Tallinn Estonia sits on the Baltic Sea in Northern Europe. Although it borders Russia, Tallinn is only two hours from Helsinki, Finland and you definitely get that Nordic feeling. Tallinn has definitely moved on since its independence in 1991 and has truly left the dark days of Soviet occupation behind.
Tallinn had been on our ‘must-visit’ list for years and during February 2019 we finally made the trip. Yes, we chose to go in February when the average high temperature is -2°C and a low best described as “bloody freezing“.
So what about Tallinn as a city break destination in the winter, should you grab your balaclava and take the trip?
We flew from Heathrow with British Airways as part of their city breaks package, this includes flights with luggage and a stay in the 4-star von Stackelberg Hotel. These BA rates can be very reasonable, especially during the off-peak periods (by the way, we were not sponsored, gifted or paid etc, for this trip in any way).
The flight time to Tallinn was just over two and a half hours. The airport is close to the city centre and a ‘proper’ taxi to the Old Town was just €9.
As we landed, we were greeted with a snow-covered landscape, a beautiful Baltic sunset and the news that the weather over the weekend would be dry and sunny with a positively balmy temperature of 3°C. We had avoided the -10’s of the previous week.
Day 1 – Tallinn Old Town
A UNESCO world heritage site, Tallinn old town is divided into two, the upper town on Toompea Hill which overlooks the city walls and towers of the lower town.
Toompea is the location of the beautiful Alexander Nevsky Cathedral A Russian Orthodox cathedral built in the late 19th century when Tallinn was part of the Russian Empire. As you would expect from an orthodox cathedral there are lots of very ornate gold icons and priests who vaguely remind you of Rasputin.
Opposite the cathedral is Toompea Castle which is now home to the Estonian parliament Although it now has a baroque facade the first stone castle was built here in the 13th century. Remains of the old castle can be seen in parts as well as the tower ‘Tall Herman’ which proudly flies the Estonian flag which is raised every morning.
Not far from Toompea Castle is St Mary’s Cathedral (Dome Church) with its baroque bell tower. The church contains numerous tombstones dating from the 13th century.
Despite the presence of these grand cathedrals unlike many other former Soviet occupied countries, Estonia is very progressive and one of the least religious countries in the world.
If you walk down to the lower town via the Danish King’s Garden you will stumble across the sculpture of three monks, quite spooky if you discover it in the twilight when no else is around.
The lower part of the old town is surrounded by one of the finest examples of preserved medieval city walls in Europe. First constructed in the 13th century and later enlarged and strengthened there is still over a mile of wall remaining complete with 26 defence towers.
In the centre of town, you’ll find the gothic town hall and the town hall square. Opposite the town hall is the intriguing Raeapteek, a pharmacy which has been open since 1422 making it the oldest continuously running pharmacy in Europe.
Just a few minutes from the square is St. Catherine’s Passage. This hidden walkway with its 15th century buildings is home to many little workshops where artists, potters and glassblowers still use traditional methods to create their products.
While we’re in the old town just a quick mention of the food and drink. While it may not be as cheap as some of the neighbouring countries the quality and choice is excellent. We paid about £55 for a meal for two of a standard you would expect to pay a few hundred pounds for in London. Also, if you are vegan, there are LOTS of places for you to eat good food.
Day 2 – The Seaplane Harbour And Baltic
Just 20 minutes walk from the old town is the Lennusadam Seaplane Harbour maritime museum. The museum is housed in a vast, reinforced domed concrete hangar which was built over one hundred years ago. The hangar was used by seaplanes until the Second World War.
In 2006 the building was restored and became the home to the Estonian maritime museum. One of the best exhibits is the 1930’s submarine called “Lembit” and yes, you can go inside it.
There are also a number of ships moored outside and you get a great view of the ferries heading across the Baltic to Finland.
Heading back into the old town, one of the grim yet interesting little museums are the KGB prison cells at Pagari 1. This building was the location of the KGB and was a symbol of Soviet oppression in Estonia.
There are a number of other museums that may be worth visiting depending on your interests including the Kumu Art Museum, Museum of Photography, the Viru Hotel KGB Museum and the Estonian History Museum. Check the opening times as many museums seem to close on Mondays.
So that was our two days in Tallinn, we were very lucky with the weather having sun and blue skies for two days, we could even sit outside for coffee in the town square. Everything was open and the crowds were minimal although on the weekend we would still advise booking the better restaurants.
So overall we recommend visiting Tallinn in February but don’t blame us if it is -12°C when you visit and your eyelids freeze.