If you only have a day to explore Estonia’s capital then be sure not to miss these five sites.
With a unique fairy-tale old town, Tallinn is one of my favourite cities to explore in Europe. If you are staying for a few days, I’d also recommend venturing out to the lesser known parts of Estonia on alternative day trip or visiting the eastern city of Tartu. If you only have a day or two, then be sure not to miss these five sites in the capital.
1. Explore abandoned Linnahall
This huge Soviet style building was completed in 1980 as a venue for the sailing events of the Moscow Olympics. The hall then became an entertainment complex and was finally closed in 2010. Despite recent plans for renovations, the area remains derelict, with grass growing through the concrete steps, graffiti on the walls and an a somewhat eerie feel- although these days it’s quite a popular tourist attraction.
2. View the old city from above
The old town of Tallinn (Vana Tallinn) has a magical fairy-tale feel to it, in part due to the well preserved town wall and castle on Toompea hill. To get the best view of the old town (and to get your bearings for further exploring) head up the tower of St. Olav’s Church or the town hall in Raekoja Plats. Both are 3€ entry and require climbing of over 100 narrow stone steps!
3. Visit the markets in Raekoja Plats
At the center of the old town you’ll find Raekoja Plats– the Town Square. As with many towns, the main square is the heart of the city. Here you’ll find regular weekend markets, plenty of restaurants, cafes and interesting museums.
Since 1441 the old Raekoja Plats has been home to a magical Christmas Market. It’s even been said that the Brotherhood of the Blackheads erected the world’s first Christmas Tree here, although others claim that neighboring Riga holds this title.
4. Wander through Toompea Hill
Positioned above the rest of the old town, Toompea (Cathedral) Hill boasts impressive views of the city, the old castle- which is now the Estonian Parliament building and the stunning Alexander Nevsky Cathedral.
5. Head to Telliskivi
If you want to see a different side of Tallinn then head out of the Old Town time-warp to Telliskivi, an inspiring “creative city for everything new”. Here you’ll find second-hand shops, homeware and arts stores, food and thrift markets and plenty of trendy cafes and bars. My favourite is F-Hoone.
Maybe it’s because I grew up in a land of summer Christmases spent at the beach, with endless seafood and fresh cherries, or maybe it’s because I watched too many romanticized American movies as a kid. But for as long as I can remember, I’ve been obsessed with the idea of a snowy, white winter Christmas with all the Northern Hemisphere traditions. So as Helsinki experiences it’s first snow of the season and the temperatures plummet into negative degrees, I decided to get excited about winter by putting together some photos from two Christmas markets I visited last year and two I’m excited to visit this year. I hope you enjoy and get some ideas about where you could go for some European Christmas cheer!
Helsinki: Senate Square and surrounds
The annual Helsinki Christmas Markets, often referred to as the St. Thomas Market, is held at the famous Senate Square from the first weekend in December up to the Friday before Christmas. With the majestic all white Helsinki Cathedral standing tall above the square and a beautiful old carousel in the middle of the market, this is one elegant affair, with 100 well-organised stalls and many places to sit and drink. As well as delicious sweet and savoury food there are also many Finnish craft and design stores. A little further down Aleksanterinkatu, outside the famous department building Stockmann, there’s also a small cluster of Christmas stalls during the festive season, with many cheery lights, spruce trees, roasted chestnuts and hot Glögi on offer.
Must try:Smoked reindeer meat and hot Glögi- the Finnish version of mulled wine, served with raisins and slithered almonds in the cup.
Prices:On the expensive end, as Helsinki is in general. A hot mug of Glögi is around 5€.
Further Details: For the Helsinki market and here for more information about Christmas markets and other festive events around Finland
Tallinn: Raekoja Plats
Tallinn is one of my favorite cities in Europe, and around Christmas time the enchantment of the old town is at it’s highest. Since 1441 the old Town Hall Square has been home to a magical Christmas Market and it’s said that the Brotherhood of the Blackheads erected the world’s first Christmas Tree here, although others claim that neighboring Riga holds this title. Either way, the Tallinn market is full of old world charm.
Dates and Opening Hours: 16th November – 7th January: Open every day 10am – 8pm with hot Christmas drinks till 11pm. There’s also a Christmas program every Friday from 5pm – 7pm and on Sundays from 12 noon – 2pm.
Must try:There’s plenty of delicious smoked and spiced nuts and very strong mulled wine! I found the food in Tallinn to be slightly heavier and heartier than that of Helsinki, with many hot pastries on offer. The handicrafts include a lot of amber and wood carvings as well as many hand knitted goods.
Prices: much cheaper than Finland but still more expensive than normal Estonian non-touristy prices. You can get strongly alcoholic mulled wine for around 3€.
As most of my trip will be after Christmas and the German markets tend to finish a little earlier than most, I will only have time to squeeze in two markets- but as one of them in Nuremberg I am confident that I’ll get my fair dose of German festive flare!
Initially I didn’t realise this… but there are many, many Christmas Markets in Berlin. This website lists four of the most popular ones. As I only have a few days in Berlin I’ll likely only check out the one in Schlossplatz in the old town Köpenick area of Berlin. Located amidst cobbled streets, a Baroque palace and the town hall, with traditional food, drink and gifts, the atmosphere is sure to be just what I’m after.
While Tallinn’s old town provides an enchanting time-warp, if you’re visiting Estonia and want to get out of the city to see an alternative side of the area then here are a few lesser-known options. As each place is quite far from the next, you will either need to hire a car for the day or join an organised day tour. I decided to do a day trip with Traveller Tours and had a wonderful experience.
1. Keila-Joa Manor House and Waterfall
Built by a German aristocratic family on banks of the Keila river in 1833, the neo-gothic manor house and surrounding walking paths provide a beautiful place to relax on a sunny day.
Just up stream you’ll find a wide waterfall- touted as Estonia’s most romantic. In winter the waterfall often freezes over, creating a beautiful icy curtain.
2. Padise Abbey and Manor house
In the 14th century, monks who had been dispossessed from their Latvian Dünamünde Abbey founded this Cistercian Monastery. Over the years it became a fortress and then a country house in the 18th century. Now, abandoned ruins are all that remain.
Like most places in Estonia, you have free reign to explore the site, including the musty dirt-floor cellars and high tower, reached by old wooden and stone steps.
3. Rummu Sunken Prison
Rummu quarry was formed in the late 1930s, with prisoners from nearby prisons used in the excavation of limestone until the 1990s. To stop flooding, groundwater was pumped out during the quarry’s operation. However, after it’s closure the water built up to form a lake, submerging part of the utility buildings and machinery.
The quarry is not accessible to the public as it is now private property. However, tour companies do offer diving and kayaking in the lake during summer, and day tour options in colder months. By far my favourite alternative site!