Tallinn, Estonia is a popular stop on many Baltic cruise itineraries, especially because of the beauty of its medieval Old Town area. Tallinn Old Town became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1997 due to its remarkably preserved 13th-century city plan.
This Hanseatic city is also beloved as a day trip or city break from the Helsinki area. Ferries run from Helsinki up to 84 times a week during the high season, and the quick two-hour voyage makes it one of the most popular ferry routes in the Baltics.
You can wander the original cobblestone streets and find medieval churches, a fairytale castle, and a bustling town square that dates back to the Middle Ages.
Are you planning to visit Tallinn for the day on a cruise? If it’s your first time visiting the city, you won’t want to miss seing the most popular attractions in Old Town. Plus, it’s really quick and easy to get to this area from the cruise port.
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How to get to Tallinn Old Town from the cruise port
Tallinn Old Town is within walking distance from the cruise port. The walk from the port to your first stop is just under a mile (1.4 km) which only takes most people about 15-20 minutes.
A taxi will take about 6 minutes to get you to Old Town, or you can use rideshare services Uber or Bolt (Fun fact: Bolt began in Tallinn, and their HQ is located there). If you choose a taxi, pick a well-established company like Tallink Takso (yellow cars) or Tulika Takso (white cars) to avoid scams.
Some cruise lines do provide shuttles to transport passengers to Old Town from the cruise terminal, so check with your cruise line to see if they provide this service and how often it runs.
Be sure to wear comfortable walking shoes for your day in Tallinn. The cobblestone streets are often steep when you’re walking from Lower Town to Upper Town (or vice-versa).
If you’re not up for all that walking, Tallinn also has a hop-on-hop-off bus, or “HOHO” that stops at the cruise port and all the major attractions. The wheelchair-accessible buses run every 20 minutes from May to September. You can check the price and buy tickets here.
You could definitely see all the best sights in Tallinn Old Town on your own, but if you prefer having a local guide, check out these tours:
1. St. Olaf’s Church
The closest major attraction to the cruise port, St. Olaf’s Church is also the tallest building in the city and its largest medieval structure. Its spire towers 406 feet (123 m) over Tallinn’s Lower Town.
Thought to be built in the 12th century, the church is dedicated to King Olaf II of Norway who was sainted after his death in battle in 1030.
St. Olaf’s Church underwent extensive remodeling during the 14th century, giving it the Gothic facade we see today, and the steeple was completed in the early 16th century. The church’s tower has been struck by lightning about ten times, leading to extensive fires in 1625, 1820 and 1931.
After its beginnings as a Catholic church and center for the Scandinavian community in the area, St. Olaf’s became the center of the Protestant Reformation in Tallinn. Although it was a Lutheran church for much of its long history, St. Olaf’s has served the Baptist community of the city since 1950.
The church also played an interesting role during Estonia’s time as a Soviet republic. The KGB used its tall spire for surveillance and also as a radio tower from 1944 until 1991.
Today, St. Olaf’s Church and its observation platform are open to visitors during the tourist season. The church’s interior is stark white and mostly undecorated, but be sure to take a moment and gaze up at the incredibly high rib vaulted ceiling in the nave.
If you’re able to, consider climbing the winding, 232-step stone staircase up to the observation deck. The passage is narrow with two-way traffic, and you’ll have to scale a steep wooden staircase (more like a slightly-angled ladder with railings) to access the deck. But once you’ve made it to the top you can drink in stunning panoramic views of the entire city, the harbor, and the Gulf of Finland.
St. Olaf’s Church, Lai 50, Tallinn. Open 10 AM to 6 PM April – June and September – October. 10 AM to 8 PM July – August. Church entrance is free; tower tickets €3 adults, €1 children.
2. Take in the view from Patkuli Viewing Platform
Tallinn has several viewing platforms where you can enjoy scenic vistas of the city. But if you want to take the classic photo looking down at Lower Town with the harbor beyond, Patkuli viewing platform is where you’ll want to go.
You’ll have sweeping views of Tallinn from this wide platform, including the medieval city walls with their picturesque turrets. Tallinn’s walls were first built by Margaret Sambiria in 1265. Margaret was Queen of Denmark and also the reigning fief-holder of Danish Estonia from 1266 until 1282.
The walls of Tallinn were expanded and strengthened in the fourteenth century, and were a key feature in the city’s defense strategy. Tallinn’s citizens were required to don their armor and perform guard duty.
There are a couple of ways to get up to Patkuli platform on Toompea Hill. You could take the Pakuli stairs, but it’s quite a steep climb up from Snelli Park. The easier way is to take the scenic route by walking up Lai Street toward the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral. From there, it’s only a four-minute walk to the viewing platform.
Patkuli viewing platform, Rahukohtu, Tallinn, Estonia. Open year round. Free to visit.
3. St. Mary’s Cathedral (Dome Church) and bell tower
St. Mary’s Cathedral, often called the Dome Church or Toomkirik, was originally established as a Roman Catholic cathedral by the Danes in the 13th century. The oldest church in Tallinn, St. Mary’s has been Lutheran since 1561, and is now the seat of the Archbishop of Tallinn.
Dome Church is notable not only for its age, but for the fascinating historical artifacts displayed in its interior. Along with an extensive collection of ornately-carved painted coats of arms from prominent 17th- to 20th-century Tallinn families, the church also features sarcophogi and elaborately-carved stone memorials to the people interred within the building.
Notable people buried in the building include Adam Johann von Krusenstern, who led the first Russian circumnavigation of the globe, and Count Jindřich Matyáš Thurn, the Bohemian nobleman who was a key figure in the events leading up to the Thirty Years’ War.
St. Mary’s Cathedral suffered heavy damage in Tallinn’s great fire of 1684, when all of its original wooden furnishings burned and many of the vaults collapsed. But soon after, work began to restore the church to its original state. Tallinn sculptor and carver Christian Ackermann, a master of the Baroque style, created a new altarpiece and a pulpit featuring figures of the apostles, both of which survive today.
Dome Church also boasts its own viewing point. You can climb to the top of its 226 foot (69m) Baroque bell tower high atop Toompea Hill.
Dome Church, Toom-Kooli 6, Tallinn. Open 10 AM to 4 PM June and July. Check the Toomkirik website for open hours during the off season. Donation requested to visit, €5 to climb the tower.
4. Toompea Castle and Parliament
Toompea Castle has been the center of power in Estonia for 800 years, and is now home to Estonia’s Parliament, the Riigikogu.
If you’ve spent much time visiting European castles, you might expect Tallinn’s Toompea Castle to be much like other medieval castles on the continent. But Toompea Castle is a bit different! Although the walls enclosing part of the castle’s courtyard are medieval, the complex actually consists of several buildings from various eras.
Since the 13th century, the ruling Danes, Germans, Swedes, Russians and now Estonians have contributed to building and developing Toompea Castle. Located on Toompea Hill on the site of the original 9th-century wooden stronghold, the oldest part of the castle was built beginning in 1227 by the Order of the Brethren of the Sword, a Catholic military order, but fell to the Danes just a decade later.
Today, Toompea Castle consists of several parts. In the medieval part of the castle, you’ll see three of its four original defensive towers, including the famous Pikk Hermann (Tall Herman). This tower was first built between 1360 and 1370, and then rebuilt to its present height in the 16th century. The 150-foot (45.6m) structure has ten floors and a viewing platform at the top.
Pikk Hermann is a symbol of Estonian independence, and the flag is raised at the top of the tower each morning as the national anthem plays.
The State Hall, completed in 1589 when Estonia was under Swedish protection, is one of the finest Renaissance buildings in the country.
Toompea Palace, the pink Baroque building that houses the provincial goverment, was constructed by order of Catherine the Great of Russia from 1767 to 1773.
The Riigikogu building was built between 1920 and 1922, soon after the birth of The Republic of Estonia following the end of WWI. The only expressionist parliamentary building in the world, the Riigikogu building was the first public building in Estonia designed to have electric power.
Tours of Toompea Castle are free, but you need to book them in advance. Tour times and dates are subject to change, so check the Riigikogu website for updated times and to sign up for a tour.
Toompea Castle, Lossi plats 1a, Kesklinna linnaosa, Tallinn. Open times vary. Free to enter and tour.
5. Alexander Nevsky Cathedral
Another beautiful landmark atop Toompea Hill, the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral was designed by Mikhail Preobrazhensky in the Russian Revival style. Tallinn’s largest orthodox cupola cathedral was built between 1894 and 1900 when Estonia was part of the Russian Empire.
The cathedral is dedicated to St. Alexander Nevsky, the Russian Grand Prince who won the Battle on the Ice on Lake Peipus on the border of present-day Estonia and Russia in 1242. Nevsky faced the Teutonic Knights in battle, including a large number of Estonian infantry who were killed by Nevsky’s troops.
By building the cathedral on the site where a statue of Martin Luther once stood and naming it after a military hero best known for killing Estonians, Imperial Russia and its Orthodox church let the primarily Lutheran population of Tallinn know who was in charge.
The cathedral was so disliked by the locals that in 1924, several years after the collapse of the Russian Empire, Tallinn planned to demolish the massive building. However, a lack of funding for the project saved the church from the wrecking ball.
Despite its former controversy, the onion-domed church was painstakingly restored after Estonia regained its independence from the USSR in 1991. Improvements included repairing the facade, refacing the cupolas, and replacing rusted metal elements including the crosses atop the cupolas.
A visit to the inside of the church reveals its full opulence. Decorated with paintings of saints, the lavish golden iconostasis sparkles with light from the stained glass windows above. Orthodox icons in richly-carved gilt frames line the walls, lit by hundreds of glowing tapers.
If you’re lucky enough to time your visit before a church service, you’ll be treated to the sound of Tallinn’s most powerful church bell ensemble. The towers house eleven bells, with the largest bell weighing in at about 16 tons.
Alexander Nevsky Cathedral, Lossi plats 10, Tallinn, Estonia. Open daily 8 AM – 6 PM. Free to enter, donations welcome.
6. Have lunch in Town Hall Square
Town Hall Square (Raekoja plats) has been the heart of Tallinn since the 11th century, when markets were first held here. One side of the square is dominated by the last surviving Gothic town hall in Northern Europe.
You’ll likely work up an appetite from walking around all morning, and Town Hall Square is the perfect place to have lunch. There are lots of restaurants on the square, and many offer outside seating so you can people-watch as you enjoy your meal.
If you love garlic like I do, I recommend Balthasar. They don’t have seating directly on the square, but you can dine in their charming restaurant inside the 15th-century Apothecary Building or outside in the courtyard.
Their menu offers a range of beautifully presented garlic-themed meat and seafood dishes (and a few non-garlic options as well). You can even wash it down with a garlic-infused beer or try their garlic ice cream!
If garlic isn’t your thing, other Town Hall Square restaurants include Restauran Kaerajaan for a modern take on traditional Estonian cuisine, or just off the square in the Pakkhoone, a former merchants’ warehouse, is Olde Hansa. This popular restaurant features a medieval theme and authentic 700-year-old recipes.
7. Raeapteek (Town Hall Pharmacy)
I don’t often recommend visiting a pharmacy as a must-see location when you’re traveling (unless of course you’re not feeling OK). But if you love history and unusual oddities, I highly recommend popping into the Raeapteek.
The Raeapteek, or Town Hall Pharmacy, is the oldest continuously-operating pharmacy in Europe that’s still in its original building. No one’s exactly sure when the business first began, but by 1422 the pharmacy was already on its third owner.
It’s also the oldest medical facility in Tallinn. Historically, the Raeapteek’s pharmacists also served as the town’s medical expert, helping residents with treatment advice and spiritual assistance.
Located in the Apothecary Building opposite the town hall, this working pharmacy also houses a small museum. Peer at cases filled with historic medical implements, pharmacists’ tools, and most interestingly, jars and vials of ingredients used for treatments over the centuries.
During the medieval period, the Raeapteek sold such remedies as burnt bees, mummy juice, and unicorn horn powder along with herbs and spirits distilled on-site. Today, the museum showcases many of the often gruesome ingredients that were common in medieval European remedies.
The Raeapteek also offers tours, claret tastings, and workshops featuring herbal treatments and marzipan-making.
Raeapteek, Raekoja plats 11, Tallinn, Estonia. Open Monday – Saturday 10 AM – 6 PM. Free to visit pharmacy and museum. (+372) 5887 5701
8. Visit the museum at Tallinn Town Hall
When visiting Town Hall Square, you can’t help but notice its namesake building. Tallinn’s medieval Town Hall has been standing here since the mid-13th century, with several expansions over the years. Old Thomas, a 1530 weather vane featuring the figure of a warrior, sits atop the hall’s towering spire.
The Town Hall remained the home of the city’s government until 1970, and today it’s a museum and concert space. If you’re interested in learning about the history of Tallinn, you’ll enjoy spending at least an hour visiting the museum. All four floors of the hall are open in July and August for a small admission fee. You can also purchase a ticket to visit the tower, for an aerial view of the square and the surrounding area.
Tallinn Town Hall Museum, Raekoja plats, Tallinn. Open Tuesday – Saturday 11 AM – 4 PM in July and August. October to June, open weekdays by appointment only. Admission adults €5 adults, €3 for students and those with disabilities. Family tickets €10 (two adults with up to four children under 18). (+372) 64 57 906
Tallinn Town Hall Tower, Open daily May 20-September 15 11 AM – 6 PM. Closed every June 23-24 for national holidays. Admission €4 adults, €2 children under 18.
9. Wander the cobblestone streets in Old Town Tallinn
Make sure when you’re visiting Tallinn that you spend some time just walking around the cobblestone streets. Just north of Town Hall Square you’ll find shops and cafés, along with beautiful examples of medieval residences and commercial buildings.
If you wander along Lai and Pikk streets, and the smaller streets that connect them, you’ll also find several museums catering to various interests. If you have some extra time, consider stopping at one of these museums while you’re exploring this area of Tallinn.
- The Estonian History Museum in the Great Guild Hall tells the story of this land and its people over the past 11,000 years.
- The KGB Prison Cells, housed in Tallinn’s former KGB headquarters, offers tours detailing the Soviet oppression in Estonia.
- The Estonian Health Care Museum showcases the history of medicine in Estonia, and features interactive displays for adults and children.
- NUKU Theatre’s Puppetry Museum offers interactive exhibits to encourage creativity through puppetry.
- On nearby Vene Street is the Tallinn City Museum, located in a medieval merchant’s house. Its displays present the history of Tallinn from pre-history to the 1990s.
10. Visit St. Catherine’s Passage
Although much of Tallinn Old Town will make you feel like you’ve stepped back in time, there’s no place in the city that inspires that feeling more than St. Catherine’s Passage.
The alley, called Katariina Käik in Estonian, is a long narrow passageway next to the remains of St. Catherine’s Church, that connects Vene and Müürivahe streets. The church was part of a 1246 Dominican monastery complex. The other buildings that line the alley are a collection of predominantly 15th- to 17th-century residences.
The entrance to the passage on Vene Street is easy to miss, but it’s near the Hotel Telegraaf on the opposite side of the street. Once you’re inside you’ll be enthralled by its medieval stone walls, buttresses, and arches.
In the lane are restaurants, small art shops and galleries, as well as studios where you can watch artisans at work. As it’s the home of St. Catherine’s Guild, an elite group of craftspeople, you’ll encounter potters, glass blowers, and even felt hat makers crafting with traditional methods. St. Catherine’s Passage is the perfect place to find a handcrafted Tallinn souvenir, but the price of authenticity might come with a bit of sticker shock.
Be sure to take some time to look at one of the unique features of the passage. 14th- and 15th-century tombstones from the ruined church have been removed and are now displayed on the wall. These beautiful stone tablets once marked the resting places of notable residents, including members of the Magistrate of Tallinn, the Brotherhood of Blackheads, and the Great Guild.
St. Catherine’s Passage, between Vene Street and Müürivahe Street, Tallinn. Open year round. Free to visit.
Have you ever visited Tallinn? What were your favorite things to see and do? Let me know in the comments below!
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