10 Nov A city guide to Tallinn: Baltic beauty in the Estonian capital
Tallinn is one of northern Europe’s best-preserved medieval cities, and an unsung gem of the Baltic region. My city guide to this fairytale capital shows you where to find the best food in Tallinn, which beautiful districts to explore and how to find spectacular skyline views.
Have you ever been somewhere that surprised you by how much it exceeded your expectations?
That’s how I felt when I arrived in Tallinn two weeks ago.
Naturally, I’d heard some good things about the old town, and friends who’d visited in summer had given good reviews. Otherwise, I suppose we might not have taken the plunge and booked our flights. But I’m never quite sure how well the reality will match up when you’re in a new country, and you’re travelling out of season.
Tallinn delighted from the moment we arrived, to the moment we said goodbye.
The old town is larger, more beautiful and more animated than I’d expected (especially given that it was late October). The views over the rooftops are breathtaking, the restaurants and cafes of the old town as cosy and charming as you’d hope, and the surrounding residential districts are a rainbow of wooden houses. There’s a lively creative scene in the city and a wealth of contemporary restaurants that are serving a modern twist on Baltic food (that would cost three times as much if you were to skip across the water to Sweden or Finland). It feels like a young city with historic roots, that’s alive and kicking.
In a few short days I fell in love with Estonia.
In this city break guide I’ll share with you the highlights of our trip, and what you absolutely shouldn’t miss if you’re visiting Tallinn. I hope you enjoy it.
P.S. Wondering what Tallinn would be like in winter? We were lucky enough to catch the first snowfall of the winter on our trip. You can see just how bewitching the city looks dusted with snow in 8 magical reasons to visit Tallinn, Estonia, in the snow.
Tallinn’s old town
Tallinn’s old town has to be one of the most underrated in Europe (and that’s not a statement I make lightly). The architecture is beautiful and distinctively Baltic, the cobbled streets are picture-perfect, and there’s an abundance of viewpoints that feel like a gift that just keeps on giving.
It’s colourful, ancient, diverse and alive.
The old town is centred around the vast town hall square that’s surrounded first by a labyrinth of pretty, winding streets and passages, then by ancient stone walls peppered with towers, and finally by a sprinkling of leafy parks. There’s a lot to discover in this central part of town. Exploring the streets will keep you happy for hours, but if the weather turns there’s the excellent Estonian History Museum inside the old Guild Hall, that’s worth a visit just to see the fascinating interior of the building. In places, you can go inside some the many fortified towers and even walk along the top of the walls – but I’ve another trick for getting great views over the rooftops.
Top tip: If, by chance, you find yourself in Tallinn on the last Thursday of the month the Estonian History Museum is also free.
My favourite part of the old town had to be Toompea Hill, that rises towards the north of the old town and is crowned by the spectacular cathedral – all onion domes and glittering gold details. It looked especially gorgeous dusted with snow. There are more colourful buildings to discover up here, but even better there are viewpoints around every corner. Each looks down over the rooftops and spires of different parts of the city, a bright and busy skyline that runs down to the crisp Baltic sea. Meander around Toompea at any time of day (it’s always a delight) but make sure you head up here at sunset for the real magic, when the sinking sun turns the city all the colours of the rainbow.
Where to eat and drink in Tallinn’s old town
Unsurprisingly, there’s an abundance of cafes, restaurants and bars in this part of the city, but experience told me it was worth heading away from the main square if we wanted to find something that was more our cup of tea (i.e. a bit more budget-friendly and a little less enthusiastic on the medieval dress).
Wander just one street away from the square and you’ll find Clayhills on Pikk Street, a beautiful little restaurant that served home-cooked comfort food by candlelight. Try the soup of day as a starter just to experience the deliciousness of the rustic bread with heavenly honey butter on the side. It’s got bucket loads of atmosphere and not a medieval peasant smock in sight.
The best coffee in the old town can be found at the (slightly dubiously named, but nonetheless delightful) Epic Coffee tucked away in a little side street near Viru Gate. It’s like curling up in someone’s slightly shabby front room with a perfectly brewed pick me up. Adventurous sorts will love the toilet-in-a-cupboard that’s an unintentional joy in this little cafe (friends, some of you would find this most entertaining!).
If you’re after something to nibble on, try Inspiratsioon (another side street find) for a light lunch. Veggie friends, you’ll be happy here as all their food is homemade and vegan-friendly, and even if you’re more omnivorous I challenge you to not find their falafel wrap delicious.
Lastly, I wouldn’t be the girl with a saddle bag if I didn’t suggest somewhere to cosy up with a cold beer on an evening. Our favourite discovery? Hell Hunt (give it a try even if the name and exterior doesn’t excite you). It’s a warm, cavernous bar that’s more like a small beerhall, with a huge range of interesting beers, bar snacks and strangely, herbal teas. They brew some of their own beers too – their Weissbier was particularly splendid.
Rotermanni (or the Roterman district)
Step outside the Viru gate and you’re greeted by a cacophony of trams, buses and neon lights. This is one of Tallinn’s biggest junctions, but step beyond it and you’ll find one of it’s most upmarket districts.
A five minute walk takes you to the centre of Rotermanni and what was, until relatively recently, an area of dilapidated brick-built warehouses near to the port. In the last few years, they’ve sensitively redeveloped the area – keeping some of the old charm but mixing it up with contemporary architecture. It’s smart and hip without being pricey and intimidating, and I rather liked it.
There’s not too much to see here but it’s nice to wander along the little passageways of shops, offices and restaurants, and pause for a coffee break. What it’s really good for though is eating.
Where to eat and drink in Rotermanni
Like pastries? Me too. In that case, Røst will be your new favourite place in Tallinn. It’s perfect for breakfast, lunch or coffee and I challenge you to resist sampling their cinnamon buns and other baked treats that stream in from the open kitchen the moment they’re out of the oven.
I also loved Flamm (inexplicably they don’t have a website), almost opposite. It’s dedicated entirely to the Alsatian dish of Flammenküchen, a cold weather treat that’s similar to pizza. Delicious toppings (traditionally crème fraîche, bacon and cheese although all sorts were on offer in Flamm) are piled on top of a thin dough base and cooked quickly in a hot oven ready for you to devour it with your hands. Why Tallinn is the only city I’ve come across with a restaurant dedicated to this yumminess is a mystery to me (I’ve only encountered it on Christmas markets before) but we had great fun eating our fill and then enjoying a drink in Brewdog next door.
Kalamaja, Balti Jaam and Telliskivi
Even if you’re only in Tallinn for a day, it’s well worth exploring beyond the old town – and I loved the area of Kalamaja and Balti Jaam that’s just a stone’s throw away.
Kalamaja is a residential district that’s packed with colourful, traditional-style wooden townhouses that give you a real feel for Estonian architecture. It’s also home to the fabulously named Balti Jaam station, the city’s discrete but central transport hub. A railway station alone isn’t enough to recommend a place though – it’s Balti Jaam Turg next door that is. This contemporary covered market is an absolute gem, opened in 2017 to replace a well-loved but dilapidated Soviet era market. As well as bringing some upmarket deli’s, cafes and streetfood stalls to Balti Jaam, it’s still home to the old stallholders and you’ll find everything and anything for sale here: from high quality meat and fresh Baltic seafood, to homegrown vegetables and your Estonian granny’s knitting. It’s the perfect blend of old and new and pretty much summed up everything I loved about this city.
Just around the corner, past some colourful murals, is Depoo – a slightly more confusing market that’s part-traditional clothing market, part-upmarket vintage store and cafe (but if I’m honest it was a little hard to tell where one started and the other finished). It’s worth a nose around, but more importantly it’s a stepping stone to nearby Telleskivi.
I suppose you could call Telleskivi a creative centre, but I think it’s better described as an slightly shabby warehouse district that’s slowly being overtaken by some seriously cool bars, restaurants and independent shops. It’s kind of an unpolished Rotermanni, and it’s got attitude. Explore the boutique shops and stop for a coffee by day, definitely come for dinner and drinks by night. But be warned, this is where Tallinn locals come, so you might have to fight for a table.
Where to eat and drink in Telleskivi
You won’t struggle to find good cafes, bars and restaurants in this part of town. We were only able to scratch the surface in a few days, but discovered a goldmine of food just waiting to be explored.
For a brew, we enjoyed Renards – a cafe with a difference. As well as serving up seriously fancy coffee in a lovely lounge area, it’s also (slightly mysteriously) a motorcycle clothing shop, barbers and mechanics garage in one. It’s worth a stop just to marvel at this seemingly random combination of businesses under one stylish roof.
For lunch (although dinner also looked great), try Frenchy bistro. We had the most delicious budget-friendly lunch here, where the plat du jour is €4,80 everyday. When we arrived, that was €4,80 for perfectly-cooked duck with beautiful vegetable sides which seemed unbelievably good value for money. With a retro, French-inspired interior I couldn’t think of anywhere better to fill up and frankly I could have stayed all day!
On an evening F-Hoone seems to be the place everyone in Tallinn everyone is vying for a table at. If, like us, you optimistically rock up mid-week without a booking be prepared to wait a while at the bar, this place is seriously popular for good reason. Three divine courses in their converted dining space came to a grand total of €30 for two hungry people – you’d be mad not to step out of the old town for an experience like this.
After eating our fill, we headed to nearby Pudel for after-dinner drinks. It’s a smart craft beer bar with a warm atmosphere and extensive beer menu (and some excellent sounding bar snacks that I would have tucked straight into if I’d not been stuffed from our trip to F-Hoone).
Kadriog and Pirata
Step outside of the city centre in the opposite direction and a mile or so down the road (or tramline) is Pirata, the city’s Baltic promenade. As we visited on a snow day, there erm, wasn’t actually anything to see apart from a complete white-out.
But bear with me. I’ve no doubt on a clear day that Pirata is lovely, however it’s not just the promenade locals come here for. It runs along the northern edge of Kadriog Park, an elegant expanse of lawns, avenues of trees, palaces and national monuments. It’s home to the Song Festival grounds – a spiritual home to a huge part of Estonian culture and a literal turning point in the country’s history, which is worth a visit in it’s own right. You’ll also find the elegant Kadriog palace – a colourful riot of old-fashioned splendure.
Whatever time of year you visit, I’d recommend spending a little time exploring the city’s green spaces. They’re quite enchanting, and rather magical if there’s been a dusting of snow.
Tallinn is a city of joyful contrasts – medieval yet modern, cultured yet charmingly dishevelled in places. But most of all it feels authentic and alive, which makes it stand out from some of southern Europe’s fairytale, fortified towns which are sometimes a little too close to becoming a pastiche of themselves.
The Estonian capital well and truly deserves to be recognised as one of Europe’s most delightful … and I’m already thinking about when to go back.*
Have you been to Tallinn? Did it cast a spell over you too? Tell me all about it in the comments below.
*Only partly to quell my cinnamon bun addiction
P.S. Don’t forget to take a look at this beautiful city in the snow in 8 magical reasons to visit Tallinn, Estonia, in the snow
The practical bit
We flew to Tallinn with Easyjet from London Gatwick. Once you’re at the terminal (which might just be the nicest I’ve ever travelled through, they’re aspiring to be the world’s cosiest airport and I think they might just be), you’ll find the brand-new tram stop just outside the door. Tram number 4 takes you to the city centre and old town, and tickets are a very reasonable €2. Just knock on the driver’s window to buy on board.
Home for our stay was the Knight House Hostel – a thoroughly recommendable and cosy little place. Located in the old town, it’s only a few minutes walk from the main square of the old town in one direction and Freedom Square (and its tram stop) in the other. Not only is the street quiet (and the hostel set back from the road in a little courtyard), it’s ever so pretty.
Knight House is a budget option, but offers plenty of bang for your buck. There’s ten private rooms: ours was clean, comfortably furnished with all we needed and home to some big, beautiful old windows and some impressively warm heating. The bathrooms, although shared, have all recently been renovated to a very high standard (better than many hotels I’ve stayed in recently) which was a nice surprise. The crowning glory is a cosy common room area where a simple breakfast is served everyday – homemade pancakes cooked fresh for you no less. I often struggle choosing between hotels, hostels or an apartment for a city break – but we made the right choice here, and I’d happily return.
Knight House, Rüütli 16, 10130 Tallinn, Estonia