Located at the very top of the Baltics, Tallinn makes you wonder. What would it look like? How’s the atmosphere? According to our Spotters, it’s a city like no other one. 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 till ‘Museum of the Year 2008’.
Museum of the year
KUMU has been one of the most monumental cultural projects in Estonia since the beginning of the ’90s. This modern construction has 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 it has space for permanent exhibitions and halls for big 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 so on and so forth. It’s a real hub for Estonian culture and if you have 2-3 free days in Tallinn, then definitely visit this place.
The project of the building was designed and called “Circulos” by Finnish architect Pekka Vapaavuori. It was built in the slope of a natural limestone cliff and today marks the frontier between the center and periphery of Tallinn’s urban space. It’s one of my favorite spots in Tallinn. From time to time I do KUMU tours for international groups here, which gives me the privilege to get free entrance to the permanent collection and all the new exhibitions. Each time I walk through the KUMU halls and atrium I sense that there is truly something special in the air. Maybe it’s the design or maybe I just enjoy the silence. — Nikolai Ostashov
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 built as the biggest concert hall in Tallinn for the Olympic Sailing Regatta in 1980. Now, however, the giant concrete and limestone construction looks more like a godforsaken Mayan temple. There is no life inside and it is slowly decaying, and that’s exactly what makes this place so special to me.
Tallinn is built on the seafront, but unfortunately, due to military urban planning in the 1950s, most of the city was cut from the sea. There are not so many places where you can privately enjoy the view of Tallinn’s bay and city, the port and Old Town – but this is one of the few. During summertime or even wintertime, together with my friends, we often grab some drinks and snacks. Then we walk 10 minutes from Viru Gates along Merepuiestee Str., climb the stairs of Linnahall and have a picnic at the top.
Recommended for street art lovers and open urban space hunters, it’s still one of the rawest and most uncivilized areas of Tallinn. The walls of Linnahall are full of graffiti and some of them are even not that bad. Apart from that, it also gives you an impression of Soviet monumentalist architecture. At the beginning of the ’80s, the project of Linnahall won several international architectural awards. — Nikolai Ostashov
Tops is a small cafe situated in what is currently the trendiest neighborhood, Kalamaja. It is on the first floor of a wooden house and serves cold drinks, coffee and tea, salads, panini sandwiches… And a very Estonian cake that every child who grew up in Estonia has had. I invite you to try a “küpsisekook”. It’s actually a very simple dessert, made for lazy but patient people. You just take some squared cookies, put them on top of each other with some cream, and wait a few hours for them to cool down in the fridge. It is tasty and brings back a lot of childhood memories. So if you go there, share the memory of the Estonian children.
The place is a throwback to Soviet chic. Old furniture, books, art on the walls. There is also a smoking room for those of you who do not enjoy smoking outside. Every Thursday they have a Femme Fatale night, the female DJs play lovely music. They also invite interesting musicians for small, intimate performances. It’s like having your own guest over. Who happens to play good music. Check out their Facebook page for more info. — Diana Pashkovich
Game of Thrones convent
The remains of Pirita Klooster (Pirita Convent), dedicated to St. Brigitta, are definitely not an obvious place to visit. I’ve passed by it dozens of times but never realized that there was something interesting. Except for a single old wall which you can spot from the road. Until a couple of years ago, when I accidentally ended up inside and was positively surprised – those old ruins are absolutely beautiful.
It looks like the perfect setting for a medieval movie or a series like Games of Thrones. It turns out that this place actually was used as a shooting location for some historic movies a couple of times. One more good thing – it’s one of the rare places where you can walk alone, without being accompanied by crowds of tourists. Usually, there are just a couple of other visitors hanging around. — Dmitri Korobtsov
Throwback to Soviet times
Those of you who are looking for a bit of Soviet nostalgia or just some remains from the Soviet Era can go and collect it piece by piece at the Baltic Station Depoo. It’s a fantastic mix of God’s gifts from various ages. Soviet military memorabilia, dishes, jewelry, tokens, posters, vinyl and lots of other stuff. A contemporary, big second-hand clothes market, cheap Chinese products, and hand knitted socks. If you have a bit of a treasure hunter in you, it’s a place that keeps your mind busy and entertained. The place is also full of different street food kiosks. Try the indie borscht soup at the cafe located in the old wagon.
Besides you, it also attracts other kinds of treasure and pleasure hunters. Though it’s not half as dodgy as it might look at first glance. It’s located at the beginning of Kalamaja and Telliskivi, the most hip and, perhaps, already centralized habitation area. You’ll be able to find excellent bars, studios, and great walks between the wooden houses. — Nikolai Ostashov
This is a relatively short but pretty interesting walkway through the historical part of Tallinn’s seaside. The route connects the Linnahall area with the Seaplane Harbor Museum. Only to continue a bit further on to the new Arsenal shopping center. Which is pretty cool as well, as it was built in old military equipment factory premises.
Some time ago “Culture” in the name of the route sounded like a joke – thanks to graffiti-covered ruins of old industrial buildings, ugly garages, railroad track remnants, and all other kinds of odd post-apocalyptic structures on the route. Recently, however, the biggest part of the route was seriously gentrified and turned into an ordinary town street. Generally, I would suggest walking only the starting part of the route – so from Linnahall to Kalarand Fishmarket. Then you can proceed to the Beta promenade or Culture kilometer 2.0 as I would name it.
By the way, part of the route along Kultuurikatel has quite a rich history. For example, take a look at the meter-sized letters “UN” (you won’t miss them) on the old electric plant’s chimney’s basement not far away from Linnahall. They represent the UN forces checkpoint as it can be seen in the famous science fiction movie Stalker directed by Andrei Tarkovsky in 1979 – which was shot mostly in Tallinn and the adjacent areas. — Dmitri Korobtsov
One of those Samsa kiosks you may find at Tallinn railway station, but beware! The area of the railway station looks poor and shabby. And it smells like a cheap food market, railway lubricants, and god-knows-what-else. The walls around it are covered with primitive tags, old posters, and pigeons’ stools. Groups of hopeless alcoholics drink cheap eau de cologne, bums sleep on the benches, dodgy junkies look around for some easy money, and old people spread brochures and words of new Christian religious movements. It’s a Tallinn bottom and the entourage is specific.
The place is dominated by a passengers’ pavilion covered with local dolomite and original arched windows from the ’70s. Right in front of it, in a green kiosk, Russian women prepare national Uzbek pies and cakes. I don’t know how Uzbek they are, but these slightly warmed up pies taste surprisingly good. They taste even better at night as it’s quick and fair food for starving night wanderers and raiders. — Nikolai Ostashov
EKKM is an abbreviation for Eesti Kaasaegne Muuseum meaning Estonia Contemporary Art Museum. It is situated near the harbor, right next to the place where one of the scenes from Andrei Tarkovsky’s movie Stalker was shot. There is a silver sign on one of the big pipes, you can’t miss it.
The building looks 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 as, once a year, in June, an award ceremony is held on the inside yard called Köleri Prize. The best artist of the year receives a scholarship and local bands give a concert to support the event.
You can have a look at other exhibitions from Estonian artists who are on the fringe of contemporary art. Sometimes you’ll get lucky and take part in discussion groups about current art shows. Or participate in a reading group if you’re in Tallinn for a bit longer. Most of the time, credit card payment is not available, so please bring cash. — Diana Pashkovich
One of the latest additions to our famous Kadriorg park area is the Japanese Garden – a hidden corner of the park built several years ago (in 2011). The garden was designed by a renowned landscape designer from Japan, Masao Sone. It has a completely different mood than all the other nature retreats you can find in town. The cobblestones, springs, and carefully arranged trees can offer an absolutely unique atmosphere. Which is best enjoyed in the early morning, right after sunrise when the city is still sleeping and there isn’t a living soul around.
Be warned though: the place has become extremely popular among locals lately. During daytime, I prefer other, less crowded destinations. Still, if you manage to wake up early, I highly recommend you to start the day at the Japanese garden – it’s very relaxing. — Dmitri Krobtsov
I am sure that Spotted by Locals is mostly read by ecological, sustainable, global, yet locally-minded people. People who like things, but not their impact on our one and only Mother Earth. If my guess is correct, then for souvenirs you should head to Uuskasutuskeskus. It’s a re-use store that collects stuff that people just don’t need anymore. They give it up for free or sell it at very low prices.
There are several stores in Tallinn, but the most central and biggest is located at Tatari 64. So, what can you expect? Lots and lots of old dishes and vodka shot glasses (that along with some local quality vodka such as Moe would make a perfectly reasonable gift), books (in a bizarre Estonian language that actually could also come in handy after previously recommended items have been consumed), clothes, and furniture (in case you did not arrive by Ryanair). Along with truly local people and perhaps lost time. — Nikolai Ostashov
Experienced travelers should know that during cold and rainy days a cozy gallery may provide a warm hideout and some aesthetic experience. Even better if the gallery has soft chairs, smooth sound and a classic presentation-session with free snacks, drinks, and easy talk. However, this gallery is a bit different.
At a 2-minute walk from the Town Hall Square, there is a street called Hobusepea (Horsehead’s). I often make an extra turn into this street to check what Hop and Hobusepea galleries are showing today. I like these galleries because they are unique and nonprofit and deal with original designs and applied art. Hop gallery is really small, so you can see everything that is inside without even entering it. It’s minimalistic and strictly visual, so you don’t have to read long and sophisticated additional texts. And last but not least, they change their exhibitions quite often.
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 were spying on Lord Henry right over here. Together with Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker, it’s probably the most well-known film that was shot in Tallinn. — Nikolai Ostashov
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 admission policy.
This was the place where artists and other culture-minded people would gather for a drink. NoKu 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. Now it’s open for everyone but with a 2580 code at the door. Use it wisely and with respect. You can’t miss the beautiful blue-red door on Pikk street.
It’s situated on the second floor and consists of two spacious rooms with heavy vintage furniture and wooden benches. I like it for its ’70s vibe and warm dusky light. The food is regular, but I enjoy just having a drink with my friends in the calm atmosphere. — Diana Pashkovich
For more hidden gems, check out Spotted by Locals Tallinn.