Tallinn, Estonia: Europe’s Sleeping Beauty

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Europe is teeming with beautiful cities. Paris, Venice, Budapest, Prague, and Bruges routinely make the top 10 lists of Europe’s prettiest places, and for good reason. I’ve traveled to them all and can confirm they are exceedingly lovely. But Tallinn, Estonia is often glaringly absent from these lists and, after my recent visit, I can’t for the life of me understand why. It has one of the best preserved medieval old towns I’ve ever seen!

Nestled amid rolling hills next to the Baltic Sea, Tallinn is about as picturesque as it gets. The Old Town is spread across two levels, with the older section, Toompea, rising over 20 meters above the Lower Town. But what really sets Tallinn apart from its European sisters is its old city walls. Modern artillery made such fortifications obsolete and many cities tore theirs down to make way for roads and apartment buildings. But not Tallinn. The post-WWII Soviet factories and worker housing were simply built on the outskirts of the Old Town and the suburbs grew up from there. The result is a historic center so well-preserved it has been granted UNESCO World Heritage Status.

Old Town Hall Square, Tallinn

Old Town of Tallinn, Estonia

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Tallinn was first incorporated by Denmark in the early 13th century, though the area was settled as early as 1050 AD. Estonia joined the Hanseatic League in the 14th century and Tallinn became a trading port for furs, leather, salt, honey and wine. Fun Fact: Did you know that Tallinn was called by its German name, Reval, until 1918? The Lower Town grew as German merchants immigrated and established churches and guilds. Many of these buildings still stand, and the layout of the streets remains virtually unchanged. If it weren’t for all the camera-wielding tourists, you’d swear you’d traveled back in time!

One of the oldest buildings in Tallinn is the Town Hall, which was completed in 1404 though is perhaps more notable for its unusual minaret-shaped spire. You will be rewarded for climbing the 115 incredibly steep steps inside the narrow tower with breathtaking 360-degree views of the city. It’s also worth walking around inside Town Hall, which houses the oldest wood carvings in Estonia.

Old Town Hall, Tallinn

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Tallinn, Estonia

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A jumble of rooftops in Old Town Tallinn

For even better views at a fraction of the climb, be sure to visit Tallinn’s Town Wall Walkway. We entered through an art gallery/shop on Gumnaasiumi street and strolled along the wooden passageway between three watchtowers. I found the best viewpoint to be a window on the top floor of the central tower.

Tallinn Medieval Walls

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Tallinn City Walls

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Tallinn City Wall View

Tallinn’s lovely skyline is punctuated by church spires and the distinctive onion domes of St. Alexander Nevsky Cathedral. The Russian Orthodox cathedral was completed in 1900, when Estonia was a part of the Russian Empire. Like many places of worship, it fell into ruin during the Soviet occupation, but has been beautifully restored. The gleaming white exterior provides a stark contrast to the ornate gold and blue interior, which was positively swarming with tourists. That didn’t make it any less stunning, though.

St. Alexander Nevsky Cathedral, Tallinn

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Much less crowded, but just as interesting, is the nearby Dome Church. Don’t be fooled by its plain appearance – inside it’s a showstopper! The 15th century walls are hung with the elaborately carved coats-of-arms of Estonia’s nobility, many of whom are buried in the church.

Dome Church in Tallinn, Estonia

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Another medieval house of worship that’s worth a peek is the Church of the Holy Spirit, which is located just off Town Hall Square. It is notable for its beautiful woodcarvings and pulpit, an elaborate 15th century altarpiece and the oldest clock in Tallinn, which adorns the church’s Gothic facade.

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Church of the Holy Spirit, Tallinn

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Of all Tallinn’s sanctuaries, St. Olaf’s Church provides the most sweeping panoramas. Just be prepared to climb the 258 steps required to reach the viewing platform. Following a tip from Andrea of Rear View Mirror, we hiked to the top first thing in the morning to take advantage of the best light. An added benefit was that we had it nearly to ourselves, which made walking around the narrow wooden planks a little easier. On our way down, we passed several dozen people and were very thankful to have gone up when we did!

St. Olaf's Church, Tallinn

Best view of Tallinn, Estonia

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Once you’ve had your fill of churches, take a seat at one of the restaurant patios lining Town Hall Square and order a glass of wine. Sure, it gets chilly in the evening, but there are heat lamps and fur blankets to keep you warm.

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Old Town Square, Tallinn

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For a more intimate nightcap, head to Gloria’s Wine Cellar, underneath part of the old city walls. We were led through the impressive shop and an underground maze of alcoves to a darkly-lit room with burgundy velvet seating and a roaring fire. The walls were lined with wine bottles and hung with witty paintings of Mona Lisa and Napoleon holding wine glasses. It’s the kind of place where you’ll want to linger over bottle of Bordeaux long into the night.

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Is Tallinn, Estonia a place you’d like to visit? Do you think it should be counted among Europe’s prettiest cities?

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Heather Hall

Heather Hall

Passionate about travel, food, history and animals, Heather brings a curiosity and fun-loving attitude to most any experience that comes along. The Virginia native has lived abroad since 2011, and has visited more than 40 countries. Follow along as she explores the cultures and cuisines of the world on her blog, Ferreting Out the Fun!

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58 thoughts on “Tallinn, Estonia: Europe’s Sleeping Beauty

  1. I’ve never been to Tallinn myself so I’m not sure if it should be listed among Europe’s prettiest cities, but from your photos I can tell that it isn’t an ugly place to visit at all, on the contrary!
    I’d consider visiting it for sure, even if only for its stunning architecture 🙂
    Franca recently posted…Our New Plan To Call Berlin Home – For NowMy Profile

    • Tallinn is definitely worth a visit! It has enough interesting history and beautiful architecture to keep me happy for weeks!

    • We seriously could not get over how pretty Tallinn is! Even though our legs were screaming, we kept climbing church towers because we just couldn’t get enough of the view!

  2. I would love to experience that walkway, the views are gorgeous! And so cool that they provide you with blankets for keeping warm whilst drinking wine…I LOVE that! I think places in NYC should adopt that during the long winter months!:-)
    Jess @UsedYorkCity recently posted…Intermission: This Is Our YouthMy Profile

    • I am a HUGE fan of the blankets and heat lamps! More places definitely need to adopt this custom. It’s so funny to see tall and stylish European men wrapped up in blankets while drinking beer!

  3. What a beautiful place!! Hope I get to visit it. Great
    pictures. That camera is a great investment. Yes
    it should be a UNESCO site because of how everything
    has been preserved. Can’t wait!!!

    • Thanks, Rosemarie! Europe really does have the most beautiful architecture. What I loved most about Tallinn was that the building plots in the Old Town have remained unchanged for hundreds of years. Everything is crammed together around squares and churches. It’s such a special place!

  4. Well get you, being all edumacational with this post and teaching me about the Estonian capital! I can’t guarantee that I’ll remember any of it (please don’t test me) but it just looks so pretty and charming! I’ve heard the islands in Estonia are lovely, too. Maybe a trip to the Baltic nations awaits sometime soon…
    Tom @ Waegook Tom recently posted…One Morning In LondonMy Profile

    • I’ve also heard good things about the Estonian islands! There’s one in particular I want to visit for its specialty dish – smoked cheese soup. I had a bowl in Tallinn and when I raved about it to the waiter, he told me it hailed from an island whose name I can’t pronounce. But I will be going there to eat ALL THE CHEESE SOUP!

  5. Seriously, all of your photos look like postcards!! Soooo pretty! Tallinn is great, although my experience is a bit limited as I was only there for one day, and it was a chilly grayish time in March. (Plus, I spent part of my time drinking coffee at the Latvian embassy, which was interesting, but meant I wasn’t doing touristy stuff.) I thought that by now everyone knew that Tallinn was beautiful, but judging by readers’ comments here – it’s good that you are in the Baltics and spreading the word!!
    Daina recently posted…Cool Conference on (Slightly Geeky) Latvian StuffMy Profile

    • The weather couldn’t have been more perfect for our visit – vivid blue skies and just a slight chill in the air. I had a vague notion of Tallinn being pretty, but the reality was so much grander than I could have imagined! The only photos of the city I’d seen were in my Lonely Planet guidebook, and they weren’t super impressive. Maybe I should submit some of mine to them 😉

  6. Sure, Tallinn should be counted one of the prettiest cities. But you know what, every city in Europe is so pretty and unique! At least, that’s what I have seen in the movies, blogs and magazines. The more you discover this amazing continent, the more it amazes you!
    Renuka recently posted…That’s How I Discovered DarjeelingMy Profile

  7. I found Tallinn to be every bit as breathtaking as your photos. I wasn’t looking for, but also found a wife while touring. We have been very happily married for over 5 years and live in Louisiana. It’s nice to know someone who is familiar with the beauty of the Baltic that is off the beaten path. I have traveled and toured much of Europe and in my opinion Florence Italy is the only city that comes close to Tallinn’s beauty, culture and history.

    • What a sweet story, Don! How lucky you to have found love with someone from such a special part of the world!

      I agree with you about Florence, it’s one of the prettiest places I’ve seen as well. I look forward to scouring Europe to see what other beautiful places I can find 🙂

  8. Great post! So glad you loved Tallinn as much as I did. I’m so in love with that place I’m hoping to go back later in the year for the Christmas markets. You got some amazing photos!

    • Thanks, Andrea! Tallinn really is an amazing place! I definitely want to experience its Christmas market – maybe I’ll see you there!

  9. I so enjoyed your lovely pictures and great descriptions of your adventure- what a beautiful place to experience! Keep them coming!

    • Thanks, Lesley! Tallinn is indeed the stuff of fairytales. I really want to go back and experience it at Christmas!

    • Hi Christine, thanks for stopping by!

      Tallinn is just four hours away from me by bus, and I’m constantly thinking about when I can make my next trip. I’m thinking it will look lovely at Christmas… 🙂

    • I hope it’s near the top of the list, it’s even more magical in person! I’m going back for a second visit next month. Stay tuned for a Christmas in Tallinn post!

    • Tallinn really is heart-achingly charming. I’ve been up twice now and know I’ll go back. And Gloria’s will definitely be on the agenda! 🙂

      Have a fantastic trip!

  10. I’m always so happy to see foreigners being thrilled about my home! I’m actually not from Tallinn (I’m from the islands and yes, they are paradise on earth, I wish I could spend more time there), but as a small country, every city is kind of like home, especially looking from far away. To be honest, I’ve always loved Riga better than Tallinn and I’ve never been shy about it. But your post made me feel like I might not do Tallinn justice and should appreciate it more. 🙂
    By the way, another place I reccomend is Tartu (also a short bus trip from Riga!). The amazing student vibe (1/5 of the people are students!) makes it the only place in Estonia that’s better to visit outside the summer season.
    All the best to you and enjoy the spring in the Baltics! 🙂

    • Hi Piret, thank you so much for your comment! I enjoyed my time in Tallinn very much and am already thinking about making a third trip up. I’ve only explored the old town and need to see what else the city has to offer! I would also love to visit the islands this summer, but I think it might be difficult to get there from Riga without a car. If you have any transportation tips, I’d love to hear them! Tartu, Parnu and Viljandi are on my travel wish list as well. Now that the days are getting longer and the weather warmer, I’m ready to explore! 🙂

      • Hey!
        You’re right, travelling to the islands is kind of hard witout a car as most of the sights are out of Kuressaare (the capital of the island), although the town itself is beautiful too. You might wanna look into rental cars (if not from Riga, maybe from Pärnu?) or well … friends with cars, haha. Otherwise you’d have to take the bus to Pärnu and then from there another bus to Kuressaare. Estonian buses are all on http://www.tpilet.ee, as for Riga-Pärnu just try Ecolines or LuxExpress or whatever they are. 😀 Hope this helps, you can always ask me if you need any more help. If you plan a trip in August or from then on, drop me an email, we can meet up for coffee if you like! 😀
        Piret recently posted…semester-end thoughts on erasmusMy Profile

    • Richard, I completely agree! I went back to Tallinn in the winter and found it to be even more enjoyable. My third trip is already planned for this summer!

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