Medieval 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.
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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.
RELATED: 25 photos of Tallinn, Estonia that will make you want to visit
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!
Have more time to spare? Book one of these day trips from Tallinn:
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This article was originally published in July 2016 and updated in April 2020
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Interesting information and really nice pictures. Thank you for sharing! It will be really useful if I decide to go to Tallinn.
Thanks Anca, glad you enjoyed it!
We were in Helsinki in 2014 and chose a trip to St. Petersburg instead. It looks like we should also have gone to Estonia. Regretting is never fun!
Oh shoot- I’ve also been to St. Petersburg and also really enjoyed it, so no need to regret it! Just means you’ll have to head back another time to see Estonia 🙂
Sounds like the Tallinn Card is the way to go! Loved your If You Go tips too. It was the exact information I would want to know when traveling to a new location.
Awesome, hope you get to make it to Tallinn- it’s a gorgeous city!
Wow, your photos of Talinn are beautiful! Great tip to get the Talinn Card to get everything in especially during a short trip. I will have to visit Talinn with the family very soon. Thank you for all the great recommendations.
Thanks Brenda, glad you found it helpful!
I’ve heard a lot about Tallinn but almost keep forgetting this beautiful place exists! Your photos definitely show the city off in it’s best form. Thanks for the guide!
Thanks Hannah, glad you enjoyed it 🙂
I really enjoyed my short visit to Tallinn…I also couldn’t get over the super fast internet! Before I arrived I honestly didn’t know how much the city card would have to offer, so we skipped it, instead picking a couple tourist attractions and spending the rest of the time wandering around. It sounds like in Tallinn, it’s completely worth it! Thanks for the tips about how to get the most bang for your buck!
Hi Julie, Tallinn is definitely a great city to simply wander around in, but for those wanting to check out a bunch of different museums and/or tours the Tallinn Card is probably a good idea- I think we got our money’s worth just with the bike rental and TV Tower admission alone!
I can’t believe how many things were included with the price of the card! It really does seem like a no-brainer. Tallinn itself looks straight out of a fairy tale. I had never heard much about it, but now it’s definitely going on my list of places to see in Eastern Europe.
Thanks for sharing. I didn’t know much about Tallinn and it looks like a place worth visiting. I think the cycling trip would be right up my alley. I guess I’ll have to add it to the list.
I’d love to get back there and explore more of Estonia and the surrounding countries!
Tallinn looks wonderful–I’ve always wanted to visit! I love that you can rent bikes with the pass. Such a fun way to explore, and the views from the TV tower look fantastic! Sounds like you found a lot of great things to do with the pass–we will definitely have to check it out!
Hi Jenna, cycling is my favourite way to explore places too!
Hi, wow I had no idea Tallin was this beautiful! I really love your photohraphy, I guess thic city is even quite photogenic. Plus, I really love historical towns – these houses from the 13th century are quite amazing!
Thanks so much Veronika!
Thanks for the most comprehensive article on Tallinn. I like the idea of cycling to see the sites and am glad to know most people speak English. Hopefully will make it there one day.
Hi Nisha, I hope you get to, such a great city!