Introducing the Beautiful City of Tallinn
One of the things I love about working in aviation is that I get to work with people from so many different countries. Just in our small team of 10 people we have 8 different nationalities represented. Working with such a diverse group of people has loads of benefits. For one, it gives me another country to cheer for when England go out of football tournaments early. Cheering for Iceland against France in Euro 2016 was all the more awesome doing it in a bar with every one of the 50 or so Icelanders living in this part of Germany.
It also means that whenever you decide to take a trip somewhere, there is almost always a colleague from that place ready to let know all their local secrets. So having decided to go to the wonderful city of Tallinn in Estonia, the only question was whether we could stay long enough to complete the list of amazing things to do and places to visit. So armed with a great list of things to do from my friend Tiina and her boyfriend Ott we set off to explore this wonderful city. Of course in the usual From Real People style, we were looking forward to meeting some friendly Estonians along the way.
A Bit More About Estonia and It’s Amazing People
So let’s start with a few basics about Estonia, just in case you don’t know much about it. Officially called the Republic of Estonia, it’s in the Baltic region of Northern Europe. To the north across the the Gulf of Finland, is, unsurprisingly, Finland. The south of the country has it’s border with Lativa, while it’s eastern border is with Russia. Across the Baltic Sea to the west is then Sweden. The country is slightly bigger than the Netherlands in size and it has 2,222 islands around it’s coast. Our destination for this trip was the capital city of Tallinn, which lies on the North coast of the country and is home to around half a million people.
The area has been inhabited since 6500 BC, while the ancestors of the native Estonians arrived in around 1800 BC. These people are believed to have arrived from the Far East and spread in 3 groups to what is now Estonia, Finland and Hungary. This is why the languages of these countries are from the same group (Finno-Ugric) are so different from other European languages.
Over the years Estonia was ruled by Denmark, Germany, Sweden and most recently the Russians. Final independence from Russia was restored on 20 August 1991. The path to independence included the “Singing Revolution”, which took place in 1989. In a landmark demonstration for more independence, more than two million people formed a human chain stretching through Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia, called the Baltic Way (see the photo above). One thing we established almost immediately after arriving in Tallinn is how wonderfully friendly the Estonian people are.
How to get to Tallinn
You could drive to Tallinn, if you really wanted to. Maybe don’t take a homemade car like the one above in the photo from the time of the Soviet occupation that we saw in the museum at the TV Tower. The most practical way of course is to fly to Tallinn’s Lennart Meri Airport, which is named after the leader of the Estonian independence movement who was the country’s second president. From the UK, you could fly from Heathrow with British Airways, from Stansted with Ryanair or Gatwick with Easyjet.
There are flights from other countries in Europe direct to Tallinn with local airlines Nordica and Air Baltic. If it’s a little difficult to get to Tallinn directly then you could combine it with a trip to Riga in Latvia and fly there. You could even fly to Helsinki in Finland and get the boat across (you’ll see in the post later on below). Finally of course you could really drive. Perhaps a tour right through Europe would take your fancy. Come up through Poland and then the other Baltic countries (Lithuania and Lativa). Leave by ferry back to Finland or Sweden.
Before you come, work out all the things that you want to do in Tallinn then see if you can save money for your trip by getting the Tallinn card. They have a handy online calculator to help you check for sure. Open and honest – it’s a theme in Estonia.
#1 – Take a Walking Tour and Explore the Gorgeous Old Town
If you’ve read any of my travel posts before, then you will know how I love to start with a walking tour. Not only is it a great way to get your bearings at the start of a trip, it’s also a great way to start meeting the locals in a new city. I love the human element to a walking tour where guides start to bring a place alive in front your eyes. It’s so much better than walking around with a guide book. I can really recommend the tours of Traveller Tours and Day Trips. They have great local guides who love their city and as many are students of local history, they really know their stuff as well. The streets of the Old Town are perfect for wandering around. Just remember to bring some good shoes for those hills.
#2 – Hang Out in the Town Square
Once you’ve got your bearings of Tallinn, take a rest in the city’s Town Hall Square. This part of the city dates back to the 15th Century. The area is surrounded by wonderful little shops, restaurants and cafes and it gives you a great feeling for the city and friendly Estonian people. If you are ever looking for an ATM to get some cash, it’s always a good place to head to. I’m told that the Christmas markets in the square are absolutely stunning, making it one of the best Eastern European Winter Destinations there are. Definitely a reason for us to come back and visit Tallinn again.
#3 – Let the Lovely People at Kehrwieder Chocolate
Serve You The Best Coffee in Tallinn
Just off the main square we found a perfect little coffee shop called the Kehrwieder Saiakang Chocolaterie. It’s down a little alleyway street and has a wonderful dungeon like feel to it. Our first visit was on a wet, rainy afternoon and it was just a perfect, cosy place to warm up and have some amazing cakes. We found it was a lovely place for breakfast and our morning coffee. They also serve beer, wine and cider later in the day. It’s not just about the cakes either, they have a great selection of wonderful sandwiches, salad and other savoury stuff. As you can see from the photo above, the staff are all welcoming and friendly. Ask them about their favourite places in Tallinn and get some local tips.
#4 – Wander Around Toompea – Old Town on the Hill
Tallinn is a great city to explore on foot. Not far from the Town Square is the old town district of Toompea. It’s a great place to get lost in its streets, explore it’s history and find some of the best views over the city from the Kohtuotsa and Patkuli viewing platforms. This part of the city is a rectangular hill that measures 400 metres by 250 metres. There are lots of great things to visit while you are in Toompea, a few of the best are coming up.
#5 – Visit Toompea Castle – Home of the Estonian Parliament
Once we were up on Toompea Hill, our first stop was Toompea Castle (the impressive building in the photo above). Tallinn has had a fortress on this site since the 13th century. The castle as it stands today with its lovely Baroque features was built between 1767 and 1773. Today the castle is home to the Estonian Parliament, called the Riigikogu. In the same way that Estonia’s turbulent history has been shaped by the country’s rulers, likewise the as the seat of power the castle building evolved with it’s ruler. You can take visits to the parliament for free, you just need to book in advance. Check out the parliament website for more details.
#6 – Enjoy the Peace Inside St Alexander Nevsky Cathedral
After a few hours in surrounded by the hustle and bustle of the streets of Toompea we found the perfect place to find some peace and serenity. The St Alexander Nevsky Cathedral was built between 1984 and 1900 during the period when Tallinn was under the rule of the Russian Empire. The Cathedral is dedicated to Alexander Nevsky a key figure in Russian medieval history who won the Battle of the Ice on Lake Peipus (now the waters around Estonia) in 1242. As a major symbol of Russian oppression it was scheduled for demolition in 1924 but it wasn’t done because of the cost of destroying it’s solid construction. The fact that it’s still standing means you have the chance to visit it, don’t miss it.
#7 – Peak in the Kitchen at Kiek in de Kök
The last place to visit up on Toompea Hill is the former Artillery Tower called Kiek in de Kok. This fascinating building was built in 1475 and it’s name is translated into English as Peak in the Kitchen. The name of this 38 metre high tower came about because of the way people inside it can see into the kitchens of nearby houses. As well as being a great place to see lots of interesting medieval weaponry the main reason to visit is to explore the Bastion passages. These are a network of tunnels that lie underneath Toompea Hill. Don’t forget to visit the cafe on the top floor and get some amazing views of the city.
Entrance costs just 5.00 Euros or free as part of the Tallinn Tourist Card, check out their handy calculator to see if is worth your while buying depending on where you want to visit.
#8 – Shop for Souvenirs in St Catherine’s Passage
If you’ve been reading the whole post, you’ll have realised by now that Tallinn is a totally awesome place for wandering around and getting lost. While you do that, one place you really have to find is the gorgeous St Catherine’s Passage. It’s located in a cute little passage to the East of the town square in the Old Town. As well as being a great place for a cute photo, the other thing that makes the passage worth visiting is the wide selection of local crafts. It’s home to the St. Catherine’s Guild, which is a collection of craft workshops where artists use traditional methods to create all sorts of amazing things. You can buy glassware, hats, quilts, ceramics, jewellery, hand-painted silk and all sorts of other things. It’s the perfect place to come and support some real people.
#9 – Support an Exciting New Restaurant at Naga Naga
After a busy day wandering the streets of Tallinn we couldn’t wait to sit down, have a beer and hunt down a great independent restaurant. We met up with my friend Tiina and her boyfriend at Naganaga on Uus (U-Street) in the North of the Old Town. The restaurant is owned by local friends Priidu, Ery, Siim and Liis. As you can see, Andres and Indiana were thrilled to pose for a photo for the blog. Although we arrived quite late they cooked us up some amazing Tempura Chicken. I also got to sample a beer called Harbor from the Kolk Pruulikoda Brewery, which is owned by a school friend of Tiina’s.
#10 – Enjoy the Best Ice Cream in Tallinn at Gelato Ladies
After a drink and some food at Naganaga, we popped across the road to grab a perfect gelato from the Gelato Ladies at Uus 28. We were a bit lucky because we were literally staying just across the road so we had easy access to their wonderful selection of sweet treats. They also serve pretty amazing coffee as well. The brains behind this great place are Kristen and Sindy who started their business after their children were born. Their mission is to offer the freshest and best tasting gelato in the widest variety of flavours in Estonia. It’s always wonderful to find great local businesses like this who have a passion for what they do. Go and visit, say hi and watch the great, friendly staff making their gelato through the window to their kitchen. What a great way to end our first day in Tallinn.
#11 – Take a Bus Tour to Get Your Bearings of the Whole City
Having spent our first day in Tallinn exploring the centre and the Old Town, the next thing to do was explore a bit more of the city. There are various city bus tours available. We took the Hop-On Hop-Off Bus from local company Tallinn City Tour, which is part of a local bus company that has been operating in the Baltics since 1996. They have 3 different tour lines. The first covers the city centre area. On the second you get to explore the greener parts of the city, heading out past the Song Festival Grounds to the TV Tower. Finally, the third line goes out West to the Open Air Museum and the old fishing village of Kalamaja. The bus costs 21 Euros for a 24-hour adult ticket but you can get a 10% discount on their Tallinn City Tour Website.
#12 – Climb the TV Tower
One of the best places to stop on the bus tour is the TV Tower. You can see it poking above behind me here. It was built in 1980 to provide communications for the sailing regatta of the Moscow Olympics. Standing 314 metres high, it’s the tallest building in Estonia and real must see on any visit to Tallinn. The viewing platform sits at the 170 metre mark. You can take the elevator up the tower for the bargain price of just 10 Euros. If you are feeling brave then you can even walk around the outside edge of the viewing platform and even look over the edge. Don’t worry you are securely harnessed on and it’s only 10 Euros more.
#13 – Visit the Port and See Lots of Big Ships
Another exciting thing to do in Tallinn is to check out the area around the port. We got off the bus from the TV Tower next to the ferry terminal and wandered across to work out the best way to get to Helsinki. Not only are there huge ferries that go to Helsinki (2 hours), but also to via the Aland Islands to Stockholm (16 hours). Local ferry company Tallink covers both these routes. You can even take a ferry to St Petersburg. Do this either as part of a cruise to Stockholm and Helsinki first or go direct from Helsinki and back. As a cruise visitor to St Petersburg you can enjoy 72 hours in this fascinating city without the need for a visa. If you’re looking for tips on things to see in St Petersburg, you can check out the fab post from Dorota on her Born Globals blog.
#14 – Eat Traditional Estonian Food and Drink Local Beer at Kochi Aidad
While we were in the port area we stumbled across an interesting place to grab a bite to eat. The warehouse complex of Kochi Aidad was established by a man called Joachim Christian Koch in 1747. From humble beginnings the Koch family built their business from generation to generation until occupation in 1940 during World War 2. During the Russian occupation they were used as warehouses for the Baltic Fleet of the Russian Navy. In 1992 they were transferred to the Estonian government before being restored and reopened in 2012. Today, the warehouses contain houses, shops, a café, a spa and the Koch brewery as well as the Kochi Aidad restaurant that we visited. The food was lovely and it gave us burst of energy to carry on exploring Tallinn.
#15 – Explore the Amazing Seaplane Harbour
Our next stop was top of my Estonian friend Tiina’s list of must see places. The Seaplane Harbour and its stunning hangar was built 100 years ago as part of the naval fortress of Peter the Great. The hangar’s architecture is remarkable and the building was used for seaplanes right up to the Second World War. Today, the Seaplane Harbour accommodates one of the grandest maritime museums in Europe. Exhibits include a 1930s submarine, the century-old steam-powered icebreaker Suur Tõll, a Shorts 184 seaplane and all sorts of other awesome stuff. It really is an amazing place to visit, don’t miss it.
#16 – Continue Your Estonian Beer Adventure at Hell Hunt
After a busy second day exploring Tallinn, we needed somewhere to check out some of the local Estonian beer. As a lover of independent breweries, I found a perfect place. Hell Hunt opened its doors in 1993 and stakes it’s claim as Tallinn’s first pub. While their symbol of a naked woman on the back of a wolf might match what you think their name is about, Hell Hunt actually means Tender Wolf. The pub can be found in the North of the old town and is a great place to check out their own selection of beer. I especially recommend their dark beer but there’s a huge choice of beer from all over the world. They also serve some great bar food as well.
#17 – Eat Great Tex-Mex at Texas Honky Tonk and Cantina
After a couple of local beers, we were in need of some great food. We’d had a few recommendations locally for our next stop, the Texas Honky Tonk and Cantina. We were really looking forward to checking it out especially as it’s another family run independent restaurant. It’s an awesome place where the friendly staff just ratchet up the fun. Every customer gets welcomed like old friends and it’s just a lovely, well-themed place for some great food. Between the 5 of us we tried a bit of everything, Burritos, Burger, Beef Rib and Salad. All of it was perfect and all the better for being washed down with a local beer (me) or a nice cocktail (my lovely wife Trudy).
#18 – Sing Your Heart out with Filippo and Maurizio at Togo Piano Bar
We were about to go to bed and get some rest for our last day. Then we stumbled across the Togo Piano Bar. It was a little empty when we got their but after a quick smile from Filippo and Maurizio we were enticed to stay. Boy were we pleased we did. The guys play all the classics, its a little cheesy but great for dancing and singing along. Normally these kinds of places cost a fortune and I always worry about getting fleeced for loads of money. The drinks were reasonably priced and the entertainment all thrown in for free. Although I’m sure the guys wouldn’t complain if you left them a tip for their wonderful company. It’s a great way to end an evening in Tallinn.
#19 – Walk Over the Linnahall
The next morning we started our day by exploring another intriguing icon of Tallinn’s soviet past. The Linnahall was built in 1980 for the Moscow Olympics as the V. I. Lenin Palace of Culture and Sport. From the outside its a behemoth of a building that looks somewhat like a Mayan temple. Amongst other things it used to house an Ice Rink and a huge Concert Venue. It closed its doors in 2010 and has sat empty ever since. Thankfully, after years of searching the city council have found new investors and the renovation should be completed by 2019. In the meantime, take a walk across the top of it and marvel at the architecture and views across the water towards Finland.
#20 – Take A Day Trip to Helsinki in Finland
While visiting Tallinn, the proximity of the Finnish capital Helsinki makes it perfect for a day trip. With the chance to tick another country off our list we just couldn’t resist. We travelled with the Linde Line fast ferry. The earlier you book, the cheaper the fare. The best place to book is online, the prices are a lot cheaper than booking at their office. We had a few problems with our German credit card on the website but we called their phone number and they gave us the online price and sorted everything out that way. It was another example of Estonians being the most friendly people in the world.
The ferry takes an hour and 40 minutes. There’s a bar that serves drinks and snacks if you need anything enroute. There’s a small area to stand at the back of the boat so you can get some air and enjoy the view. Once we got to Helsinki we headed straight back out onto the water for a tour of the harbour it’s numerous islands. We spent the rest of the day, wandering the streets enjoying the atmosphere of a different city and taking in various free concerts that were happening near the port.
#21 – Have Lunch at the Trofe that Serves the Worst Burger in Tallinn
(According to one random idiot on Trip Advisor)
Another place we stumbled across when we got back to Tallinn was Restaurant Trofe. In a world where businesses can be ruined by anonymous keyboard warriors on Trip Advisor, we were really impressed by the very public way they had reacted to a bad review. It must have been a pretty awful burger for it to prompt someone to proclaim it the worst in their life. They obviously hadn’t eaten at the old Julie’s Pantry burger joint at Corley Motorway Services on the M6 near Birmingham in the UK. Personally, I’d give head chef Igor Semindeikin the benefit of the doubt and check out their totally awesome take of New Nordic Cuisine.
#22 – Check out Tallinn’s Art Scene
The art scene in Tallinn is another reason to visit this amazing city. Your first stop should be the Kumu, which opened in 2006 and is the home of the Art Museum of Estonia. In 2008, it was recognised as the winner of the European Museum of the Year Award. For a more modern take, visit the Creative City (Telliskivi) next to Balti Railway Station or the Contemporary Art Museum of Estonia. Everyone you walk in Tallinn, you’ll come across a cute gallery or art exhibition, just go with flow and see what you can find.
#23 – Visit Freedom Square and Be Thankful
The last place we stopped by before leaving Tallinn was Freedom Square. Over the course of our time in this amazing city we met some wonderful people. We heard so much about their different stories of life both during Russian occupation and then more recently since independence. If any country embraces hope for the future then it’s Estonia and nowhere in Tallinn embodies that spirit more that Freedom Square. From the last days of the Russian Tsars the square was a place for parades and fanfare. It was first named Freedom Square in 1939 but it was renamed Victory Square bu the Russians in 1949. In was renamed Freedom Square 1989 and in 2009 it was restored to its former glory with the unveiling of the monument to the War of Independence.
#24 – Treat Yourself to an Amazing Meal and Estonian Hospitality at Leib
For our last evening in Tallinn we met up with a friend from Cologne who also happened to be visiting the city. She was recommended a great restaurant for dinner and when we found out that it was in the building of the Tallinn Scottish Club (my wife is from Glasgow) that was right next door to where we were staying, it just seemed like Karma. Leib Resto is gorgeous hidden place at the top end of Uus. You actually walk through a magical garden just to get to the front door that’s really at the back of this amazing place.
Lieb means Black Bread in Estonian and as they describe it – fresh, warm, simple and honest. It’s what Estonians grow up with and what they dream about when they are away. Owners Janno Lepik and Kristjan Peäske have a passion for using simple Estonian ingredients to build a creative seasonal menus. Their staff were warm, welcoming and friendly from the moment we arrived to the moment we left – as you can see they were happy to pose for a picture for the blog. The food was truly out of this world. We don’t often go for a full 3 course meal but we did at Lieb because the food was just phenomenal. Once again, the passion and enthusiasm of Estonians to showcase the best of their country blew us away.
#25 – Realise You Fell in Love with Estonia and Become an E-Citizen
Sadly, our trip to Tallinn came to an end. We took an early morning bus tour with Estonian Traveller Tours to Riga. Another blog post on that trip and then our time in Riga will follow soon. How can we sum up our time in Tallinn? Surprising, friendly, beautiful, embracing are all words that spring immediately to mind. In a modern world unsure of it’s future it’s refreshing to find a young country with so many people full of hope. It’s an infectious hope that makes you want to be part of the Estonian journey. When it comes to technology, the country is really embracing the future with a e-Residency scheme specifically designed for digital nomads to establish online businesses that can be run from anywhere in the world. It’s like the old Remington Razor advert, except I liked it so much I became an e-Resident. Not yet, but soon.