In this part of our “One Day” series, we’re looking how to spend one day in Tallinn, Estonia. Tallinn has a cutting edge modern vibe combined with a rich blend of architecture, quaint nooks and cozy street-side cafes. Tallinn is located less than 100 km from Helsinki and connected by frequent ferry service. This makes for a convenient day trip from Helsinki to Tallinn. One day gives you ample time to experience some of the top things to do in Tallinn. For your convenience, this post includes a free map of the top sights in Tallinn. And now, off you go 🙂
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Table of Contents
- 1 Getting from Helsinki to Tallinn
- 2 One Day in Tallinn Itinerary
- 3 Tallinn Old Town
- 4 Kadriorg Palace & Park
- 5 Kalamaja Neighborhood
- 6 Rotermann Quarter
- 7 Shopping & Dining
- 9 Your Map for One Day in Tallinn
- 9 Extend your stay
Getting from Helsinki to Tallinn by Ferry
Located only 80 km across the Baltic Sea, getting from Helsinki to Tallinn is incredibly easy. In the winter, two companies serve the route from Helsinki to Tallinn, Tallink and Eckerö Line. In the summer there is also an express ferry from Helsinki to Tallinn, Linda Line. As you will be crossing a border, we recommend that you bring all necessary travel documents, but in particular your ID or passport and residence permit. Most ferry services require you to be at the terminal around one hour prior to departure. As the ferry rides are very short, tickets do not generally include cabins or meals. These can be booked at an additional charge.
Terminal: West Terminal (Länsiterminaali 1)
Departs: 07:30, 10:30, 13:30, 16:30, 18:30,19:30, 22:30
Travel Time: 2h
Terminal: Terminal D (Lootsi 13)
Departs: 07:30, 10:30, 12:30, 13:30, 16:30, 19:30, 22:30
Travel Time: 2h
2. Eckerö Line
Terminal: West Terminal (Länsiterminaali 2)
Departs: 09:00, 15:15, 21:40
Travel Time: 2:15h
Terminal: Terminal A (Sadama 25)
Departs: 06:00, 12:00, 18:00
Travel Time: 1:30h
3. Linda Line
Terminal: Makasiiniterminal (Eteläsatama)
Travel Time: 2:15h
Terminal: Linnahalli Terminal (Mere pst 20E)
Travel Time: 1:30h
One Day in Tallinn Itinerary
Tallinn is probably most Finns’ favorite destination outside their beloved motherland. A cynic might say it is due to the low costs of alcoholic beverages and tobacco in Estonia. Alright, you know me, I’m a cynic. But really now, there is so much more to this beautiful city, other than cheap liquor, that draws thousands of tourists from all over the world each year.
Founded in 1248, Tallinn (or otherwise known by its former name Reval) has a lot to offer in terms of history and culture. However, if you are short on time, you can easily explore a bit of old and new Tallinn in a day. Of course, we’d recommend you stayed a little longer, but hey, who are we to judge. Below thus find our recommendation on how to make the most of your one day in Tallinn.
Best Things to Do in Tallinn in One Day
Nearly all the attractions we’ve included in this article are within comfortable walking distance of each other. Like most European cities, Tallinn is best explored on foot, especially the Old Town. Some parts of the Old Town are located on a hillock though, which can make walking a little cumbersome. You can also opt to use public transport to get to the attractions outside the Old Town. A single ticket costs 2 EUR and can be purchased from the driver (cash only!).
Tallinn Old Town
The medieval Old Town is certainly the highlight among must-see attractions in Tallinn. I reckon that Tallinn’s Old Town is arguably the most beautiful one in all of the Baltics. Built by German crusaders in the late middle ages, it is full of charming, cobblestone streets, lovely architecture, churches. One can get lost in the side alleys wandering for hours end imbibing all its glory and wonders. But since we just have a day, we will highlight the main sights in the Old Town.
We would like to point out that in recent years, due to a surge in tourism, the Old Town of Tallinn has become very touristy and expensive. A lot of the shops and restaurants here are geared towards tourists. So be prepared to encounter hordes of tourists, dozens of staff trying to lure you in their shops and restaurants, hawkers, scam artists, and some lofty prices. How I wish I had been born earlier so that I could have seen places before they became tourist hotspots!
The best place to kick off your tour to the medieval Old Town is through the iconic Viru Gate. These two towers are remnants of the city walls. They are beautifully preserved and give you a great first impression of the place. They are as pretty as they are big and imposing. A great photo opportunity is accorded here as you enter or leave the Old Town. Naturally, this means that this area is usually packed with tourists.
City Walls & Towers
As you’re making your way in to Tallinn, one of the first glimpses you’ll see is of the red colored defensive towers of the city wall. The construction of the town’s defensive wall began in the 13th century. The present outline of the wall dates back to the 14th century. In its pomp, the wall was 2.4 km long, up to 3 meters thick, and included 46 towers. Today, an impressive 1.9 km of the wall is still erect with 20 towers and it is one of the best-preserved city walls in Europe.
There is a substantial amount of wall to look at but it is worth noting that not all of it can be walked round. As you wander around the Old Town, you keep encountering stretches of the town wall, some with enclosed wooden walkways, some towers, and gateways. You can just imagine Rapunzel dropping her golden locks down one of the tower walls. It’s easy to understand why it’s a UNESCO World heritage site.
The three-story Hellemann Tower was built in the 14th century and was used as a prison and weapons store at various stages. If you want to get a feel of a historical observation tower and fortification wall, then you should make your way to the top. It costs about 4 EUR to climb up. However, if you’re only looking for a panoramic view of Tallinn, then you should avoid going up because the wall deck is at a low elevation and stretches only about 200 meters which gives you a look at only one side of the town.
The most famous part of the wall is in the Danish King’s Garden and directs you to the Maiden Tower. This is a nice part of the Old Town walls where there are several eerie statues of hooded monks. There’s a cafe at the top which makes it a perfect location to sit with a couple of cappuccinos and to enjoy the romantic view of the Old Town roof tiles.
Raekoja Plats (Town Hall Square)
The Town Hall Square is the historic heart of Tallinn. It is a former 11th-century marketplace which currently includes the Town Hall and the oldest continuously operating pharmacy in Europe (since 1422). There are numerous cafes, restaurants, shops and beers gardens surrounding the square.
The medieval architecture of the buildings here is beautiful but the centerpiece of the square is the Gothic Town Hall building, that dominates the main square. It was built in 1404 as a meeting point for the governing authorities of the city and has been a showpiece of Tallinn ever since. Its 64 meter church-like spire is visible from all parts of town. Nowadays, it is the only intact Gothic town hall in Northern Europe, used primarily for concerts. In summer, you can visit the Town Hall for 5 EUR while a visit to the tower costs 3 EUR.
We recommend that you do not sit at any of the restaurants surrounding the square. Prices are just too high and they represent a real tourist trap, even though they are almost full. Go to one of the restaurants in the side alleys to get a better deal.
Toompea Hill overlooks Tallinn’s Old Town and surrounding neighborhoods and it offers spectacular views from several vantage points. There are several beautiful and intriguing historical buildings and churches here too. This area is also a diplomatic quarter as it houses several embassies.
Toompea Hill has always occupied a special place in the hearts of Tallinn natives and it is from here that the city has traditionally been ruled – from the first wooden fort constructed in the 9th Century to Toompea Castle, which houses the Estonian Parliament. The walk up Toompea Hill is delightful and full of character. The cobblestone streets are moderately steep so wear suitable footwear. The climb may not be suitable for those with mobility issues.
Toompea Castle is an ancient site in use as a fortress since the 9th century. The Parliament of Estonia is based in the castle, which is the world’s only expressionist parliament building with its expressionist style interiors. When Estonia came under the Russian Empire during the 18th century the castle was converted into a palace with Baroque architecture. It is a delightful pink colored building and stands opposite the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral. The crumbling towers of the castle were often depicted in old Soviet films, especially fairy tales.
Alexander Nevsky Cathedral
This elegant onion-domed structure perched atop Toompea Hill is Estonia’s main Russian Orthodox cathedral. Built in 1900, it is a remnant of when Estonia was under Czarist Russian rule. The cathedral was dedicated to the Prince of Novgorod, Alexander Yaroslavich Nevsky. It is richly decorated in mosaics and icons and its unique black domes are visible through most of the Old Town.
The interiors are quite spartan compared to other prominent Orthodox cathedrals but impressive nonetheless. Admission to the cathedral is free. Photos are prohibited inside because it is a functioning Russian Orthodox church.
Get a view of Tallinn: Kohtuotsa & Patkuli Viewing Platforms
To get great photos of Tallinn, make sure to head to both the Kohtuotsa & Patkuli viewing platforms. Both of these platforms are located on Toompea Hill and are only about 150 meters apart from each other.
Kohtuotsa is on the eastern side from where you can see the Old Town`s rooftops and modern skyline in the background. If you have ever seen any pictures of Tallinn, chances are they included a mural saying “The Times We Had”. You can find it at Kohtuotsa viewing platform 🙂
Patkuli is on the north side of Toompea hill from where you can see the City Wall and towers, St. Olav’s Church and the harbor.
St. Olav’s Church
The Gothic St. Olav’s Church (or St. Olaf’s Church) was reputedly the tallest building in the world in the 16th century when its spire peaked at a massive 159 meters. It was constantly struck by lightning and subsequently burned down. Its current 124 meter tall spire still looms large over Tallinn. The interior of the church is quite dark with minimal decoration. The Gothic arches are highlighted with large windows.
The climb to the viewing platform of St. Olav’s Church will take you through a medieval winding staircase up about a hundred meters. Okay, this is nothing for the weak-hearted (or the weak-legged, in fact). If the climb does not take your breath away, the view certainly will. Nowhere else will you get such a great vista of the Old Town. Be warned though, the climb is not the easiest. The stairs are steep, narrow and somewhat slippery. The balancing act of not breaking your neck while still giving space to those traveling in the opposite of your direction, well, it is a delicate one. The entrance to the church is free while the cost of going up the tower is 3 EUR. All in all, you will spend about half an hour here.
St. Catherine’s Passage
St. Catherine’s Passage is a picturesque and unique walkway in the Old Town. The overhangs and tombstones from the St. Catherine’s Dominican Friary that line the passage on one end make for a quintessential medieval experience. At the other end of the passage, there are various attractive artisan workshops with arts and crafts of every description.
Once you’ve finished exploring the fascinating Old Town you can explore some other attractions that Tallinn has to offer.
Kadriorg Palace & Park
Kadriorg Palace is a short tram ride or 30-minute walk from the Old Town. This palace was built for Russian Tsar Peter the Great and his family in the 18th century. It is an exquisite Baroque palace which is very much in the style of other royal palaces from the period, albeit on a much smaller scale. The palace is presently an art gallery as well as a palace museum and you can see a nice collection of paintings of the Russian royal family as well as 18th-century landscape paintings and pastorals. The entrance fee to the museum is 6.5 EUR.
The Kadriorg Palace is located within the park, but I think the park itself warrants more of a visit than the Palace. Kadriorg Park is renowned for its tranquility and beauty. It has lovely fountains and water features, gorgeous plantings, a Japanese garden, plenty of paths for strolling and also boasts the Presidential Palace, the residence of the Estonian president. Even though it appears large it is actually fairly modest by the Romanov standards considering it was built by Peter the Great for his beloved wife Catherine.
Kalamaja: Tallinn’s Hipster Neighborhood
If you’re seeking what Tallinn has to offer beyond the Old Town and are keen on experiencing an alternate side of Tallinn, then you should definitely head to Kalamaja.
Kalamaja (which in Estonian literally means fish house) is an offbeat neighborhood that lies just outside the Old Town. Starting off as a fishing village in the 14th century, it turned into a working-class hub in the late 19th century with the emergence of factories. It is renowned for its old colorful wooden houses that were built to accommodate the influx of factory workers. The thing I love about Kalamaja is its understated charm despite not being overly pretty.
In recent times, Kalamaja has become a magnet for young artists and has taken on a bohemian and hipster vibe. The Balti Jaam Market and the Telliskivi Industrial City are also places worth seeing in Kalamaja. The Telliskivi area is today Estonia’s most important center for the creative industry, with several art galleries, design companies, non-profit organizations, theaters, restaurants and cafés.
Rotermann Quarter is in the center of Tallinn, a few minutes walk from the harbor and the Old Town. It was formerly an industrial area with many factories. During the renovation, the architects did not destroy these industrial buildings, they just modernized them by adding additional floors, glass windows, which look like glass cubes or spinners.
This cutting-edge blended architecture makes buildings look very unique and different. The Quarter looks very modern as these renovated buildings were turned into apartments, shops, cafes, bars, and restaurants. Neither Jacky and I are fond of modern architecture in general but this was a novelty and worthy of a short stroll.
Shopping in Tallinn & Where to Eat in Tallinn
Tallinn may not have a long tradition in café culture such as Vienna’s, but this shouldn’t keep you from exploring some of the new and hip coffee shops that are emerging all over the city. One of our favorite spots is the retro café Black Poodle (Must Puudel) where only a few tourists seem to make an appearance. It’s located in a nondescript alley just off the Viru Gates and is a favorite among locals.
As we have discussed, restaurants around Raekoja plats should be avoided like the plague. Even if the prices may seem reasonable to you, they are a thorough tourist rip-off. An exception may be made for those who have never tasted Nordic cuisine, as one of the restaurants such as Olde Hansa might actually give you a good idea of what food in these latitudes tastes like. Personally, we like Trattoria del Gallo Nero for authentic Italian food and Chakra for Indian cuisine.
If you are looking for a souvenir to bring back from Tallinn, why not shop around for some Baltic amber? The streets of Tallinn are littered with amber shops, so don’t feel disheartened if you don’t like what you see at the first shop.
Your Personal Map for One Day in Tallinn
Extend Your Stay
In all honesty, you could easily spend 2 days in Tallinn with our itinerary above. Perhaps spend the first day only exploring Tallinn’s Old Town and reserving the second time for the other neighborhoods. You might also enjoy walking on the promenade along the shores of the Baltic sea. And if you can, you should definitely head over to Tallinn TV Tower, one of our favorite spots in the city!
If you are looking for a hotel, take a look at our post on the best places to stay in Tallinn for all budgets.
Now, what do you think? Is there anything we have missed? Do you have tips on what else to see or do in Tallinn? What was your favorite sight? Share your thoughts with us in the comments below. Let’s stay in touch!