Crisp sea air gusts over the medieval buildings and spires of Tallinn, the self-proclaimed “Heart of Northern Europe.” The Old Town, though crowded with sightseers, hides quiet alleys and cafes. Visitors willing to venture beyond the compact center will be delighted by quirky cafes, lush parks, and the glorious seaside promenade.
Even locals lose their way along the winding medieval streets of Tallinn Vanalinn (Old Town), an egg-shaped maze ringed by five main streets: Rannamäe tee, Mere puiestee, Pärnu manatee, Kaarli puiestee, and Toompuiestee. Vanalinn has two sections: All-linn (Lower Town) and Toompea, a rocky, fortified hill west of All-linn. Only about 50% of the wall that once encircled Vanalinn is intact, but the best entrance is still through the 15th-century Viru Gate, across from Hotel Viru (unless you come from the ferry terminal, in which case it’s best to go through the Great Coastal Gate, Surr Rannavärav, to the north). Viru, the main thoroughfare, leads directly to Raekoja plats (Town Hall Square), in the center of town.
Head up Viru to reach Raekoja plats, where vendors sell everything from wizard hats to sweaters, and musicians perform throughout the summer. Tallinn’s town hall, Europe’s oldest, is right on the square. Toompea’s Lossi plats (Castle Square) is dominated by the Russian Orthodox Alexander Nevsky Cathedral. while Peter the Great’s Kadriorg Palace lies in Kadriorg Park.
No matter where you choose to visit in Tallinn, you can’t go wrong. Here are our recommendations in case you can’t decide. Click the links to explore and book tours or local guides.
Most cheap Estonian food is fried and doused with sour cream. Local specialties include schnitzel (breaded, fried pork fillet), seljanka (meat stew), pelmenid (dumplings), and smoked fish. Bread is usually dark and dense; a loaf of Hiiumaa leib easily weighs a kilo. Pancakes with cheese curd and berries are a delicious dessert. The national beer Saku and the darker Saku Tume are acquired tastes. Local beer, like Kuressaare’s Saaremaa, is of inconsistent quality. Värska, a brand of carbonated mineral water, is particularly salty. It is difficult to keep a vegetarian or kosher diet in Estonia.
Tallinn’s Beersummer, held in early July, is the kind of celebration its name leads you to expect. Tallinn also hosts the Black Nights Film Festival in December, featuring student and animation subfestivals in addition to showcasing international films. Pärnu’s mid-June Estonian Linedance Festival culminates in a line dance the length of a city street.