The capital of Estonia, Tallinn, is probably one of the most beautiful cities in Europe. Its Medieval Old Town, winding cobbled streets, pastel-coloured houses, medieval buildings topped by witch hat turrets, looks like it has been lifted from the pages of a children’s tale.
Outside of the ancient stone walls the city if awash with vibrant neighbourhoods, creative spaces and innovative dining.
This city is, however, much more than a pretty face.
A colourful history, a recent independence and a creative zeal make Tallinn the perfect place to visit. Plus, as we discovered on our trip, there’s a lot to do in Tallinn with kids too.
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We spent three days in Tallinn and quickly fell in love with the city. If you’re wondering what things to do in Tallinn then read on to learn about the top sights to enjoy.
A brief history of Tallinn
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But first, some history. The city of Tallinn has been shaped and moulded by its colourful, and sometimes tumultuous past.
The city was originally established in the 19th century as a merchants’ settlement called Lindanise. However it was the Danish conquest of Estonia in 1219 that marked the beginning of Tallinn’s history as a town.
The Danes called the town Reval and it remained that way until 1918. It’s thought that the name, Tallinn, comes from the old Estonian name Taani linn, meaning Danish town.
From the 13th to the 16th century Tallinn grew very wealthy. It was part of the Hanseatic League, a medieval trade network, trading in commodities such as grains, salt and furs – squirrel pelts were often used as a form of currency!
The Swedes ruled from the mid-16th century until the early 18th century. In 1710 the Imperial Russians took charge until 1918 when Estonia was briefly an independent country.
In 1940 the Soviets annexed the country and it was only in 1991 that Estonia finally regained its independence.
All of this history and more can be seen on the streets of Tallinn.
Things to do in Tallinn
Climb the tower in Town Hall Square
The heart of the Old Town is Town Hall Square and it’s one of the city’s most famous places to visit.
The square has been a market place since the Middle Ages and is today home to plenty of bars and restaurants as well as the Christmas market in December. Be like a Medieval town guard and climb the 115 steep steps to reach the top of the Town Hall Tower and keep watch over the town (but best avoid the medieval toilet half-way up!).
The views from the top of the tower are undoubtedly the best views of the square. The square can be very busy during the day but if you get up early, you’ll have Old Town almost to yourselves.
Once back on terra firma, look up to the sky and see if you can spot the Old Thomas weather vane that stands atop the Town Hall Tower. This is one of the most famous symbols of Tallinn. According to legend, it’s dedicated to a young peasant boy named Thomas who spent his lifetime as a guard of the city.
If you do visit Tallinn in December then you should know that it’s here in the Town Hall Square where the world’s very first Christmas tree was erected in 1441.
Discover Tallinn’s Old Town
Without doubt the most famous corner of Tallinn is the fairytale Old Town, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. You can spend days wandering the cobbled streets discovering hidden courtyards, Gothic spires and, as luck would have it, lots of excellent bakeries!
Some of the most interesting streets to discover include Katariina käik (St Catherine’s Passage), a small alley that links Vene street and Müürivahe street. Lai street is one of the oldest streets in Tallinn and also where you’ll find the NUKU Museum for Puppet Arts, one of our favourite places in Tallinn (see below for more details).
For a real step back in time, take a walk along Aida that’s devoid of any shops or cafes and looks much the same as it did in Medieval times.
Eat the best pancakes in Tallinn
Located at the back of the Town Hall is a tiny hole-in-the-wall that serves the best mini pancakes in Tallinn.
These small, fluffy pancakes come served with a choice of toppings including Nutella and jam but we say go for the original and enjoy them doused in a liberal helping of powdered sugar.
You can buy them in trays of 15 and 20: go for the larger tray every time! I will confess that we visited this pancakes stall a lot during our three days in Tallinn.
Visit Kadriorg Park
Built by Peter the Great in 1718, Kadriorg Park is one of the most beautiful parks in Estonia home to landscape gardens, museums and the president’s palace.
The park is only a 20 minute bus ride away but you can easily spend half a day here there is so much to see and do. Highlights include the Flower Garden (also known as the Upper Garden), the People’s Park, Rose Hill, and Swan Pond.
For children, there is an awesome playground at Youth Park. There is also an English Landscape Park and a Japanese Garden.
There are lots of beautiful historical buildings housing a handful of museums. The most relevant if visiting Tallinn with kids is the Children’s Museum Miiamilla but it’s also wroth visiting Kadriorg Palace and the small museum dedicated to Peter the Great.
Proto Invention Factory
Located in the foundry of the former top-secret Noblessner submarine factory is Proto Invention Factory, an interactive and family-friendly museum that invites visitors to discover the amazing inventions of the 18th century.
The large-scale Virtual Reality centre allows visitors to fly a hot air balloon, ride on a flying bike, walk along the ocean floor and get behind the wheel of the world’s first car – and more!
Located over two floors, this unique museum is packed full of fun games that the entire family will love.
The NUKU Puppet Museum
The excellent Nuku Museum sits next door to the theatre of the same name. The theatre was established to stage shows especially for children and young adults.
The theatre was established in 1952 and regular shows are staged from September through to spring time. The museum opened in 2007 and the first puppet on display was the owner’s very own Pinocchio puppet.
This museum traces the history of puppetry in Estonia as well as broader subjects of theatre and performance. It’s filled with interactive activities and plenty of encouragement to use your imagination.
One room features puppets from around the world including Pinocchio, the Little Beggar Girl as well as puppets from faraway places such as Indonesia – check to see if you can spot some of them moving.
A handful of puppets can be operated by scanning a QR code and my kids loved watching the golden dragon puppet come to life with a quick tap of the phone.
Further along is a marionette display, including the oldest marionette in Estonia, a young girl called Tiiu that dates back to 1938.
The Cellar of Horrors sounds scarier than it actually is but it does house some of the country’s most fiendish puppet character as well as a very sleepy Snow White.
Downstairs is a room where you can try on theatre masks and another where you can practice your stage vocal exercises, once you’ve got dressed for the part of course. Next door is a room filled with food props for on stage.
Nuku Museum also runs school workshops and we were lucky enough to take part in a shadow puppet making class during our visit.
Maiasmokk, the oldest cafe in Tallinn
In the same way that a bar of Dairy Milk can be used to help heal a broken heart today, marzipan was used during the Middle Ages as a cure for lovesickness.
Tallinn is believed to be the birthplace of marzipan and the man responsible for the best marzipan in town was a Baltic German confectioner by the name of Georg Stude. His marzipan treats were so delicious that they were a favourite of the Russian Imperial family and its court.
In 1864 Stude established Maiasmokk and the café is still open today, creating its trademark marzipan figures (its window display is something else!).
The café is a glorious step back in time, having remained largely unchanged since 1913. Don’t forget to look up at the ceiling.
See where the KGB operated
During Soviet Times the KGB operated in the Viru Hotel. The hotel had been designed exclusively for foreign guests visiting the Soviet Union.
Today, the rooms used by the KGB on the 23rd floor have been turned into a museum. They offer a fascinating insight into life under Soviet rule. Tickets should be booked in advance.
Walk along the City Walls
During the 16th century Tallinn was the most fortified city in the world. At one point the medieval town was fully encircled by thick stone walls that measured three meters wide and up to 16 meters tall. Forty-six watchtowers linked the walls, manned by guards on the lookout for marauding invaders.
Today, nearly 2km of the defensive walls are still intact as well as 20 towers, making it one of the best-preserved medieval fortifications. Today, nearly 2km of the defensive walls are still intact as well as 20 towers, making it one of the best-preserved medieval fortifications.
Two of the best preserved towers are called Viru Gate; the image of these gates is one of the most iconic in Tallinn.
We explored the wall via the Nun’s Tower (or Nunne), which is linked to the Sauna and Kuljala towers, three of the city’s oldest towers. It’s fun to climb the narrow staircases and discover the horseshoe shaped turrets while pretending that you’re a medieval guard – or an invader!
Feast on a Medieval dinner
Step back in time and enjoy a Medieval feast at Olde Hansa, a restaurant located in an old merchant’s house dating back to the 12th century.
The three-story building is furnished with heavy wooden tables and chairs and lit almost entirely by candlelight, just as it would have been in times of yore. The waiters and waitresses are dressed in Medieval gear and chamber musicians serenade you while you dine.
If all of this is giving you horrible flashbacks to a night at Medieval Times, don’t worry! Olde Hansa is a much more enjoyable affair with just the right amount of theatrics and a carefully researched menu that uses only ingredients that were available at the time.
We tried the Master’s Feast set menu. This was a great way to try different dishes such as duck liver pate and oven-baked herb and juniper cheese. For mains we had Burgermeister’s game fillets and grilled salmon with a nut sauce accompanied by Crusader’s Lentil Stew and Ginger Turnip.
There’s also a kids’ menu. Olde Hansa brew their own beer and the light cinnamon beer that arrived in a clay jug was very good. I was less keen on the house wine but you should definitely try a glass when you go.
Telliskivi Creative City
You’ll find Telliskivi Creative City in an old industrial complex. This is the creative heart of Tallinn. The colourful neighbourhood is home to studios, creative companies and offices, as well as some of the Tallinn’s best shopping.
There are lots of shops selling cool local brands. Some of the favourites that we found include Dadamora, a kids’ clothing company where we picked up some sweatshirts and Nu Nordik that sells clothes, jewellery and some fun homewares. I bought a lamp made out of old Soviet glass bricks.
There are also lots of cafes, restaurants, a couple of theatres and some vibrant street art. A flea market held in Telliskivi every Saturday.
Apparently Tallinn is also great for vintage stores, although I didn’t get to visit any when I was there (all the more reason to return!).
Another local brand that it’s worth finding is Bold Tuesday that make fun travel products including posters and tote bags. They don’t have a shop in Telliskivi but you can find their products for sale in various shops there.
If you’re visiting Tallinn with kids who love animals then a trip to Tallinn Zoo should be on the cards. The zoo is home to some 350 species including 47 endangered animals.
The children’s zoo, located at the western gate, is where kids can get up close and personal with animals including miniature goats, alpacas, rabbits, Kihnu sheep, rodents and birds. They can also learn about all sorts of amphibians as well as crustaceans and snails.
One of the great things about the zoo is that from November to April, on the second Saturday of every month, all children up to 19 years old can enter the Zoo for free. In order to get a zero ticket, a student ticket or ID card must be presented at the ticket office.
Tallinn TV Tower
Take a lift up to the 21st floor of the Tallinn TV Tower and emerge onto the highest open viewing platform in Northern Europe. At 175 metres high, you’re guaranteed good views. From the observation deck you can look out over the spires of old Tallinn, the inky expanse of the Baltic Sea and, in good weather, the lights of Helsinki beyond. It’s a fun activity for the whole family.
There is also a cafe and restaurant on the 22nd floor. This floor is also where you can take part in the Walk on the Edge experience. Daredevils are strapped in with safety harnesses and sent out to walk along the edge of the TV Tower. Try it if you dare!
Discover Tallinn’s most Instagram-friendly streets in Kalamaja
The bohemian neighbourhood of Kalamaja is within easy walking distance of the Old Town and is where we spent our last morning before getting the ferry to Helsinki.
Once upon a time it was the town’s main fishing harbour, home to fishermen and fishmongers – the name Kalamaja literally means ‘fish house’ in Estonian. Later, when the railroad connected Tallinn to St. Petersburg this area became home to thousands of workers who arrived looking for work in one the many factories in the area. To accommodate this influx of workers, wooden houses were built and its these that give the neighbourhood its charm today.
Painted in vibrant colours such as yellow, turquoise and green, with bright panel doors, these houses make the perfect Instagram backdrop! Wandering along these bright streets was one of our favourite things to do in Tallinn.
The neighbourhood is home to some great cafes and restaurants too. We stopped by Levier Cakery for delicious cinnamon and cardamom buns.
If you’re visiting Tallinn in May then there’s the annual Kalamaja Days festival with workshops, street food and other activities.
Also in Kalamaja is the Seaplane Harbour, home to the Estonian Maritime Museum. Here, you can explore inside massive submarines to see how Estonian sailors lived under the sea as well as peek around ice boats, sail boats and an enormous ship wreck. There are also lots of interactive displays to keep the family happy.
Eat at Leib, one of the best restaurants in Tallinn
Our dinner at Leib, in Tallinn’s Old Town, ranks as one of our best meals ever. The name Leib means black bread in Estonian and it is black bread that is at the heart of this restaurant. The menu at this farm to table restaurant changes seasonally but there is always home baked black bread on the table – and it’s delicious!
Set within a large walled garden in the Old Town, there’s outdoor seating at large wooden tables with chairs decorated in faux sheepskin rugs, or indoors.
Some of the dishes we tried included Gravad trout from a local fish farm, beetroot tartar and Kalamatsi dairy soft cheese for starters followed by grilled beef fillets and home smoked trout fillet for mains. The menu pairs each dish with its perfect drink, whether that’s wine or a local cider, craft beer or even a homemade liqueur.
The food is outstanding and our meal at Leib ranks as one of our top things to do in Tallinn. The restaurant also welcomes kids and has a children’s menu too.
Ride the City Train
If you’re visiting Tallinn with young kids then you may want to take a trip on Tallinn’s City Train, a blue and white train that meanders along the Old Town streets. It’s a great thing to do in Tallinn when little legs get weary.
Explore the Tunnels
If you’re wondering what to do in Tallinn with older kids then take them to the Kiek in de Kök Fortifications Museum, where you can access the labyrinth of 17th century tunnels that run below the city.
These tunnels were built during Swedish rule in the 17th century. They formed part of the city’s defence system so that soldiers and ammunition could be moved around safely. Some of the tunnels, including these Bastion Tunnels, were later used during WWII by Tallinn residents as bomb shelters.
During Soviet times, the tunnels were upgraded to include electricity, running water and even a phone connection.
The Estonian Open Air Museum
One of our favourite Tallinn attractions was the Estonian Open Air Museum. Set on 80 hectares of land, this Tallinn open air history museum allows visitors to step back in time and see how Estonia has changed in the way that they live.
There are seventy buildings on the site, from all different regions of the country and all, apart from two, are original. That means that the buildings are dismantled and then carefully reconstructed on the museum site.
From the simplest of farm dwellings dating back to the beginning of the 19th century to a farm house from 1909, this brilliant museum charts the history of Estonia through its houses. The museum is currently working on dismantling and rebuilding a home from the Soviet era.
Mariliis was our guide for the day and she was brilliant. We learned how dwellings evolved over the years as well as how the first saunas evolved in Estonia.
There are plenty of good stories to keep the kids entertained too. These included traditional superstitions such as how pregnant women had to wear aprons to protect their unborn child form the evil eye and how you could only get out of bed with your right foot.
My kids’ favourite tale, however, involved that ever child-friendly topic of toilet habits!
In the 1930s the president of Estonia passed a law saying that every house in the country had to have a toilet and sent out a series of inspectors to make sure that everyone complied. At the time, locals found running behind the nearest bush far more convenient. As a result, the inspectors’ reports include statements that some toilets “were as clean as a pantry” or that the “road to the toilet had grown over”.
You can take a horse and cart ride around the museum grounds and this really is a great way to see everything if you don’t have time to stop in all of the houses and the windmills. There’s a restaurant on site, the Kolu Inn, where you can have lunch and an old fashioned sweet shop nearby for dessert.
Pirita Adventure Park
For a fun day trip, head to Pirita Adventure Park, home to nine adventure trails though the trees. There are trails to suit all ages, including two children’s trails stumble for kids aged 2 – 6. Clip in your carabiner and away you go!
See New Tallinn
If you’ve got time on your Tallinn sightseeing agenda then it’s worth wandering through the Rotermann Quarter. Located in between the Old Town and the Passenger Port, the area is home to shops and restaurants, as well as performance spaces. It wasn’t long ago, however, that the neighbourhood was run down and practically abandoned.
It’s an interesting look at how Tallinn is changing. We only had a brief time here but certainly long enough to eat a couple of cardamom buns from RØST bakery!
Go Ice Skating
One of the top things to do in Tallinn during the winter months is to go ice skating. There are several places to get your skates on but the prettiest rink setting has to be on Harju Street in the Old Town. The ice rink is open from the beginning of December to the end of March / beginning of April.
Tallinn three day itinerary
Here is the perfect itinerary to make sure you see the best of the Tallinn.
One day in Tallinn
Explore the Old Town taking time to wander the cobblestone streets, visiting the Town Hall Square and climbing the tower for amazing city views. Don’t forget to stop for pancakes once you’re back on solid ground.
Visit the NUKU Museum of Puppet art and theatre, walk along the city walls and stop for tea and cake in the oldest cafe in Tallinn.
If you have time, explore the 17th century tunnels that run below the city or take a look at where the KGB operated when Estonia was under Soviet rule.
For dinner, head to Olde Hansa and feast on a Medieval banquet fit for a king!
Two days in Tallinn
Take the Tallinn City Tours bus to the Estonian Open Air Museum for a glimpse of what life was like in Estonia in times gone by. You can easily spend half a day here (if not longer) and there’s a cafe on site, the Kolu Inn, where you can enjoy lunch.
In the afternoon, head to Telliskivi Creative City to shop for local designs and photograph the fun street art.
For dinner, make a reservation at Leib, an incredible farm to table restaurant that ranks as one of our favourite meals ever.
Three days in Tallinn
Spend the morning wandering around the neighbourhood of Kalamaja, a bohemian corner of the city popular for its colourful wooden houses (the perfect photo backdrop!).
Stop for a snack at Levier Cakery before heading to the Seaplane Harbour and the home of the Estonian Maritime Museum.
Where to stay in Tallinn
We stayed at the Tallink Spa & Conference Hotel, which is located just outside Tallinn’s Old Town and within easy distance to the ferry terminal for ferries to Helsinki and elsewhere. With large family rooms, an excellent buffet breakfast and a brilliant pool and spa complex, it’s a great option when visiting Tallinn.
For more ideas on where to stay, take a look at the map below, which includes holiday rental accommodation as well as hotels.