THE COMPREHENSIVE TALLINN TRAVEL GUIDE

Discovering Estonia for myself has been one of the greatest personal journeys I have ever embarked upon. Nearly a full decade later and I’m still exploring and finding new, exciting surprises.

I made this website to share my passion with you.

Whether you love abandoned buildings, ghost stories, forgotten neighbourhoods, quirky stories from the historical archives or you’re just looking for free WIFI, Hidden Tallinn has got you covered.

If you are the kind of traveller who likes to do things differently, explore with an open mind and swap out generic experiences for adventure, then you’re in the right place.

Welcome to Hidden Tallinn: your adventure starts here!


Tallinn Trivia

Here are some basic facts that might come in handy if you’re a school teacher, a lover of generic facts or if you’ve never Googled “Tallinn” before.

Generic Tallinn facts:

  • Population: 426,538 (as of 1st January 2017)
  • Location: Northern Coast of Estonia, 80km south of Helsinki
  • Language: Estonian (English and Russian widely spoken)
  • Currency: Euro

Still with me?

  • Demographics: Estonians – 53% , Russians – 36 %, Ukrainians – 3%, Other – 8% 
  • Weather:
    • Summer – pleasant, warm (18-25°C avg. 30°C highs), some thunderstorms
    • Winter – bloomin’ cold (0°C, -10°C, -20°C and maybe even -30°C. Yeah, bring your coat), beautiful though (forests covered in thick snow, frozen sea and cozy bars/cafés), fewer tourists (more authentic and adventurous travel experiences)
  • Geology – OK, now I’m going too far. If you’re still with me and you’re loving these facts, the guys at Wikipedia have got you covered

Cool Facts that you may not know

Now it’s time for the cool stuff. Here are a few facts that you can use to impress your fellow travellers when you arrive. Random 

  • The Devil got married in Tallinn
  • There’s a Sean Connery Statue hidden in the Old Town
  • Tallinn walks with a limp. The city has a long leg and a short leg (both are street names), so it is said that the city walks with a limp
  • A little deer gave the city its first name
  • Tallinn is a digital city
  • Once upon a time, the world’s tallest building resided in Tallinn
  • Estonia’s annual tourism numbers are larger than it’s population (one of the few countries in the world where this happens)
  • Beware the ‘Old Man of the Lake’
  • Public transport is free… for locals (all the more reason to come and live here!)
  • Singing is a big deal (Singing Revolution, Song Festival, Eurovision, largest collection of folk songs in the world)
  • Wearing reflectors are mandatory in winter


The Old Town

This UNESCO Heritage site will undoubtedly draw the vast majority of the crowds. Although the character of the Old Town has changed since I first laid eyes upon it in 2009 there is no question that it is still one of the most beautiful medieval towns in all of Europe.

Ditch the map, grab your your camera, explore at night and embrace the art of exploration. Get lost among the old cobbled lanes.

That is the advice I would give to a regular Old Town tourist, but you’re not a regular tourist? If you want to discover the “hidden history” of the Old Town, how about trying to find some myths and legends?

This is the first photograph I ever took of the Old Town, before I had even set foot on Estonian soil.

Myths, Legends and Ghosts

Now you’re talking! The Old Town is undoubtedly beautiful but us travellers are not that shallow, we want to get to know the Old Town for who she really is.

In 2011, I wrote this…

“Tallinn’s beauty is not only skin deep; there is a ‘hidden history’ running parallel to the physical realm of medieval churches and cafe culture. This history is not based on archives and artefacts, but on a more romantic premise of storytelling and word of mouth. Tallinn is a city built on folklore and for those keen enough to explore and delve into this ‘hidden history’, the rewards are numerous. Leave the guide book at home, this is the real Hidden Tallinn.”

Couldn’t have put it better myself.

How to discover the Myths and Legends of Tallinn Old Town:

Read about them here

Find them for yourself

Let me tell you the stories


Beyond the Old Town:

The Neighbourhoods of Tallinn

Kalamaja

Currently the hippest neighbourhood in Tallinn. Wooden houses, cafés and cool people give Kalamaja a neighbourly vibe.

In its early days this district was actually the centre of a fishing community (the word Kalamaja literally translates to “Fish House”). Fishmongers, markets and boat-building enterprises dominated the area. Houses were built from the most abundant natural resource: wood from the forest.

Features

  • Wooden Houses
  • Hipsters
  • Cafés, restaurants and craft beer
  • Me, often
  • Abandoned Buildings
  • Street Art

Highlights/Reasons to visit

  • Telliskivi Creative City
  • Patarei (currently closed but you can still walk along the promenade and see the outside of the building for yourself, or you can read about it here)
  • Seaplane Harbour
  • Volta Factory
  • Occasional Craft Beer and Street Food Festivals
  • Cheap, delicious food

Kopli

A hundred years ago this district was a forest. Three giant shipyards brought industry and workers to this peninsula in Põjja-Tallinn (North Tallinn).

Neglect has lead to social problems. kopli has a pretty negative reputation.

The future looks bright though as Kopl looks set to become the new ‘hip’ area of Tallinn within the next decade. Right now, this district is in a state of flux.

The full story of Kopli is fascinating. This district was also the first to feature in my ‘Forgotten Tallinn Series’.

Features

  • Shipyards
  • Wooden Houses
  • Abandoned Buildings
  • Local drunks
  • Military Structures
  • Local Bars
  • Derelict Houses

Highlights

  • Stroomi
  • Park/Nature (Tervisajad)
  • Vibe
  • “The Lines”
  • Emerging hipster culture (e.g. Kopli Restoran, Bekkeri Bakery, etc…)
  • Professors’ Village

Pirita

One of the largest and wealthiest neighbourhoods in Tallinn. Despite its size, it has one of the smallest populations which means that there is plenty of nature in Pirita. Forests, beaches, a meandering river and several walking trails.

Residents of Pirita usually live in stand-alone private houses. Yeah, these dudes are pretty rich.

Highlights

Kadriorg

Very grand, decedent facade, centred around Kadriorg Park. It’s no surprise that the president lives here.

Highlights

  • Kadriorg Park (look out for the Festival of Lights in September)
  • Presidents’ Palace (check out the stone-faced guards that wait outside the door twenty four hours a day)
  • Russalka
  • KUMU Art Museum
  • Song Festival Grounds

HONOURABLE MENTIONS

NÕMME : once a village, became absorbed into Tallinn, forested community, large gardens, detached houses, historical centre with farmers market

HABERSTI : check out the Open Air Museum, Zoo (if you like seeing mistreated animals out of their natural habitat), Käkumae Beach and Rocca al Maare. Also a great place to come for a bike ride.

LASNAMÄE : another forgotten district, most highly-populated district, high proportion of Russian speakers, Soviet-style apartment blocks, known as the ‘bedroom community’, after years of financial neglect, investment has started to flow into Lasnamäe

MUSTAMÄE : mainly residential, second largest population of all other districts, apartment blocks dominate much of the landscape, pockets of green scattered around

UUS MAALIM : community vibes, sometimes referred to as the “hippie district”, cool place to hangout, street festival in September.


Abandoned Estonia

Tallinn is an urban explorers’ paradise. As economies shift, regimes crumble and people are emancipated, the scars of the past are revealed. Tallinn is littered with abandoned places: factories, wooden houses, obsolete infrastructure and institutions of brutality.

All of these relics reveal a different side of Tallinn’s story. You can go and read a historical account or peruse through a museum, but this history is visceral, palpable, tangible. Don’t just read about the collapse of the Soviet Union, come and explore the remnants. Breath in the dust-filled air, soak in the eerie silence and absorb the musky atmosphere.

Urban exploration is for those travellers with a real sense of adventure.

Abandoned Estonia Archives

8 Abandoned Places to explore in and around Tallinn

Exploring the Abandoned Volta Factory


Soviet Shadow

The most harrowing period of recent decades was the second Soviet occupation after 1944 which saw the arrest, execution and deportation of tens of thousands of civilians. These events haunt Estonians to this very day and linger long in the memory of the nation.

Despite the great sense of optimism and ambition that drives Estonia forward into the twenty-first century, the period of Soviet occupation cannot be easily erased and Tallinn still bears the scars of this terrible time.

Today, the remnants of Soviet times lie dormant – almost as if they are part of a museum exhibition – but it is important to remember that they represent a very dark time not just for Estonia, but for Eastern Europe in general and must be treated with the appropriate respect.

Patarei Prison and Patarei Re-Visited

Soviet Statues – Abandoned and Unloved


e-Estonia and Re-development

Tallinn is changing faster than at any point in its history.

Most people know that Estonia is embracing the internet age and has become one of the most tech-savvy countries in Europe, but the extent of the progress is staggering:

  • Start-up Scene: Skype and Transferwise both began their journeys in Estonia
  • The government is paper-free
  • One of the most efficient online tax systems in the world
  • e-Residency is re-defining citizenship in the 21st century
  • First country to vote online
  • Free public WIFI in many spots across Tallinn
  • Kids are taught to program

As for Tallinn’s unquenchable thirst for construction, the legend of the old man of the lake says that if Tallinn is ever complete, the waters of Lake Ülemiste will rise up and flood the city so it can begin again.

The citizens of Tallinn appear to be taking this threat literally as there are countless construction projects throughout the city. Roads are being widened, apartments are sprouting like mushrooms in the forest, shopping malls are taking shape, cycle paths are being laid and previously derelict areas are on the hitlist for this giant restoration project.

Tallinn is changing day-by-day. Cranes dominate the horizon and pneumatic drills echo across the land as this city continues its unrelenting march into the 21st century.


Food and Drink

This is a HUGE topic that could easily form the basis of another “ultimate guide” but here are the basics.

For now, I will share some of the best resources from around the internet to help you discover the thriving (and often underestimated) food scene in Tallinn for yourself.

Top 10 Estonian Foods (VisitEstonia)

Eating on a Budget – 6 budget meals for €5 OR LESS (Hidden Tallinn)

Tea, Coffee and Amazing Cakes – there are plenty of cafés in Tallinn (Like A Local)

Thirsty? Beginners’ Guide to the Estonian Craft Beer Revolution (Hidden Tallinn)

Street Food in Tallinn (VisitTallinn)

Vegan and Vegetarian Food (Happy Cow)

Here a few of my personal favourites…

A few of my favourite places to eat and drink – Aed and V (for a nice evening out, maybe a celebration), F-Hoone, Burger Box, Noodle Box and Kaja Pizza for delicious, well priced lunches and dinners, Speakeasy, Puudel and Koht for beer, NOP is an amazing all-round establishment for high quality lunches, dinners and coffee, Paar Veini for wine and a good party… and any café on Müürivahe Street for great coffee (and a great places to work).

Need any more help finding your perfect meal? Contact me here.

Going Out

Sauna Street is a great place to start in the Old Town. Plenty of bars to choose from. Be spontaneous and see where the night takes you! For a more chilled out vibes, head to Telliskivi.

Spirits – try Vana Tallinn (a friend of mine once advised mixing it with champagne. I don’t know if this is a traditional Estonian method, but it didn’t end well. You have been warned!)

Vodka – best consumed with locals. Excellent friendship-forming beverage.


Cycling and the Great Outdoors

My absolute favourite way to explore Tallinn is via a bicycle.

You can rent them yourself from City Bike,or, if you’re crazy, you can Cycle to Estonia

As for routes, I wrote a post detailing the 5 best routes but for a more extensive user-driven list BikeMap is another excellent resource.

…or, you know, just ride and let your inquisitive spirit guide you!

Snow and ice blanketing the city? Never fear – here is the 

If hiking, camping and the great outdoors are more your style, check out the guys at RMK for trails, information and free campsites.


Day Trips

This is definitely a topic to delve into in a more extensive blog post, but I can offer you a list of my top picks for great days out.

  • Tartu
  • Pärnu
  • Haapsalu
  • Narva and Eastern Estonia
  • Aegna Island
  • Naissaar Island
  • Lahemaa National Park
  • Helsinki
  • Paldiski
  • Waterfalls

I am aware that this is a very brief list. If you have any questions about logistics, if you require more information or if you want more ideas (and yes, I do have more) please feel free to contact me here.

 


Phew! Over 2,000 words later and we have reached the end of our Ultimate Beginner’s Guide to Tallinn. Did I miss anything out? Do you have any special local tips that didn’t make it into the guide?

Write them in the comments below so other travellers can be inspired to explore Tallinn in a more adventurous way!

Got any questions or helpful additions to this guide? Feel free to contact me directly.

Happy travels!

The Tomb of Kalev

The Alexander Nevsky Cathedral, with its famous ‘onion domes’, is certainly one of The Old Town’s most famous ‘postcard pictures’. Its association with the Estonian capital is very ironic, however, considering it was built during the reign of Alexander III (1845–1894) and is actually a symbol of the Russian Tsar’s attempt to phase-out Estonian culture through Russification.
Estonian folklore states that while the Russians were digging in Toompea to lay the foundations for this iconic cathedral, they stumbled across the tomb of Kalev – a mythological king in ancient Estonia, father of Kalevipoeg. The workers dug so deep into Toompea Hill that they struck an iron door, upon which was inscribed: more “The Tomb of Kalev”

Execution in the Old Town

In January 1695, the priest, Elias Christian Panicke, entered the ‘Riga’ Tavern in the corner of the Town Hall Square, sat at the bar and ordered an ale. When the drink was served, he took one sip and then immediately threw the ale to the floor in disgust; the drink was warm. He demanded another beverage to replace the drink that had just been wasted – the bar maid obliged.

After taking a sip of this second beer, the priest was outraged to find the drink was, once again, warm. In his state of rage, he threw the ceramic tankard at the barmaid who fell, cracked her skull on the bar and died. more “Execution in the Old Town”

The Danish King’s Garden

In 1219, Valdemar II, the Danish King, invaded Tallinn with his fleet. After initially overcoming the Estonian fortress without much effort, the King sat back and embraced the gifts bestowed upon him by the Estonian emissaries. Foolishly, the King saw this as a sign of surrender and declared the fortress conquered. While the Danish forces were celebrating that night, the Estonians unexpectedly unleashed an attack in which many Danish troops lost their lives.

The situation looked hopeless for the King as he and his forces had been driven back considerably by the unexpected nature of this attack. In an act of desperation, the King fell to his knees and prayed to the heavens for divine help in defeating the superior Estonian forces. more “The Danish King’s Garden”

Condemned Criminals escape through The Eye of the Needle

Although executions were not uncommon in olden times, there was a law that forbid any from taking place in The Old Town. Instead, the condemned prisoner would be paraded around the Town Hall Square for all to see before being lead down Harju Street towards their place of execution. As such, Harju Street became known as ‘the last road’ for those sentenced to death.

Unlike today, Harju Street used to be packed densely with houses and thus was far more slender and enclosed. Hidden between two of the houses houses was a very narrow street called Trepi that lead away from Harju and into St Nicholas Church. more “Condemned Criminals escape through The Eye of the Needle”

How a Tiny Deer gave Tallinn its Name

There are many different legends offering explanations as to how the Estonian capital got its name but one of the most popular stories is set around the time of the Danish King Valdemar.

Shortly after the King and his forces had conquered North Estonia and converted the population to Christianity the king was taking a stroll in his new grounds. In the upper quarters of the town he spied a tiny deer. Rather than hunt the animal, the new king ordered his courtiers to find and capture the animal so the king could keep him as a pet. more “How a Tiny Deer gave Tallinn its Name”

Old Toomas: The Old Town Weather Vane

The Legend of Old Toomas is one of the most popular and well-known tales in Tallinn folklore:

In old times, there was a famous archery contest held just outside the main city where contestants (only ever wealthy men) tried to hit a small wooden parrot with their crossbow and arrows. During this particular year, despite their best attempts, no contestants were succeeding. All of a sudden, a small boy [Toomas] stepped up, pulled out a wooden bow and hit the parrot off its perch in one shot. more “Old Toomas: The Old Town Weather Vane”

Linda Hill (Lindamägi)

At the top of Toompea Street on the upper side of the Old Town sits a tiny monument depicting a mythical figure – Linda. According to Tallinn folklore, Linda was the wife of Kalev, the man who founded the city. The statue depicts a very solemn figure of Linda with her head bowed, mourning the death of her husband.

This small monument is very important to the people of Tallinn because, despite the fact that the statue predates World War II, the residents adopted it as an unofficial memorial to loved ones that had been exiled to Siberia. Due to the fact that there was no official gravesite or memorial, locals would come and lay flowers by Linda, sometimes at great personal risk. more “Linda Hill (Lindamägi)”