Let me be honest – I find the arrival of giant cruise ships into a port town to be miserable for the rest of us travelers. Thousands upon thousands of people descending into a port town or city, not really having bothered to do any research on it because they will return to their ship by sundown, and just turning the place into a zoo.
Not just the Caribbean, but I have seen this happen in Santorini, Copenhagen and now the Baltics. In St. Petersburg, Helsinki and Tallinn alike, it was evident that things change in the city when the cruise passengers arrive, but in Tallinn it is more pronounced. In Helsinki, I didn’t notice the cruise passengers much at all because Helsinki is a larger city. In St. Petersburg, due to their movement restrictions, I did notice them – but only at all of the crowded points of interest their tours took them to. Walking alone in the streets, I simply didn’t notice it.
But Tallinn, oh Tallinn – for beginners, it is a relatively small city, but to add to the mix, it isn’t really a city where many people visit by plane, so when the cruise passengers are around, you feel it. And when they leave, the city takes on this peaceful, serene feeling to it. Only a sparse population of those of us staying in the city are left behind to enjoy a very quiet Old Town, and what better time than during Golden Hour and the beginning hours of the evening, when the Old Town takes on a different ambiance altogether.
Arriving in Tallinn
The other downside of the Baltic cruise business is that it means the demand for visitors coming by air is limited, so I had to schedule myself just right to make my over from London. After a 2 1/2 hour flight from London’s Gatwick Airport on Easyjet, we touched down at Tallinn Airport. Between the disembarkation, immigration and baggage, I was at the taxi stand probably within 30 minutes – it was a breeze. Then a quick 10-minute drive to my hotel at the cusp of the old town, Hotel Palace. Just gives you an idea of how compact and manageable this city is.
Hotel Palace is ranked #2 on Tripadvisor, so I decided to splurge a bit more to stay here. Overall, it is a nice hotel, but when I went up to my room on the 7th floor, I realize it was in the roof of the building -a slanted roof with a skylight instead of a window. I was pretty happy with the hotel otherwise, but that angled roof and skylight made me mildly claustrophobic. Anyhow, I got over this fast and got myself ready to take a walk through Tallinn’s beautiful Old Town.
Exploring Tallinn’s Old Town
As I arrived in the late afternoon, the Old Town had a deserted feeling. I guess most cruise passengers had returned to their ships, so I got the best of things -a the sun starting to mellow out and empty streets. I also spent part of my second day here exploring some more.
The great thing (maybe not so great for some people) is that there really is not at all a focal attractions or focal attractions in Tallinn. No Eiffel Tower, Church of Spilled Blood, et al. Just a lot of beautiful, mellow and colorful architecture.
The Upper Town
While the Take your time exploring – there really is no rush. I love my viewpoints, so Patkuli at the north end of the Upper Town uphill from the main part of the Old Town, offers a lovely view looking out at the sea and spires of Old Town.
Kohtuotsa is just a few minutes walk to the south, and offers another interesting perspective of the town, BUT honestly, both viewpoints are interesting for 5-10 minutes and then you are done. I would pick your viewing points carefully to avoid over-saturation. Looking at the same view over and over just becomes boring.
As a preview to my St. Petersburg church, possibly the most beautiful church in Tallinn is the Alexander Nevsky Russian Orthodox church, a homage to both the Soviet past of Estonia and the large Russian population that forms a part of Estonian society. Also notable is the cute small St. Mary’s Church, and that really sums up the main highlights of the Upper Town. There are other things to do with varying degrees of historic interest. One time pass I came upon is the giant, round tower of Kiek in de Kok, which is joined with a series of passages with cafe/restaurants and viewing points and terraces.
I can’t say the views were particularly great, but there is a semi-interesting museum of history encased inside the different layers of the tower, mostly focused on military history.
The upper tower is pleasant because it is much quieter and emptier than the lower portion of the Old Town, mostly because far more tourists wander by the Old Town square and it is still a place with a lot of housing for people who live in Tallin, while the upper town mostly consists of historic and government buildings.
The Lower Town
Like many of your European cities with an “Old Town”, everything is centered around a square, which of course is filled with a bunch of restaurants of average quality and outdoor seating. I randomly walked around a couple of times in the lower town. Compared to some of the other old towns I have been in, such as Krakow or Prague, the crowds are FAR less maddening and the vibe is much less commercialized and more pleasant and easy-going. I definitely recommend a walk through the arches of St. Catherine’s Passageway, but really nothing is a must see.
Kaerajaan is on the Town Square, where most of the restaurants are mediocre and overpriced, but surprisingly, Kaerajaan actually has some good reviews and served up some delicious fare, including a chicken served in cherry sauce I never imagined I would enjoy. Most of the dining in the Old Town is fairly touristy, so when I really did not feel like waiting an hour or two to complete my meal, I figured the Beer Hall just a throw away from the Old Town Square would be a quick meal of sausages and beer, and it was. There are a few nice cafes as well, but most of the restaurants seem to be reviewed as touristy and mediocre.
A Change of Scenery
The Old Town is great and dandy, but I was sick of it early into the second day and decided to visit a few of the points outside of the Old Town:
- Modern downtown Tallinn
- Kadriorg Park
- Seaplane Harbour
First things first, Uber is a fantastic and inexpensive way to get around Tallinn, bu there were some regular taxis as well. The drivers I dealt with could communicate in at least a little English, which is not surprising in Tallinn or Estonia.
My first stop was to simply end my walks around the Old Town, head east and walk straight out to Tallinn’s modern downtown. You have all of your usual suspects lined up – hotels, shopping malls, coffee shops, stores, you name it. I can’t say it is terribly exciting, but it was always interests me to spend a little time to get a feel for what daily life is like in a city.
The Hotel Viru is in downtown, and houses a KGB museum, which unfortunately is restricted to guided tours at certain times. With mixed reviews and a tight schedule, I opted out, despite my love for the history of dictatorships.
Besides Uber and traditional taxis, you may or may not find Tallinn’s squeaky-clean tram system (with most of the lines on newer tram cars) to be useful to your travels, and the fare is extremely reasonable at 2EUR, paid to the driver.
Squeezed between the port, downtown and Old Town is a very tiny old industrial area known as the Rotterman Quarter. Some guide books seem to go a little ga-ga over this area, but frankly, I found it to be very small and despite being pushed as a design district, there is not much in the way for the average visitor to really experience that concept, with only a couple of concept stores and most of the architecture still being very much industrial. To be honest, I would skip it unless you really are bored.
My next stop was due south to the Kadriorg District. This is Tallinn’s “Central Park”, providing some much-needed green space to the city.
The showpiece of this large park is Kadriorg Palace. Versailles is isn’t, but the Baroque Palace built for Catherine I is still pretty in pink and hosts some very nice flowerbeds and fountains in front. After enjoying the beauty of the setting out front, I made my way in to the palace, which now serves as a semi-decent art museum – BUT the real fun is to imagine the real function of some of the beautiful rooms inside in a different century – and there is absolutely cute cafe inside.
The park is not just the palace – besides the Luigetiik lake, there is a ton of greenery and a chance to relax and people-watching: folks watching their dogs, older women out for some exercise, women taking their strollers out for a walk. I highly recommend a stop into the acclaimed KUMU art museum or maybe just a leisurely hour at one of the park restaurants close by the entrance.
My final stop was the Seaplane Harbour. What did I learn from Seaplane Harbour? I love to fly but I can’t say I am in love with the idea of going to museum full of seaplanes. True plane fanatics will fall in love with this place.
Tallinn is a beautiful small city. In mid-September, the weather was just about perfect. HOWEVER, I did become bored of the Old Town in just 1 1/2 days and ended up heading out to Kadriorg Park and the downtown area to kill time. If I came back, I would love to take a day trip or two out of the city to see some more of the country than just it’s main city.