The capital and largest city of Estonia
is the smallest but most touristy of the three Baltic capitals (the others being Riga in Latvia
and Vilnius in Lithuania
). Mainstream tourism is centred on the exceptionally picturesque Old Town, but for dark tourists there are quite a few things to discover both in and outside the centre as well.
What there is to see: Being primarily a mainstream tourist attraction, Tallinn reveals its darker sides a little more reluctantly compared to other Baltic cities. But even in the centre there are a few points of interest to the dark tourist; others are bit further out. Some of these should (or have to) be visited as part of a guided tour.
In addition to these places, one of the more visible monuments to a tragic chapter in modern history is the “Broken Line” memorial
that commemorates the 852 lives lost in one of the worst ferry disasters ever, when the “MS Estonia”
RoRo car-and-passenger ferry en route from Tallinn to Stockholm
capsized and sank in 1994 under somewhat dubious circumstances. The main part of the memorial consists of two steel beams emerging from the ground at low angles and not quite meeting in the middle (hence 'broken line'). Plaques either side of the memorial explain its significance in Estonian and English. And the names of the dead are listed on a low slab near the base of the northern half of the broken-half beams.
The monument is located right outside the Old Town walls in front of the so-called Fat Margaret tower. The latter is also home to the regular maritime museum (the more modern extension is at the Seaplane Harbour). It is mostly of the ship-models-and-maritime-paraphernalia type but allegedly also has a small section on the "Estonia" disaster.
An insignificant-looking little statue of a female on top of the hillock on the southern bastion of Toompea near the Nevsky cathedral apparently was a meeting point for dissidents and protesters against Soviet rule.
Somewhat hidden is also the plaque honouring Russia
's first post-Soviet
president Boris Yeltsin for his role in allowing Estonia
(and the other Baltic states) to restore their independence in 1991. Find the plaque, complete with a relief of boozy Bozza in bronze attached to the southern wall at the bottom of Toompea on Nunne street, where it leads out of the Old Town.
Also easily overlooked is the memorial acknowledging the role that Poland
movement played in paving the way to the overthrow of communism
. Find it on a grassy patch near St John's church just off Freedom Square (Vabaduse väjak).
Dominating the square, however, is the Freedom Monument made from Czech glass and officially unveiled in 2009 to some controversy (primarily over the steep costs at a time when the country was in financial doldrums).
Some dark tourists may also find the tours of the bastion tunnels
under old Tallinn (under Toompea to be precise) to their liking. I found that the advertising for this new attraction looked a bit too medieval-y, ghost-hunting-like, children's adventure-oriented for my taste, so I didn't go. So I can't say what these tours really are like. Meanwhile I have found out that they may have been of historical interest as well, in so far as the tunnels were also used as air-raid shelters during WWII
when the Soviets bombed the city, and that the Soviets themselves later elaborated the tunnel system. However, little of any original installations remain, apparently, and pictures I've seen suggest a rather sanitized experience of white-washed walls, dummies in period clothes (including with gas masks on), light effects, videos and even a little train to ride in the tunnel. Tours are operated by the city museum and start at the Kiek in de Kök bastion tower (5.80 EUR, Tue-Sun 10:30 a.m. to 8 p.m., 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. November to March).
on the north coast of Estonia
, just 50 miles (80 km) south of Helsinki, Finland, 200 miles (30 km) north of Riga, Latvia
, and a little more than that from St Petersburg
, to the east.
Access and costs: quite easy to get to; relatively more expensive than the other Baltic capitals.
Tallinn can quite easily be reached by air, sea and land. Budget airline flights from Great Britain
opened up the city as a prime city break (and stag party) destination for Britons, but there are fairly good connections to other parts of Europe too (airport code: TLL).
The city's location on the Baltic coast makes it a prime destination for cruise ships, but also for ferries to/from Helsinki, which lies just 50 miles (80 km) across the Gulf of Finland, as well as to ports in Sweden
) and at times also to Germany
From within the Baltics, bus travel is the main means of getting around and there are many good and competitively priced connections e.g. to Tartu, Riga, Vilnius
and beyond from/to the international bus station (bussijaam.ee), which is a little bit out of the centre at Lastekodu 46 on the corner of Odra.
Train travel in comparison is only of secondary importance, although recent improvements (a new fast train to Tartu, for instance) give hope for the future. Tallinn's main train station (Balti Jaam) couldn't be more conveniently located, just steps from the Old Town on the Toompuiestee road that forms part of the western ring road around the centre.
within the city, much can be covered on foot. For longer distances (e.g. to Maarjamäe) there are buses, trams and trolleybuses. Tallinn residents ride for free, but visitors still have to pay. Single tickets can be purchased on board (at the time of writing 1.60 EUR per ride). For those intending to use public transport a lot there are pre-paid smart cards that offer better value deals – but few tourists who stay only for a few days and focus on the centre will need these. During my five days in Estonia
I used buses only twice.
Accommodation options cover a wide range with plenty of excellent choices in almost all price levels. Overall, prices tend to be a little higher than in the other Baltic cities (due to the city's popularity with foreign visitors, presumably), but still not as high as in many other European capitals.
For food & drink
, the situation is similar, i.e. there's a very wide range of options, price levels are a bit higher than in the neighbouring countries, but good deals can still be had. Apart from Estonian cuisine and the usual international range (some in very good quality), a local speciality trend seems to be medieval-themed restaurants. Of these some are more authentic than others. The star in this league is called Olde Hansa ... the candle-lit dining halls are decked out in medieval style but thankfully the medieval theatrical song-and-dance is otherwise kept to a minimum, while the focus is on realistic period food and drink (but not cheap). Ethnic cuisines from near and far away are also represented (Georgian
Imported drinks are predictably expensive, especially in the standard range. However, the craft beer revolution has gained a solid foothold in Tallinn. At least six or seven specialist bars run the craft beer theme offering good selections of local and foreign (esp. Scandinavian) quality microbrews often at fairly good-value prices (compared to especially Denmark
); the internationally best-known Estonian craft brewers,Põhjala, now have their own taproom at the brewery to the west of the city centre. My personal favourite craft beer watering hole in 2014, however, was "Põrgu", located right in the Old Town
To cover everything listed here alone you will need several days. I allowed four days in Tallinn on my recent Baltic trip (April/May 2014) and found that it wasn't quite enough. Although that was partly due to timing – it was pre-season and the four days included a Monday and a public holiday, so some opening times were restricted. I would have liked an extra day for a trip to Pirita and neighbouring Viimsi to check out the war museum there as well as the TV tower. Nor did I have a chance to see the Patarei prison
from the inside. So I will have to come back for that. UPDATE: I now have a return trip booked for the summer of 2021. I'll expand this entry, and add new ones, when I'm back. Watch this space.
Combinations with other dark destinations:
The north-eastern suburb of Pirita
beyond Maarjamäe is the location of the Tallinn TV Tower
, which played a part in the tumultuous period of Estonia's gaining independence from the Soviet Union
in 1991 (though not quite dramatic a role the Lithuanian
equivalent in Vilnius
did). The story goes that a couple of radio operators held off the Soviet soldiers who attempted to storm the TV centre and cut off its broadcasts. Allegedly they did so by means of as simple a device as a box of matches to block the lift doors, so the soldiers could not use them to get to the top. That way they managed to stay on air. Apparently you can still see patched-over bullet holes from the skirmishes at the tower at its base. The observation deck at 170m reopened in 2012 after years of refurbishment and a few exhibitions have been added, including a historical one that also covers the 1980 Olympics (see Soviet Tallinn
) as well as the dramatic year of 1991. Admission is between 5 and 15 EUR (extra evening charge for access to the restaurant 3 EUR). In addition, those brave and adventurous enough can go on an Edge Walk on the roof of the restaurant/observation deck right to the ledge 175m above ground – secured to the tower base by ropes. Google maps locator: [59.47123, 24.88747
Just beyond Pirita lies Viimsi
, which is home to the Estonian War Museum
(official name: “General Laidoner Museum”, open Wed-Sat 11 a.m. to 6 p.m., free admission). This covers the military history of the country including the War of Independence 1918-20, the occupations during WWII
and the Soviet
era, including a section on the Cold War
, the end of Soviet times and the present day. The museum is looking for a more spacious location to be able to display its larger exhibits (and may have in part already done so at Patarei
near the Seaplane Harbour
). The Viimsi location at Moisa tee 1 is reached by bus 1A from the Viru centre (see KGB Museum
), get out at Viimsi vallamaja and walk. Google maps locator: [59.5015, 24.8346
To the west of Tallinn there used to be a closed military town in Soviet times, Paldiski
. Since the departure of the military and the nuclear submarine base (!), population dwindled dramatically and the place became a partial ghost town – cf. Karosta in Latvia
! Now it is being “cleaned up”, the relics from these old times as well as the ghost town
character are diminishing and will eventually disappear. Unfortunately I did not have the opportunity to go on such a tour when I was in Tallinn ion 2014 (too little time and too early in the season – end of April/early May), but if I get a chance next time I'm in the region I will give it a go. UPDATE 2021: there now seems to be very little left at Paldiski, and the tours that were once run there appear to have been discontinued as well. So it looks like I've missed my chances.
Yet further afield, a trip (by train or bus) that can most definitely be recommended is one to the university town of Tartu
, especially for the Tartu KGB cells museum
Riga in neighbouring Latvia
is also just a ca. five-hour bus ride away and thus makes for a very worthwhile combination too.
Combinations with non-dark destinations: Tallinn as such is a prime mainstream tourism destination, mostly thanks to its Old Town .... or rather: its TWO old towns. The upper old town on Toompea Hill has been the seat of power in Estonia (though mostly in the form of foreign rule) since Tallinn's inception as a fortress in the 13th century. Parts of Toompea are still government buildings, but other, more accessible sights include the grand orthodox Alexander Nevsky cathedral. The most sought-after places up here, however, are those from where you get a good view over the lower old town.
This lower part of the Old Town, the larger half of the historical centre, used to be the place that from the late 13th century was a member of the Hanseatic
League and as such was a separate entity from Estonia
politically and economically until Tsarist Russian
times. The architectural legacy of the Hanse can be seen everywhere.
Old Tallinn (until 1918 named Reval – a name still sometimes used to refer to the place, especially in German) is certainly a picture-book jewel of a historic town, with old merchants houses, churches, a pretty 14th century town hall, cobbled alleyways and squares and everything that oozes “olde worlde” by the bucketload. For details on the individual features consult the inyourpocket.com pages about Tallinn or any standard guidebook – and for a visual impression see the photo gallery below.
In a nutshell: old Tallinn is very, very picturesque – but unfortunately so much so that it attracts huge crowds and all the other downsides of mass tourism (e.g. literally hundreds of uniform, standardized souvenir shops). Especially when one or more of those horrible cruise ships are in town, old Tallinn gets flooded with tour groups, hectically being herded through all the usual corners of the Old Town so that it can get impossible to make your way through the throngs. Only when they are gone, does the atmosphere in the Old Town become genuinely pleasant. Interestingly, as one counter-measure the authorities have banned those stupid selfie-sticks from the Old Town. A thumbs-up from me for that!
Another downside of Tallinn's popularity is loud groups of drunks. These could be British stag party louts or they could be Finns on a booze run. Apparently about one third of all alcohol sold in Estonia goes into Finnish hands (and throats) – who take advantage of the infinitely cheaper booze prices here compared to back at home. The fact that Helsinki is only a two-hour ferry ride away and that Estonia
imposes hardly any limits on how much you can take out must be too tempting an incentive. And to make absolutely sure they get the most out of it many try to take as much as possible with them inside
them too ...
Outside the Old Town, Tallinn changes character markedly. To the south and east of the Old Town is another layer of more commercial city-center-ness (they love shopping centres here!), but beyond that it quickly becomes suburban and even, quite frankly, rather drab.
The out-of-centre attractions are a bit further away, especially in the seaside prettiness of Viimsi to the north-east, the Estonian Open Air Museum park (and shopping centre) at Rocca al Mare, and the Lahemaa National Park to the east of Tallinn.
- Tallinn 01 - view over the city
- Tallinn 02 - old town
- Tallinn 03 - city hall square
- Tallinn 04 - Hanseatic
- Tallinn 05 - built on trade
- Tallinn 06 - a bit of art nouveau too
- Tallinn 07 - squashed dragon
- Tallinn 08 - castle hill
- Tallinn 09 - upper old town
- Tallinn 10 - view over the roofs of the lower old town
- Tallinn 11 - gate between lower old town and Castle Hill
- Tallinn 12 - city walls and towers
- Tallinn 13 - inside the old town
- Tallinn 14 - katariina käik
- Tallinn 15 - Broken Line memorial
- Tallinn 16 - commemorating the Estonia disaster
- Tallinn 17 - names of victims
- Tallinn 18 - meeting point on Castle Hill
- Tallinn 19 - city gate at the Fat Margaret tower
- Tallinn 20 - British help acknowledged
- Tallinn 21 - controversial crystal cross
- Tallinn 22 - thanks to boozy Bozza
- Tallinn 23 - the ground-laying achievements of Solidarnosc are given a monument too
- Tallinn 24 - harbour with too many cruise ships and ferries
- Tallinn 25 - Rotermanni quarter
- Tallinn 26 - old industrial part turned hippster hangout
- Tallinn 27 - wooden houses
- Tallinn 28 - view over singing arena towards Soviet suburbia
- Tallinn 29 - Hanseatic links celebrated
- Tallinn 30 - Hanseatic restaurant
- Tallinn 31 - orthodox cathedral by night
- Tallinn 32 - castle tower by night