Ancient Hanseatic City, Listed on the UNESCO World Heritage List

Tallinn is the capital of Estonia. What a lot of people don't realise is that Tallinn is actually an old Hanseatic city. Around the entire city centre is a city wall adorned with towers, instantly transporting you back to the Middle Ages. The city is absolutely ideal for a city break, with its old town being an absolute must-see. It's also the perfect starting point for a round trip through Estonia like I did. Below you'll find the best attractions in Tallinn.

More and more people are discovering this ancient city. Indeed, Tallinn resembles a fairy tale, especially the old town. This is largely due to its many towers, churches, and castles. But it also offers great food and drink. And, I've found it to be a relatively inexpensive location to visit.

There has been a surge of delightful initiatives, in part prompted by COVID, where dining outdoors has been promoted instead of indoors. It's created a culture that is now being widely embraced. There's a noticeable abundance of outdoor terraces and entertainment, which remain bustling even in overcast weather.

KGB Museum in Sokos Hotel Viru

The KGB Museum in the Viru Hotel in Tallinn ©Corno van den Berg

This is one of the most intriguing excursions in Tallinn. With a guide, you can visit the museum on the top floor of the famous Viru Hotel. Everything at this place remains as it was when the KGB abruptly had to leave Tallinn after the end of the Cold War in the late eighties.  

The hotel played host to a plethora of Western guests visiting the Soviet Union. They were spied on, bugged, and trailed with (what was then) high-tech equipment. You can behold these, along with all the other apparatus, clothing, and papers. I was utterly captivated.

Read my article on the KGB Hotel

City Hall

The Town Hall is undeniably the beating heart of the old city. The tower stands out impressively, as does the city square. The latter is modernly furnished with benches, providing a cosy space for relaxation. Adorning the location are flowerpots teeming with colourful plants and a library that offers books for folks to take home without charge. Complementing the whole image are diverse restaurants where you can indulge in food and drink.

Tallinn's Pharmacy

Tallinn's Raeapteek is the oldest and still operating pharmacy in Europe. ©Corno van den Berg

You'll find Tallinn's Raeapteek on the town square. It's somewhat tucked away, but absolutely worth a visit. This is the oldest continuously operating pharmacy in Europe, having first opened its doors in 1422. That makes it more than 600 years old. In the adjacent museum, you'll come across a host of unusual creatures that were used in various old remedies - including hedgehogs, birds and other local wildlife. Feel free to walk in and take a look around.

St. Nicholas Church

This church now serves as a museum, housing Estonia's largest collection of medieval art. Constructed between 1230 and 1275 by merchants from Westphalia, the church is a testament to history. The St. Nicholas Church's crowning masterpiece is the painting of the Danse Macabre (the dance of death) by Lübeck artist Bernt Notke. You will find it in the Anthony Chapel. Of the original 30-metre-long piece from 1508/09, only a quarter survives to this day. A lift service is available to take you up for a splendid view of the city. Tickets for entry are available for purchase at the ticket counter, as well as online.

Address: Rüütli tänav (Knight Street)

More information: Official Website

Walking on the City Wall

View from the city wall. ©Corno van den Berg

At various locations, you have the opportunity to ascend the city wall to view the city from above. Your journey will take you through both stone and wooden galleries, which adds an extra layer of ambiance. A small entry fee is required, which is undoubtedly worthwhile, providing a magnificent view over the five churches and the rest of the city. It is ideal for photographs, especially early in the morning or in the late afternoon, from what I have observed. You can conveniently purchase an entry ticket on site.

Black Monks in the Danish King's Garden

Tallinn's famous faceless black monks. ©Corno van den Berg

The Danish King's Garden perches on top of a hill and captivates with the Black Monks sculptures crafted by artists Aivar Simson and Paul Mänd in 2011. This is a tribute to a past where monks played a pivotal role. The overwhelming figures tower at 2.5 metres tall and possess a somewhat unsettling aura. They reside in the Danish King's Garden, which was under Danish rule in the 13th century. 

Patkuli Viewing Platform

The view from the Patkuli Viewing Platform. ©Corno van den Berg

In the city, you'll find several viewpoints. One of the most renowned is the Patkuli Observation Platform. And rightly so, you have a great view of 5 churches, as well as various city towers. This platform is accessible 24 hours a day. The staircase leading to the platform was constructed in 1903. Through 157 steps, the Toompea hill is connected with the city below. The stairs emerge in Toompark near the Snelli pond. This viewpoint is particularly worth it when the sun is out.

Address: Rahukohtu 5

Alexander Nevsky Cathedral

The beautiful Alexander Nevsky Cathedral. ©Corno van den Berg

This Orthodox Cathedral in the heart of Tallinn is truly impossible to miss. The Alexander Nevsky Cathedral was constructed in the years 1894–1900. At the time, the country was part of the Soviet Union. It stands proud as the largest domed church in the city, boasting an impressive exterior and breathtaking interior. The late Patriarch Alexius II of Moscow (1929-2008) began his priesthood. Entry is free.

Address: Lossi plats 10

Unique Saunas at Iglupark in Kalamaja

The famous saunas at Iglupark. ©Corno van den Berg

Kalamaja is the trendy district of Tallinn, brimming with cosy bars and restaurants. I discovered the saunas of the unique Iglupark by chance. They're located by the coast, offering the opportunity to plunge into the sea post-sauna for cooling off. Plus, it accommodates overnight stays. Interestingly, these saunas are nestled in the former harbour where Russian submarines were once built. 

Address: Lennusadama 7

Former KGB Prison Patarei

At the abandoned Patarei prison you'll experience the atmosphere from the past. ©Corno van den Berg

The former KGB Prison Patarei serves as a vivid gateway to the former Soviet past. Perched next to the sea and constructed between 1829 and 1840 by the order of Tsar Nicholas I, the fortress was repurposed as a prison from 1919. Notably, it became the infamous location where the KGB detained state enemies during the Cold War. Even though the prison cells stopped being open to visitors from 2016, the surroundings are still ripe for exploration. Moreover, regular exhibitions and parties are a common sight, as I observed during my visit.

Address: Kalaranna 28

Maiasmokk Café

The renowned Café Maiasmokk stands as the oldest café in the city, having proudly opened its doors in 1864. Upon entering, make sure to notice the expertly crafted glass roof. Locals often favour a coffee accompanied with the local liqueur, Vana Tallinn, which boasts a distinctive brown colour and a bold 44 per cent alcohol content. You certainly can't miss the sweet pastry to pair with it - the choice is vast and enticing.

Accommodation in Tallinn

This city is perfect for a city break. I've spent several days there and stayed in delightful hotels. Think small hotels, but there are also cosy hostels and convenient apartments. You can easily book these online. However, make sure you do it on time to have a wide variety to choose from. Also, this often results in a lower price.

Find the best accommodations in Tallinn

Your Own Guide and Other Tips

The historic old town of Tallinn. ©Corno van den Berg

I find having a guide truly beneficial. The city is small, yet it boasts so many hidden spots that it's almost dizzying. I'm also keen to learn about the history, which is truly intriguing in Estonia. I hired a guide for a day, to discover all sorts of places. In addition, I explored on my own, as that continues to be a delightful feeling.

The Best Excursions

History of Tallinn

Tallinn is strikingly modern, yet it takes great pride in its rich history, which includes its Soviet Union past. Evidence of this can be seen around town. It's a delightful mixture. 

The city is decidedly ancient. Its first mention dates back to 1154, but it's likely the city is even older than that. The old city, known as Vanalinn, proudly sits on UNESCO's World Heritage List. It's incredibly apparent that it was once a Hanseatic city. You'll see old merchant houses and warehouses everywhere. These were encircled by the old city wall, punctuated with numerous towers topped by red roofs. A walk through the old quarter is simply magnificent. 

However, in recent years, a fresh breeze has been blowing through Tallinn, resulting in a steadily increasing amount of modern architecture. Plenty is on offer for culture enthusiasts. The food and drink is also generally cheaper than ours.

The newer part is very different. The common thread, however, is that the old architecture lays the foundation for cafes, restaurants, venues, microbreweries, and lovely shops. I need to adjust for a moment. I am eager to explore the city, but when I sit at a cafe with its own brewery, I find peace. Many young people also drink their beer and laugh a lot. The entire city has a notably relaxed atmosphere.

Great Combination with Helsinki

Tallinn is strategically located on the Gulf of Finland, just 70 kilometres away from the city of Helsinki in Finland. This is why these two cities are often paired together, effortlessly connected by a ferry service. Additionally, it is just 350 kilometres away from Saint Petersburg. You can distinctly feel the impact of both influences as you traverse through Tallinn. It is a perfect amalgamation of Scandinavian and Russian cultures but stands out with its own unique character. 

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