How can I make the most of my time in Estonia and have a real adventure? Good question.
Here are nine tips I’ve developed during my time in Estonia that I believe will help you to explore the city like a real traveller.
1. Get your own transport
Cycling from London to Tallinn. The final day. What a great adventure this was!
Whether you rent a car, an electric scooter or, my absolute favourite, a bicycle, having the freedom to explore Estonia at your own pace is totally transformative. Who wants to be crammed into a public bus, surrounded by ‘passport photo faces’ anyway?
Not sure where to ride? Here are some ideas to get you started.
2. Don’t be scared to leave Tallinn
Estonia may be small, but there is so much to experience outside of the capital.
Head down to the summer capital of Pärnu, take a train to Narva and the ‘wild east’ of Estonia, take the ferry to Aegna, Naissaar or any of the islands, stroll the picturesque old town of Haapsalu, check out the student parties in Tartu in the winter or drive to a national park (Lahemaa is my favourite).
This is just the tip of the iceberg. Ask around and you will discover many more ideas of where to explore outside of Tallinn.
3. Get out into nature
Bring a tent (or buy a cheap one) and go camping or just hit up one of the many hiking or biking trails.
Looking for more ideas? One of my favourite websites and apps in all of Estonia is RMK.ee. They manage and maintain hundreds of hiking, biking and nature trails and provide the locations of free campsites all across the country. This is a great place to start if you want to explore Estonia and plan your outdoor adventures.
Image above: Bad hair? We don’t care. (Me exploring an old forest road in Lahemaa National Park last summer)
4. Look on the Old Town with different eyes
When I first discovered the myths and legends of Tallinn Old Town it changed the way I looked at the city. All of a sudden there was another invisible layer of stories behind the quaint medieval charm.
These stories were my main motivation for starting Hidden Tallinn back in 2011. They convinced me that if I look a bit harder I would find more secrets hiding behind the every-day sights and sounds of the city.
5. Meet some Estonians!
This has been the real kicker for me. It wasn’t until I met Estonians that I really started to get to know this country and have all kinds of unique and memorable experiences.
Yes, I can hear what you’re saying to me right now…
“Meeting Estonians? Easier said than done mate!”
They may seem cold, but don’t let that fool you into thinking Estonians are not friendly. They are open, genuine and their humour is oh so dry. Just be patient and don’t be afraid of awkward silences! In Estonian, silence isn’t awkward, it is normal. Be inquisitive and friendly and you’ll be fine!
The best way to explore Estonia is through the people who live here.
Here are some ideas of how and where to meet Estonians
~ Meetup or Couchsurfing
~ Monthly International Meetup!
~ Go to big public events: Song Festival, Dance Festival, Beer Festival, Coffee Festival, Street Food Festival (yeah, lots of festivals!), weekend flea market in Telliskivi, concerts, art exhibitions, etc…
Google is your friend
~ Alcohol can help loosen people up so go to parties, social events and gatherings and strike up a conversation. After one or two drinks Estonians, like the rest of us, seem much more receptive to conversation.
Word of warning: this can be a useful way to enter into conversations, but beware of unintentionally entering into any drinking contests. Estonians can, most likely, drink you under the table. I’ve found this out the hard way on several occasions!
~ For goodness sake, pluck up the courage and speak to someone in the street. Ask for directions, the time, anything to break the ice. Worst case scenario: you get a blunt answer and walk away. Best case scenario: new friend!
#6. Wake up early, go out late or come in winter to have the Old Town to yourself
Let’s face it, the Old Town is the main attraction in Tallinn for a good reason, it’s beautiful. Sadly, in summer this small space is overrun by tourists and it is easy to feel like part of the flock as you wander around with your camera and map.
Happily, tourists seem to follow the same time schedules. This makes them easy to predict and therefore easy to avoid.
Old Town on a dark winter’s night. Empty streets. Perfect for exploring.
One very simple way to add a little more adventure into your old town wander is to wake up really early, go out late at night or come here in winter. You will find that the crowded streets have become empty and you will start to get a sense that this was once an actual town where people lived and worked. Engage your imagination and history literally comes to life in front of your eyes.
This technique of exploration extends to other areas of the city as well. Going out to see the sunrise and sticking around to watch the city wake up will give you a completely different perspective on how the city works.
7. Explore the suburbs of Tallinn
Hidden corner of Kopli
This is where your bike comes in handy!
I have included a section on “The Neighbourhoods of Tallinn” in my Ultimate Guide to the city. To summarise, here are my three favourite districts to explore:
Old wooden houses, industrial heritage, ‘garden city atmosphere’, Telliskivi creative city, Patarei Prison and more.
More information on the districts of Tallinn here.
8. Running in Tallinn
This is something I have recently started doing myself. Pick a random route in the city that seems interesting, grab a pair of running shoes and go!
Follow your nose and see where you end up. I use the Komoot app (not an affiliate link, I just like them) to plan my runs and look at routes other people have taken but if you’re more of a free spirit, look at a green area on the map and go there! Pirita forest and Järve and two of my favourite places to go running.
This doesn’t have to be a huge workout! Think of it as ‘faster than walking’. You can stop any time to take a picture, grab a snack or enjoy the view. When you get tired you can simply stop, when you feel restless you can run again.
Running is a great way to explore Estonia (or indeed, any new place), release some endorphins and feel free! Here is a video from one of my winter runs…
Explore Estonia by running
#9. Do something that gets your heart racing [urban exploration]
I love abandoned buildings, that’s no secret. Exploring these places has been one of the highlights of my time in Tallinn and it’s a great way to learn about the city from a new perspective, get some great photos and inject some adventure into your travels.
That’s all for now. Did I miss something? What are your favourite non-touristy ways to explore a new city? Leave your comments down below so other travellers can benefit from your experience and, as always, thanks for reading!