Tallinn, Estonia Travel Diary – what to do, what to see, what to eat in Estonia’s largest city from the Regal Princess.
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Tallinn is a city I’ve been aching to get to for a while – their gorgeous walled city, full of bright and beautiful candy colored houses, a picturesque town square, soaring heights over the city, and tons of medieval charm completely drew me in – and I can confidently say that visit Tallinn on an 11 day Scandinavian Cruise with Princess Cruises surprised me the least of any destination – because it was every single bit as dreamy and lovely as I expected!
While a day in port is way, way too short for this gorgeous town, I feel like I got to experience a ton thanks to Tallinn’s fantastically easy setup that is perfect for cruise ship passengers!
If you’re thinking of heading to Tallinn and the rest of some of the prettiest places along the Baltic, I HIGHLY recommend checking out Princess Cruises 11 Day Scandinavian cruise – which hits great destinations, with some amazing shore excursions that maximize your time in port!
Be sure to check out these other posts from my trip: What to Eat on the Regal Princess, Berlin Travel Diary, Oslo Norway Travel Diary, and Copenhagen’s Tivoli Gardens, as well as my favorite Danish Dream Cake recipe inspired by the first port of call for our trip!
Cool facts about Tallinn:
From the 13th century to 1918, and again when the Nazis briefly held Tallinn, the city was known as Reval.
Tallinn is one of the best preserved walled European cities, and the entire walled city is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
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Getting around Tallinn
Tallinn, both the upper and lower old towns, is an extremely walkable city. European cities that were walled in for a large period of time generally are perfect for visitors, because so many intrigues are a quick couple of steps from each other, making it possible to fit a lot more into your tour – and Tallinn is no different.
Tallinn does have a bit of cobblestone and wobbly areas to walk (the town itself had fabulous sidewalks and was seemingly more accessible than some former Soviet cities I’ve visited), so take a bit of caution where you walk.
Additionally, the narrow, twisty roads of the old town aren’t very congested with traffic since they aren’t quite as residential, but you should take note that it can be hard to see around some corners, and with a narrow road that wasn’t originally built for cars, caution needs to be taken when driving or walking.
Finding a cab was super simple, both from the cruise ship terminal, and from various points in town and around the Tallinn area.
There was a huge line of clean, new taxis waiting at the cruise terminal and we saw tons through town, who all spoke english. Taxis in Tallinn were incredibly safe, reliable, and easy for English and Russian speakers (I also spotted some cabs who spoke German and a handful of other languages, but every one spoke English.)
Hot tip – Beat the Cruise Crowds!
If you’re on a cruise ship like I was, or you’re in Tallinn and hoping to see the sights with less hassle, take this incredibly important tip to heart – go immediately to the old town (upper section) right away, as early as you can in the morning.
My cousin and I were the first people off the ship, and we were rewarded with completely empty streets and pristinely quiet views across Tallinn – which quickly filled up as more and more people filtered in.
I recommend taking a cab from the ship to the upper town (which cost about $10 euros for a group of four, so find four friends and split it!) because while it is walkable, it’s a bit of a trek, and so much easier to save your energy for exploring the town without the massive crowds!
Upper Old Town
-Alexander Nevsky Cathedral
The Alexander Nevsky Cathedral was a huge draw for me when visiting Tallinn – especially as I am an Orthodox Christian, and I love visiting Orthodox churches!
When we visited the cathedral, they were observing a morning service, and photography was not allowed inside while the service took place – so I stuck to just photographing the outside. But trust me, the inside is simply stunning!
The Cathedral is incredibly easy to find from all over town – just look up on to the top of Toompea hill, and there it is!
Find more information about the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral here, or check out the interior, here.
A couple notes:
The Cathedral itself is both a sense of pride and a bit of a touchy issue to Estonians (who were subjected to Soviet and then Russian rule, and to non-Russian/non-Orthodox Estonians, the Cathedral that towers high above the city is a bit of a reminder of a very complex relationship with Russia.) At one time, Estonia considered tearing down the Cathedral – but as a large Russian community still thrives in Tallinn, it was decided it was best to keep everyone in harmony.
Please note it is common to ask women attending an Orthodox service in many places to cover their heads with a small scarf or a nice hat. I didn’t see any signs asking women to do so (and we toured through with our heads uncovered, something you could not expect to do in other countries with large Orthodox populations like Georgia), but if you plan on attending a service, I’d suggest keeping a scarf with you just in case (this can also help you to feel a bit more “blended” in.)
You can tour the Estonian Parliament Building, with a tiny bit of coordination.
As with any government building, anticipate security, unplanned changes to visiting rules and hours, and respect the fact that the Parliament building is full of people just doing their daily jobs, so don’t get in the way or obnoxious.
Of all the souvenir shops around Tallinn, the Parliament’s shop was my favorite – they offered lots of really unique, well-designed products that focused on Estonia’s rich heritage, as well as their serious knack for nailing design that is a mixture of preppy nautical, folksy Russian, and interestingly Scandinavian.
At the top of Toompea hill you can find a large number of embassy buildings in impeccably neat and gorgeous old buildings. We loved just touring around and checking out all of the pretty buildings holding embassy offices!
You can climb up Tallinn’s famous towers and bell towers while visiting for a spectacular view over the city (and the cruise ships in port!)
Some bell towers have restricted openings and are not available until the summer peak months of June-August, and close in inclement weather – so it is always best to check individual attractions opening times before setting your heart on anything involving a climb high up above Tallinn.
There is one tower that holds a small cafe and wine bar, just up the steps into the tower from the Danish King’s garden, which was incredibly cozy and served delicious baked goods and tea.
While my cousin and I started to walk up the stairs, we noticed a familiar face – my friend Eden from Sugar and Charm!
We kept running into Eden and her hilarious husband Zan all day, and found ourselves tackling the city together (over raucous laughter) together most of the day. We had so much fun, I feel like if I get to ever go back to Tallinn someday it wouldn’t be the same without them!
The tower also had a warm, crackling fire going for guests, and you can get a trip up a tower and across part of the former city walls next to the old monastery for free. We totally took advantage of the cozy room while we all planned the day’s activities!
Unfortunately, the towers were built in the 13th Century, and don’t offer anything in the way of mobility accommodations. The steps were steep and slick, and the only thing to steady up them were rope holds. Plan ahead and wear good sturdy shoes when visiting the towers, especially if there is any rain in the forecast!
-Walk the City Wall
If you’re itching to feel like a knight protecting the town, you can walk the old city walls from tower to tower.
Hot tip: if you’re planning on walking the city walls and not a part of a tour group or cruise excursion, go early! The route quickly became jam-packed with tourists in the afternoon.
-Photo spots over town
A trip to Tallinn isn’t complete without a long gaze over town, and luckily there are many spots from the top of Toompea Hill in the upper town that you can take in the sprawling city and all of the sights below.
Walk along the ring of the city to check out tons of spots to take a photo!
-Steven the Seagull
Steven the Seagull is a cheery, well-mannered seagull who was hand raised by humans, and is a bit of an Estonian mascot from his favorite perch at the top of Toompea Hill.
As we were taking pictures, I noticed a random seagull posing while we clicked away – it was so cute! I later found out Steven is a well known seagull who loves to greet tourists and has become an icon of the city!
Lower Old Town
Tallinn’s town center, a cobblestone pedestrian market square right in the middle of lower old town Tallinn, is full of shops, cafes, restaurants, and things to check out and explore.
The square itself is flanked by bright buildings, many with cafe tables and umbrellas spilling out on the street. There are plenty of side streets to explore off the town center, and it makes a great starting place to exploring Tallinn’s lower city area, where you’ll find most large-name hotels, and top brand shopping – as well as funky local finds, antiques, and tourist kitschy shops.
Tallinn has tons of churches that are delightful to explore – of a variety of faiths. While Alexander Nevsky may dominate Tallinn’s skyline, post-Russification, Tallinn is known for being an open-minded city that hosts a variety of churches.
Visiting rules are expressly written in English at Tallinn churches – as are the time restrictions for visiting. We didn’t get a chance to go through many (one was hosting a funeral, and one was closed to tourists, not worshippers, for some refurbishing before the summer months) – but we loved walking around Tallinn’s numerous churches!
Tallinn’s restaurants are varied and interesting – from artisanal bakeries and coffee shops, to street food stands, four star dining, and delectable finds from tons of world cuisines – Estonia’s fresh focus on Scandinavian and Russian classics come together to make a uniquely delicious city!
Cafe Dannebrog, which is featured inside the medieval tower behind the Danish King’s Garden, is a really unique stop in Tallinn.
The cafe itself is also a bit of a museum – to get to the cafe, you have to climb the steep tower steps and walk across the wall to nip into a cozy cafe where you can either sit outside and watch tourists wandering below – or head into the tower and former monastery, grab a spot by the fire, and get cozy!
Tea, pastries, wine, beer, hot cocoa.
Loiri Nunne Bakery Pastry Shop
A quaint little bakery and pastry shop (just look for the pretzel sign outside the doors!) full of Estonian desserts and knockout pastries, that also serves a great latte, as well as offering hot cocoa, wine, beer, and champagne.
Estonian Kringle, a cinnamon braided pastry which looks a little like a cinnamon croissant – but a little more rich and sinful butter and some crunchy sugar that make this pastry tip more to the dessert side than a croissant.
Brita Cake, a traditional Finnish cake – a nod to Estonia’s close neighbor across the sea – is a light and airy spongy cake with a pavlova topping and tons of strawberries.
Coffee – we grabbed lattes and loved them!
Tbilisi Restaurant, Georgian, Rüütli 18, 10130 Tallinn, Estonia
While it isn’t Estonian, I ran straight for the Tbilisi Restaurant for some Georgian food, Estonia’s fellow former soviet state. We loved all of the food in Tbilisi, and being so close to real Georgian food, I HAD to go!
Khachapuri, a rich and delicious cheese bread – both adjaruli (boat shaped, topped with butter and lightly cooked egg) and imeretian (flat, disc-shaped and more like a super cheesy pizza bread) ((head here for my recipe for perfect Khachapuri)).
Khinkali (they only serve khinkali on fridays and the weekends, we were told);
Badrijani Nigvizit (eggplant rolls, which are TO DIE FOR),
Georgian beer and wine (I love saperavi, a slightly sweet and fruit-forward red that is a little lighter than a pinot noir – a blend I wish I could find a good substitute for in America until more brands distribute here!)
There are tons of pretty, bright, and pastel doors all over Tallinn – I could have spent an entire day just checking out Talinn’s doors!
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Know Before You Go
Despite Estonia’s prominence in the EU, it is still very much a post-soviet state – with all the good and slightly more complicated (for tourists used to America and Western Europe) issues that go with it.
While Estonia uses the Euro, which currently stands higher than the American Dollar, Tallinn still is very, very reasonably priced.
Just about every store we stopped by took credit card, so changing cash was not of concern either.
Tallinn’s roads are well maintained, wide (outside of the old city area), and safe.
If visiting Tallinn on a cruise, the port facilities are top notch – clean, welcoming, and located right in town! The ship docks at a very nice, new pier that is close to the action, and there are gift shops and restaurants inside the closed perimeter just for cruisers.
Finding restrooms was easy in Tallinn, and unlike many parts of Europe, stores had no problem letting us use their bathroom, customer or not.
-Food and Water Safety
While some former soviet states suffer from plumbing issues, I am told Estonia’s water is perfectly safe to drink from the tap. The water can have a different flavor in different parts of town (as some areas have older plumbing and different treatments), but travelers shouldn’t be too concerned with water-bourne illness.
Tallinn is very safe, but it’s always important to consider standard safety tips when visiting Estonia. Stay aware of your surroundings, stay out of political protests or large gatherings, and stay away from raucously loud drunken tourists, especially in the old town center. As with any city anywhere in the world that caters to tourism, you should always keep your belongings safe and secure and watch for pickpockets or scammers.
Also consider that with tensions across the Baltic, it is always a good idea to check in with your cruise line and country’s state department as you go.
Want to find your own adventure in Tallinn and around the Baltic?