Medieval, old town Tallinn is like a fairytale, casting a spell on visitors who wander through its twisting cobblestone streets and clamber up hills for birds-eye views of orange-topped turrets. Fortified stone walls edge the historic centre, creating vantage points overlooking towering cathedrals and colourful plazas lined with leafy green trees, a scene that hasn’t changed much throughout the centuries.
The relaxed Estonian capital is often frequented by day-trippers thanks to its enviable location on the shores of the Baltic Sea, making it a favourite port on cruise itineraries and easily accessible by boat from Helsinki. On land, it’s just a few hours from cities like Riga and St. Petersburg, and a great addition to an eastern Europe road trip.
Thanks to its relatively compact size, it’s possible to see the the main sights in old Tallinn in just one day, which also allows time to head out to some of the surrounding areas like peaceful Pirita or the Jägala Waterfall. From climbing up medieval towers to exploring the stone walls that once guarded against invaders, here’s what to see in Tallinn.
What to do in Tallinn: Explore the Lower Town
Tallinn’s historic centre is divided into two parts—Toompea Hill and Lower Town—so start 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, 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 Old Tallinn 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.
Toompea Hill and Alexander Nevsky Cathedral
Next up is Toompea Hill, and a visit here is one of the top things to do in Tallinn thanks to the great city views. This is also where you’ll find the iconic, onion-domed Alexander Nevsky Cathedral, which is adjacent to the fuchsia-coloured Toompea Castle.
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.
Globe Guide 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.
Chances are your feet will be begging for relief from walking over all those cobblestones, so head to City Bike in the lower Old Town to rent a bicycle. Once you’re outfitted with a bike and helmet, cycle past St. Olav’s Church (once the world’s tallest building!) and along the waterfront, making pit stops at museums along the way like the Energy Discovery Centre or Tallinn City Museum.
Day trips from Tallinn: Cycle to Pirita
Eventually you’ll leave the busy streets of Old Town Tallinn and find yourself in pretty Pirita. Only about a 20 minute bike ride from the city centre, 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 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. Daredevils can even book a tour to walk on the edge of the roof! Click to book
From up above you’ll spot another place you can check out: 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.
Begin making your way back to the city by late afternoon, because your final places to see in Tallinn 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 Tallinn sightseeing than to soak in the sight of the picturesque, medieval Old Town.
To make the most of a short stay in Tallinn, pick up a 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. You also get free public transportation, a hop-on/hop-off city tour, bike rentals and guided excursions, so picking up the card is a no brainer.
Here are some other great options for Tallinn sightseeing tours:
Where to stay in Tallinn
- Revelton Suites: A great option for families or those in town for a few nights, each unit in this modern, all-suite hotel has a kitchen, seating area, dishwasher and laundry machines. It’s about a 10 minute walk from the old town and Toompea Hill, and there’s also a kid’s playroom and playground. Click to book
- Hotel Telegraaf: Enjoy both luxury and old world charm at this boutique property which dates back to the 1800s. It’s location in Old Town Tallinn makes it easy to get to the main sites, and there’s also a day spa. Click to book
- Centennial Hotel Tallinn: This new, highly-ranked hotel was designed to celebrate Estonia’s centennial, and art throughout the property details the country’s history. Guests particularly like the location and price. Click to book
Tips for exploring the Tallinn old town
Language: While English isn’t the native language, nearly everyone in Tallinn speaks it well.
Need to know: The Tallinn old city 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 the connections are speedy!
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This article was originally published in July 2016 and updated in April 2020
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