“Why’d you come to Estonia?”
This was the response of virtually every local we met. Something about Estonia’s always piqued my interest: I don’t know if it was its geography: the small country is tucked in a small pocket neighbouring the paragon of progressiveness, Finland, and Mother Russia. I don’t know if it was the confused, tilted heads of locals when they saw we came to visit. Whatever the reason may be, it was enough to make me head there for a weekend with a friend. Plus, it was only £60/$75 round-trip.
Tallinn is a project in progress: I often divided the city into three personalities. There was the Old Town, which was, dare I say magical. It had the vibe of Disneyland’s Main Street combined with the pastel colours of a Wes Anderson movie. The winding cobblestone streets also felt like The Good Place (if you haven’t seen that show, you’re missing out). It was typically charming European fanfare with medieval touches. However, just outside this Old Town lies a severe change in scenery. Here, Soviet-era buildings dominate the landscape, the drab grey blending in with the dreary wintry gloom. If not brutalist Soviet architecture, your surroundings are borderline dilapidated. But, venture just a little further and you get sleek Nordic cafes, fusion restaurants inside remade cargo boxes, and artsy techno clubs. In a way, Tallinn’s like a little piece of “Europe,” the former USSR, and Scandinavia. My imaginings of the geographical implications were, in fact, true.
We had intended to spend just a day and a half in Tallinn with a day-trip to Helsinki, Finland. But, we went clubbing the night before and we slept through our alarms. In the end, I didn’t mind as the last day really wrapped up our Tallinn experience in a way we would have not gotten otherwise. Whether you’ve got plans for a day trip or not, this quick weekend guide will show you all the sides of Tallinn in a jam-packed weekend.
Where to Stay
My friend George and I stayed in a gorgeous Airbnb in the centre of Old Town for only £50 per night, or £25 per person (use my code for £23/$30 for your first stay).
- Old Town – centre of everything, easily walkable, moderately priced spots.
- I recommend either Airbnb or Hotel Telegraaf, which has a gorgeous pool/sauna which outsiders (like George and I) can use for €18.
- Telliskivi – known as the Creative City, it’s the artsy hub of Tallinn. It’s about 10 minutes walking from Old Town with its own things to see and do; if you want a younger, more modern vibe, this is the area to be.
- There’s a tram system that runs through Tallinn, including to and from the airport (30 minutes to and from).
- Each ride is a €1.10, but honestly we had no idea how to pay. When asked, locals were pretty confused as well; they said they always wing the tram, since guards never come on. I don’t recommend it but that’s what we did.
Old European Charm
- The Living Room – our first stop in Estonia, this cafe is reminiscent of, well, a living room. Small and intimate, the ultra-friendly shop-runners are more than happy to chat with you about coffee and the local scene in Estonia. We sat there for hours discussing everything from coffee-making competitions, to Estonian rappers, to neighbourhood gossip that my brain disposed of immediately.
- Alexander Nevsky Katedral – Estonia’s premier Russian Orthodox-style cathedral. If you can’t get to Russia, this is the closest (literally) you can get to the famous St Basil’s in Moscow.
- St. Olaf’s Church – Climb the tallest church in Estonia to get panoramic views of the city. Closed from November – April (including when we went).
- Skoone Bastion – Constructed in the 17th century, it’s one of the few explicitly medieval-influenced structures left. Climb to the top to catch more panoramic views, or during the summer months, chill out in its surrounding mark to watch the midnight sun.
- Restoran Rataskevu – The best restaurant in Tallinn, you can get dishes such as pork belly, or a traditional elk. I can confirm both were incredible. It’s a bit expensive, as meals will run up to €20.
- Hella Hunt – Estonia’s first bar established post-USSR. It’s a popular locale smack in the centre of Old Town with over 20 types of beer.
- Hotel Telegraaf – Scandinavian-style hotel whose spa and sauna is open to save an outsider’s frigid winter night. €18 per person
- KGB Museum in the Viru Hotel – The only hotel foreigners were permitted to stay in the Soviet Era. Everything was bugged, from the rooms, to the bar ashtrays! Catch the museum on the 23rd floor.
- Estonian Museum of Occupations – Occupied by the Soviets, then the Nazis, then the Soviets…again, Estonia didn’t exactly have the most ideal 20th century. A high-tech, immersive museum that incorporates an automated audio tour, it’s a must-visit to understand Estonia’s history.
- Linnahall – This now-abandoned structure once acted as the venue for the rowing portion of the 1980 Moscow Olympics. Now, the structure is eerie, dilapidated, and full of graffiti.
- However, it was a highlight to me as it perfectly captured the Soviet era with its brutalist architecture and grandiose, often wasteful efforts to appeal to the outside world.
- Apparently, the Estonian government will renovate Linnahall this year, so go before it changes!
Park of Kadriorg – One of the greenest spaces in Estonia, its construction began in 1718 by Russian Czar Peter I, after expressing dissatisfaction with the city planning. Also included are flower beds, swan ponds, the KUMU (the Estonian Art Museum), Kadriorg Art Museum, and more.
- Telliskivi – known as the Creative City, it’s the artsy hub of Tallinn. You can find cargo boxes re-used as restaurant blocs, designer studios and stores, a good chunk of the nightlife, and some pretty unique shops.
- Nordic Design Home Store – this small, trendy furniture store is more reminiscent of its neighbouring Finland than Russia. The small coffee shop on the side offers savoury bites with some very much-needed coffee for a cold winter morning.
- Baltic Station Market – A massive vintage flea market full of anything and everything you can find. From authentic Nazi memorabilia to decorative Stalin plates, to Soviet pop vinyls, it’s an antique freak’s paradise. For Christmas, I bought my brother a real Soviet camera for €35!
- Next to the shops is delicious food market that has everything from Italian mozzarella to Georgian wine. Why not eat a fresh meal before you buy a decorative Stalin plate?
- Sveta Baar – the club that made us miss our ferry to Helsinki, we danced to house music at this low-key spot. Interestingly, it was the most relaxing club I’ve visited, facilitated by the botanic, foliage-filled corners. With cheap drinks and up-and-coming DJ’s, it’s the perfect, not-too-intense spot to spend a Saturday night/Sunday morning
Tallinn’s a spot that both deserves far more recognition and deserves the little recognition it has. I say this because I was especially enamoured by Tallinn due to its general lack of “Europeanisation.” By this, I mean a lack of a substantial tourist influence, a lack of sweeping commercialisation, and a preservation of a specific, unique vibe. Due to this, I enjoyed Tallinn more than most European cities I’ve visited. Tallinn feels like a secret between those who know of its charm and diversity, and I prefer to keep it that way. But when you visit, just make sure you keep it a secret between you, me, and the other hundreds of thousands who’ve visited.