Where: Tallinn, Estonia.
When: We had 2 days and 3 nights in Tallinn, in February 2013.
Why: After a year of teaching in South Korea, Jeff and I decided to have a long break and to visit some new countries. We were also trying to visit as many new countries as possible. Jeff and I both love Poland, so we decided to visit some of Poland’s neighbours to see if they were just as good. So for this reason, we visited Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia.
In Estonia, we sadly only visited the capital, Tallinn. But we really liked Estonia, so we will have to go back to explore further.
Before we went to the Baltic countries, I thought they were all going to be very much the same, just with different currencies and language – but once we were there, we found that each country is quite distinct. Yes they all have very similar landscapes of flat lands, forests, lakes and small towns and villages, but we also found that they each had their own characteristics. Lithuania reminded me of Poland, Latvia was slightly more brash (in a good way) – people say it’s more Russian; and Estonia felt more Scandinavian.
Out of the three Baltic countries we visited, Estonia (well, Tallinn) seemed to be the most developed, certainly the richest and most ‘Western’. They even use the €, something we didn’t know until we got there. Also, Skype was invented in Estonia.
Sadly, we only had time to visit the capital, Tallinn – and it would be wrong to judge the whole country by its capital, but what we found was a cool, friendly, fun, well-developed city – that was doing very well for itself.
We loved Tallinn (much more than Riga, surprisingly). It’s a wonderful, interesting, historic city – with a fun centre, lots of history, gorgeous bars and restaurants and lots to see and do. Most people I know who have visited rave about Tallinn. It must be magical for a pre-Christmas break. For a few days stay at the end of winter, it was still very cool.
We caught the bus to Tallinn from Riga. There are a number of bus companies on this route. We travelled with Lux Express.
Lux Express’s buses were great. We had seat back entertainment systems (TV, movies, music, games and internet), free drinks and a toilet on board. We should have had wi-fi on board, but it wasn’t working that day. We liked the feature where you could track the bus on the map, as it let us see what was coming up ahead and let us follow our journey.
The journey cost 14.8 Latvian Lat each (about £18) and took about 4½ hours.
We’d initially wanted to travel with ECOLINES, as they offered the best prices. We arrived at the bus station with 20 minutes to the bus, and the lady in the Ecolines office was so inefficient, slow and rude – that we missed their bus and so ended up going with someone else.
Another company which travels on this route is Hansabuss. They charge €19 for the Riga to Tallinn bus.
Just a quick note of caution, I was nearly pick pocked at Riga bus station. As I was getting on the bus, a very strange man pushed in front of the people behind us in the queue and got a bit too close to me. As a Brit, who believes in queuing, it made me notice him and so when he got too close I turned to tell him to back off – and saw my phone was in his hand. ‘Why? Is my phone. In your hand!?’ I asked him in my best teachers voice. I then snatched it off him and turned back to the driver – apparently he immediately ran off after this and it was only a few seconds later that I realised what had happened (I thought it might have fallen out of my pocket and he’d caught it). So if you are at Riga bus station, be careful with your belongings.
Anyhow, in Tallinn, the bus dropped us off at the Autobusjaam, which is a way out of town. We had no idea where we were going and at first couldn’t find any info, but as we were leaving we did find a huge map by the doors with some info on it.
To get to the city centre from the Autobusjaam, you walk to the right, down Odra (the road the bus station is on) to Tartu Mnt. On the other side of the road junction is a tram stop. You can jump on tram 2 or 4, and these will both take you to the centre. You can buy tickets from the driver. All bus and tram tickets cost €1.60.
The Autobusjaam has facilities such as cash points, shops, cafes etc.
You can’t currently get a train to Tallinn from Riga, but if you are travelling by train from within Estonia, you will arrive at the Balti Jaam (railway station). This is on the edge of the old town.
Jeff and I said goodbye in the Town Hall square in Tallinn – he to take the long road home to Canada, via Finland,Sweden and Iceland; me to go home by airplane.
The ferry harbour is located right in the heart of the city – about 20 minutes walk from the old town. Ferries regularly go from Tallinn to Helsinki and Stockholm. Jeff travelled with Tallink/Silja Lines to Helsinki. The journey took 2½ hours and cost €29.
I flew from Tallinn to Luton with Ryanair. The flight took about 2.5 hours and cost me £21.60 (including all taxes and fees).
The airport is very modern and has nice shops and cafes. Bus number 2 runs from the harbour to the airport, via the city centre, about once every ½ an hour. I caught the bus from outside the Viru Keskus shopping centre (the stop is on the main road at the back of the shopping centre).
It took about 20 minutes to get to the airport and cost €1.60.
Trams, trolleys, buses and feet
Tram 2 or 4 from the bus station to the city centre.
Bus no 2 goes from the harbour to the airport.
All journeys cost €1.60 and you can buy your ticket from the driver. Whether they want to sell you one is a different matter, as the first two times we tried to pay, they just waved us away.
See the getting there section for information on how to get from the bus station to the city centre.
The main bus station is under the Viru Keskus shopping centre. Please note, the airport bus, however, departs from the road at the back of the Viru Keskus shopping centre.
The city centre is very compact and we walked most places.
What we did on our holiday
The Medieval Old Town
The medieval old town of Tallinn is just wonderful. It’s a proper old town, with lanes and roads and walls to explore, huge squares, interesting churches and buildings, and lots and lots to see and do.
The medieval old town is split into two: Toompea is the upper old town. Vanalinn is the lower old town.
We spent our two days in the city, exploring the old town, wandering about, looking at things, drinking in cool pubs, eating in gorgeous restaurants and window shopping. Sadly, the day we spent in the old town was a Monday, which is when many of the museums are shut, so we didn’t go into any of the tourist sites, we just looked at them from the outside. But we still saw a lot!
The heart of Vanalinn, the lower old town, is Raekoja Platz (town hall square) (see above). This is a huge square with wonderful medieval, merchant’s houses around it. It is very much the heart of the city, and is where they hold concerts, events and the Christmas Market (which must be magical).
The square is dominated by the huge Town Hall building, the only gothic town hall left in Europe. It was built in 1404 – and it looks very cool.
Inside the Town Hall building is a small café section of the Old Hansa restaurant: a ‘traditional’ medieval restaurant, which apparently operates exactly like a medieval restaurant (apart from the Windows 8 on the cash register). They serve beloved, oven-hot pies, a decent bowl of elk soup and heart warming hot wine. It was a great, fun café. The hot wine was just what we needed after the freezing sight seeing, although I wasn’t too keen on the elk pie.
Old Hansa seems to dominate this section of the square. Old Hansa is a fun, theme restaurant that serves traditional medieval fare (including boar and bear). It looks like a lot of fun, and the menu is hilarious, though Jeff and I never did try the full restaurant as it was a bit too expensive for us. Outside the restaurant there are ‘traditional’ shops, and people dressed up playing the part of medieval peeps. Rather than being cheesy, it’s actually a lot of fun, and they made me giggle.
If you keep going down Viru Street, you will come to the ivy covered Viru Gate. This is one of the main gates into the city. It is very dramatic, and a wonderful thoroughfare with many flower shops lining the road just outside the gate.
In the another corner of Raekoja Platz, you can see the Town Hall pharmacy, the oldest pharmacy in Europe. It was closed on the Monday we visited, but we peeked through the widow and it looks like a cool apothecary.
From Raekoja Platz, we walked down through the lanes and along the walls, in the direction of the harbour.
Later, we re-entered the city by Fat Margaret, the huge bastion tower which guards the Great Coastal Gate.
From Fat Margaret, we walked up Pikk, one of the main streets in Vanalinn. On this street, you pass the old KGB headquarters. It’s not a very well sign-posted building (perhaps people want to forget), but you can tell which one it is because the lower windows are bricked up – apparently so that people couldn’t hear the screams coming from inside.
Also on this street is St Olav’s Church, which used to be the tallest building in the world. The spire is still very impressive and a good landmark to navigate from. Sadly, we didn’t go inside. I have heard you can climb the spire in summer, but not in icy February.
Also on Pikk, are the Kanut Guild Hall and the House of the Blackheads. The House of the Blackheads was not a house for spotty teenagers, but rather a guild for bachelor merchants, whose patron saint was St Mauritius, who had a black head. There is a picture of St Mauritius above the door of the House of the Blackheads. Both these wonderful, ornate buildings are decorated with the shields of their guilds.
Just up from the Guild Hall is The Holy Spirit Church, which has a lovely clock outside. And if you go through St Catherine’s Passage, which is next to The Holy Spirit Church, you end up back in the Raekoja Platz.
Carry on up Pikk and you come to Pikk Jalg gatehouse (see below), which is rumoured to be the most haunted building in the old town. If you go through the gate and up the steep road here, you come to the upper old town, Toompea.
Toompea Castle (below) dominates the upper town. This wonderful castle is a mix of buildings, some parts built in the 12th century, some built by Catherine the Great. It now houses Estonia’s parliament.
In front of the castle is the wonderful, Russian Orthodox Alexander Nevsky cathedral. This domed wonder is covered in ornate artwork and frescoes, and is very pretty.
Also in Toompea, we saw Kiek in de Koek and the Danish King’s Garden.
Kiek in de Koek (above) is not as bad as it sounds. Kiek in de Koek is actually German for ‘a peek in the kitchen’. This is a huge tower, which overlooks the lower old town. It was attacked by Ivan the Terrible and you can still see where his cannon balls are embedded in the wall. Inside the tower is a museum about the city’s defences, and you can also enter the underground tunnels here on an organised tour. For more information, visit www.linnamuuseum.ee/kok.
The Danish King’s Garden is located through a small archway in the walls, between Kiek in de Koek and the castle. Apparently, it was here where God gave the Danish flag to the King of Denmark. Apparently, King Valdemar 2 was attacking Tallinn and not doing very well, and so was going to give up – when suddenly, the heavens opened and a flag, red with a white cross, fell out of the heavens – and this sign spurred them on to victory.
Today, the garden is a pretty spot with amazing views over the city. We were here at sunset and it was very romantic.
Whilst we were in the garden, we saw a sign for a café, up on the walls. To get there though, we had to brave this steep, thin, icy, stone, spiral staircase – which only had a chain to hang on to. It was super scary, but kind of cool. When we got to the top, we found the café wanted €5! for a mulled wine, so we decided not to bother. We did get amazing views from the high catwalk on the walls though (though even this was quite scary and icy). Coming down the tower – I went step by step on my bum it was so steep. I think it was worth it though, just for the views.
Apparently the tower with the spiral staircase is called Maiden’s Tower – and it used to be a prison for prostitutes.
The New Town
On our first day, we decided to walk to the harbour, so Jeff could find out where his ferry to Finland departed from. It takes about 20 minutes to walk to the harbour from the old town.
Just before the harbour is the Norde Centrum shopping centre. Inside is a huge Rimi supermarket, which we visited to buy supplies for our bed-niks. We got cheap smoked salmon, cream cheese, fruit, bread and champagne.
Norde Centrum is right next to the harbour, and so is a good place to pick up cheap booze or snacks for your ferry journey.
Another place we went shopping was the Viru Keskus shopping centre, which is just opposite Viru Gate. This is a huge shopping centre, with restaurants and a supermarket. The bus station is in the basement. Jeff and I developed a pretty strong dislike of Viru Keskus. Not because it is bad for shopping, but because the information points were annoyingly, frustratingly bad, the information woman was very rude to us and you had to pay for the public toilets. www.virukeskus.com.
Between Viru Keskus and the harbour is the Rotermann Quarter, which is an area that is being redeveloped for media buildings, cafes, designers etc. This is where Vapiano’s is.
Before I went to the Baltics, my mom had told me that in winter, in the Baltics, the sea freezes. This is something that I have never seen, so I wanted to go and see if this is true. Tallinn is right on the coast – so Jeff and I decided to take a bus along the sea front – then to walk back into the city.
Well, I can tell you it is true. The sea does freeze – and it is well cool.
We went to Viru Keskus to catch the bus to Pirita. We tried to buy tickets from the driver, but she wouldn’t sell them to us, so perhaps being a bit worried about being fined for a lack of ticket, I got us off the bus a bit too soon – about half way to Pirita.
It was a very pretty spot though, right on the sea front. There was a path/road running along the beach side, and we walked along this back towards town.
It was a really pretty walk. There was ice on the sea, we saw ferries coming in, and going out again – and it was nice to see the city from afar.
About half way back to town we came across a lot of swans and ducks, which were being hand fed by the locals. They were cool and we had a lot of fun playing with them.
I think we got off the bus just by Kadriorg Park, and the walk back to town took us about an hour. I’m glad it wasn’t any longer than that as it was cold!
What we didn’t do
We didn’t go inside anything – which is a shame. As most of the buildings had limited opening hours because it was winter, or were closed because it was a Monday – we didn’t actually go inside anywhere. Also, we weren’t really in a looking at things mood, although I would have loved to have peeked inside some of the churches. We could have visited a maritime museum, the city museum, Kiek in de Koek and all of the churches, but sadly we didn’t.
We also didn’t visit Kadriorg Park with its palace and modern art gallery. This looks an amazing place to visit, with historic and modern sites to see, set in a lovely park. Oh well, we’ll have to go back…
Every time we go to an ancient city in winter, I promise Jeff we can go ice skating. We’ve still not been. We had a look at the ice rink in Tallinn, which was in front of St Nicholas’ Church, but it was full of teenagers and a little bit expensive – so we went to the pub instead. Jeff – I promise you: one day we will go ice skating.
Finally, if you would like to know more about the city’s Soviet past, then you might like to visit the KGB museum, which is on the 23rd floor of the Sokos Viru Hotel, by the Viru Kaskes shopping centre. The museum records how the KGB operated in the Hotel Viru, with wiretapped rooms and rooms put aside just for the KGB to be able to spy on guests. To find out more about the hotel and the museum, visit the Sokos Viru Hotel website.
Where we stayed
The City Hotel, Tallinn
We found accommodation in Tallinn to be really expensive – especially the hostels in the old town. In the end, we booked The City Hotel, a basic hotel on the edge of the old town – over by the Parliament castle. Tallinn can be expensive, but our en-suite room here cost less than some private hostel rooms with shared bathroom.
The City Hotel Tallinn was a good, cheap option in the centre of Tallinn. The rooms were basic, clean and warm, and we had a nice bathroom. We had 2 beds, a TV, a good bathroom, somewhere to hang our clothes and a desk.
The hotel has obviously been designed to be a budget hotel. You have to pay €10 to get your room cleaned, and €5 for fresh towels, but it was a good base for a few days.
There was a vending machine in the entrance area, and a weird, dark common-room downstairs – though we didn’t use this.
You check in at the sister hotel next door. This is called Von Stackelberg Hotel Tallinn, and this is where the spa is located (which is a bit pricy).
The hotel is about 5 minutes walk from the castle and Kick in de Koek, and 15 minutes from the Town Hall.
We paid €95 for 3 nights (about £25/room/night).
Where we ate and drank
There are so many great places to eat in Tallinn, that choosing where to go is the hardest thing. You can find food from all around the world in Tallinn, but whilst here you should try some of lovely local meats and dumplings.
Also, we didn’t have a night out in Tallinn, but it looks fantastic for partying: there are loads of fun pubs and bars including lots of fun theme places. Check out the where we didn’t drink section for information on some of the coolest. And whilst in the bars, make sure you try the local booze Vina Tallinn – which is a lovely coffee creamy style drink. Nom nom nom.
We ate and drank at the following:
On our first night we spent ages choosing where to eat. We finally settled on Clayhills, a gastro-pub/bar on Pikk, just by Raekoja Platz.
It was a little bit cramped and crowded, but the service was friendly and there was an amazing English guitarist playing.
We had a set-menu and the food was sublime. We had soup, bangers and mash – and the most melt-in-your mouth blueberry crème brulee ever. It was wonderful, and we had to resist going back there every night.
Anneli Viik Chocolate café
Whilst exploring the old town, we stopped for coffee and cake at the Anneli Viik chocolate café – an ornate, opulent café and chocolate house. It had some crazy decorations in the window, with fake birds and stuff.
I really liked it, though Jeff was a bit suspicious that they deliberately tried to mis-change me. Something which happened 2 or 3 times in Tallinn. They did have very nommy cake though. www.anneliviik.ee
Olde Hansa Café
In the Town Hall, you will find the café section of Olde Hansa – a ‘traditional’ medieval restaurant. We went here for an early lunch and for a few € we had mulled wine, elk and boar pie and elk soup.
The café is candle lit and the plates are rough and ready (from the sign on the washing up bowl they seem to expect you to steal them).
The whole café has been set up with humour and it is a lot of fun to visit. I wasn’t so keen on the elk pie, but the soup and the wine were yummy – and it was a cheap place to eat right in the centre of town.
The Olde Hansa restaurant is just off the Town Hall square and it serves traditional medieval food, including bear and whole roast boar. We didn’t venture in here, as it was a little bit out of our price range – but it looks like a lot of fun and a great place for groups to visit.
Whilst we were in Poland, Jeff and I developed a real love for milk bars – the cheap, ex-Soviet restaurants that serve good, basic foods, such as perogis (dumplings).
We’d read about a café which sounded like a milk bar – so we went to check it out for our second dinner.
Café Eat was cheap – and they served good dumplings. It was a little dark and studenty, and we only stayed 10 minutes, but it served good budget food and was in the old town. It wasn’t quite like a milk bar, as there wasn’t as much choice, but it was still OK.
Vapianos is an international chain of Italian restaurants. Jeff and I love Vapianos, because ‘our place’ in Gangnam, Seoul is a Vapianos – and we were really excited to find one in Tallinn. It was our last day together for 3 months, so we decided to treat ourselves to a long, romantic, boozy, delicious lunch in our favourite place.
Vapiano restaurants are slightly different in that when you enter, you are given a beepy card. You go up to different counters to order your food, and beep your card so that the food or drink gets added to your bill. You are then given a pager, which vibrates when your food is ready for collection.
Also, they have herbs on the table, so if you want additional herbs on your food, you just rip it off your plant and add it on.
The food is good, good value and it’s unpretentious. They even give you free gummy bears when you pay your bill.
We really like this chain and I’m hoping we’ll get to go to some more around the world.
St Patrick’s is located in a wonderful 15th century town house. We went here because they offered a good value €10 set menu, of salad, grill or pasta, desert and drink.
The bar is really old and really interesting. The room we were sat in had a huge, roaring fire. It was very cosy and atmospheric.
Hell Hunt (the Gentle Wolf)
Hell Hunt is the oldest pub in Estonia. It is located in the centre of Vanalinn, on Pikk, by the guild houses. It’s a nice old pub, very atmospheric, which has a huge drinks menu. We tried their own cider and it was lush.
Where we didn’t eat and drink (but would have liked to)
Korsaar (pirate pub)
I love pirates. I really love pirate pubs. There is a pirate pub in Tallinn.
However, the pirate we saw here looked like a really grumpy pirate – so we didn’t go in. He didn’t even have a parrot.
We couldn’t find Scotland Yard, a theme pub based upon Scotland Yard – the HQ of the British Police Force. Apparently it has wanted posters and weapons on the wall, and one room is decorated with a tank of piranhas.
Depeche Mode Bar
This bar only plays Depeche Mode music and is devoted to Depeche Mode.
For a great list of bars, visit Tourism Tallinn’s pubs and bar page.
The best web site (which makes this one totally redundant) is Tourism Tallinn. Just look at this one as it has all the information you could need. You don’t need to look at mine, just go to this one.
Please note, some, if not much of this information may not be correct, or may be out of date. All these articles show is how we found these places when we visited and what we personally thought of each place. Where possible I will include links to site which will contain more up-to-date info. All of this is our own work and any opinion expressed is that of the author only.
All photos copyright of J Clemo 2013. If you would like to copy or reproduce any of these images, please email me to ask permission.