Nestled amid rolling hills next to the Baltic Sea, Tallinn, Estonia is about as picturesque as it gets. The medieval old town is ringed by its original walls and watchtowers, providing postcard-perfect vistas at nearly every turn. But quaint cobblestones and colorful architecture aside, are there enough things to do in Tallinn to keep you busy for an entire weekend? Absolutely! There are church spires to climb, museums to wander, and hidden wine cellars to unearth.
My favorite thing to do in Tallinn is walk around the old town walls. Modern artillery made such fortifications obsolete and many cities, like Riga, tore theirs down to make way for roads and apartment buildings. Tallinn’s city planners thankfully had the foresight to leave parts of theirs intact. Nearly two kilometers of thick stone walls are interspersed with 20 defensive towers, some of which you can climb for a unique perspective of jumbled rooftops and twisting lanes.
Fun Fact: Did you know that Tallinn was actually called Reval until 1918? Originally part of Denmark, Estonia joined the Hanseatic League in the 14th century, turning Tallinn into a trading port for furs, leather, salt, honey, and wine. The old town grew as German merchants immigrated and established churches and guilds. Many of these are still standing today, adding to the city’s historic charm. The Estonian History Museum is located within the Great Guild Hall and provides an interesting introduction to the country’s development.
Opposite the Great Guild is the Church of the Holy Spirit. Founded during the Middle Ages as part of an almshouse for the less fortunate, the church held the first ever sermons in the Estonian language. The interior features elaborate woodcarvings and a gilded altarpiece, while the exterior is inset with the oldest clock in Tallinn.
The German merchants traded their goods at a market in Old Town Square and built fine homes around the perimeter. At the center of the square is Town Hall. From June-August, it’s possible to see inside this landmark building on a “Cellar to Attic” tour. A separate entrance ticket is needed to climb the Town Hall Tower. If you decide to tackle the 115 incredibly steep steps, you will be rewarded with 360-degree views of the city.
St Catherine’s Passage is a narrow cobblestone alleyway topped with flying buttresses and lined with craft workshops. The artists belong to St Catherine’s Guild and use traditional methods to produce their wares. My favorite is the glassblowing studio, Koppel and Keerdu. Around the corner, the Dominican Monastery Claustrum provides a look at medieval monastic life. Visitors can enter what remains of the dormitory, library, and chapel. Note that some areas of the claustrum are dimly lit and the stairs can be treacherous.
Tallinn’s skyline is punctuated by church spires and the distinctive onion domes of St. Alexander Nevsky Cathedral. The Orthodox church was completed in 1900, when Estonia was part of the Russian Empire. Like many places of worship, it fell into ruin during the Soviet Occupation, but has since been restored.
A few blocks away, St Mary’s Cathedral stands in stark contrast to the ornate Orthodox cathedral. Don’t be fooled by its plain appearance, though. The interior is adorned with the coats-of-arms and tombstones of Estonia’s German nobility, many of who are buried on the premises.
St. Olaf’s Church, at the northern edge of the old town, provides the most staggering panoramas. Just be prepared to climb the 258 steps required to reach the viewing platform. Following a tip from Andrea of Rear View Mirror, I trudged to the top first thing in the morning to take advantage of the best light. An added benefit was that I had it nearly to myself, which made walking around the narrow wooden planks a little easier.
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. Wondering where to eat dinner? You can find my Tallinn restaurant recommendations here.
For a more intimate nightcap, head to Gloria’s Wine Cellar. This award-winning restaurant and wine bar is tucked beneath part of the old town wall and is so cozy you’ll want to linger long into the night. Romantically-lit alcoves feature plush burgundy velvet seating and witty paintings of Mona Lisa and Napoleon holding wine glasses. I suggest making a reservation to avoid disappointment.
The next day, as hard as it may be to tear yourself away from the lovely old town, hop the tram and head out to Kadriorg Palace. This one-time vacation home of Peter the Great now serves as the fabulous Kadriorg Art Museum of Estonia. It holds the country’s largest collection of foreign art, including paintings, porcelain, and fashion. Other neighborhood attractions include the Peter I House Museum, Kumu Estonian Art Museum, and the Estonian Presidential Palace.
Are you ready to spend a weekend in Tallinn?