Tallinn’s fairytale old town is a feast for the senses, casting a spell on visitors who wander through its twisting cobblestone streets, explore sun-soaked plazas dotted with cafes and clamber up hills for birds-eye views of orange-topped medieval towers. The Estonian capital is often frequented by day trippers thanks to its enviable location on the shores of the Baltic Sea, making it a popular stop on cruise itineraries and easily accessible by boat from Helsinki. On land, it’s just a few hours from cities such as Riga and St. Petersburg, making for the perfect addition to any eastern European road trip.
So how does one make the most of a short stay in Tallinn? Easy: pick up the Tallinn Card. Available online and at dozens of spots throughout the city including the airport, ferry terminal, train stations and hotels, the card starts at around €30 for 24 hours worth of free access or steep discounts to some of the city’s best attractions. Add to that free public transportation, a hop-on/hop-off city tour and guided excursions, and picking up the card is a no brainer. Here are some ideas for how to make the most of your Tallinn Card.
Explore the Lower Town
Tallinn’s historic centre is divided into two parts—Toompea Hill and Lower Town—so start off your day with a jaunt through the latter. As soon as you pass through Viru Gate which serves as the unofficial entrance, you’ll feel like you just went back in time about 500 years as you follow the towers and spires to end up in the middle of Town Hall Square.
The expansive plaza has long been considered the heart of the city, dating back to the 13th century when merchants flocked to the flourishing Hanseatic city to trade goods in the square (Raekoja plats). These days it’s the site of one of Europe’s only surviving gothic town halls, and home to lively cafes and restaurants where tables spill into the streets and music and laughter fill the air.
Head past the souvenir shops and restaurants and make your way over to the old stone walls that surround the city. For a small fee (or free with the Tallinn Card), visitors can duck into a dark foyer and climb about four storeys up a winding staircase. There, a walkway allows you to see out from both sides of the wall and down into the street, just as guards would have done centuries ago.
Other notable spots in the Old Town include Towers’ Square which has fantastic views of the fortified lookout points and the blindingly-white St. Nicholas’ Church. Don’t miss Kiek in de Kök (say it out loud and you’re in for a chuckle) and the Bastion Tunnels, where visitors can enjoy medieval exhibits and explore hidden underground tunnels.
Cycle to Pirita
Chances are your feet will already be begging for relief from all those cobblestones, so head over to City Bike in the lower Old Town to rent a bicycle—which is of course free with your Tallinn Card. Once you’re outfitted with a bike and helmet, you’ll pass St. Olav’s Church (once the world’s tallest building!), cycle along the waterfront by the cruise ships and ferries, and can also make pit stops at museums along the route such as the Energy Discovery Centre or Tallinn City Museum (again, free for card holders).
Eventually you’ll leave the busy streets of the city centre and find yourself in pretty Pirita. Only about a 20 minute bike ride from the Old Town, the suburb seems a world away thanks to its surf shops, bars and white sand beach which is popular with sun seekers.
Soak up some rays, then head over to Pirita klooster. Built in the early 1400s, the former convent is now essentially deserted with only the ruins of the stone building standing. It is absolutely gorgeous, and an amazing place to explore if you’re lucky enough to get the whole place to yourself. Entrance is two euros, or free with the Tallinn Card.
TV Tower and Kadriorg Palace
Continue cycling another 20 minutes down the road past the lush ‘Forest Cemetery’ (Metsakalmistu) and you’ll suddenly see a major landmark rise up over the trees: the 314 metre tall TV Tower.
Originally built as a radio building, it has long been an ode to Estonia’s Soviet days and popular with both tourists and locals. It was renovated and reopened in 2012 as a tourist attraction, which now includes a restaurant, exhibits and a 170-metre high observation deck which gives 360 degree views of the surrounding countryside, Old Town and even the Gulf of Finland. Entrance is free with the Tallinn Card.
From up above you’ll spot another place you can check out for free with the card: Kadriorg Palace. Dating back to 1725, it was built by Russian tsar Peter the Great for Catherine I. Surrounded by perfectly manicured gardens, the pink palace is opulent in the way only Russians can pull off, and now hosts a fantastic art collection.
Once you’re done exploring the area, cycle back to the city, ditch your bike and head up to Toompea hill. One of the most popular spots in Tallinn, this is where you’ll find the iconic, onion-domed Alexander Nevsky Cathedral, adjacent to the fuchsia-coloured Toompea Castle and a plaza with great city views.
A short ways away you’ll find another one of the city’s most beautiful spots: Maiden’s Tower, which was built back in the 1300s. Over the years its served as a defence tower, dwelling, and now a cafe and museum.
Hopefully you’ve timed your visit for the end of the day, because your final stops are stunning at sunset. Head past the churches, little shops and homes that cling to the hillside, and make your way to the nearby Kohtuotsa or Patkuli viewing platforms. There’s truly no better way to end a day of sightseeing in Tallinn than to soak in the sight of the picturesque Old Town—a pastime that’s free for everyone, whether or not you have the Tallinn Card!
IF YOU GO:
Currency: The euro
Language: While English isn’t the native language, nearly everyone in Tallinn speaks it well.
Need to know: The old town doesn’t mess around when it comes to cobblestones and hills, as anyone who’s ever tried to ride a bike through it can attest to. If you plan on spending a day exploring the historic centre, make sure you have good footwear.
Stay connected: Tallinn is one of the world’s best spots for internet addicts: free Wi-Fi is everywhere, and boy are the connections ever fast!
Top tip: The Kohvik Dannebrog Cafe just might be one of the most memorable cafes you ever visit. Accessed by an extremely steep, narrow staircase that you have to literally climb up, you’re rewarded at the top with a fabulous view of the city and Maiden’s Tower. Sure, drinks are pricey, but it’s worth it for the vantage point.
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Globe Guide explored Tallinn in partnership with Viking Cruises and Visit Tallinn. As always, hosts have no editorial influence on articles.