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Estonia's capital city is only 53 miles across the Gulf of Finland from Helsinki, but for nearly 50 years, as part of the Soviet Union, it was ideologically a world away. That ended in 1991 when the Soviet Union collapsed and Estonia became the Baltic's smallest independent nation.
Today, thanks to its strategic position on the Gulf, Estonia's largest city is thriving. Tallinn, with a population of 410,000, is not only a major port but also a major industrial center. Timber, chemicals, electronics and information technology are all booming industries. Voice-over-Internet calling service Skype, of all things, was developed in Estonia. One of its creators: Jaan Tallinn.
The contemporary city of Tallinn is Scandinavian sleek mixed with Soviet-era concrete. But the attraction for cruise passengers is the remarkably restored, medieval Old Town, which despite a plethora of shops catering to locals and tourists, still feels a part of the 1400's because of the cobblestone streets and medieval architecture that has remained largely unchanged for over 600 years. Walk the winding streets, past ancient towers and the old city wall, and you'll feel like you're taking a step back into a medieval storybook. It is no wonder that the old town is a UNESCO World Heritage site.
Tallinn is artsy and a delightful place to hang out and people-watch from one of the sidewalk cafes. The folks there are no longer restrained, and amid the fairy tale surroundings there is an "anything goes" ambience. The shops, especially the galleries and antiques venues, serve up interesting finds, such as elaborate weavings from textile artists and modern art from local painters; antique shops feature Communist memorabilia (Lenin paperweight, anyone?).
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Handmade woolen sweaters, sophisticated glass art, amber jewelry, juniper wood products, leather goods and fashionable linen capes are just a few examples of locally produced items. The woolen sweaters are every bit as nice as those you'll find in Stockholm and Oslo -- only cheaper. Shops are open Monday through Friday from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m.; Saturday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.; and Sunday from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. In addition to credit cards, most souvenir shops accept U.S. dollars as well as British pounds.
The official language is Estonian. Most tourist shop employees speak English, however. English is taught from first grade on, so it is widely understood by young people. Many buildings in Old Town have informational signage in both Estonian and English.
Currency & Best Way to Get Money
Estonia has been a member of the European Union since 2004. It adopted the euro as its official currency in 2011. For updated currency conversion figures, visit www.oanda.com or www.xe.com. The cheapest way to get money is to use your debit card at an ATM.
Where You're Docked
Cruise ships dock at the commercial port, which is a 15- to 20-minute walk on flat pavement to the heart of Old Town. The cruise season lasts from mid-May to mid-September, with roughly 300 visits a year by cruise ships. As of 2013, a new pier is under construction that will accommodate the industry's largest ships -- and even more tourists. There is also a movement afoot to develop a Christmas markets season for cruise passengers, which would extend the cruise season from late November to the middle of January.
If you don't get your shopping done in town, there are a number of shops next to the cruise terminal that sell locally made souvenirs at competitive prices. The terminal, built in 2012, has a tourist information desk, a currency exchange and a bar. There's also free Wi-Fi.
Cruise lines typically run shuttles between the pier and the edge of Old Town; taxis also line up at the terminal. Taxis will generally take U.S. dollars as well as euros, but it's best to negotiate the price in advance. The hop-on, hop-off Tallinn City Tour bus service takes in most of Tallinn's highlights. Once in Old Town, the going is on foot; several of the streets are pedestrian only. In addition to the tourist booth at the cruise terminal, there is an information center at Kullassepa 4 in Old Town.
Watch Out For
Wear comfortable shoes because the streets are mainly cobbled and quite uneven. Plus, there are a lot of steep hills. As with any tourist center, beware of pickpockets.
Old Town is divided into the Upper Town, which was home to nobility, and the Lower Town, inhabited in the Middle Ages by merchants and artisans. Today, it represents one of the best-preserved medieval cities in the world. One of the main attractions is Toompea Castle (Toompea Hill), the seat of Estonian government since the 13th century. The castle, which has undergone a major rehab, is fronted by a distinctive pink parliament house built in 1773.
In a move to keep Russian culture dominant, Alexander Nevsky Cathedral (Palace Square; open 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily) was built in the late 19th century in the style of Russia's 17th-century Orthodox churches. Toomkirik (also near Palace Square; open 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. daily) is the oldest church in Tallinn (it's believed to date to the 1200's or earlier) and boasts an unusual baroque altar and tombs. Kiek in de Kok -- "Peep into the Kitchen" in low German -- is the tallest cannon tower in Old Town and offers excellent views of kitchens and more. (Komandandi Tee 1; open 10:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesday to Sunday)
Old Town's Town Hall Square is a central meeting place, as it has been since the gothic town hall was built in 1402. This is where the world's first Christmas tree stood in 1441. The square is lined with numerous cafes and winding streets, full of boutique-style shops that peel off from there. And the preservation is so perfect it's almost eerie -- yet incredibly beautiful. At the edge of Old Town near where the ship shuttle drops you off, check out the fragrant Flower Market. It's an excellent photo opportunity.
Been There, Done That
Kadriorg was built in the 1700's as a summer residence by Peter the Great for Tsarina Catherine. Kadriorg means "Valley of Catherine" in Estonian. It is now an art museum located in a gorgeous seaside park. Its main hall is one of the best examples of Baroque art in Northern Europe. It's about a 30-minute taxi ride from the pier.
The Estonian Open Air Museum lies on the peninsula of Rocca-al-Mare, a 25-minute taxi drive west of the city center. The park consists of a range of wood mills, houses and other structures dating to the 17th century. In the summer, folk troupes perform.
If you're interested in shopping, Viru Street has the city's best collection of pricey boutiques (capitalism was fast to catch on here once Communism fell), but you'll find smaller galleries and art shops on Luhike jalg, including the Viron Studio and Luhikese Jag Gallery. Estonian artists are particularly accomplished at textiles and glass. Antique shops like Best Antique Shop (Aia 10) have funky collections that include everything from Stalin busts to accordions. Livonia (Pikk 9) has a fabulous linen and wool collection, among other handcrafted items. (To its right with the pink facade is Everything's Store, a small grocery.)
Seaplane Harbour, a new maritime museum, is housed in the historical seaplane hangars built in 1916-17 as a defense structure for the Russian Empire. The hangars were the world's first thin-shell concrete domes of such volume. Exhibits include the Lembit sub from the 1930's, a century-old steam-powered icebreaker and the only existing life-sized copy of the Short 184 seaplane. There's also a cafe/restaurant with an Estonian/Nordic coastal-inspired menu. The museum is a 15-minute walk from the Fat Margaret cannon tower. It's also a stop on the hop-on, hop-off bus tour. (Vesilennuki 6; open 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. daily, closed Mondays, October to April)
Estonian cuisine proudly displays its peasant origins. Traditional fare includes pirukad, popular baked goods filled with meat and cabbage, and black pudding, a savory blood sausage. Marzipan made the old-fashioned way is also a local delicacy.
Best for a Quick Bite: There are lots of outdoor cafes that fit the bill, but on the ground floor of Town Hall -- now a concert hall -- is a neat little eatery that serves up freshly roasted coffee, beer, wine, cider, pastries, hot meat pies and, a local's favorite, elk soup. Open 8 a.m. to midnight daily.
Best for Local Atmosphere: Kuldse Notsu Korts (The Little Piggy Inn) has tons of atmosphere -- not to mention a roaring fireplace -- and funky food, like beer soup with ice cream and sauna-smoked lamb leg (Dunkri 8; open noon to midnight). Peppersack, housed in a building that dates to 1370, offers up home cooking, such as creamy smoked cheese soup, borsch, grilled pork tenderloin with beer-boiled sauerkraut, herring with sour cream and baked pork shank. (Vana turg 6; open 11 a.m. to midnight daily)
Best for a Luxe Lunch: A popular locals' favorite for a special meal, Olde Hansa is a medieval restaurant offering up everything from bear, wild boar and elk sausage to a "sampler" featuring juniper flavored beef, orange tongue jelly, French royal poultry liver pate, onion jam, quail eggs and herb bread with nuts. Portions are served for those with "mild hunger" or "great hunger." There is outdoor and indoor seating. (Vana turg 1; open 11 a.m. to midnight daily)
Staying in Touch
Estonia markets itself as an "e-country," and it's not kidding. Most Estonians do Internet banking, vote electronically and pay everything from their taxes to their parking on a computer or mobile device. Wi-Fi is available practically everywhere -- in the cafes, on the streets, at the cruise ship terminal. And it's free.
Best for Active Types: Bus from the pier to Rocca al Mare, the Estonian Open Air Museum, where you will collect bikes and head off on a guided tour of the Estonian countryside. Total cycling is 2.5 miles. En route, watch local performers do a folkloric show. Then, head to Old Town for a one-mile walking tour.
Best for First-Timers: Tallinn is really best seen on foot, so if you can walk and don't want to go it alone, join a walking tour (bus tours that get you close to at least some of the sights are also available). Highlights include the baroque Toompea Palace, now home to the Estonian parliament and the onion-domed Russian Orthodox Alexander Nevsky Cathedral. You'll also stop by St. Mary's Cathedral, where more than 100 coats of arms are on display. Stops will be made at scenic outlooks so you can view the walled city over its rooftops. Free time will allow you to explore the shops and cafes around Town Hall Square. The tour may also include a medieval concert at the historic Dominican Monastery.
For More Information
On the Web: Tallinn Tourism or Visit Estonia
Cruise Critic Message Boards: Baltic and Northern Europe
IndependentTraveler.com: Europe Travel Guide
--by Fran Golden, Cruise Critic contributor; updated by Ellen Uzelac, Cruise Critic contributor