Inexpensive — yet well-curated — museums. Vegan food everywhere. Fairy tale-esque medieval architecture with surprise pops of Art Nouveau. Tallinn has it all! Yet somehow it remains just under the radar, popular with savvy travelers yet relatively unknown to the casual trip-taker. (Well, those based in the U.S., at least — I hear it’s a popular stag party destination for Euro bros!) Let me assure you: traveling to Tallinn is well worth your time. I thoroughly enjoyed my trip to Estonia last year, and I’ve put together seven practical travel tips for Tallinn to help you make the most of your time in this enchanting city. Read on, and let me know what I’ve missed!
Skip the taxi and opt for a 1€ tram ride into the city.
Although I wouldn’t call myself a budget traveler, I do prefer to splash out on the parts of my travels that really matter — memorable vegan meals, fun day trips, entry to interesting museums — while conserving cash elsewhere. That’s (partially) why I opt for public transport rather than an Uber or a taxi, and when possible I prefer to walk rather than take a bus, metro, or tram. In tiny Tallinn, you really can walk almost everywhere, but you’ll definitely want to seek transportation to and from the airport. Here’s the good news: You can buy a tram ticket from the airport to the city center for 1€. Yes. ONE SINGLE EURO. That is an AMAZING deal, especially considering that other European cities ask you to pay upward of 15€ for the honor of hopping on a crowded bus for your ride into the city. (Dublin, I’m looking at you!)
Tram tickets cost 2€ when purchased from the driver, but you can buy a QR ticket ahead of time for 1€. Simply download the pilet.ee app and purchase it there (international credit cards accepted). The ticket is good for one year from the time of purchase, so you can even buy it before leaving home. To use your QR ticket, enter the tram through the frontmost door and scan the QR code in the reader. (I took a screenshot of the ticket on my phone since I turn off my phone’s data/cellular plan when I’m abroad.) So easy and so cheap.
Note: You can also buy QR tickets for bus rides, and the same usage guidelines apply. Be sure to enter through the front door; the scanner in the middle of the bus doesn’t seem to accept QR tickets.
Don’t worry about being disconnected — free public wifi networks abound.
Start doing even the most rudimentary research about Estonia and you’ll quickly realize that Estonia was an early adopter in terms of internet connectivity. In 2005, Estonia piloted an online voting scheme, making it the first country to do so. Many other government services are available online, so it makes sense that Tallinn also provides plenty of free wifi hotspots around the city. You can find a map of these locations here; once you connect to the TallinnWifi network once, your phone should recognize the network the next time you pass through it. It’s a great way to check directions on the go or look up the hours of your dining destination. ;) (Of course, this is an unsecured, open network, so keep that in mind and maybe don’t email your banking password to someone while you’re logged on?!)
BONUS TIP: If you’re going to use your phone on the go, consider bringing a portable charger so you don’t run out of juice while navigating to your next destination.
Take in the view — and get a history lesson — on the KGB tour.
Though it might sound a little cheesy, the KGB tour at the Hotel Viru is a decent way to spend a few hours. In the 1970s, the KGB installed a monitoring station in the top floors of the Hotel Viru, which was essentially a state-run hotel where visitors from outside the Soviet Bloc were required to stay. Though the KGB officially denied that the floor housed anything beyond regular utilities and storage space, everyone knew KGB agents were stationed there, using listening devices planted throughout the hotel to monitor all the goings-on.
Today, some parts of the monitoring station have been preserved in a modest museum— and you can see them on a tour (11€) that departs from the ground floor of the hotel. The best part of my tour wasn’t the reconstruction of a Soviet office or the other artifacts from the period; truth be told, the museum itself is a little lackluster. What I really enjoyed was the history lesson. Our tour guide had grown up during the Soviet occupation and shared plenty of real-life anecdotes and stories that brought depth to the facts, figures, and dates.
But what really earns the KGB tour a spot on my list of travel tips for Tallinn is that it comes with a fabulous view. The Hotel Viru is one of the tallest buildings in the city center, and you’ll have ample opportunities to snap photos from the balconies. Although it was rainy and grey during my visit, I still captured a few neat shots.
BONUS TIP: If you do opt for a KGB tour, buy your ticket in advance! You can stop by the Hotel Viru and go to the front desk to make a purchase, or order online. The tour meets and begins in the lobby (look for the signage), and on the day I took it, a few people were turned away because they hadn’t bought tickets in advance and the tour was full.
Find a (nearly free) concert to attend.
Many of my most moving and lasting travel memories include music, from stumbling across an outdoor opera concert in Rome to serendipitously visiting a cathedral in Vienna just as a traveling college choir began an a cappella performance. And then there was the moment when I — traveling alone for the first time, grieving the sudden death of my dog — became besotted with a busker playing a full grand piano in the middle of an Antwerp pedestrian plaza, sending both classical songs and pop music soaring into the air and providing a moment of calm in a busy city.
While I can’t promise you’ll have an equally moving experience in Tallinn, I can tell you that there are worse ways to spend a half hour than timing your visit to St. Nicholas’ Church (also called the Niguliste Museum) with a free organ concert. You’ll find the church in Toompea, a hilly section of the city that houses Toompea Castle and offers plenty of great views. The museum houses both temporary contemporary art exhibits along with more permanent exhibits, including a fantastic Danse Macabre. Entrance to the church/museum is 6€; half-hour organ concerts take place on Saturdays and Sundays at 4 p.m. and are included in the price of the ticket.
BONUS TIP: Tallinn’s Dome Church also offers organ concerts on Wednesdays at 5 p.m. as part of a (free) prayer service and on Saturdays at 12 p.m. with a small donation.
One of the best overnight or day trips from Tallinn is a visit to Helsinki, Finland’s capital. Three companies — Eckerö Line, Tallink, and Viking Line — operate ferry trips across the Baltic Sea; you can compare prices and book your tickets here. (Don’t be afraid to mix lines to save money — I traveled on Tallink to Helsinki and on Eckerö back and found no real difference between the two.) After booking, make sure you look up which terminal your company leaves from! While the Tallinn port is not huge by any means, there are separate buildings for the different lines and they’re maybe 5 to 10 minutes apart on foot. Save yourself the stress of ending up at the wrong terminal and look it up in advance.
BONUS TIP: Once you get to the Tallinn ferry terminal, you’ll need to print yourself a boarding pass if you’ve purchased your ticket online. If you have a digital version of your ticket stored on your phone, you probably won’t be able to check in using one of the digital automated kiosks because your digital ticket won’t have a security number on it. Instead, head to the ticket office staffed by a real live person — they’ll get you sorted! (This applies to Tallink tickets; I’m not sure about how the other lines operate.)
If you travel during the colder (or shoulder!) months, wear layers.
I visited Tallinn in early October and was treated (ahem) to some chilly temperatures. Nothing terrible, but there were some rainy, windy 40˚ F days that made me real glad I’d packed a warm jacket, a scarf, and my fingerless gloves. Here’s the thing, though: Many museums and restaurants seemed to overcompensate for the nippy weather outside by keeping things quite toasty inside. Now, I’m the type of perpetually chilly person who’d rather be overheated than cold, so I didn’t mind at all. But if you get cranky when you’re hot, you might want to wear layers so you don’t become miserable while wandering around, say, the Tallinn City Museum for a few hours. (Note that most museums have coat racks or lockers, so you can shed your layers while you get cultured.)
Get out of the city!
You can easily while away a few good days in Tallinn. But don’t limit yourself to the city — get out of town and experience some of Estonia’s beautiful natural lands. I booked a day trip to Lahemaa National Park with Traveller Tours and Day Trips and had a great time. These tours include a driver and a small group; mine included two women (also from Maryland; go figure), an older British man with plenty of travel stories, and a young German teacher taking advantage of a school break. Our tour guide was entertaining in a wry, dry Estonian way, sharing tidbits about his own life and his take on Estonian culture while giving us the broader historical context for the country’s past.
We stopped at Estonia’s largest waterfall (all of 8 meters/26 feet high!) as well as a little coastal park, where we walked to the sea and felt the salty, cold air whip our faces and hair. Then we headed to a derelict manor — a relic of the time Sweden ruled over Estonia — and wandered the grounds. Next we visited a little fishing and maritime museum run by an avid artist and fisherman. His wife made and served us lunch; I’d told our guide that morning that I was vegan, and she provided a simple yet tasty vegetable and bean dish for me while the others had fish.
Our main stop for the day was Lahemaa National Park and its 1.5-mile bog walk. Tramping on the wooden footpath over the spongy bog, our little group breathed the clean Estonian air and got lost in our thoughts. Estonians love spending time in nature, according to our tour guide, and make trips to the forest to hunt for mushrooms or just take a hike pretty regularly. The bog walk was an otherworldly experience, and although the cold damp air seeped right into my bones and left me chilled for the rest of the day, I’m so glad I opted for the day trip.
Thanks for reading these travel tips for Tallinn, Estonia — and let me know if you decide to go!
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