Located at the very top of the Baltics, Tallinn makes you wonder. What does it look like? How’s the atmosphere? Many visitors of the city spend much of their time visiting the “must-sees” like the beautiful architectural buildings, cathedrals and the great museums that Tallinn has to offer. Nothing wrong with that of course, but you will spend much of your time queuing with fellow tourists.
According to our Spotters, it’s a city like no other. It’s small, yet lies next to the never-ending sea. It’s buzzing with new initiatives, but also has the historical Old Town on offer. There’s something for everyone. We’ll take you on a tour and time travel through the city, from medieval ruins to “Museum of the Year 2008”. Here are twelve unique gems spotted by our locals.
This is a short but interesting walkway through the historical part of Tallinn’s seaside. Some time ago the word “culture” in the name sounded like a joke – as the route consisted mainly of graffiti-covered ruins of old industrial buildings, ugly garages, railroad track remnants, and other kinds of odd post-apocalyptic structures. Recently, however, a large section of the route was seriously gentrified and turned into an ordinary town street.
Parts of the route have quite a unique history. For example, take a look at the meter-sized letters “UN” (you won’t miss them) on the old electric plant’s basement. They represent the UN forces checkpoint as seen in the famous science fiction movie Stalker, directed by Andrei Tarkovsky in 1979 – which was shot mostly in Tallinn and surrounding areas.
A pub for meeting people and stand-up
There are not many bars in Tallinn where making friends and mingling is as easy as in Heldeke. This spot has become a popular venue among both expats and locals, which might actually be their secret to making the crowd buzz in unison. The vaudeville-style show venue has an exquisite bar and hosts a range of events, including standup comedy, game nights, quizzes, burlesque shows and even sauna nights. It’s also one of the few spots in Tallinn that host open mic nights.
Game of Thrones convent
The remains of Pirita Klooster (Pirita Convent), dedicated to St. Brigitta, are definitely not an obvious place to visit. You might pass them dozens of times without realizing there’s something interesting to see. Except for a single old wall which you can spot from the road that might clue you in to these beautiful old ruins.
It looks like the perfect setting for a medieval movie or a series like Games of Thrones, and as it turns out, this place was actually used as a shooting location for some historic movies. Another bonus of this spot is that it’s one of the rare places where you can walk alone, without being accompanied by crowds of tourists. Usually, there are only a couple of other visitors hanging around.
Museum of the year
KUMU has been one of the most monumental cultural projects in Estonia since the beginning of the ’90s. This modern structure has gained worldwide recognition and fits into real international dimensions. In 2008 KUMU was declared the winner of the European Museum of the Year Award.
Throughout the building’s seven floors there is space for permanent exhibitions and halls for large-scale temporary art projects. On top of that, there’s an entertainment center, a library, studios for local and international artists, a cinema, music arena, café, restaurant and more. It’s a real hub for Estonian culture and if you have 2-3 free days in Tallinn, then definitely visit this place.
Decaying Olympic grandeur
In Estonian Linnahall means City Hall; however, it’s quite a misleading name for this place at the moment. The building was once the biggest concert hall in Tallinn for the Olympic Sailing Regatta in 1980. Now, the giant concrete and limestone structure looks more like a forsaken Mayan temple. There is no life inside and it is slowly decaying – and that’s exactly what makes this place so special.
This is one of the few places in Tallinn where you can enjoy a view of the bay and city, port and Old Town. During summer and even winter, locals like to come here and share some drinks and snacks with friends. Recommended especially for street art lovers and open urban space hunters, it’s still one of the rawest and most uncivilized areas of Tallinn. The graffiti and overall abandoned look create an untamed vibe; a perfect example of an urban jungle.
Local favorite bar with Soviet chic
Tops is a small cafe situated in the trendy neighborhood of Kalamaja. They serve a variety of beverages and food, including a very Estonian cake that every child who grew up in Estonia has had – a “küpsisekook”. It is simple and tasty and brings back a lot of childhood memories. So if you go there, try it and share the memory of the Estonian children.
The style of the interior is a throwback to Soviet chic with old furniture, books and art on the walls. Every Thursday they have a Femme Fatale night, when female DJs play lovely music. They also invite interesting musicians for small, intimate performances. It’s like having your own guest over. One who happens to play really good music.
One of the nicest corners of the Kadriorg park area is the Japanese Garden. The garden was designed by a renowned landscape designer from Japan, Masao Sone. It has a completely different mood compared to all the other nature retreats you can find in town. The cobblestones, springs, and carefully arranged trees offer a uniquely exotic and calm atmosphere. This spot has lately become popular among locals, so if you want to enjoy the park in solitude, wake up early. It’s best enjoyed in the early morning, right after sunrise, when the city is still sleeping and there isn’t a living soul around.
EKKM is an abbreviation for Eesti Kaasaegne Muuseum, meaning Estonia Contemporary Art Museum. It is located near the harbor, right next to the spot where one of the scenes from Andrei Tarkovsky’s movie Stalker was shot.
The building may look abandoned and run down, but inside you can find an active gallery of contemporary Estonian artists. The public can vote for their favorite piece displayed, and once a year, in June, an award ceremony is held called the “Köleri Prize”. The best artist of the year receives a scholarship and local bands give a concert to support the event. You can also have a look at other exhibitions from fringe contemporary Estonian artists, or even participate in discussion or reading groups.
This store is a must-visit spot for those of you who are ecologically-aware, sustainable, global-yet-locally-minded people (which hopefully is all of you :) so really this is a spot for everyone). Uuskasutuskeskus is a re-use store that collects stuff people don’t need any more. Everything at the store is free or very cheap, making this a great spot to pick up a quirky and affordable souvenir. There are several branches in Tallinn, but the biggest and most central one is located at Tatari 64.
An idea of what to expect: lots and lots of old dishes, vodka shot glasses (which along with some local quality vodka such as Moe could be a great gift), books (some in a bizarre Estonian language), clothes, and furniture. And as a bonus, you’ll certainly meet some interesting local people during your shopping visit.
Experienced travelers know that on cold and rainy days, a cozy gallery provides a warm hideout and aesthetic experience. Hop gallery is one of the hideouts that should be on your list for Tallinn. It’s a small, unique non-profit exhibition space that works with original designs and applied art, with a focus on minimalism. The exhibitions are exchanged quite often, providing fresh perspectives on every visit.
By the way: in 1981, some episodes of the legendary Russian comic-thriller The Hound of the Baskervilles were filmed on this street. Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson spied on Lord Henry right in this area. Together with Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker, it’s probably the most well-known film that was shot in Tallinn.
Kakumäe Peninsula is situated on the western edge of the city’s border. The area is quiet and personal, with a nice beach that usually has almost no people compared to other beaches in Tallinn – probably because of the distance from the city center (about 10 km). Despite the distance, it is well worth it once you get there.
The area feels more like the countryside than a capital city. Plenty of roads for pedestrians and bicycles make for nice walks, and a sports trail was added recently. The water at Kakumäe beach is also warmer than others, because the beach is in the bay. Moreover, the peninsula has a really beautiful dock with a nice view of the city center, and it is one of the best places to view a sunset in the city. All in all, a great spot to walk, rest and restore your mind.
Secret artist bar
NoKu is not just a regular drinking spot, but a bar with a history. It was created during the Soviet times by artists as a reaction to another artist’s bar, Kuku, which had a strict admissions policy. NoKu was a place where artists and other cultured people would gather for a drink. At the time it was closed to the public and you had to have a card to get in – or sneak in with people who went out for a smoke.
Nowadays it’s open to everyone and a local favorite spot for a drink. Be sure to check it out – you can’t miss the beautiful blue-red door on Pikk street. The interior and decorations cultivate a cool ’70s vibe bathed in warm dusky light, overall creating a fun, calm atmosphere for a night out.