Updated post: 07/11/2019 | November 2019
This day in Tallinn is a tale of two cities.
Visitors justifiably swoon over Tallinn for its perfectly intact medieval centre. Founded in 1154, it lies on the northern coast of Estonia and is the country’s hub for culture and tourism, as well as its capital.
But there is more to Tallinn’s charms than its UNESCO-listed Old Town. Cross its railway tracks and you will discover a very different side of the city. Telliskivi Creative City with its street art, craft beer and designer studios, and the iconic wooden buildings of Kalamaja offer a refreshing alternative to the cutesy appeal of Tallinn’s medieval centre.
If like me, you are visiting Tallinn on a cruise to Estonia you will have limited time in the city. However, it is possible to fit in both sides of Tallinn during your precious time onshore.
To help you make the most of your one day in Tallinn, here’s some essential practical tips, including how to get from the cruise terminal, my pick of what to see and where to eat.
This article is part of a series following my Celebrity Baltic Sea cruise to St Petersburg. If you would like to jump to guides to the other ports of call, simply click on the name here: Copenhagen | Stockholm | St Petersburg | Helsinki | Warnemunde
How I visited Tallinn on a cruise
- Cruise operator: Celebrity Cruises
- Cruise ship: Celebrity Silhouette
- Time in port: 10 am – 6 pm
Getting to Tallinn’s Old Town from the cruise terminal
Cruise ships berth at Tallinn’s Old City Harbour, less than 1 km from the edge of the Old Town. Unlike Copenhagen and Helsinki, other stops on this Baltic Sea cruise, it is an easy walk to the Old Town from the cruise terminal.
Also, as most of the Tallinn’s highlights are contained in a relatively compact area, it is very walkable. Your two feet are the best way to get around and see the sights.
Here are your options for getting from the cruise terminal to Tallinn’s Old Town.
Option 1: Walk from the cruise terminal to Tallinn’s Old Town
I walked from the cruise terminal to the Old Town. At an easy pace, this took me around 15 minutes. The walk is clearly signposted. But, trust me, you won’t be the only one taking this stroll.
Option 2: Use public transport to get from the cruise terminal to Tallinn’s Old Town
Public transport is of limited use here. Although Bus #2 will bring you to the city centre it does not stop at the cruise terminal. You will need to pick it up at the closest public transport stop in Sadama street in front of Terminal A. The service runs 2 – 4 times an hour.
Option 3: Use the Cruise Shuttle Service
A local tour operator provided a shuttle service, operating every 15 minutes. This cost €8 for a round trip; €5 one-way. Payment by cash or credit card at the pier. The journey time was approximately 10 minutes.
Option 4: Use the hop on hop off bus
Inevitably, there is also a red hop on hop off (HOHO) bus. A 24-hour ticket costs €25, and covers 24 stops. The service runs every 20 minutes. Given the size of Tallinn’s Old Town, this is likely to be of value only if you plan to visit the city’s suburbs.
A short history of Estonia
Let’s start by looking to the past to put some of what we are going to see today in context. Estonia’s history is essentially one of occupation.
The Danes conquered Tallinn in 1219. Then came the Swedes in the 16th Century – a period known as the “Good Old Swedish Times” – until ceding to the Russians in 1710.
Taking advantage of the Russian Revolution, Estonia gained independence in 1918. However, this was short-lived, ending with the Nazi occupation in 1941. Three years later it was back to the Russians when Estonia was brought back into the loving bosom of the USSR. With the fall of the Soviet Union, Estonia gained independence again in 1991.
Estonia’s 20th Century history is responsible for the ethnic and cultural mix in Tallinn today.
During and after WWII there were two waves of mass deportation of Estonians, with Russia transplanting their own citizens to lay claim to the land. Kadri, our Tallinn walking tour guide shared her own family’s story. Because her great-grandfather fought against the Russians in WWI, her grandmother was sent to a Siberian camp.
Other reasons for deportation included being smart, being Jewish and bad-mouthing the Soviets. Conditions were grim and deportees were sentenced to hard labour. Only 5 – 6% of these deportees returned home.
The legacy of this policy is the high proportion of Russians in Estonia; 32% of Tallinn’s population of 436,000 are Russian. This has also created divisions within Estonian society. Most Russians cannot speak Estonian, and younger Estonians cannot speak Russian. There is no common language.
Spending one day in Tallinn from a cruise to Estonia
Your day in Tallinn will be one of two halves. Spend the morning exploring the Old Town on a walking tour. Then, after lunch, walk over the railway tracks to explore Telliskivi and Kalamaja
A walking tour of Tallinn’s Old Town
I joined the Tallinn in a Nutshell free walking tour. Over two hours, Kadri showed us the highlights of Tallinn and took us through her country’s history from medieval times, through the Soviet period right up to modern Estonia.
There is no charge for this walking tour although tips are welcome.
Let’s take a look at the highlights of this walking tour.
Tallinn’s Lower Town wall
Tallinn’s Old Town is split into the Lower Town and its Upper Town, 20 – 30 meters above the Lower Town.
We started our walking tour at Tallinn’s Lower Town city wall. Originally 2.5 km long, this once boasted 45 defensive towers but fell victim to bombing raids in 1944 that destroyed more than half of Tallinn’s city centre and around 10% of its Old Town.
However, more than half of Tallinn’s Lower Town wall has been magnificently preserved as a city wall, including 26 towers and two gates.
Danish King’s Garden
According to local legend, this is where a flag descended from the sky during the Danish invasion. It was this flag that made fortune smile upon King Valdemar II, and the flag became the national flag of Denmark.
The sculptures of three monks standing in the garden are a recent addition. These were a present to the city from an Estonian businessman who thought that Tallinn did not have enough statues.
Alexander Nevsky Cathedral
This elaborate Russian Orthodox church was completed in 1900 during a period of Russification across the Baltic states. Following Estonia’s first independence in 1918, there was an intensive program of de- Russification. Although it was relatively easy to strip out statues and monuments, de-Russifying buildings such as Alexander Nevsky Cathedral wasn’t quite so straightforward.
By the time Estonia’s second independence came around, there was an acceptance that this was the country’s cultural heritage. This is the main church for Russians living in Tallinn.
Tips for visiting Alexander Nevsky Cathedral
- Entry is free
- Photography is not allowed inside the cathedral
- As this is a place of worship you need to be respectful. Women are advised to dress demurely and to cover their head if possible.
St Mary’s Lutheran Cathedral
Although Lutheranism is the main religion of Estonia, it is not the biggest. At the last count, 96% of the country’s Russian population were regular churchgoers.
This contrasts with just 10% of ethnic Estonians attending church regularly. In other news, did you know that 69% of Estonians believe that trees have souls?
Compared to the grandeur of Alexander Nevsky Cathedral, St Mary’s Lutheran Cathedral is plain inside and out. However, it is noted for the elaborate wooden coats of arms of Estonian nobility covering its whitewashed walls.
Entry fee is €2
Local’s tip – Try Kalev Chocolate. Kalev is the largest chocolate maker in Estonia and produces a large variety of good quality chocolate. Available from stores across Tallinn.
Tallinn’s Lower Town Wall
Linking nine of the city’s remaining 26 towers, this is the classic Tallinn photo stop. Get your camera at the ready for those sweeping views over the Old Town’s red rooftops.
You should also have a chance to say hello to one of Tallinn’s most famous residents … Steven Seagull (geddit?). He even has his own Instagram hashtag (#steventheseagull).
Tallinn Town Hall Square
Descending to the Lower Town, pass by enticing shops and cafes to reach Tallinn’s beating heart, its Town Hall Square.
Dating from the 14th Century, the southern side of Tallinn Town Hall Square is dominated by its Gothic town hall, the only surviving example in Northern Europe.
The Town Hall Square is also home to a market and is a great place to pick up souvenirs.
Town Hall Pharmacy
As a nerdy pharmacist, I felt that it would be unprofessional not to pay a visit to what is thought to be the oldest operating pharmacy in Europe. The Town Hall Pharmacy has been concocting cures since 1422 and is still going.
In addition to displaying historic pills and potions – black cat’s blood anyone? – it is here that you can pick up a cure for a broken heart. Yours for €2, this candy-topped piece of marzipan is guaranteed to make the break-up pain go away. Or so they say.
Lunchtime in Tallinn – where to eat
Now is a good time to break for lunch. Kadri had advised us to steer clear of the tourist traps on Tallinn’s Town Hall Square. Instead, she recommended trying one of the restaurants on nearby Rataskaevu.
I can recommend Von Krahli Baar, at Rataskaevu 10, a relaxed restaurant with friendly service. I had an excellent seafood crepe washed down with a local Kosk beer for less than €10.
Exploring Kalamaja and Telliskivi
Sated from lunch, it was time to explore a different side of Tallinn. On the other side of the train station is Kalamaja, hipster central.
This up and coming Bohemian district – literal translation ‘fish house’ – was founded in the 14th century as a fishing village. Sandwiched between Tallinn’s Old Town and the coast, this contains some real architectural gems.
Kalamaja’s candy-coloured wooden buildings built during Estonia’s brief first period of independence are typical Tallinn houses.
At the heart of Kalamaja is Telliskivi, a former industrial area used in Soviet times to produce war equipment for trains, planes and ships. Today, the renovated old factory buildings are home to a thriving restaurant scene, shops and co-working spaces for start-ups. This is also a great area to hunt down street art.
One day in Tallinn from a cruise to Estonia – is it worth it?
In a word … yes! I loved my day in Tallinn and it was one of the highlights of my Baltic Sea cruise. Although I had just seven hours there, I felt that I got a lot out of it.
With good reason, most people visit Tallinn for its rich history and perfectly preserved cobblestoned medieval centre. The streetscapes of the Old Town are ridiculously photogenic, crammed with merchants’ houses and picturesque churches.
However, in their own way, Kalamaja and Telliskivi were equally compelling and their urban cool offered a contrasting experience. This hipster district wasn’t on my radar before my arrival in Tallinn and was a recommendation from Kadri, our walking tour guide. You can’t beat local knowledge.
But there’s one more reason why you should consider visiting Kalamaja and Telliskivi. Estonia is a popular stop for cruise ships and there were four in port when I visited Tallinn. That is a lot of people in the city’s historic centre.
On the other side of the railway tracks, it was a different story. I saw, at the very most, ten other tourists when I was wandering the streets of Kalamaja.
I do think that you need more than one day in Tallinn to do it justice. For example, given more time, I would have loved to visit the Hotel Viru KGB Museum. Once the only place that tourists could stay in Tallinn, the KGB had an easy job keeping tabs on them, which it did with gusto from its 23rd-floor base. I tried to book a tour but I couldn’t make the times work.
Ultimately, visiting Tallinn on a cruise to Estonia gives you time to just scratch the city’s surface. But, on a positive note, this gives you a reason to make a return visit.
Tallinn – Essential tips for cruise passengers
- Language – Estonian
- Currency – Euro. However, cards are widely accepted.
- Tipping – Tipping is voluntary. However, if the service is satisfactory, adding a 10% tip to the bill is considered polite.
- The Tallinn Card – This discount card gives you free admission to over 40 of Tallinn’s tourist attractions as well as free public transport and discounts on sightseeing tours, shops and restaurants. It costs €26 for a one-day card. A Tallinn Plus card (€36) also includes the HOHO bus.
As I was spending just one day in Tallinn and would not have time to visit any of the city’s museums, I felt that I would not get value out of the card. However, depending on how long you are in port for and where you plan to visit, you might arrive at a different conclusion. Think about where you might be able to visit and how much individual tickets and transport will cost compared with the cost of the Tallinn Card.