There is no question that Old Town has a lot to offer any tourist – from backpacker to cruiser just in port for the day. We arrived in Tallinn at the end of Summer, still in the height of the tourist season. And while all of Tallinn travel can be rewarding, we found the true gems to be outside the UNESCO-listed Old Town.
However, despite the hordes of -ahem- large, American cruise tourists we found in every nook and cranny of Old Town, once we stepped outside, into the surrounding areas, we found that we were often the only tourists present – which, while a welcome surprise for us, was shocking. In fact, while we stayed in, and loved our time in Old Town Tallinn, it was what lay outside it that charmed us the most.
Heres a rundown of our favorite things to see, outside the Viru Gates and off Toompea Hill:
- Patarei Prison – an old Imperial Russian cum Soviet cum Estonian prison that visitors are free to walk through (entrance fee – 3EUR). Its right on the harbor, and less of a curated experience than the Karosta Cietums in Liepaja, Latvia, or the various KGB museums of the three nations. Theres also a great cafe on the water outside the gates of the prison where you can enjoy a snack or a beer overlooking the water. On a clear day you can see Finland!
- – a former Soviet concert and event venue (built in 1980 as a place to watch the sailing events in the Moscow Olympics), is a concrete monolith fitting for Aztec style human sacrifice. It has great views and looks almost as if it has some sort of cosmic orientation the way it is laid out in such perfect geometric symmetry. Its also where kids and bums go to drink – so best to go there while its light out.
- Balti Jaama Turg – the Russian Market. Its no secret that David and I love visiting the sketchier markets of the former Soviet Union. Balti Jaam was a great example of one such market. Decidedly less sketchy (and therefore a bit more expensive) than the Latgales Market in Riga, it was a great place to load up on Soviet memorabilia, and to take in some of the darker underbelly of Tallinn – quite a contrast to the Disney-like setting of Old Town, even though its only a ten minute walk from the top of Toompea Hill! You may have to walk around a bit to find the souvenirs/antiques, but take your time and youll be rewarded. I had read before coming that this market was sketchy and that I should watch my wallet, but this seems like sensasionalist hoopla to me. Just dont be any less aware here than you would be anywhere else, and youll be fine.
Some honorable mentions go to the Kalamaja District as a whole (I am a sucker for original wooden architecture), and the Lennusadam Seaplane Museum (especially the Surr Toll ice breaker ship still moored in the harbor next to the museum) – but the three sights listed above really did it for us.
We stayed in a lovely airbnb (as we do most everywhere we travel nowadays) in the Old Town – actually, the exposed stone in our apartment is actual Old Town city wall! – but were we to do it over, wed probably stay in the more affordable Kalamaja District.
Logistically speaking, we walked literally everywhere in Tallinn, within Old Town and outside. If you dont mind hoofing five or more miles, you should be fine to walk – but a taxi to the furthest point we visited, the Lennusadam Seaplane Musem, should cost less than 10 EUR from the center of Old Town.