For such a small city, in such a small country, Tallinn has established itself as a European technology hub. It is home to established tech companies like Skype, BoredPanda, and many innovative tech startups. Estonia’s bright, technologically advanced future stems from it’s past behind the Iron Curtain. When the Soviet Union collapsed in the 90s, Estonians had to start over scratch. Instead of looking to the past for lessons on how to build a country, they looked towards the future and what technology could do for them. Now, social security numbers, voting, medical records, taxes and all other aspects of day to day life are conducted online. Children are taught to code as early as kindergarten and internet access was declared a basic human right.
For the casual visitor to Estonia, all this means is that you will never be forced to hunt for Wifi, or struggle to make travel plans in advance. Despite looking so far into the future, Tallinn has maintained its past with a quaint, coblestoned old town. Spend two to three days in the city to get an overview of all it has to offer.
Here’s what to do in Tallinn
Explore the Old Town
The Old Town of Estonia is in the style of other large Balkan cities. It looks like something out of a dream or a fairy tale. What I like about the Balkans is how colorful everything is. Bright salmon pink is a popular color in Estonia architecture, as well as greens, yellows, and reds. Some notable parts of the old town are the Parliament building, the old fortress, and the Orthodox church.
Sometimes in Tallinn, the push towards the future can clash with the past. The Monument to Freedom is one such case. The monument is not nearly as spectacular as what it represents. Many Estonians find it to be quite the eyesore.
Check out the Art scene, old and new
Arts districts boarder the city on the east and west. On the east, seek out the Kadriorg Palace, a large baroque palace built by Peter the Great. The palace itself is beautiful inside and out. Now, it is also home to a large collection of classic Estonian and Russian art. The Kumu is a short walk from the palace and home to Estonia’s largest collection of art. The multi story collection features classic Estonian art, international art, Soviet art/propaganda, and is home to rotating exhibitions. I went to SO MANY museums in Europe, and this one was one of my favorites. A lot of the art in the collection was unlike anything I’d ever seen before.
The west side of the city is home to the Tellskivi arts district. Like other arts districts, there’s street art, galleries, shops, food trucks, and hip restaurants scattered through the area. It’s worth checking out because art is always great, but I didn’t find it quite as special as the Kumu. It’s not super different from every other arts district in every other city. I didn’t explore the bars in that area, so perhaps it livens up at night.
Sift through Soviet memorabilia
On the edge of Tellskivi, is the Balti Jaama Turg. The first and second floor of this large market are home to small restaurants and food shops. The top floor is an antique lover’s paradise and a look into a scarier part of history. Scattered among old teapots and toys are old soviet medals and nazi memorabilia. I am quite sure that all the nazi related things you can find here are illegal in the U.S., so while it is a bad idea for a number of reasons to buy anything, it is a bizarre piece of history to see.
Drink with locals and internationals
Like the rest of the Balkans, Tallinn is a cheap place to drink. It takes the euro, but everything is priced low. It can get a little pricy in old town, but there are a few hidden gems.
This is such an old man bar, but I had the best time here. I was grabbing a drink with a couple I met on the bus from Warsaw to Vilnius, and then continued running into. This bar was on a list of Tallinn’s most interesting bars. We walked in only to discover that we were the youngest people in the bar by a solid 40 years. The barman was no nonsense and definitely spoke more English than he let on. We befriended an older Estonia camera-man who was excited to run into an American at his usual spot.
There is a stereotype that people hate Americans or love Americans. In all my travels I found that this isn’t really true. Mostly people don’t really care about Americans, but they are interested in American politics since we affect so much of the world. This man was the first person I met who was genuinely so excited to meet an American. He was the first of several older Estonians who did nothing but thank me. It is an uncomfortable feeling to be thanked by someone simply for being from the U.S., particularly when I vehemently disagree with the current state of U.S. politics. It is also uncomfortable to be thanked when I am 23 and have done nothing particularly remarkable or good for Estonia. However I understood his sentiment, he lived a hard life and saw his life change for the better with intervention from the U.S.
Valli bar may be an older crowd, but it was one of the most interesting and enjoyable experiences I had while traveling. Grab a beer and don’t leave without taking a Milimarkus shot (I won’t ruin the surprise but it involves tabasco).