Choose from 14 Fun Things to Do in Estonia
Nothing remains of the original Danish castle, but three of the four corner towers of its successor, which served as the seat of the Knights of the Sword and was founded sometime between 1227 and 1229, still stand. Each successive ruler has significantly altered the castle, and the current pink Baroque facade dates from an 18th-century rebuilding by Catherine the Great.
The Estonian national flag flies from the 150-foot Pikk Hermann tower on the southwestern corner: tradition dictates that whichever nation flies its flag over Pikk Hermann also rules Estonia. Each day at sunrise the Estonian flag is raised above the tower, accompanied by the national anthem.
You can visit the castle and parliament only with a guided tour. Tours take place on working days and last around half an hour.
Located along the Baltic Sea coast, the Estonian capital of Tallinn is a popular stop on Baltic cruises, welcoming more than 300 cruise ships each season. The Port of Tallinn also receives regular ferries from Helsinki, Stockholm, and St. Petersburg, making it a convenient choice for a day trip or weekend getaway.
Most cruise visitors spend their time exploring Tallinn’s UNESCO-listed Old Town, and the medieval center is easy to take in on a walking tour. Attractions like Toompea Castle, Alexander Nevsky Cathedral, the Museum of Occupation, and St. Olaf’s Church can be reached on foot, but another option is to take a hop-on hop-off bus tour of the city—buses leave from right outside the cruise terminal.
Those wanting to explore farther afield can take a shore excursion to the magnificent Kadriorg Palace, built by Czar Peter the Great for his wife, Catherine, or explore Lahemaa National Park, which stretches along the coast of the Gulf of Finland.
Things to Know Before You Go
- Shore excursions typically include port pickup and drop-off.
- Aside from walking, the easiest way to get around Tallinn is by tram.
- Wear comfortable shoes—the Old Town is full of narrow streets, cobbled lanes, and steps.
How to Get to Tallinn from the Port of Tallinn
Most cruise ships dock at one of the passenger terminals in the Old City Harbor, about a 10-minute walk from Tallinn’s Great Coast Gate—the medieval entrance to the Old Town area. If you aren’t up for walking, bus 2 departs regularly from passenger terminals A and D. Taxis are also readily available, as are velo-taxis in the summer months.
The local language is Estonian, but English is widely spoken. The official currency is the Euro and most shops and restaurants take credit cards. Luggage storage, ATMs, currency exchange houses, and free Wi-Fi are available at the port.
The Old Town is the heart of Tallinn. This compact and largely pedestrian area is an enchanting, atmospheric and often confusing mix of medieval churches, soaring steeples, towers, cobblestone alleys, medieval warehouses and gabled merchant houses. The whole area was once completely walled, with stretches of those walls and 26 towers still seen today. You will likely lose your bearings navigating the winding streets and interconnecting passageways, but that is all part of the charm. Let yourself get lost and you will find yourself drifting through centuries of history.
Significant attractions in the Old Town include Tallinn City Museum and the St. Nicholas Church, which holds an excellent collection of medieval artwork. It is worth walking up to the castle district of Toompea Hill for views across the rooftops of Old Town and across the Baltic Sea. The hill is also home to one of Tallinn’s most iconic sights, the onion-domed Alexander Nevsky Cathedral.
One of the most pleasant things to do, however, is to just relax in one of the many unique cafes that line the streets of Old Town. The main square is filled with cafes and restaurants, but they tend to be busy and expensive. A far better idea is to duck into one of the smaller places on the side streets: Café Chocolaterie Pierre and its sister business, Café Josephine, are highly recommended.
The open-air amphitheater has an official capacity of around 100,000 and hosts the Estonian Song Festival every five years in July, as well as regular rock concerts. The festival was established in 1869, along with the Estonian National Awakening, a period when the country was still under the rule of the Russian Empire. The festival is one of the world’s largest amateur choral events, usually featuring more than 25,000 singers and an audience of at least 100,000.
Next to the concert arena is the 137-foot (42-meter) Song Ground Light Tower where every song festival is opened by the lighting of a flame atop the tower. A photo exhibition of song festival history lines the tower’s staircase and there is an observation platform at the top where you can get excellent views of the Old Town and even, on clear days, the coast of Finland.
The grounds are around two miles east of Tallinn’s old town center, past Kadriorg Park, and are free to visit.
The cathedral, which is Tallinn's largest, was built in a classical Russian Revival style by Mikhail Preobrazhensky between 1894 and 1900 "“ a period when Estonia was part of the tsarist Russian Empire "“ and strategically placed on the former site of a statue of Martin Luther. As a result, the cathedral is the subject of controversy with some Estonian nationalists calling for its destruction.
The cathedral features the onion domes, typical of Russian Orthodox churches, and the interior is filled with mosaics, icons, paintings and ornate gold leaf decorations. If you time your visit to coincide with the beginning of a service, you will be able to hear the full assembly of the church's 11 bells, including the largest in Tallinn.
Alexander Nevsky Cathedral is open to visitors every day and there is no to charge to go inside.