Tallinn Travel Guide

Tallinn Travel Guide

Curation by Yasmina Rodríguez, words by Laura Tucker

Recognisable by conical red rooftops that rise up from between medieval builds and verdant splashes of green, Tallinn is a veritable nugget of beauty within the post-Soviet bloc, shaped as much by its fertile coastal location as it is by Russian imperialism. Take scenic strolls through Tallinn’s preserved Old Town, marvelling at centuries-spanning architectural styles while immersing yourself in the city’s unique café culture. From palatial promenades to sandy beaches, Estonia’s affordable capital seemingly has it all. Even the food comes without a hint of pretension, combining Scandi styles with traditional rustic staples of Baltic Sea seafood, dark rye bread and the humble potato. Despite the young generation championing LGBT progress and the Baltic Pride being held on rotation in the region (set again for Tallinn in 2020), Estonia still struggles to shrug off communist-era homophobia. At night, discretion is advised and open displays of affection are not recommended. However, if you can brush this off, a crazy night out in Tallinn is a certainty, whether within its hipster cocktail bars, bohemian cafés or all-night dance events. Read on for Mr Hudson’s definitive Tallinn gay city guide…

The best hotels in Tallinn

Our Tallinn travel guide to the best hotels starts off with the Hotel St. Petersbourg, one of the longest-running hotels in the city, open since 1850 within a beautiful 14th century Old Town property. Close to so many of the best Tallinn points of interest, Hotel St. Petersbourg serves as a great jumping-off point full of both authentic historic character and chic décor. Be welcomed by a life-size Oscar Award outside before entering into the decadent main hall featuring modern design contrasted by original wooden interiors and walls lined with burlesque photography. Or how about the nearby Hotel Telegraaf, just a short amble away, providing discerning guests with all the five-star romance they could ever desire. Exuding charm with its historic wing and secret adjoining contemporary annex, Hotel Telegraaf maintains a cosy boutique feel while also being the only hotel in the Old Town to offer spa facilities. Blending both old and new, expect wooden floors, muted colours and replica antiques in rooms that feature French Balcony windows and rooftop views. Telegraaf’s on-site restaurant, Tchaikovsky is also worthy of an evening in, with its fine menu of French- and Russian-fusion cuisine.

Hotel St. Petersbourg

Hotel St. Petersbourg

CRU Hotel offers a convenient sanctuary for travellers who also want to enjoy period Estonian interiors of wooden beams and rich furnishings

Also based in the Old Town is Schlössle Hotel, a one-of-a-kind luxury property with charming 14th-century features. From your homely room, underneath stunning wood-beam ceilings, prop yourself up on your plush headboard while sipping an in-room-brewed espresso and scrolling your newsfeed on a loaner iPad. When you make it out of bed, be greeted by gay-friendly staff and an old-world atmosphere that stretches through to both on-site restaurants and the courtyard area. If you thought it couldn’t get any more blissful, the Hotel Palace will prove you wrong, this time wooing visitors with contemporary design, gorgeous pool and spa facilities, and affordability. Opt for the ‘Taste of Estonia’ breakfast and enjoy it in room while overlooking Vabaduse Square.

One more in the offing is CRU Hotel, another historical stunner based in a 15th-century merchant’s home and brim-full with luxury features. Located on the Old Town’s main throughway, CRU Hotel offers a convenient sanctuary for travellers who also want to enjoy period Estonian interiors of wooden beams and rich furnishings. Descend to the lower storey for top-notch French and Estonian cuisine made using locally sourced ingredients. Its daily breakfast service, in particular, is a key selling point.

Hotel St. Petersbourg

Hotel St. Petersbourg

Hotel St.Petersbourg

Hotel St.Petersbourg

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Recommended hotels in Tallinn
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Tallinn is home to one of the largest art museums in Northern Europe, known as the Art Museum of Estonia (KUMU)

Things to do in Tallinn

Tallinn is a maze of a city with myriad diverse neighbourhoods closely compacted. As well as the much-talked-about Old Town, more top Tallinn sightseeing can be found ten minutes away in Kalamaja, a quaint neighbourhood beloved by hip locals for its peaceful vibe, colourful wooden architecture and youthful, creative energy. Kalamaja is a former ghetto turned bohemian meeting place, reviving once abandoned factories into hot new restaurants and stores, lending a vibrant atmosphere ripe for an afternoon of exploring. After moseying through Tallinn’s storied streets, rest your weary limbs at Hotel Telegraaf’s Elemis Spa. Based in the Old Town, this hotel spa is open to both guests and day visitors, offering a range of facilities including professional massage, facial and body treatments and other pampering services. Enjoy free access to the sauna and pool, as well as the hotel’s bathrobes and towels.

Dodge the tacky, over-priced souvenirs of the Old Town and instead head straight to Telliskivi Creative City, a former industrial complex turned uber-cool creative hub near Kalamaja. Here you’ll find hip design stores and fair trade products, perfect for all your gifting needs, in addition to various vintage shops and bustling restaurants. While activities take place here all week long, on weekends especially, Telliskivi comes alive with dance performance, pop-up markets and even – though less frequent – the nation’s coffee-making championships. Speaking of markets, another top answer to the question of what to do in Tallinn is to take a trip to Balti Jaam Market, a newly renovated market complex based near Baltic Station, known among locals and travellers for its quality dining options, coffee roasteries and second-hand treasures. Go up to the second floor to get lost among store after store of Soviet-era finds, consisting of antiques, toys, artwork and military gear. Although you’ll have to vie for space among other treasure hunters, the struggle is definitely worth it!

Tallinn Old Town | Photo: Judith Prins

Tallinn Old Town | Photo: Judith Prins

You may not know this yet but Tallinn is in fact home to one of the largest art museums in Northern Europe; known as the Art Museum of Estonia (KUMU). Housed in an impressive glass-and-steel structure is the museum’s huge collection of Estonian art covering Socialist Realist and Nonconformist art movements covering the Russian occupation as well as earlier periods. The museum also holds temporary contemporary exhibits from local and international artists. But it’s back to nature for the last on our list of top things to do in Tallinn, with a visit to Lahemaa National Park, the oldest national park in Estonia. Laid on a bog landscape of unexpected natural beauty, Lahemaa National Park is also home to forests, protected wildlife and soviet-era lookout towers. If travelling by car, make a day trip of your visit with a stop at the seaside to discover Soviet submarine station ruins and centuries-old manor houses, with another pit stop at a sea-captains house for lunch.

The Baltic Sea | Photo: Maksim Kozlov

The Baltic Sea | Photo: Maksim Kozlov

Photo: Jaanus Jagomagi

Photo: Jaanus Jagomagi

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Things to see in Tallinn

Topping everyone’s list of what to see in Tallinn is sure to be the medieval Old Town, the historic centre of the city and tourist hub for good reason. Its cobblestone streets come lined with gourmet restaurants and grand Gothic architecture, allowing you to come back day after day to discover something new, be that a cosy café, unique building, world-class museum or fancy boutique. After exploring the street level, get some perspective on the area with a climb up Toompea Hill, which, once ascended, offers the most amazing views of Tallinn’s Old Town and the city at large. Atop the hill, the spectacular domed Alexander Nevsky Cathedral gives an intriguing glimpse into Estonia’s Russian imperial history, as the city’s main Russian Orthodox cathedral and most opulent religious building by far. Built in 1900 right in front of Toompea Castle and dedicated to the Russian Prince of Novgorod, the once-controversial cathedral now simply stands as an architectural masterpiece, lavishly decorated in mixed styles, mosaics and icons with some of the most powerful church bells in town.

Alexander Nevsky Cathedral | Photo: Beau Swierstra

Alexander Nevsky Cathedral | Photo: Beau Swierstra

To delve deeper into Estonia’s history, try the Kadriorg Palace for a look at the grandest example of Estonian imperial architecture. Set within the epic Kadriorg Park, this beautifully preserved early 18th-century palace features an Italian-style façade that spans three levels, as well as a banquet hall and winter garden, hiding outback. While the building and grounds steal the show – built by Russian Tsar Peter the Great – inside you’ll find the magnificent international collection of the Estonian Art Museum. While here be sure to explore the green space surrounding, as Kadriorg Park is, in fact, one of the biggest and most beautiful parks in Europe, covering 70 hectares. Featuring various flower-laden trails encircling the majestic Swan Pond, as well as a promenade that leads to the president’s palace, Kadriorg Park is an urban retreat with a touch of nobility, filled with a number of other renowned museums (including KUMU Art Museum and Mikkeli Museum) as well as various monuments to Estonia’s beloved cultural figures such as artist Jaan Koort.

Over to the harbour-side and housed within one of the 20th centuries most valuable buildings, across three levels, is the Seaplane Harbour Lennusadam. Otherwise known as the Estonian Maritime Museum, here you’ll get the chance to peruse key artefacts charting the nation’s maritime history, from sailboats to submarines, all accessible to climb aboard. What’s special about the space is its wow-factor design in the vein of a James Bond villain’s lair, as well as the awesome on-site café, Maru, which sits amidst the museum’s impressive array of historically significant maritime vessels.

Kadriorg Palace | Photo: Suesun

Kadriorg Palace | Photo: Suesun

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Those on the hunt for an upscale dining experience in Tallinn will be satisfied with NOA Restaurant, a modern dining concept with a renowned 12-course tasting menu that hits the spot

Where to eat in Tallinn

While moseying the cobbled streets of Tallinn, it would be rude not to stop for a casual bite to eat. Thankfully, Tallinn is crammed with top-notch cuisine from hearty local snacks to internationally awarded fare. Let’s start by filling up on sweet treats and coffee at Maiasmokk Café, the longest operating café in Estonia. Open since 1864 with old-world interiors, Maiasmokk is a cosy emblem of Tallinn’s café culture, serving up all manner of pastries, pies and cakes alongside strong, freshly-ground coffee. Another of Tallinn’s best cafés comes in the form of Kohvik Must Puudel, a quirky yet trendy spot that’s also a good choice for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Come for a morning coffee but stay for the filling soups, salads and vegan options. And, if you’ve still got a room for sweets, be sure to try their signature blue cheese ice cream!

More vegan-friendly dining can be found at Vegan Restoran V, a rustic Old Town establishment that even die-hard carnivores can’t get enough of. The small menu of dishes such as spicy tofu and kale casserole is so popular that booking a table beforehand is essential. The colourful exteriors also make this one hard to miss! If you’re searching for a blend of Mediterranean and local cuisine in a casual context, look no further than Mantel & Korsten, a small and cosy greenhouse with a statement red roof. Boasting the only mantel chimney in the Kadriorg area, this unpretentious eatery presents simple fusion dishes made completely of natural ingredients.

Mantel ja Korsten Restaurant

Mantel ja Korsten Restaurant

For a taste of quintessential Estonian cuisine, Kaks Kokka is a quality option, serving Baltic classics from wild, locally sourced ingredients. Choose from various big-flavour dishes such as the salted elk with Icelandic moss or pike with marinated cauliflower. Each dish has a story behind it and the chefs here not only grow their own black garlic but also cure their own meats. As well as helping to support local business, Kaks Kokka also offers a diverse drinks menu including hand-brewed beverages made on site. Deserving of the hype it’s been seeing lately is the restaurant at Rataskaevu 16, a nameless wonder popular among locals and travellers alike for its fabulous Estonian dishes and warm, friendly service. Vegetarians won’t go hungry either and, in the summer, you can opt to eat outside on the patio just moments from one of the Old Town’s most charming streets.

Those on the hunt for an upscale dining experience in Tallinn will be satisfied with NOA Restaurant, a modern dining concept with a renowned 12-course tasting menu that hits the spot. Other courses on offer here include sourdough starters and experimental fire-pit smoked meat mains, blending hardcore local traditions with an experimental edge from the young and talented head chef Orm Oja. Lastly, we’ve got Mon Repos, an award-winning renovation of a century-old restaurant, now presenting ultra-modern gastronomy with a homage to old-world traditions and regional history. International chef Vladislav Djatšuk’s tsarist-era recipes dominate the menu here, such as the pigeon in madeira or lavaret salmon trout with shrimp mash and crayfish bisque. While here, choose to enjoy the view from the terrace or the garden which both overlook Kadriorg Park in all its glory. The first-floor garden hosts a rather more casual ambience while the second floor offers fine dining at its best, with tasting menus of up to seven courses, open Wednesday through Saturday.

Photo: Ruslan Bardash

Photo: Ruslan Bardash

NOA Restaurant

NOA Restaurant

Shopping in Tallinn

Begin your Tallinn shopping experience the laid-back way, with a visit to Puänt, an independent bookstore where you can browse fiction and non-fiction, art and philosophy in both English and Estonian, as well as stationery and vinyl collections. Various literary events take place here, such as author meet-and-greets, performances, art exhibitions and drawing classes. Single-handedly satiating your fondness for coffee and for craft beer is Uba ja Humal (Bean & Hops), a boutique coffee and beer shop just moments from both the port and the Old Town. This hip micro-roastery specialises in espresso blends and drip coffees, also selling a range of over 350 craft beers sourced nationally and from around the world. Terviseks! After sampling the city’s best beverages, you may also want to test its sweets. Try Kalev, a local legend in Tallinn producing chocolate and other confectionaries since 1806 in the Old Town.

If you’re in need – or want – of new attire while in Tallinn, there are plenty of quality menswear options. First try the lovely Gowri Style House, a family-run men’s clothing brand melding timeless British style with bold colours and unique patterns. Also, a dedicated tailors, come to Gowri for made-to-measure shirts, suits and accessories. For more fine button-ups, Swärk shirts is a fine alternative, with its eco-minded collection of classic shirts made using a blend of new, organic and recycled materials. This home-grown company isn’t all prim and proper however, as its classic collection has a playful edge, with outrageous detailing and colours. .

Photo: Joonas Sild

Photo: Joonas Sild

To combine both shopping and drinking, Sveta Vintage is the right place to go. As well as selling vintage Levi’s, original Adidas and all sorts of 80s and 90s treasures, Sveta ensures you won’t go thirsty with its on-site bar and lounge area. Find this gem in Telliskivi Creative City, just 15 minutes from the Old Town, and remember the location because at night it sparks to life as a nightclub.

As for Tallinn’s design and concept stores, you can’t go wrong with a visit to Estonian Design House, over in Solaris Shopping Centre. While here you’ll discover various sleek storefronts heralding the best of Estonia’s independent designers, from shoemakers and carpenters to ceramicists and jewellers.  While you’re here, up your caffeine levels at the seaside Klaus Café before seeking out designer Reet Aus whose ‘slow fashion’ concept repurposes offcuts from mass-production fashion houses. Over in Kalamaja meanwhile, lies TALI, Estonia’s largest design store with an inspired collection of local and international designs covering accessories, clothes, leather goods and homeware. High quality, modern and minimalist, TALI’s playful collection is the result of architect and owner Triinu Tiisel’s vision. Then there’s one for the foodies: Sfäär Store, a concept store, outlet and restaurant featuring a carefully curated collection of fashion brands, accessories, records and vintage furniture with the bonus of a classy wine bar on the side.

Photo: Rod Long

Photo: Rod Long

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Gay nightlife in Tallinn starts and ends at X- Baar, the only real gay club left in the city, having led the gay scene since the early noughties

Tallinn nightlife

While Tallinn’s gay scene pales in comparison to many other top Eastern European destinations like Prague and Helsinki, don’t let that stop you from exploring Tallinn nightlife because outside of Tallinn’s one ‘true’ gay bar, the city at large is fast becoming known as one of the best party cities in Europe. Another selling point for Tallinn is that a night out is as affordable as it gets, whether you decide to try a bar, a café or club. Keep it sophisticated at the start of your night by heading to Lounge 24 @ Radisson Blue Sky Hotel. This chic rooftop bar offers some of the best views over Tallinn and our Tallinn gay nightlife guide recommends that couples get there before sunset to make the most of those romantic peachy views. Ninety metres above street level, Lounge 24 offers a stylish lounge area enclosed in glass and moodily lit, where you can enjoy locally-sourced food and creative cocktails in an easy-going atmosphere.

A unique nightlife offering in this already extraordinary city is Manna La Roosa bringing kitschy vibes and Latino burlesque themes to its gorgeous bar and restaurant concept. Savour the quality drinks and sensational eats surrounded by Gold Baroque interiors and LSD-inspired wall art. Alternatively, head upstairs to Tai Boh, boasting an oriental theme with more psychedelic accents. A memorable spot for both foodies and design fans, Manna La Roosa is of course a popular place, so be sure to book a reservation if coming on the weekend or in summer. For more cerebral fun with your hand-crafted cocktails, try Tallinn’s Sigmund Freud Bar where skilful bartenders cater to your ego by serving up inventive cocktails and delicious classics. On the radar of many a trendy local, this hip joint is the perfect place for mingling, people-watching and snacking on moreish bar eats.

Sigmund Freud Bar

Sigmund Freud Bar

If you’d rather keep a low profile on your vacation, Whisper Sister can provide the ultimate setting. Call the number on the door to be let into this speakeasy-style cocktail bar, where you’ll find a luxurious lounge area as well as booth seating for more private meetings. Inspired by 1920s New York, Whisper Sister is super refined, with a drinks menu of specials and timeless classics, perused by well-dressed clientele. For even more low-key meets, Sessel Salong is a speakeasy-style wine bar and café popular among gays and creative types thanks to its open-minded atmosphere and quaint vintage décor. A cosy place where stories come to be told, Sessel Salong hosts great service and delightful drinks, as well as various monthly events spanning live music, movie screenings and comedy open-mic nights.

Gay nightlife in Tallinn starts and ends at X- Baar, the only real gay club left in the city, having led the gay scene since the early noughties. Always busy and open to all, X-Baar is a brilliant pink-lit affair with two bars, a large dance floor and a stripper pole for when your all-time pop favourite gets played by the DJ. In addition to X-Baar’s notable event schedule, another organizer in town is helping make Gay Tallinn more of a big deal. Known as Vikerrumm, this LGBT community group organises gay events across the Baltics, mostly in Tartu but often coming to Tallinn for some pumping ‘hetero-friendly’ dance events. Be sure to check their Facebook page beforehand so as not to miss a memorable night out!

Whisper Sister Bar

Whisper Sister Bar

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