As you may have read, we recently went to Tallinn in Estonia. It’s one of those places you don’t really read a lot about, which is partly what attracted me.
After spending a week there, I can completely understand why this is the case.
Like some other areas we’ve visited, the city’s only source of real charm is found in the old town section. Here you can find buildings dating back to the 14th century, although the lion’s share seem to be from the 1800s.
The old town has a very peaceful feeling to it. As we were there in the off season, there were absolutely no crowds. In fact, there were very few people at all, which was a bit bizarre. As Tigger said, “It’s like the place is abandoned.”
Heading into the gorgeous park that is right outside the walled part of the old city will get you around more people. It’s a popular place for runners. The park is a wonderful spot to just sit and relax as time passes by.
During a Twitter chat, I commented about Tallinn’s lack of friendly people as well. An Estonian expat suggested we visit what sounded like the trendy, hipster area of Tallinn known as Telliskivi (aka Creative City) to find something more interesting and friendlier people. It turned out to be about a 20-minute bus ride, so we figured why not?
By the way, buses in Tallinn are very quiet rides. People don’t speak to each other. Even if you spot a couple chatting away at the bus stop, as soon as they’re on the bus silence reigns. I understand it harkens back to the day when Estonia was part of the Soviet Republic, but it’s still a bit unnerving.
Telliskivi was definitely unique in comparison to other areas of Tallinn we had experienced. There were many trendy cafes and restaurants (which isn’t really my thing) with appropriately trendy prices (read: expensive) on their menu. However, it was about as abandoned as the old town.
It should be noted that we visited around lunchtime on a weekday. I expected a bit more people traffic from the lunch crowd, but it just wasn’t there. Judging by the size of some of the clubs and bars, I’m guessing this is an area that comes to life more on weekends and at nighttime.
If you check out their website, there is a lot planned for weekends, including a regular flea market.
I did take the local’s advice and stopped greeting people as we walked, and I dutifully avoided making eye contact. This did seem to help frighten people less, but it made me really uncomfortable. I’m from the Pacific Northwest in the US, and we greet people. On a less busy street, drivers will even wave to pedestrians. In Seattle no less. It’s just how we are.
It’s definitely a clash of cultures.
And, unfortunately, Estonian culture is still strongly rooted in its “how you survive Communism” roots. It’s completely understandable as the country has only been independent for just shy of 25 years. I hear the younger generation is more friendly. Hopefully, between them and the next one the culture will change enough to be more welcoming.
As it is, the city just isn’t an inviting place to visit.
So, having read the above if Tallinn is still on your list of places to visit, here are some tips to help you out.
- If you love the outdoors and are there during warmer months, don’t bother with Tallinn. Go elsewhere and go camping. Over half the country is covered in forest. The rural areas we saw are just beautiful.
- They have a pretty good transportation system. If you get the reusable green card, a one-way trip is 1.1 EUR (about $1.25 USD). If you get a ticket from the driver, it’s almost 2 EUR. You can buy the card (2 EUR “deposit” plus whatever amount you want to put on the card) at many shops. The easiest is from the convenience stores called R Kiosk.
- If you’re arriving in the airport, turn right as you come out of Customs, and you’ll see one at the end of the building. You can get from the airport to the city center by bus fairly easily. Google Maps was very accurate with routes and times.
- If you’ve come by train or bus, there is an R Kiosk shop right there in the station.
- You can get a refund on your green card, but there is only one government building where it can be done. It will likely cost you more to actually get the refund than what it’s worth, though.
- Taxis are pretty reasonable. To go across town (or get to the center from the airport) will cost between 6-10 EUR. If you have a data plan or access to WiFi (the airport has free WiFi but it didn’t work for me while the bus station’s was excellent), you can also use Uber or the startup Taxify to summon a taxi. Apparently, the latter can be used all over Europe. We did use it once in Tallinn, and it was a fantastic app. I can definitely recommend it, and it’s free.
- WiFi is super easy to find all over the city. Some parks and city areas offer free WiFi, too. The best part is none of the ones we tried required anything more than clicking on a “connect” button after the initial connection.
- If at all possible, stay in or near the old town. The city becomes considerably less interesting and enjoyable the further you get from the center.
- If you’re curious about Finland, there is a fairly inexpensive ferry (there are other sites as well) from Tallinn to Helsinki. There are often some great flight deals from Helsinki to elsewhere in Europe, so if you have other places to visit make sure to check that out as a departing airport.
- For groceries, Prima has a better selection but can be a tad bit more expensive. Maxima has slightly better prices. There really isn’t a big difference in cost, though. Prima also has more imported foods.
As far as I’m concerned, Tallinn is one of those places you visit because you’re “in the neighborhood.” I definitely wouldn’t go out of my way to go there, and I don’t think I’d plan on spending more than 2-3 days in the city.
If you want to check out the Baltics, I’d recommend going to Riga instead.
But that’s just my opinion.
Have you been to Tallinn? What was your experience?