The top things to do in picture-perfect Tallinn, one of the best-preserved medieval cities in Europe and a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Stroll the Cobblestone Streets
The ultimate thing to do in Tallinn? Simply strolling down the quaint cobblestone streets. Two of the prettiest are Pikk and Katariina käik. The former is central to many of the city’s highlights; after visiting the Town Square, Pharmacy, and Holy Spirit Church, it’s a spectacular way to get up to Toompea Hill. The latter is a charming hidden passageway of a street located just off Raekoja Plats. It is home to St. Catherine’s Guild, a lovely little collection of craft workshops where you can watch artists create their work.
Climb to the top of St. Olav’s Church
You can’t miss this massive white church with the soaring spire. Dating back to 1267, Estonians claim it was once the tallest building in the world. The steeple has served as a beacon for approaching ships, a KGB surveillance tower, and an accidental lighting rod – the church has been struck by lighting and burned down at least 3 times. If you can handle it, the 258 stairs to the top are well worth the effort and vertigo. The views are absolutely incredible.
Visit Holy Spirit Church
Standing in between Pikk and the Town Square, this pretty 14th-century church was where the sick, poor, and “commonfolk” gathered to worship. It was here, for example, that the first sermons were given in Estonian after the Reformation. Be sure to admire the gorgeous clock and the Renaissance-era pulpit, both of which are the oldest of their kind in Tallinn.
Tip: You’ll need to pay a few Euros to get in to this church, along with most in Tallinn. Carry some change so you can pop into one whenever it strikes your fancy.
Explore Raekoja Plats (Town Hall Square)
Encircled by pastel merchant houses, Raekoja Plats has been the center of Tallinn for the past eight centuries. Historically, it served as a market and meeting place; today, it is home to concerts and events, including the Christmas Market and Old Town Days festival in the spring. The highlight is the Town Hall, the oldest Gothic town hall in Northern Europe. Old Thomas, the cute little weather vane atop the Town Hall, has been keeping watch since 1530.
Pick Up Some Powdered Unicorn Horn at Town Hall Pharmacy
Nestled in a corner of Raekoja Plats, this pharmacy is the oldest continuously running pharmacy in Europe. Generations of the same family ran it from 1581-1911 and they must have done a great job because it was a favorite of the Russian tsars. Legend has it that marzipan was invented here in the 15th century. True or not, the sweet treat was definitely the pharmacy’s bestseller, surprisingly beating out other goodies like powdered unicorn horn and mummy juice.
Listen to the Bells of St. Alexander Nevsky Cathedral
Sitting atop Toompea Hill, this beautiful onion-domed church was built in 1900, when Estonia was still part of Russia. Its location right next to Toompea Castle was not just a happy coincidence. It was intended to serve as a not-so-subtle reminder that Russia was still large and in charge. Today, the church is the main Russian orthodox cathedral and a stunning piece of architecture. The inside is ornately decorated with mosaics and icons and well worth a visit. While the church is closed during services, try and be close by right before or after to hear the impressive church bells.
See the Seat of Estonian Power at Toompea Castle
Home to Estonia’s Parliament, this delightfully pink Baroque building is where the Estonian Parliament meets. It was built during the reign of Russia’s Catherine the Great and incorporates the earlier surviving 14th century towers. Unfortunately, nothing remains of the original 13th-century Danish castle. From the top of one of the towers flies the Estonian flag – tradition has it that whoever's flag flies from the tower rules all of Estonia. Naturally, the Estonian flag is raised every morning with great fanfare.
Learn About Tallinn's Defences at Kiek in de Kök
This massive 15th-century tower houses a museum and some cannonballs that Ivan the Terrible was kind enough to leave when he blew a hole through it during the Livonian War. The name roughly translates to “Peek Into the Kitchen” because the medieval soldiers used to joke that they were high enough to see into the chimneys of the houses below.
Try the Infamous Vana Tallinn at Kohvik Danneborg Café
Possibly one of the more memorable cafes you’ll ever visit, Kohvik Danneborg Café is located on the side of one of Europe’s best-preserved medieval fortifications and reached by a flight of dizzyingly steep stairs. Skip the food and try the infamous Vana Tallinn, a mysterious liqueur that pairs perfectly with a cup of coffee or hot chocolate. The prices are higher than most in Tallinn, but the experience and views are worth it.