Estonia entered my travel radar two years ago when I met an Estonian in London. His pride and enthusiasm for his country rubbed off on me and even though I knew I was going to visit all three Baltic States in the one trip, Estonia was going to be given priority.
What I didn’t realise at the time was that his attitude was typical of Estonians. Not only was I welcomed in the capital and tourist hub Tallinn but I was met with warm smiles and conversation, help at every turn and surprise when I told the locals of my plans to drive around the entire country. I was given friendly advice on where to go and tips on hidden away places your average tourist doesn’t get to see. If I said I couldn’t make it to their favourite spot, they were disappointed for me, worried I would miss out on something special.
Watching the cruise ship day trippers dutifully follow the flag of their tour group leader, I was thankful I had time to wander the streets at my own pace and to be able to reach the city’s vantage points at the best time of the day. The classic evening spot for looking out over Tallinn’s rooftops is from the viewing platform Patkuli Vaateplatvorm.
For a view of the city from the other direction, looking over to Toompea (Cathedral Hill), walk the narrow, steep steps up to the spire of St. Olaf’s church. This is a tough climb if you’re not fit and impossible if you have limited mobility but the view is worth it in the end. Visit in the morning (unlike me) for the best light.
Tallinn is a Medieval city, hemmed in by its old city walls which are 4 metres thick at some points. You can walk the walls and visit some of the towers, hang out in the Town Hall Square and visit the gorgeous Aleksander Nevski Cathedral.
The entire Old Town is paved in cobblestones and every street lined with colourful buildings. Tallinn’s Old Town is one of the most beautiful in all of Europe. It’s not surprising it’s UNESCO listed.
Outside of the Old Town
Tallinn’s beauty isn’t confined to the city walls. A few tram stops away is Kadriorg Palace, a baroque palace built by Peter the Great, the Tsar of Russia. He built the palace for Catherine I, an illiterate Lithuanian of Polish origin who worked as a maid for the best friend of the Tsar. She later married the Tsar and upon his death became the ruler of Imperial Russia. Her story illustrates the importance of networking in becoming successful. The palace is now an art museum and the gardens are free to visit.
Coming across Tallinn’s memorial to the 852 people who died in the sinking of MS Estonia was quite a shock. I don’t know if it’s my terrible memory or if I somehow missed the tragic news of the 1994 sinking. It’s an horrific story of a passenger ferry on a regular route from Tallinn to Stockhom which sunk within 50 minutes of coming under distress. You can read the full story here.
Tallinn is full of sad histories and one of the worst can be witnessed at Estonia’s notorious Pratarei Prison. It’s located on the sea in the trendy Kalamaja district and for €3 you can wander the damp, dark abandoned prison on your own. It’s a gruesome place which housed mostly political prisoners during the Soviet occupation and includes a hanging chamber, narrow cells and a nasty looking prison hospital. It’s hard to believe this prison was still in operation in 2004.
Day Trips from Tallinn
Estonia is the smallest of the Baltic States and you can drive from Tallinn to almost anywhere in the country within a couple of hours. This means your day trip opportunities are almost endless.
If you don’t want to go too far, Jagala Waterfall is only 30 minutes drive from Tallinn. It’s not an unknown destination but we were the only people there when we stopped by. The wide waterfall pours over the karst landscape and you can expect it to be gushing in spring and early summer and almost frozen over in February.
Eastern Estonia – Narva and Soviet Sillamae
Eastern Estonia is a fascinating part of the country which deserves more than a day trip but if you’re interested in Soviet history and Russia it’s worth the long trip. The population in this part of Estonia is 95% Russian and on the river border at Narva you have a beautiful view of Russia’s Ivangorod Fortress.
On the same trip you can stop at the coastal town of Sillamae which was closed off during Soviet times when the main industry was producing nuclear weapons. The town is quite rundown now but the beautiful Stalinist architecture still stands.
The West Coast
Haapsalu may not be the most exciting place in Estonia, it has a sleepy, hippy vibe to it, but it’s only 90 minutes from Tallinn and an option if Tallinn’s beauty becomes too much for you. Don’t expect to swim though, leave that for the sandy beaches at Parnu.
I had hoped to visit Helsinki while I was in Tallinn but having to catch the ferry very early in the morning and arrive back late at night was a little off-putting. I decided to leave that for another trip when I could spend more time in Finland. It’s definitely doable and I know this is one of the top day trips from Tallinn but it just depends on how you feel about rushing around to see Helsinki in a day.
Where to Stay in Tallinn
In Tallinn I stayed in the historic wing of the Hotel Telegraaf. The Telegraaf is a luxury hotel located on the cobblestone streets of the Old Town and if you’re looking for a beautiful place to stay, this is it. It has all the top amenities and services you’d expect of a 5 star hotel including a pool and spa, which you won’t find elsewhere in the Old Town. My stay was complimentary but if you would like to book you can read more about it and find prices here.
Tallinn is a cosmopolitan European capital where you can find all of the world’s most popular cuisines. The very centre in and around the Town Hall Square (Raekoja Plats) mostly consists of tourist restaurants I suggest avoiding but there are some great cafes and restaurants not far from there yet still in the Old Town.
For a taste of modern Russian and Estonian cuisine, linger over a meal on the terrace at Restaurant Tchaikovsky. The menu changes regularly but the pelmeni (a kind of dumpling) and borsch are two of their specialities and I personally loved my roasted halibut.
For a more low key meal, hidden away from the crowds in a courtyard off Sulevimägi is Mull. At this peaceful family restaurant you can try the Estonian classic mushrooms and potatoes followed by their wonderful pavlova with berries.
One of my favourite places to get away from the crowds and update my Facebook was Sinilind Cafe. It’s a very cute retro styled cafe with cheery staff. If you’re feeling the heat, stop here for a break and a mint and strawberry infused iced tea.
I spent two weeks driving around Estonia, not enough to see everything and not enough to judge the people but from my brief experience I would say Estonians are the nicest, friendliest people I have met anywhere in the world. Tourism may still be a developing industry, at least outside of Tallinn, but I want to encourage everyone to visit, to see the beautiful nature, castles, vibrant city life and to meet the people who will make your stay a memorable one. Visit medieval Tallinn of course but take a few extra days to see and support the rest of the country.