Your One-Day Guide to Tallinn, Estonia: Old Town, Kalamaja, and More

Tops of buildings in Old Town Tallinn, Estonia by Ilya Orehov

When planning a trip to northern Europe, Estonia may not be the first country that comes to mind. However, after spending just a day in the country during an overall visit to Helsinki, I’m convinced that Estonia needs to be on the radar of many more people! Check out my guide below for how to spend one day in the capital city of Tallinn, Estonia (in March!).

The first things I want to note about this trip are:

  1. I took an early ferry from Helsinki and returned the same evening.
  2. Estonia is indeed considered a northern-European country, if you ask Estonians.

The country has quite an interesting history, and understandably had a rich culture all its own before being conquered/ruled/oppressed by Germany, Sweden, Denmark, Poland, Russia, and the Soviet Union. Fun! Despite this, Estonia has retained its culture and even done reformation in the areas where war bombings did the most damage. In short, there is much more to Estonia that meets the eye!

Fun fact: Estonia has been on my list for some time due to my affinity for one of their famous singers, Kerli. Kerli specializes in what can best be described as alternative electro-pop, and I highly recommend checking her out if you’re interested in new music!

Without further ado, here’s what to see and do with less than 24 hours in Tallinn, Estonia!

Getting There

Making your way to Tallinn (from Helsinki) is a surprisingly easy process – if you pay attention! I chose to ride with Tallink Silja and take a 7:30am ferry, which would arrive in Tallinn at 9:30am. The journey was overall very comfortable minus a hiccup that was totally my fault.

Basically, here are two things you must remember when taking a ferry – at least, with Tallink Silja:

  1. You absolutely need your passport, since you’re going to a different country.
  2. Boarding closes 20 minutes before the departure time listed on your ticket. I repeat, get to your ferry AT LEAST 20 minutes before your departure time!

I’ll spare you the gory details, but simply put: I hopped onto my ferry with literally less than a minute to spare. It actually ended up departing early, since I was the last person to board *insert tears of joy* but I pretty much had to Usain Bolt-myself up a tall escalator and sprint to the ferry’s entrance.

In short, read your ticket carefully, be prepared, and arrive early – and you should be in for smooth sailing! I elected to have a breakfast included for about 12 euros, and that buffet was a sight for sore (and tired) eyes after I was able to relax and get settled on the ferry. They have a pretty good selection to choose from, but be prepared for some dishes native to Estonia and Finland (I personally loved the unique berry selection)!

First stop: Old Town

After disembarking in Tallinn, you’ll find yourself in the more modern part of the city (I believe it was the business district). However, you’ll notice a bunch of medieval-looking buildings in the not-so-distant proximity – this is Tallinn’s Old Town! Even though it’s arguably a “tourist trap”, Old Town was my top priority since I’m a sucker for old town squares. It also helps that Old Town is a UNESCO World Heritage site!

At this time of morning, you’ll probably find Old Town to be quite deserted. This is great if you’re looking for photo opps! I was obviously traveling solo, so this tripod/selfie-stick hybrid was a lifesaver.

After taking some cool photos, consider popping into one of the shops outside of the main square and get a hot chocolate or perhaps a small pastry. Honestly, it’s worth it to simply wander the Old Town to get your bearings. Later, I highly recommend doing a walking tour if you’d like to get some context to everything that you’re seeing!

Walking Tour

The walking tour that I went on was free (tips-only) and literally called “Tallinn Free Tour”. It departs every day at 12pm, so you’ll have plenty of time beforehand to wander Old Town (and beyond) if you choose!

Our guide was Helen, a native Estonian, and she was so informative and funny that I honestly think this was one of my favorite walking tours I’ve ever been on. We covered countless sites throughout Old Town, from castles to towers to churches. She also gave us some recommendations about places to go in Kalamaja (the “hipster” part of Tallinn) as well as where to eat.

Overall, the walking tour provided a wealth of insight to Estonia’s intriguing history and gave me a greater appreciation for everything that I saw. For example, one of the sites that we stopped at actually used to have tons of houses all around – but they were demolished during one of the world wars. It was amazing to see how resilient Estonia has remained in spite of tragic aspects in its past.

In short: if you only have a day in Estonia and want to learn more about its history while sightseeing, take advantage of the free walking tour! The tourist information center (where the tours meet) is located right off of the main town square, and you’ll see a big green “i” on the awning.

After the walking tour, try heading back to one of the points of interest: The Alexander Nevsky Cathedral, which happens to be across from Tallinn’s parliamentary building. The cathedral is quite beautiful inside, but beware that you will not be allowed to take photos once you enter – bummer.

Lunch at Rukis

After the walking tour wraps up (it takes about 2 hours), you’ll surely be hungry!

Per Helen’s suggestion, I decided to head to Rukis, a cozy cafe in Old Town. After trying it, I can definitely recommend it to you as well!

Rukis has a variety of options – and it appears that their menu may change seasonally – but I chose these delicious mini egg tarts cooked with shrimp and herbs, as well as a berry herbal tea from Rukis’ local garden. I was very happy with both choices, and the atmosphere in the cafe is lovely!

No matter where you choose to grab lunch, don’t miss out on trying one of Estonia’s most distinct national dishes: kama.

Kama is essentially a flour mixture that was traditionally used as a non-perishable, easy-to-carry food that could be transformed with butter or lard, for times when food supply was less than prosperous. Its texture can be somewhat compared to porridge, and is customized with a variety of liquids and toppings to create yummy desserts. Mine in particular had berries mixed in, and I was a happy camper. Beware though, it’s surprisingly filling and you may not finish it!

Exploring Kalamaja

After you’ve had your fill of Estonian food, make sure you leave time in your day to explore Tallinn’s “hipster” district: Kalamaja. Kalamaja used to be a closed-off border zone with industrial complexes, but it’s now a destination for many activities. Telliskivi is especially popular, and it’s considered the creative hub of Kalamaja.

At Telliskivi, you can expect to see a lot of transformed buildings, eye-catching graffiti, indoor shops of nearly any category you could imagine, restaurants, theaters, and more. It’s worth taking the 20(ish) minute walk from Old Town up to Kalamaja, because you’ll get to see more of Tallinn that way. If that’s too far to walk, you could always try public transport! Otherwise, I highly recommend the Maps.me app to navigate your way up to Kalamaja – I’ve mentioned this app before, and I still love it!

If you have room in your luggage (and budget), it’s definitely worth making time to shop in Telliskivi to pick up some unique items. Otherwise, try making your way through the maze of Soviet-era wooden houses to the seafront City Hall, where you can climb to the top and look out over the Baltic Sea.

Before you Go: Mulled Wine and Souvenirs

Depending on what day you go to Tallinn (for example, I went on a Monday) there may be some shops and complexes that are closed. So, if you only have an hour or two left before you head back to your ferry (with THIRTY minutes to spare, perhaps?), I suggest doing a little souvenir shopping and enjoyed a mulled wine to wind down the day.

Helen warned us to not buy any of the supposedly “Baltic Amber” that was in nearly every souvenir shop window, so do what you will with that information! There are plenty of shops all around Old Town, but a lot of them seemed to close by about 5 or 6pm – so keep that in mind.

Since mulled wine is pretty straightforward, you can honestly have it anywhere – but I chose to stop in at Tule Estonia because it was close, central, and looked quite cozy inside (do you see a pattern here?). The mulled wine was the perfect choice to wind down the day, and it cost about 5-6 euros.

Other Activities

Although a lot of my activity in Tallinn consisted of walking from point-to-point, there is are plenty of museums and other things to do and see – especially in the warmer months and weekdays (besides Monday)! There’s also a sea fortress up past Kalamaja, as well as other creative hubs and buildings that may give you a taste of a different side of Tallinn.

Regardless of what you decide to do, give yourself plenty of time to get to the docks and catch your ferry back! Better yet: give yourself more than one day in Tallinn. Honestly, if I could re-plan my trip, I would definitely have added at least one night in Tallinn – preferably on the weekend, since I’ve heard it has a pretty vibrant nightlife.

One more aspect that I want to note is that Estonia has some beautiful nature centers as well. When I originally planned my trip, I was hoping to visit the Viru Bog, beachfront Loksa, and more – largely due to them being featured in some gorgeous music videos that Kerli produced a few years ago. However, these spots are about an hour away from Tallinn by bus, so it wasn’t quite feasible (especially for March). However, when I go back to Estonia – preferably in the summer – I am definitely going to make the time to see some of these more scenic spots!

~

I hope this one-day guide helps you plan a visit to Tallinn, Estonia soon enough! I’m curious: was Tallinn on your radar before this blog post? What other underrated cities would you love to visit?

Disclaimer: This post may contain affiliate links. This is at no extra cost to you, and all opinions and recommendations are 100% my own!

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