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Sitting along the Gulf of Finland on the northern coast of Estonia, Tallinn is the capital of the country as well as its cultural, economic, and historic hub. Tallinn is famous for its Old Town, a preserved neighborhood surrounded by centuries-old city walls and defensive stone towers. Once under the occupation of the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany, today the city thrives more than ever. Dubbed “The Silicon Valley of Europe,” Tallinn has the largest number of startups per capita in Europe and is also home to the headquarters of the European Union’s IT agency. It’s been listed among the top 10 Smartest Cities in the World and has been named a European Capital of Culture. Thanks to its postcard-worthy architecture, cosmopolitan art scene, and eclectic nightlife, Tallinn is the perfect place to get away when you want the comforts of the modern world in an old-world atmosphere.
Tallinn is broken up into 8 administrative districts, each made up of many smaller neighborhoods that boast a unique flavor and vibe. Thanks to Tallinn being a rather compact city, it’s easy to cover a lot—even if you can only visit for a weekend.
Old Town — As one of the best preserved medieval centers in Europe, UNESCO-listed Old Town is the pride and joy of the people of Tallinn. The neighborhood is surrounded by 1.2 miles (1.9 km) of the 14th-century city wall, as well as 20 of the original 49 towers. In the northwest corner of the subdistrict, the Nunna, Sauna, and Kuldjala towers offer visitors the chance to explore the inside of the defense system while gazing out over the whimsical red-tile roofs of Old Town. Back down in the streets, the neighborhood is bursting with fairytale charm, filled with a picturesque mix of cobblestone alleyways, open-air markets, Gothic churches, and grandiose merchant houses, many of which date back to the Middle Ages. While there’s much to see in the way of architecture, the neighborhood is also the cultural and nightlife center of the city, with plenty of restaurants, cafes, galleries, pubs, and nightclubs to suit almost any taste.
City Centre — Hugging Old Town to the east and south, the City Centre is the commercial hub of Tallinn, home to businesses, shopping malls, and contemporary hotels. Stroll through the streets to admire the way the old wooden buildings play against the modern structures built of steel and glass. Despite being the economic and financial center of Tallinn, the City Centre can only claim a handful of skyscrapers, as no building can legally be taller than St. Olaf’s Church, which towers over the streets of Old Town at 406 feet (124 m).
Kadriorg — Continue east to reach Kadriorg, a stately neighborhood sprinkled with 19th-century homes, chic eateries, and cute cafes. The heart of the neighborhood centers around Kadriorg Park, which features elegant fountains, blooming gardens, and trickling streams. The area also boasts the most sophisticated art scene in the city, with the Kadriorg, Kumu, and Mikkeli museums all nestled within the park.
Kalamaja — To the northwest of Old Town along Tallinn Bay, Kalamaja is a former industrial neighborhood that has recently seen a revival. In historic wood buildings and renovated warehouses, find a selection of quaint boutiques, rustic restaurants, and cozy cafes. Often called the “hipsterville” of Tallinn, the neighborhood has become popular with the young and artsy cool-crowd. The most thriving area is the smaller hub of Telliskivi, where you can find flea markets, artist studios, and performance spaces.
Rocca al Mare — Roughly a 20-minute drive west of Old Town, Rocca al Mare is known for its seaside sights, public green spaces, and leisurely bike paths, which make it an ideal escape from the hustle and bustle of the city. Come here to enjoy outdoor recreation or visit top attractions like the Open Air Museum or the Tallinn Zoological Gardens.
Soak in all the city’s most enchanting sights on a double-decker bus tour. With your choice of 3 routes, you can cruise your way past historic landmarks like the Viru Gate, Toompea Castle, and more age-old cathedrals than you can count. If you’re looking to get out of the city, head east to the golden seashore of Pirita Beach or west to visit to the Open Air Museum and the Tallinn Zoo. Enjoy the freedom to see the city at your own pace with the option to hop off at any of the stops along the way to explore on your own.
Dive into the significant yet often tumultuous history of Tallinn at many of Old Town’s best museums. Start at the Tallinn City Museum, which tells the overarching story of the region beginning from centuries in the past. Next, travel forward in time as you visit the Museum of Occupations, which outlines more than a half-century of turbulent history in poignant detail. Gain even more insight into the Soviet occupation at the KGB Museum, which features artifacts including uniforms, cameras, and spy gear.
For art lovers, there’s no place better to visit in Tallinn than the Kadriorg Art Museum. Housed in an 18th-century Baroque palace in Kadriorg Park, the museum highlights work by foreign masters from Germany, Italy, Russia, and the Netherlands. Nearby, the cutting-edge Kumu Museum features Estonian work from the past 4 centuries, while back in Old Town, the Adamson-Eric Museum displays a collection of work from one of the most versatile Estonian artists of the 20th century.
Live like an Estonian from the Middle Ages with a jovial medieval night out. Head to the Olde Hansa restaurant in Old Town, which is housed inside a historic Hanseatic merchant house. Enjoy a hearty meal of regional and classic dishes, including beer-marinated pork, smoked sauerkraut, and saffron pudding. As you feast, enjoy an old-world atmosphere filled with mesmerizing music and period costumes. For a look at the beverage side of the city, pay a visit to the Museum of Estonian Drinking Culture. Dive into more than 100 years of Estonian alcohol production and sample up to 4 wines from around the region.
Visiting Tallinn doesn’t necessarily mean you have to stay in Tallinn. From the ferry terminal, board a boat for a day trip across the gulf to Helsinki. In roughly 2 hours, you reach the capital of Finland, after which you can set off on a bus tour of the city. Gain insight into Helsinki’s centuries of history, and then enjoy time to explore on your own. See sights such as Presidential Palace, Finlandia Hall, and Temppeliaukio Church before returning to Tallinn on the ferry at night.