Tallinn: prettiest capital city in Europe

Tallinn, how I love this city. I have been here for quite a few times and I always find something new to see or do on every visit. I first visited the city in 2006, two years after Estonia gained European Union membership and on average since then, visited the city every two-three years. Tallinn for me is an all year round destination but I really do love it in the winter months when there is a lot of snow to which the views of the old town rooftops from Toompea Hill are one to treasure (and they sure do look like scenes from Christmas Cards). With a lot of history, good food, fantastic drinks, lovely people and stunning building facades, this is my lowdown on what ‘first timers’ should expect and should do when visiting Tallinn. Believe me, visitors will not be disappointed. Also I like to point out, as Riga in Latvia is my second home, I will try and not be biased.

Tallinn, Estonia,
Olga & I on our second visit to Tallinn in 2008

First off the sights. Where is the best starting point? I always say to visitors, start off at the Viru gates on the eastern side of the old town, as this is the ideal place to meet people, start tours and is also an easy landmark to find. The Viru Gates is classed as the main entrance into the old town and is formed off two gate towers.

Tallinn, Estonia,
Viru Gates

Tallinn is known for its medieval buildings, walls and towers and the first one to check out is Fat Margaret’s Tower located on Pikk. Built in the 14th century, it’s eighty-two meters in diameter and has five meter thick walls. The tower is a stone-throw away from the harbour, so the tower needed to withstand attacks from hostile forces trying to enter the city here. These days the tower houses the Estonian Maritime Museum. 

Tallinn, Estonia,
Fat Margaret’s Tower with St Olaf’s Church in the background

Nearby on Lai Street is St Olaf’s Church to which is one of my favourite points of the city to get a view from the north. The church was once the tallest building in Europe between 1549 and 1625 due to its 124 meter high spire. One of the legends I heard when I was walking around is that the church was built to attract more merchant ships to the city. There are also various reasons why the church is named after St Olaf but is more than likely named after the Norwegian King, Olav Havaldsson. The church was first mentioned in 1267 in local books.

Tallinn, Estonia, Tallinn, Estonia, Tallinn, Estonia,
After walking around the inside of the church, I went up to the top of the tower and the views of the sea and the old town are worth checking out. A small fee is payable but it goes back into the church. 

Tallinn, Estonia,
Inside St Olaf’s Church

Tallinn, Estonia, Tallinn, Estonia,

Tallinn, Estonia,
A view to the south overlooking the Old Town of Tallinn from St Olaf’s Church
Tallinn, Estonia
A view to the south overlooking the Old Town of Tallinn from St Olaf’s Church

Talking about views (and the best place to get the Christmas-card wintry scene if there is a lot of snow) is on Toompea Hill. There are two viewing platforms called Kohtuotsa and Patkuli (you can’t miss them when walking around at the top of the hill). For me, this is the best place to get the views of the city and probably use a lot of your camera batteries. 

Tallinn, Estonia
One of the two viewing platforms on Toompea Hill
Tallinn, Estonia
Views overlooking Tallinn’s old town from Toompea Hill
Tallinn, Estonia
Views overlooking Tallinn’s old town from Toompea Hill
Tallinn, Estonia
Views overlooking Tallinn’s old town from Toompea Hill

Toompea Hill, what’s it all about. Here is where Tallinn started back in 1229 where a gang known as the Knights of the Sword built a fortress here. My favourite thing to do here as well as checking out the viewpoints and cathedrals is walking around the cobbled streets. There are some courtyards, small lanes and the odd merchant house to check out. Tallinn’s Old Town is split into two, the Lower Town (where the Town Hall Square is located) and Toompea Hill, which overlooks the peasants back in the day. Here on top of the hill is also the parliament (located in Toompea Castle). The power is at the top of the hill folks but as a visitor, I would recommend a couple of hours up here at least to take in the beauty of this medieval centre.

Tallinn, Estonia
Toompea Hill area of Old Town Tallinn
Tallinn, Estonia
Toompea Hill area of Old Town Tallinn
Tallinn, Estonia
Toompea Hill area of Old Town Tallinn
Tallinn, Estonia
Toompea Hill area of Old Town Tallinn

One of the main landmarks on Toompea Hill is the Russian Orthodox Cathedral. However the cathedral is named after Alexander Nevsky who was a duke who lead an army into south-eastern Estonia and the Pskov area of Russia in the 13th century. The cathedral was designed in 1894 and was completed in 1900. However despite the cathedral being so pretty and beautiful inside and out, there are some structural damage and this has baffled some people on why the cathedral is damage (in small portions that is). One reason (and this is legend of course), the cathedral was built on the grave of a hero of the country, Kalev who is probably a little bit cheesed off and is causing all the problems.

Tallinn, Estonia Tallinn, Estonia

Tallinn, Estonia
Alexander Nevsky – the Russian Orthodox cathedral in Tallinn located on Toompea Hill
Tallinn, Estonia
Inside Alexander Nevsky – the Russian Orthodox cathedral in Tallinn located on Toompea Hill
Tallinn, Estonia
Alexander Nevsky – the Russian Orthodox cathedral in Tallinn located on Toompea Hill
Tallinn, Estonia
Alexander Nevsky – the Russian Orthodox cathedral in Tallinn located on Toompea Hill
Tallinn, Estonia
Alexander Nevsky – the Russian Orthodox cathedral in Tallinn located on Toompea Hill

Another church to check out on Toompea Hill is the oldest one in the country, the Dome Church (also known as Cathedral of Saint Mary the Virgin). The church was founded by Danish invaders in the 13th century but then had a revamp two hundred years later with the current Gothic facade. However the inside needed another refurbishment due to a fire breaking out in the 1680s. As well as the nearby viewing platforms, visitors can also go up the tower here to get amazing views of the Old Town. (Only open between 1030-1530 every day apart from Monday’s and do not come during the Sunday Service, that is just rude if you do).

Tallinn, Estonia Tallinn, Estonia
Leaving Toompea Hill and walking south-eastwards down the hill, the next place worth checking out is the Kiek in de Kök. Reason why, its fascasting, especially if you love checking out old fortresses and tunnels. Here there are passages, a museum, three towers which makes this the ideal place to get an introduction to the history of the defences of the city. The Kiek in de Kök tower was built around the late 1400’s and is a forty-five meter, six storey high tower and its main part in keeping the city safe was to launch cannonballs at those attacking from the south. This was mainly used in the Livonian War and there are still nine cannonballs embedded in the walls of the tower to this very day. 

Tallinn, Estonia
Kiek in de Kök
Kiek in de Kök, Tallinn, Estonia
Kiek in de Kök

Where did the Kiek in de Kök tower gets its name from? Well, another legend, this time it is claimed that medieval soldiers joked that from the top of the tower, they could see right into the kitchens of the houses below. 

Kiek in de Kök, Tallinn, Estonia
Kiek in de Kök
Kiek in de Kök, Tallinn, Estonia
The city walls next to Kiek in de Kök

Underneath the tower is the Bastion Passages which were built by the Swedish Empire in the 17th century to help protect the city and spiral all over the place. Down here is also the Carved Stone Museum which displays carved stone fragments including family crests which date back to the 15th century. Allow a couple of hours to do the museums, tower and all the passageways. Worth paying the fee to go inside. 

Kiek in de Kök, Tallinn, Estonia
Inside Kiek in de Kök – the museum
Tallinn, Estonia
Inside Kiek in de Kök – in the tunnels
Tallinn, Estonia
Inside Kiek in de Kök – the museum

Cat’s Well – all medieval cities, towns and villages probably had a well in the centre and Tallinn is no exception. However the residents back in medieval days didn’t exactly have the cleanest of waters to drink from. I will explain. Located on the corner of Dunkri and Rataskaevu, the Cat’s Well has a legend behind it. Some of the locals were thinking than an evil water spirit lived at the bottom of the well and threatened to make all the well’s in Tallinn dry if it wasn’t given regular animal sacrifices. The locals kept the spirit happy by throwing carcasses of sheep and cattle down the well but then started to throw stray cats. Locals would round them up on the surrounding streets and then either threw them down the well dead or alive. This happened so much that the local’s started calling the well ‘Cat’s Well’. It was noted that the sacrifices were working as the city always had water to drink from. However the quality of the water was so poor, that the well hasn’t been used since the mid nineteenth century as water was sourced from elsewhere. This also means the cats of Tallinn are safe to wander the streets again.

Tallinn, Estonia
The Cat’s Well. Photo copyright: Likealocalguide.com

On the southern side of the Lower Town is the Freedom Square. The main point of interest here is the three-nave Saint John’s church which has a neo-Gothic facade inside and out which has stood here since 1867. Inside the oldest church bell with Estonian text from 1872 is found in the church tower. Opposite the church is the monument to the War of Independence (which looks like something out of the film Thor or the television sci-fi show Stargate SG-1). Since the square was built it was known as Heinaturg (Haymarket), Peetri Plats (Peter’s Square) and Volduvaljak (Victory Square in the Soviet times). However Freedom Square was first used in 1939 until the Soviets renamed it in 1948. However before Estonia regained full independence, Freedom Square came back to use in 1989.

Tallinn, Estonia, Tallinn, Estonia,
Town Hall Square is one of the most beautiful old town squares I have come across in Europe. The square has been the heart of city life for over 800 years and has traditional hosted markets (and in recent times, the excellent Christmas markets). With the Town Hall and its marvellous spire overlooking the square to one side, the other buildings surrounding it has some impressive Gothic architecture. One thing visitors should do here is look for the circular stone in the centre of the square which has a compass rose on it. From here (and if you stretch), visitors can see the tops of Tallinn’s five most famous spires.

Tallinn, Estonia
Town Hall Square with the Town Hall and its spire one of the features of the Old Town of Tallinn

Now I have to admit, I didn’t get a chance to go inside the Town Hall on all my visits but I love the facade. However, if visitors lookup to the sky, one of Tallinn’s most recognised and legendary figures Vana Toomas (Old Thomas) can be seen on a weathervane which is placed on the top of Town Hall Tower. I love stories like this from medieval times. Toomas wasn’t like his namesake (‘old’), as his story started out when he was a boy. He won an annual archery contest that was only meant to have people from nobility to take part. Toomas thought he would get into trouble for winning but instead was invited to become an apprentice guard. The following years he did very well during the Livonian war as he did some heroic deeds but then went to serve the city well past the retirement age. Back to the modern day and the locals of the city started to notice a similarity between Toomas and the weathervane, so Tallinn’s officials decided to honour him by giving his name to the vane. Toomas since then as also become a symbol of the city.   

Tallinn, Estonia, Town Hall Square Tallinn, Estonia, Town Hall Square
Whilst walking around the square, I noticed in one corner that there are two long cobblestones that make the letter ‘L’ (located near the Raeapteek). Here was one of the most bizarre tales from the medieval era of the city. In the late 1600s a priest named Panicke went to a nearby inn and ordered an omelette. What he got was described as ‘hard as the sole of a shoe’ so he gave it back. The waitress brought two more omelettes but they were even worse. Then a heated exchanged happened and the priest was so pissed off, he killed the waitress with an axe. For his actions, the priest was taken to the square outside and beheaded. The ‘L’ on the ground was marked for the convenience for tour guides to point out where the beheading took place and is also the mark for the first and only execution carried out within the walls of the Old Town of Tallinn. 

Tallinn, Estonia
‘L’ marks the spot – image copyrighted by hiddentallinn

However there is another version of the story where a drunken priest killed a barmaid by throwing a ceramic tankard of warm beer at her head. At this point of time, executions were forbidden inside the Old Town but the pissed off onlooking crowd shouted out ‘You must DIE!’ dragged him outside onto the square and beheaded him. Lucky on my visits to Tallinn, the restaurant service I never had a problem with, still a bit slow compared to Western Europe but I don’t think I would start an argument and kill a waitress. 

Tallinn, Estonia
Town Hall Square

One end of the square is the oldest running pharmacy in Europe. With no actual record of when the Raeapteek was opened, it’s kinda hard to put a date on it, however with some records laying about, the pharmacy was already on its third owner in 1422. Some treatments which could be brought in medieval times was burnt bees and mummy juice (is that breast milk?) and even spiced wine to cure the flu. The pharmacy today does not sell that kind of stuff but plenty of modern day drugs instead and lots of varieties of condoms! Also inside the shop is a museum displaying medical instruments. 

Tallinn, Estonia

Around the old town, every single street will either look pretty or there is something to see. Even if its the only handcraft shop on the street, it’s still worth checking out for a local souvenir to take home. Tallinn has plenty of these gift shops and I have to admit, I do spend quite a bit of time in these. They are probably the best in Europe.

Tallinn, Estonia
The streets of the lower town of Old Tallinn
Tallinn, Estonia
The streets of the lower town of Old Tallinn

Tallinn, Estonia Tallinn, Estonia Tallinn, Estonia
As mentioned earlier, the Old Town is surrounded by the city walls to which are lot of the walls and towers are still intact. Another good section of these walls is on the western side of the city and are called the Nunne, Sauna and Kuldjala towers.

Tallinn, Estonia
Two of the three towers on the western side of the Old Town

Tallinn, Estonia

Tallinn, Estonia
But of cause these are not the only towers in the old town…they are dotted everywhere!

Bars and Restaurants – my recommendations

Now Tallinn is fantastic for food. There are so many options here but in the last few years, the city has really stepped it up a level and there is so much choice and variety of restaurants to choose from. My favourite one which I keep going back is the Beer Garden located on Inseneri, not too far away from the Viru Gates. The first time I went there, there were murals on the walls of Estonian girls in Bavarian type dresses holding glasses of beer in their hands but they are now gone. Now as well as being a restaurant, it is also a sports bar which is handy as every time I come to Tallinn, the ice hockey world championships is usually on and this is the place to watch it. The food on the menu ranges from the usual salad, chicken, fish, meat, potato meals with a good range of bar snacks, starters and deserts. The choice of beer is great but I always go with the local lager, A le Coq. I totally recommend this especially when with a group of friends. Their website is here.

Tallinn, Estonia, Beer Garden
Beer Garden from the street
Tallinn, Estonia, Beer Garden
Pasta meal at Beer Garden
Tallinn, Estonia, Beer Garden
Chicken snack at Beer Garden
Tallinn, Estonia, Beer Garden
My cheese fix whilst watching ice hockey on the television at Beer Garden

Tallinn, Estonia, Beer Garden

Just to the east of the Viru Gates is one of my favourite bars in the city. Right at the top of the Radisson Blu Hotel on Ravala Street is Lounge 24, a bar which offers the finest cocktails, beers, wines, snacks with fantastic service as well as amazing views overlooking the Old Town and the Baltic Sea. I came here on the longest day of the year and thankfully the skies were clear. So I managed to get the best sunset ever which before 23:00 hours but the sun just dipped under the horizon for quite some time afterwards, not disappearing totally until well after midnight. It was one of the best sunsets I have ever seen in this part of the world.   

Radisson Blu Sky Hotel, Sunset, Bar, Lounge24, Estonia, Tallinn
Radisson Blu Sky Hotel
Radisson Blu Sky Hotel, Sunset, Bar, Lounge24, Estonia, Tallinn
Sunset over the Baltic Sea and the Old Town of Tallinn from Lounge 24
Radisson Blu Sky Hotel, Sunset, Bar, Lounge24, Estonia, Tallinn
Sunset over the Baltic Sea and the Old Town of Tallinn from Lounge 24
Radisson Blu Sky Hotel, Sunset, Bar, Lounge24, Estonia, Tallinn
Sunset over the Baltic Sea and the Old Town of Tallinn from Lounge 24

Getting to Tallinn

Tallinn is very well connected and easy to get to. With flights to the airport (which is located not too far away from the city centre), airlines such as Ryanair, Finnair, Air Baltic, Lufthansa, and Scandinavian (SAS) all fly here from various parts of Europe. Visitors can also arrive by ferry, the most common routes are from Helsinki, Stockholm and Saint Petersburg. The international coach services are excellent and comfortable in the Baltic’s and there are services to Riga, Vilnius and Saint Petersburg. Most popular coach companies is Lux Express and EcoLines

Heading to Riga, Latvia which is near Tallinn? Then check out my guide here!

Estonia, Tallinn

There you have it guys, these are my recommendations of places to hit up with the odd bar and restaurant to eat out off. I have been here for quite a few times and I can’t wait to visit the city again very shortly. There is always something new to see and do every time I come here and I can tell my readers now, you will get a warm reception from the locals. They are amazing, nice and helpful. Also one last thing, don’t even bother looking for a phone box, there isn’t any in Estonia. They are all gone! The first country in the world to get rid of all their phone boxes. Thought I chuck that in there. 

Estonia, Tallinn
I love Estonia!

Please note that while I was not working with any of the companies mentioned on this page and that my trip to Tallinn was all paid for by myself. I love Tallinn so much and want to show you the city through my eyes and give you the best advice possible. My reviews and experiences written about in this post are 100% genuine. I value my readers too much to lie to you. My blog would be nothing without you and your continued support!

Tallinn, Estonia Tallinn, Estonia Tallinn, Estonia


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