lower floors, you’ll find food markets for meat, fish, and produce, as well as more than 20 eateries. Upstairs, you can shop for Estonian handcrafts, vintage clothing, home goods, and antiques.

11. Explore Telliskivi Creative City

Outdoor space at Telliskivi Creative City in Tallinn
Telliskivi Creative City

Telliskivi Creative City is a unique cultural center and arts venue located in a former industrial complex that is a 15-minute walk from the Old Town (and right next to Balti Jaama Turg in Kalamaja). Throughout the “city” you’ll find art galleries, studios, cafes, bars, and shops – some inside old warehouses, train cars, buses, and more. There’s also a lot of cool public art and murals.

Don’t miss Fotografiska Tallinn, a modern photography museum, if you want to soak up some art and culture. For drinks, Nudist Winery, Vaat Brewery, and Junimperium Distillery are three great places to check out. And for dinner, I recommend Restaurant F-Hoone.

Glass of wine from Nudist Winery
Try the sparkling rhubarb wine at Nudist!
Cat street art
Street art in Telliskivi Creative City

12. Go to the Estonian Maritime Museum

Located on the coast in Kalamaja, the Lennusadam Seaplane Harbour is home to the Estonian Maritime Museum, one of the most popular museums in Tallinn.

With the city’s location on the Baltic Sea, it’s been an important port throughout maritime history. You can explore some of that history here, including the Lembit (a completely intact pre-WWII submarine), a 16th-century wreck, and a Finnish icebreaker.

The museum is open daily except Mondays.

13. Visit Kadriorg Art Museum

Kadriorg Palace and garden
Kadriorg Palace

Tallinn’s Old Town is great, but it’s worth exploring beyond it, too. Make your way east of the city center to the large Kadriorg Park, with its gardens, fountains, and tree-lined alleys. At the center of the park sits Kadriorg Palace, which was built as a summer home by Peter the Great in the 18th century for his wife, Catherine I.

Housed inside the Baroque palace today is a collection of European art owned by Estonia’s national museum. You can also see some rooms that are still decorated for royalty, which was my favorite part.

Fancy Baroque room inside Kadriorg Palace
Inside Kadriorg Palace

The museum is a 20-minute tram ride or a 35-minute walk from the Old Town, and is open daily except for Mondays. Don’t miss the manicured gardens at the back of the palace, either.

14. Hit up a beach

It might not be the first place you think of when it comes to beaches, but with its location on the Baltic Sea, there are actually quite a few beaches in Tallinn! 

The most popular beach near the city is Pirita Beach. It’s about a 15-minute drive from Tallinn or a 30-minute bus ride. This long, sandy beach is a popular spot during the summer months with several restaurants and great sunset views.

Another beach closer to the city is Russalka Rand, which is just a few minutes away from Kadriorg Art Museum. You can’t swim at this beach and it’s not as nice as Pirita Beach, but it’s a decent spot for watching the sunset.

Kalarand is another small beach close to Tallinn’s Old Town. There’s not much sand, but it’s a nice place for a walk or to sit and enjoy the sea views.

15. Walk the Pääsküla bog trail

If you want to get outside the city and explore some of Estonia’s nature, head to the Pääsküla bog trail. Located less than 20 minutes from Tallinn by car, this is a great spot to go for a hike not far from the city.

There are several walking trails you can take depending on how long of a walk you want to take. The trails take you through the forest and on boardwalks over bogs and canals.

This is a great place to go hiking year-round, but be sure to wear bug repellent during the summer months!

16. Visit the Viimsi Open Air Museum

If you have more time in Tallinn, the Viimsi Open Air Museum is an interesting destination that’s worth a visit. This museum is located about 20 minutes from Tallinn by car.

This open air museum allows you to explore a well-preserved historic coastal village and imagine what life was like for the villagers who lived here in the 19th century. Buildings at the museum include a farmhouse, a barn, and fishermen’s cottages dating back to the 1820s.

The museum has a small admission fee, and is open daily except for Mondays. It’s a great spot to take kids!

When to visit Tallinn

Street in Tallinn Old Town
Tallinn Old Town

Tallinn can be a year-round destination depending on what kind of trip you want, but if you want to fully embrace the walkability of Tallinn’s Old Town, I recommend visiting during the long days of summer.

June-August will have the best weather and most daylight hours, though May and September are also excellent options if you want even fewer crowds (though Tallinn did not feel crowded at all to me in early June!).

Tallinn is also an excellent Christmas city, though, and has a magical Christmas market on Town Hall Square every holiday season. And, the Christmas market is one that runs all through December and through Epiphany/Three Kings Day on January 6th.

Where to stay in Tallinn

Since I was staying in Tallinn for several days, I booked a cute apartment a little ways beyond the Old Town. I stayed at Revelton Suites, which is an affordable option if you want a little more space (and maybe a washing machine like I did, since I stayed in the middle of a longer Europe trip).

Revelton Suites apartment in Tallinn
My apartment at Revelton Suites

Revelton Suites is walkable to the Old Town, but not super close to any restaurants or other attractions. If you want to be more “in the action” in Tallinn, I would also recommend the Nordic Hotel Forum at the edge of the Old Town, or the Hotel Schlossle right in the Old Town.

Can you do a day trip to Tallinn?

Even though I spent 4 days in Tallinn, you honestly can see all the major highlights in just one long day. Which is why Tallinn is actually a popular day trip destination from nearby Helsinki! You can reach Tallinn from Helsinki by ferry in just 2 hours, and many people choose to do day trips.

(You could also do a day trip to Helsinki from Tallinn, though I think you probably need longer than one day for all the things to do in Helsinki.)

Who’s ready to plan a trip to Tallinn now?

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