When I told people I was going to Estonia, I was commonly met with blank stares. “Where’s Estonia?” they’d ask. “What can you see there?”
If you’ve never heard of Estonia before – here’s a quick geography lesson. Estonia is part of the Baltics, which includes Latvia and Lithuania, and sits right next to Russia. Estonia faces the Baltic Sea and it’s capital Tallinn is only a short two hour ferry ride from Finland.
For a small capital, Tallinn has a lot to offer if you know where to look and it’s a worthwhile stop while transiting to and from Helsinki, or a lot of people I met were going to or from Latvia’s capital city Riga from Tallinn.
There’s a lot more to Tallinn and Estonia than I knew and I actually ran out of time to see everything. Allow at least three days here.
For an engaging history of Estonia and the capital Tallinn, make sure you head along to one of the free walking tours. These tours are run daily at 12pm and start from the tourist office in the old town near the main square. The tours run for around two hours and are hosted by young, energetic locals. These are a good introduction to Tallinn and a perfect place to start on your first day in Tallinn.
The tour includes visits to Freedom Square, Kiek in de Kök cannon tower, Toompea Hill and Town Hall Square.
Freedom Square is hard to miss with its 23 metre glass plated War of Independence Victory Column – a memorial to those who fell during the Estonian War of Independence in the aftermath of World War I.
The 14th century Tallinn Old Town is a UNESCO World Heritage site with its cobblestone streets, medieval churches and city walls and you’ll enjoy wandering through to see the sights.
The Town Hall Square is unsurprisingly dominated by the Gothic style Town Hall, as well as your usual tourist fare of restaurants touting traditional dishes and people dressed in medieval costume. In summer, there’s entertaining acts in the square, or Christmas markets during December. In the medieval restaurant in the Town Hall, grab the elk soup for a couple of euros.
There are plenty of viewpoints from buildings across the city to see Tallinn and it’s definitely worth the few euros entry to get up high above the town.
You can see Tallinn from the city walls, St Olaf’s Church, Town Hall (during the summer), the bell tower in St Nicholas’ Church at Toompea.
I took in the view from the bell tower but I also heard great things about the view from St Olaf’s Church.
The Toompea bell tower is the best place to get a close view of the Orthodox Aleksand Nevsky Cathedral, while the viewing platform at St Olaf’s Church offers 360 degree views of Tallinn.
For free views of the town, head along to the Patkuli and Kohtuotsa viewing platforms in Toompea.
If you do the walking tour, the Kiek in the Kök cannon tower will be one of your first stops and you’ll hear the history of this tower. Kiek in the Kök translates to Peek in the Kitchen in German because you were able to see inside people’s houses from the low tower.
The fortified tower has thick walls and is four metres thick in some places.
Underneath the tower are the bastion passages. The tunnels can only be visited by guided tour by prior booking only. The starting point is in the Kiek in de Kök museum.
There are plenty of hostels on offer throughout Tallinn as well as bed and breakfasts and hotels, largely concentrated around the Old Town.
I picked a prime position and stayed at Viru Backpackers, which is more a bed and breakfast than a hostel. Only private rooms are available here with a shared bathroom. Breakfast is free and includes fresh pancakes.
You get the best of the both worlds at this place – a quiet place to sleep with the Old Town at your door but you can go hang out at Viru’s sister hostels – Monk’s Bunk and Tallinn Backpackers. If you’re looking for cheap accommodation, these hostels are well rated and promote themselves as party hostels. They’re located across the park from the Old Town. I spent my nights socialising at Monk’s Bunks which has a bar, fuseball, pool table and beer pong – and I made a lot of friends here.
For a slightly creepy Estonian experience, head along to the former Soviet prison – the Patarei Sea Fortress Prison. Entry is €3 ($A4.50). Wear enclosed footwear to the prison – it’s basically an abandoned building with not much upkeep so many sections are rundown, and also very dark so even a torch is a good idea.
Patarei was a high security prison from 1919 to as recently as 2004, with prisoners living in very poor conditions. But the building was originally built as a sea fortress in the 1800s.
It’s open daily from 12pm to 7pm from May to September. Outside of the warmer months, guided tours are possible by arrangement. Down the road is the Seaplane Harbour Maritime Museum.
There are a couple of tours on offer to take you places outside of Tallinn. I did the Lahemaa National Park tour, which takes you through impressive peat bogs. If you’re travelling as a couple or group, I recommend hiring a car rather than going on the tour. The tour took you to a few other places near the national park but Lahemaa National Park and the Jägala waterfall were the only places worth seeing and you a group would be better off hiring a car rather than paying the overpriced tour cost.
The Jägala waterfall is 50 metres wide and is supposed to be quite the sight when it freezes in winter.
The tour I didn’t get a chance to see but would’ve if my dates had aligned with the days the tour ran, was a daytrip to the west of Tallinn, What I really wanted during this tour was the Rummu quarry and Murru prison. The prison now lies half submerged and it’s possible to swim through the abandoned building in the warmer months.
Again a car might be a more efficient and cheaper way to get out seeing these sights if you’re not travelling alone.
These tours are run through most hostels in Tallinn, and you can also arrange a tour to go out to an AK47 shooting tour. Another sight in Tallinn you should put on your to do list is the KGB Museum in the Viru Hotel.
For a bit of retail therapy, head down to the Roterman quarter – an area once full of factories and converted into a trendy area complete with secondhand clothing and European chain stores.
When you get hungry from all your wandering, make sure you seek out one of the Juustukuningad (Cheese Kings) traditional Dutch cheese shops in Tallinn. The shops have rows and rows of delicious cheeses to choose from. You can try before you buy – but be warned you will probably walk away with lots of cheese!
Moving on from Estonia into Scandinavia? In less than two hours you can arrive in Helsinki by boat. There are heaps of options although the smaller ferries won’t sail in bad weather. I opted for the large ferry operated by Tallink.
Do like the Scandinavians do and if you can carry it, consider stocking up on alcohol in Estonia or be prepared for the price shock in Finland.