We arrived in Tallinn around 5:00. Disembarking well after the main rush meant I could hobble my way down the stairs and out into the terminal. Then we had to figure out where our Airbnb was and how to get there. There was some construction at the ferry landing, so getting our bearing was a bit confusing at first. Eventually, we figured out how to get there and get in – after mistakenly entering the basement! It seemed like the building may have contained all rentals. There were keypads everywhere – at the front door, to enter the corridors of flats, even to operate the elevator. Our flat was nice but compact, although the spacious patio helped make up for it. It was the only place we stayed where the bed was a fold-out sofa, leaving little space to sit any other time. Even still, it was fairly new with sleek interior finishes and a nice bathroom.
We relaxed for a few hours, allowing my ankle some rest after the walk to the flat, before going out to explore Tallinn’s Old Town in the evening. Our apartment was closer to Kadriorg than the Old Town, but there was a tram stop conveniently placed in front of our building. We decided to purchase Tallinn Cards to use for 48 hours, so we didn’t have to worry about paying for public transportation. (Although it’s so simple in Estonia – you can pay with a tap for nearly everything). It was mostly foolproof to scan our Tallinn Card QR code each time we hopped on a tram or bus.
We hopped off the tram and began to weave through the cobbled streets of Old Town. It was fairly quiet, as the bulk of the tourists had either returned to their lodgings or their cruise ships, giving us a leisurely atmosphere to stroll around. We managed to find our way to Tallinn Town Square, a large plaza with Tallinn Town Hall. It was still lively with terrace dining and tourists strolling around, taking advantage of the quieter streets.
We went in search of food and found a place I had read about just off Town Hall Square. Beer House, a German restaurant and brewery, offers seven house brews along with a lengthy menu of German snacks and fare. We found a spot on their terrace, ordered two of their brews, and indulged in the spread of black bread and butter brought to the table. We ordered a crispy pork shank to share and were delighted when it arrived still on the bone, soaking in a honey mustard bath with sauerkraut on the side. It was delectable; juicy and moist with a wonderfully crunchy skin.
We planned to spend the following day walking around Tallinn’s Old Town. I knew I would be slower than usual, so we planned to take it easy and really savor the day. Declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1997, Tallinn’s Old Town is a remarkable example of a medieval trading city on the Baltic Sea with an intact 13th-century city plan and extremely well-preserved medieval architecture, including original cobblestone streets. Tallinn (originally called Reval) was given city rights in 1248 and joined the Hanseatic League shortly thereafter.
We wanted to start off the day with coffee and cardamom buns at RØST on our way to Old Town. Although we checked the forecast before we left, as soon as we got off the tram we were hit with a giant downpour. We took cover in a covered passageway and eventually realized we were next to RØST, so we made the dash into their doorway. RØST is a small space and the heavenly scent of their freshly-baked buns seduces you as it wafts through the air. We ordered coffees and buns and hunkered down to wait out the rain. (Zach went back to get our umbrellas but of course, it didn’t rain again the entire day.)
When we finally emerged, the rain had stopped and it was already turning into a gorgeous day. We walked in the direction of Old Town, starting off on its northeastern end. Our first stop was St. Olav’s Church, named for King Olav II of Norway and first built in 1267. The church has suffered two fires in its history and the most recent rebuilding was completed in 1840. The original steeple was originally 20 meters taller making it one of the tallest buildings in the world when it was completed. You can climb the tower for picturesque views of the sea and the town. I stubbornly wanted to give it a go, but Zach convinced me that it was out of the question for my weakened ankle, so he went up alone (which turned out to be the right choice).
From St. Olav’s we backtracked a bit to the town gates and the back of Fat Margaret’s Tower. We should have gone the short distance to get a view from the front, but I was feeling rather limited. (We eventually saw it on our return to Tallinn later in the trip.) We did manage to stumble upon the Three Sisters, a trio of buildings that date back to the first half of the 15th century, although mention of them is first made in town documents in 1372.
We continued up the street coming upon the KGB Prison Cells Museum and decided to stop in. The museum is small, housed entirely in the basement of the former KGB Headquarters but packs a powerful punch detailing the horror and anxiety Estonians faced during the Soviet Era. The museum had a lot of impactful first-person accounts of torture and the loneliness of the cells. Their guestbook was filled with messages relating to the current war in Ukraine and the necessity of museums like this one. It was a heartening and worthwhile stop.
We emerged back into the daylight and continued along Pikk toward a small square. We passed the Russian Embassy where the street was strewn with signs and posters protesting the war in Ukraine, as well as the only police presence we noticed during our stay in Tallinn. Once we reached the square we decided to stop for a drink and dessert at Cafe Maiasmokk, the oldest operating café in Tallinn (and Estonia). It has been in the same location since 1864 and its name translates to ‘sweet tooth.’
Next to Cafe Maiasmokk, the Church of the Holy Spirit is adorned with a clock on its exterior that has been operating since the 17th century. The church was known as the main place of worship for commoners and was the first church to hold services in Estonian. (Estonian was long considered a peasant language, with upper-class Estonians learning and using German instead.) The interior of the church has a lot of intricately carved wood decor, offset by the white walls and ceiling. The paintings along the galleries show various Biblical scenes and date back to the mid-17th century.
After leaving the Church of the Holy Spirit, we walked across to the Estonian History Museum in the Great Guild Hall. Although I thought the exhibitions were a bit disconnected, the Gun Room was the most interesting as the placards gave detailed summaries of the various wars and shifts in allegiance that underpin Estonia’s historical foundations. We also gained more insight into the guild culture of medieval Tallinn. From there, we continued toward Hellemann Tower using St. Catherine’s Passage, a medieval alley lined with restaurants and artists’ shops.
Zach was insistent that I could not climb to the top of Hellemann Tower, but when we entered the tower and saw a metal spiral staircase, his worries eased. I didn’t have any trouble slowly climbing the staircase, although at the top we had to squeeze through a small passageway and up a set of uneven stone steps. Connecting the Hellemann Tower with Munkadetagune Tower is a 200-meter-long old defense wall, accessible to visitors via a wooden platform. We walked a portion of the platform and then I let Zach go ahead to climb the second tower and capture views from above. The viewing platform alone offered a unique perspective of the Old Town.
Returning to street level, we started in the direction of Town Hall Square, enjoying a new route, stopping for spiced roasted almonds at a medieval street purveyor, and catching the square in the bright sunlight. Zach decided to skip climbing the Town Hall tower – how many towers can you climb in one day?! – and instead, we began the steep climb to Toompea, the hill above Old Town.
At the top, next to Alexander Nevsky Cathedral, we had a nice view of another portion of the city wall and towers. We continued around to the cathedral’s entrance, struck by how the architectural style of the cathedral differs from the rest of Old Town. Though no photos are allowed of the interior, it was decorated similarly to Uspenski Cathedral. Built between 1894 and 1900, it was meant to demonstrate the power and dominance of the Russian Empire at a time when the Estonian nationalist movement was beginning. It was purposely named for Alexander Nevsky as a reminder of his conquest of Estonia in the late 13th century. Across from the cathedral is Estonia’s Parliament, offering an interesting architectural embodiment of the power struggle between the two. Despite all of the cultural and political implications, the cathedral was quite dazzling.
We trekked farther uphill to our final church of the day – Dome Church, also called St. Mary’s Cathedral. We arrived just before their 5:00 closing and had the space to ourselves. The interior is overwhelming; it’s cavernous and dimly lit, while the walls are covered with the coats of armor of medieval Tallinn’s most influential Baltic-German families. An organist was playing when we arrived and it completely captivated us, creating a trance that was hard to break. We stayed until the clerk nearly asked us to leave.
To cap off our walking tour, we stopped at the two viewing platforms on Toompea: Paktuli and Kohtuotsa. We strolled through the quiet streets, passing embassy buildings armed with gates and cameras to the first platform, Paktuli, and then a short way down, Kohtuotsa. Both offered up sweeping vistas of the red-tiled roofs of Old Town, the Baltic Sea, towers and steeples, and even a dash of modernity. We descended from Toompea via a steep series of steps from the Paktuli platform, arriving in Shnelli Park, and then caught the tram back to our flat to rest before dinner.
When we had lunch with Pasi in Helsinki, he recommended a restaurant on the outskirts of Tallinn: Noa. We made reservations for dinner and a 20-minute bus ride brought us to the restaurant nestled up against the sea with a view of Tallinn in the distance. Since we were seated on the terrace on a rather windy day – we watched as the sea was whipped continually by the wind – the terrace was enclosed with a series of glass panels, allowing for the full effect of the terrace view to remain unbroken, but for the diners to be more comfortable. An opening in the ceiling allowed the air to circulate and the wind could even be felt from time to time. From our seats, we could see across the bay to Tallinn and many of the Old Town landmarks rose familiarly out of the skyline. We each had a drink and an entree and shared cheesecake for dessert. They also served us black bread with sea salt butter, herbed butter, beetroot hummus, and gherkins. It was all incredibly decadent and delicious, and I imagine we were the only diners to arrive by bus.
The weather was less cooperative the next day. We planned to spend most of the day at Kadriorg Park, located a single tram stop from our apartment. The 70-hectare park contains a multitude of sights and green escapes. We first stopped at the western edge of the park to have lattes and pastries at Katharinenthal Kohvik. It was overcast when we arrived and began to sprinkle as we sat on the front porch, continuing lightly as we walked to Kadriorg Palace.
Commissioned by Peter the Great after his armies conquered Tallinn (during the Great Northern War in which the Russian Empire led a coalition against the Swedish Empire), he did not live to see its completion. His wife, Catherine I, for whom it was named, didn’t visit Tallinn after his death. It was rarely used by the Russian royal family and eventually, in 1934, became the residence of Estonian President, Konstantin Päts. Today it is home to the Kadriorg Art Museum. The exhibitions weren’t very cohesive but remained an interesting attraction. On the second floor, the rooms contained Western European and Russian art from the 16th-20th century, while the third floor had an exhibition on furniture styles.
By the time we left, the rain had let up and we explored the gardens behind the palace before continuing through the park to the Peter the Great House Museum. While building the palace, the Tsar lived in a small cottage nearby and it later became a little museum. The home was quite small and modest, with a few of the Tsar’s belongings as well as other items from the time period. The museum offered a lot of context on Peter the Great’s interest in Tallinn – its position on the Baltic Sea as a strategic point in his war with the Swedes – as well as his interest in Narva, further east.
After leaving Peter the Great’s home, we crossed the street to our final stop of the afternoon, Kumu, Estonia’s Museum of Art. Housed in a fantastically modern building, Kumu was the first building constructed expressly for a collection of Estonian art. (Previously, Estonian art collections had been shown in buildings not meant for that purpose.) Opened in 2006, Kumu is a combination of the words kunst (art) and museum. The permanent collection spans several floors beginning in the 1700s and travelling through today. There were also two special exhibitions during our visit: the art of Lembit Sarapuu and Estonian art in the 2000s. We spent three hours at Kumu, trying to digest all that we could about Estonia’s cultural journey from the influence of the Baltic-Germans, the Russian Empire, the USSR, and eventually Estonian independence. It was a remarkable museum, and I was utterly drained when we left.
We returned to our apartment to rest for a bit and decided to head out in the evening to check out a brewery and Telliskivi Creative City. Northwest of Old Town, abandoned Soviet warehouses and factories have been transformed into galleries, workspaces, shops, cafes, and many other independent businesses. We first came upon Depoo, an outdoor area with shipping containers, murals, food trucks, and lounge areas on the site of the former train repair depot. Then across the street, Telliskivi Creative City is housed in a former Soviet factory complex. The area is strewn with murals and feels alive with creativity, youthfulness, and vibrancy. We were able to peruse some of the shops before they closed at 6 and enjoyed strolling through the “city” to admire the murals.
Nearby, the brewpub we wanted to visit, St. Vitus, was already filling with ex-pats and tourists alike. The atmosphere was warm and friendly. They had brews of their own along with an extensive selection of both Estonian and imported beers. We each had a house beer and ordered entrees – a gigantic schnitzel and a delectable salmon burger. However, instead of having another beer there, we stopped by the market and grabbed different Estonian beers to enjoy on our patio to close out the evening.
We awoke to rain the next morning and opted to grab breakfast from the nearby market rather than go back into the Old Town. I imagine a physically healthy Mackenzie would have felt compelled to return for a couple of hours to the Old Town though… Our check-out was at noon, but we were taking the 3:00 bus to Pärnu to ensure we didn’t need to whittle away any extra hours before our check-in there. Zach found an athletic medical supply store on our way to the bus station, so we set out to see if I could get a better brace for my ankle. When we arrived, the clerk was not only proficient in English but had extensive knowledge about sprains advising us on which brace would be the best for walking, how the sprain would heal, and ways to care for it. It was well worth the small detour. The new brace was not only more supportive but much more comfortable than wearing an elastic bandage and I can probably credit it with the swiftness of my recovery. We had lunch at the bus station and soon enough were boarding the bus to Pärnu for a short, 2-hour journey.