A photo essay and reflection on my short stay in Tallinn, Estonia.
During my trip to Tallinn, an unexpected blizzard blanketed the city in snow. At face value, this Baltic capital feels like a throwback to The Middle Ages. Even though I only had 24 hours in Tallinn, Estonia, I discovered a city at odds with dueling personalities; a mixture of young and old, modern and traditional, hi-tech and analog. The Gothic architecture of Old Town was a far cry from the warehouse hideout of Telliskivi, Tallinn’s “creative city”. KBG-era tram carriages shared the same tracks as their sleeker, modern updates. The national art museum was a gradual departure from classical oil paintings to battery-operated contemporary art exhibits. It was retro and novel all at once.
HOW TO GET THERE
Estonia’s largest city sits on the northwestern coast, which runs parallel to Finland’s southern shoreline. A popular route of entry is taking the 2.5 hour ferry ride from Helsinki to Tallinn with Tallink, Viking, or Eckerö ferry lines. We flew in from Stockholm in just under an hour and the Tallinn airport, though tiny, is newly renovated and filled with great shops selling Estonian-made trinkets.
A taxi from the airport to downtown Tallinn takes less than 10 minutes.
TELLISKIVI – THE CREATIVE CITY
Our first stop in Tallinn was Telliskivi, a refurbished railway complex filled with trendy boutiques, serious eats, and graffitied facades. Home to digital nomads, startup ventures, cargo containers converted into cafes, and about 250 companies, this was a great introduction to Estonia’s thriving entrepreneurial ecosystem. Did you know that Skype was invented in Estonia?
For digital nomads, great news: Estonia is the first country giving out “nomad visas,” where you are allowed to work in the country for one year as a location-independent worker. Learn more about it here.
TRAM STOP: Tram 1 + 2, Telliskivi
WHERE TO EAT + DRINK IN TELLISKIVI
- F-HOONE – If you eat one place in Tallinn, it should be F-Hoone. F-Hoone is serving up cutting-edge, yet wholesome food, all at a very affordable price. There is also a full-service bar, and performances and exhibitions that roll through. The mutton dumplings in a creamy mushroom sauce were spectacular and in their wide collection of teas, I had to choose the “Jon Snow” blend. Pop culture reference for the win! (Telliskivi 60a)
- KIVI PABER KÄÄRID – I haven’t seen a restaurant as accommodating to dietary restrictions as this one. With items on the menu for vegetarians, vegans, gluten-free diners, and even casein free (it’s a dairy protein that some individuals can’t process properly), customers with different dietary restrictions don’t have to compromise on flavor to enjoy themselves. (Telliskivi 60a-7)
- PUDEL BAAR – Great craft beer selections from all around the world, including my personal favorite, Lindemans Framboise, a Belgian brewed raspberry beer. With hard-to-find stock and cozy vibes, you can’t ask for a better bar. (Telliskivi 60a-5)
Ensconced by a myriad of medieval streetscapes is Raekoja Plats, the town square and undisputed center of activity for nearly nine centuries. The irregularly shaped buildings, painted in mute colors and adorned with romantic text, lends to the unique storybook atmosphere that color Raekoja Plats in wonder.
TRAM STOP: Tram 3 + 4, Viru
The town pharmacy is a big deal for Talliners as it’s one of the oldest continuously running pharmacies on the continent. I picked up some travel-sized tinctures for my family and ogled at the vintage medicine bottles.
SCENES OF OLD TOWN
Charming doors, brightly lit stained glass, solemn churches where every footstep echoed in the rafters—every nook and cranny of Old Town was something to admire. Don’t forget to wander down St. Catherine’s Passage, a picturesque passageways and a popular filming spot for Middle Age-era movies.
PLACES OF INTEREST IN OLD TOWN
- KALEV MARZIPAN FACTORY MUSEUM – Inside Estonia’s largest candy factory is a charming museum dedicated to Estonia’s favorite confection. Watch how marzipan is made and molded, appreciate a gallery of marzipan sculptures, and try some marzipan ice cream in the cafe. (Pikk 16)
- PHOTOGRAPHY MUSEUM – A small but quaint museum. For only €1 euro admission, peep inside to see what’s on display. When we visited, in the basement, they were showcasing an exhibition on never-before-seen photos of life in North Korea. All the photo descriptions are in English. (Raekoja 4/6)
- LITTLE RED HOUSE – A one room boutique tucked away in corridor off of Raekajo Plats. Find the work of many talented Estonian designers. (Saiakang 4)
- VEGAN RESTORAN V – One of the best vegan restaurants in town but they only accept reservations, no walk-ins. (Rataskaevu 12)
- ST. OLAV’S CHURCH – At one point in time, this medieval church was the tallest building in the world. Pay a small price for the observation tower and walk up a tight, spiraling staircase for one of the best views of the city. (Lai tn 50)
KADRIORG PARK + PALACE
While walking through Kadriorg Park to get to KUMU Art Museum, we were surprised by this quiet piece of greenery to the east of Old Town. Kadriorg Park is also the home of the Baroque-style Kadriorg Palace, built by Peter the Great in the 18th century for his beloved wife Catherine. Kadriorg, in Estonian, translates to “Catherine’s Valley.” The fresh snowfall only amplified the stateliness of the salmon pink palace, which also houses a foreign art collection.
TRAM STOP: Tram 1 + 3, Kadriorg
KUMU ART MUSEUM
Travel to the outskirts of Kadriorg Park to find KUMU Art Museum, Estonia’s premiere art venue. This museum is for history and art fans alike; this is an education of Estonia’s history through the lens of art. In the case of KUMU, the contemporary art wing is supposed to be an “idea laboratory,” where creators have full freedom of expression.
TRAM STOP: Tram 1 + 3, Kadriorg
FREE PUBLIC TRANSPORTATION
In Tallinn, all public transportation is free to residents, making it one of the most progressive countries for mass mobility. Student IDs are accepted everywhere in the Baltics for discounted rates. While we were in Tallinn, some tram conductors refused our payment, so we got to ride for free.
TRAM FARE: €2 euros for tourists and €1 euro for students.
KOMPRESSOR: PANCAKE HOUSE
I am lucky to know people all around the world and Tallinn was no exception. My friend Fede is from Italy, but we met while she was on exchange in the USA, in my hometown. She was finishing up her Master’s Degree in Tallinn at the time Tim and I visited and suggested we meet at Kompressor, a famous pancake pub right in Old Town.
By definition, the Estonian pancake is more of a French-style crepe than it is an American pancake. With beer on draught, massive portion sizes, all under $10 USD, it tends to appeal to younger crowds. Sweet or savory, the pancakes are delicious, but the best one on the menu had to be the sweet pancake filled with halva (a sweetened sesame seed paste) and cherry compote, and topped with sour cream.
Location and Hours of Operations: Rataskaevu 3, 10123, open 11am – 11pm
Overlooking the whole city is Toompea Hill, said to have been built atop the grave of the legendary Estonian king Kalev. Today, the hill is site of the Riigikogu (The Parliament) and a number of viewing platforms that offer scenic panoramas of Old Town, including the iconic steeple of St. Olav’s Church.
Get off at the Balti Jaam stop on the tram, walk through the park and across the street, you’ll see the Parliament sitting at the very top of a massive stone wall. The wall will reveal a set of steps that take you to the well-known lookout spot, Kohtuotsa Viewing Platform. I just learned that the instaworthy “Times We Had” wall (see above) has been painted over, but the views are still unforgettable. Watch out for Steven the Seagull, Kohtuotsa’s resident mascot, who happily poses for photos provided you don’t freak him out.
TRAM STOP: Tram 1 + 2, Balti Jaam
WHAT TO BRING HOME
The confectionery brand Kalev has been creating chocolate and marzipan for over 200 years. For those who hate to leave empty handed, buy a couple of bars from the grocery store or visit one of the flagship stores, Kalev Šokolaadipood ja Meistrikoda Rotermannis, located at Roseni 7.
TRAM STOP: Tram 1 -4 , Hobujaama
ALEXANDER NEVSKY CATHEDRAL
Sporting the typical onion-domed features of Russian Orthodox churches, the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral is a complicated cultural marker in Estonia. While it’s listed on every tourist’s “must-see” list, to the locals, the cathedral is a painful reminder of the Russian occupation. Entrance is free, but pictures are not allowed inside.
TRAM STOP: Tram 1 + 2, Balti Jaam
👉 Who’s been to Estonia? Do you think 24 hours in Tallinn is enough or should you spend more time? Share your thoughts in the comments section.
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