Things to Do in Estonia
With its largely-intact 13th-century city plan, original cobblestone streets, gothic-spired buildings, and vibrant dining and nightlife, Old Town (also known as Vanallin) is arguably the heart of Tallinn. Named a UNESCO World Heritage Site, visitors from around the world come to Tallinn to experience the best-preserved medieval city in all of Northern Europe.
This large and ornately-decorated Russian Orthodox cathedral is a well-known and picturesque building in Tallinn’s Old Town (Vanalinn). Perched atop Toompea hill, across from Estonian parliament buildings, the onion-domed church is popular amongst visitors and those practicing the Orthodox faith. The church is dedicated to St. Alexander Nevsky—the Prince of Novgorod and Russian hero who drove away German invaders in the 13th century.
Built on a hill on the edge of Tallinn’s Old Town, Toompea Castle was originally built over the remains of a 9th-century fortress by Danish invaders in 1219. Since it’s 13th-century founding, the castle has been the seat of succession across many centuries (and for many different ruling foreign powers), but now is Riigikogu—Estonia’s parliament building.
Kadriorg Park is a 173-acre area that was built in 1718 under the orders of Russian tsar Peter I, with additional sections having been designed and created over the past few centuries. Within the park you will find Kadriorg Palace, which was originally built as a summer home for the tsar and his family and now serves as the presidential palace and a branch of the Art Museum of Estonia. While the palace was being built, Peter I, also known as Peter the Great, lived in a cottage on the property, which is now a museum. The rooms are furnished with items from that era, and some of his personal belongings are on display as well.
The area near the flower beds surrounding Swan Pond, as well as the promenade leading from the pond to the palace, are popular routes for a stroll through the park. There is also a newly added Japanese garden designed with plants that were chosen to fit with Estonia's colder climate.
Within the park, there are also a number of museums, including KUMU (the Estonian Art Museum), Kadriorg Art Museum, the Mikkel Museum and the Eduard Vilde Museum. You will find several monuments as well, each dedicated to cultural figures such as sculptor Amandus Adamson, author F. R. Kreutzwald and artist Jaan Koort.
Estonia’s biggest national park,Lahemaa National Park (Lahemaa Rahvuspark), covers 72,500 hectares of wetlands, pine forests and seashore on the Baltic Sea. The crenellated coastline wends its way around horseshoe-shaped bays and finger-like peninsulas, while inland forest, lakes, waterfalls and peat bogs are interspersed with tracts of rocky soil scattered with erratic boulders dumped at the end of the last Ice Age.
Much of Lahemaa has been protected from development as it was classed as military land during Russian occupation of Estonia; there are abandoned Soviet submarine stations still to be seen across the park, slowly falling into dilapidation. Today tourism is king and accommodation in the park varies from campsites to historic manor houses found along the 40 km (25 miles) of cycling and hiking trails. Thanks to the lack of development in the area, Lahemaa is home to many species of birds, including cranes, storks and dippers, and several mammals very rarely seen in Europe, such as beavers, moose and even the occasional – but very elusive – lynx, wolf or brown bear.
In 1718, Peter the Great, the Russian tsar at the time, ordered a palace to be built in the then-newly designed Kadriorg Park. The palace, designed by Italian architect Niccolo Michetti, was originally built to be the summer home for Peter I, Catherine I and their family. The baroque palace is surrounded by manicured gardens, houses a branch of the Art Museum of Estonia called the Kadriorg Art Museum and today serves as the presidential palace. The museum has hundreds of 16th- to 20th-century paintings by Western and Russian artists on display.
Several interesting side buildings surround the palace, including a restored kitchen building that is now the Mikkel Museum. Peter the Great's cottage is also on the property and is now a museum where visitors can see some of his belongings and what the rooms might have looked like at the time. The palace governor’s house is now home to the Kastellaanimaja Gallery and the Eduard Vilde House Museum.
Palmse Manor (Palmse Mois) is one of several manors within Estonia's Lahemaa National Park. This baroque structure is now an open-air museum and was the first fully restored manor complex in the country. The first documentation of the Palmse Manor was in 1287 when it was part of Tallinn's St. Michael's nunnery, but after that ownership changed hands several times. Today it is managed by the Foundation Museums of Virumaa, and all of its buildings are under state protection as architectural monuments.
At the museum, visitors can learn about Estonian manor life and architecture while surrounded by the natural beauty of the park. There are various activities at the manor designed for children, history enthusiasts, adventurers and romantics, as the open-air space includes parks, gardens and historical buildings, as well as a Palm House, a wine cellar, a cafe and a tavern serving national dishes. It is also a popular venue for exhibitions, plays, concerts, training events, conferences, weddings and receptions. For visitors who want a longer visit, there is an onsite guesthouse that can hold up to 44 people.
With an official capacity of around 100,000 people, the Tallinn Song Festival Grounds (Tallinna Lauluv?ljak) is an outdoor concert venue that plays host to multiple entertainment and music festivals every year. It is best known as the site for the Estonian Song Festival (which is held every five years) and as the birthplace of the Singing Revolution.
Built between 1402 and 1404, Tallinn's GothicTallinn Town Hall (Tallinna Raekoda) building is the only Gothic town hall building in northern Europe that remains intact, sitting as the centerpiece of Tallinn's main square. The structure was originally a meeting place for rulers, though today it is mostly used for hosting visiting presidents or kings, as well as for concerts. The impressive interior features colorful meeting halls, vaulted ceilings, intricate wood carvings and some of the city's most prized artwork, including the famous Tristan and Isolde carved bench. At the top of the Town Hall's spire sits a weather vane called Old Thomas, which is a symbol of the city and has been there since 1530.
Town Hall Square is filled with outdoor cafes and hosts open-air concerts and festivals, such as the summer medieval Old Town Days celebration. In July and August, Tallinn Town Hall opens up to visitors as a museum with exhibitions in the cellars. From late June through August, visitors can climb the 64-meter (210-foot) tower for gorgeous views of the city. In the winter, this is where you'll find the Christmas markets.
The Seaplane Harbor (or Lennusadam in Estonian), Tallinn's maritime and seaplane museum, features exhibitions in seaplane hangars that illustrate Estonia's maritime and military history. The exhibits represent three different areas: below sea, on the sea and in the air.
One of the main highlights is the 600-ton, British-built submarine Lembit. Built in 1936 for the Estonian navy, the submarine served in World War II under the Soviets and remained in service for 75 years until it was brought ashore in 2011. Lembit is still in excellent condition and offers a look at 1930s technology.
Also featured at the museum is a full-scale replica of Short Type 184, a British pre-World War II seaplane that was also used by Estonian armed forces and was the first aircraft ever to attack an enemy’s ship with an air-launched torpedo. The replica in Seaplane Harbor is the only full-size representation of the aircraft in the world. Other attractions include historical ships, including Europe largest steam-powered icebreaker.
More Things to Do in Estonia
Pirita is a section of Tallinn located just a few miles west of Old Town and city center. Dating back to at least the 15th century when a convent was founded here, the area hugs the coastline, where many people enjoy spending time on the beaches. Pirita Beach is the largest and most popular stretch of sand, running for 1.25 miles (2 kilometers) and including a good view of Old Town and the ships in the Gulf of Finland. There are ball courts, playgrounds, lockers, chaise lounges and water sport equipment rentals here, and during summer, up to 30,000 people visit the beach each day.
There are forested parks a little farther in from the coast, the Tallinn Botanical Gardens on both sides of the Pirita River and the entire Pirita River Valley. Also nearby is the Forest Cemetery and the Tallinn TV Tower. The Pirita Promenade paves the way for pedestrians, cyclists and skaters while connecting Kadriorg to Pirita. Visitors can also enjoy Pirita Adventure Park, complete with six different tracks involving rope bridges, nets and more. Throughout the area, you'll find trails for cycling, jogging or walking and even cross-country skiing in the winter.
Founded in 1233, the Dome Church (Toomkirik) was historically used as burial grounds for Estonia’s elite and noble families. The church, which was continuously rebuilt over the centuries, is a unique blend of architectural styles with its main frame built in the 15th century while the baroque tower was added later in the 18th century.
At 1,030 feet (314 meters), the Tallinn TV Tower (Tallinna Teletorn)is the tallest building in Estonia. Construction began in September 1975 and took five years to complete; the official opening was on July 11, 1980, and it's been a city landmark since.
Visitors can get a panoramic view of the city from 175 meters up after taking a 49-second elevator ride. Before heading up, visitors are shown a 3D film about the tower, and there's also an interactive Estonian Hall of Fame exhibition on the greatest achievements of Estonians through the ages and a fascinating overview of the history of the tower itself. At the viewing level, a special panorama program magnifies the view by a factor of 10. The floor even has glass panels that allow visitors to see down to the ground. A cafe sits on the 22nd floor and serves fine cuisine at night and hosts live music on the weekends.
Especially daring visitors can participate in the tower's Walk on the Edge feature, in which participants can walk on the outdoor ledge of the viewing platform while safely attached to a harness. There's even a repelling option where visitors can repel from the ledge of the tower.
The Kumu Art Museum (Kumu Kunstimuuseum) is the main branch of the Art Museum of Estonia and is also the largest and most impressive exhibition venue in the country. The museum opened in February 2006 and in 2008 received the European Museum of the Year Award.
On both the third and fourth floors are collections of Estonian art starting from the early 18th century. Art from before World War II is also exhibited on the third floor, and on the fourth, an exhibition of works from the Soviet occupation period is on display. On the museum's fifth floor, find a modern art gallery and exhibitions of contemporary art from Estonia as well as other countries.
Each year, 11 or 12 rotating exhibits are displayed, half of which come from Estonia, while the other half is made up of international pieces. The museum also has a 250-seat auditorium for film programs, performances, concerts, seminars and conferences; an educational center with programs and courses for different age groups; and a library with the widest collection of art literature in Estonia.
Freedom Square (or Vabaduse väljak in Estonian) is at the southern end of Tallinn's Old Town. Throughout history, the square has been called the Straw Market, Peter's Square and Victory Square. Construction and redesigns of the historic area began in 2008, and a year later on Victory Day (June 23) the new Freedom Square was opened. As part of the new features, the Victory Column monument was unveiled as a memorial to the 1918-1920 War of Independence.
Today the square is lined with benches, cafes and two art galleries. It's a popular gathering place and is also a good place to see evidence of the city's 1930s-era building boom. You'll see art-deco and functionalist buildings on two sides of the square.
Tallinn's older history can be seen here as well. There is a glass panel in the street on the northwest corner where you can look down and see the foundation and stairs of the Harju Gate tower that stood here in Medieval times.
In 1972 the Hotel Viru opened its doors welcoming guests into the modern high-rise, but concealed within the new hotel’s walls was a secret communist radio center used to spy on guests. While the Communist party may have fled the country once Estonia claimed its independence in 1991, the radio center, now known as the KGB Museum, remained on the top floor of the hotel.
Inspired by Scandinavian open-air museums and founded in 1957, the Estonian Open Air Museum (Eesti vabaõhumuuseum) is a collection of rural farmhouses and other historical buildings from the 18th to the 20th centuries. It is a unique glimpse into different architectural styles found across Estonia, and examines various social strata and celebrates daily life in the countryside.
Built around 15-feet high, five-feet thick, and a mile and a half long, the defensive wall of Estonia’s capital city was first constructed in 1265. Though the original wall was altered and strengthened in the 14th century, only a few sections of the masonry ramparts, and 26 of its defense towers, exist today. Travelers can walk along the base, through passageways, and on top of some of the sections of the wall.
Partake in a meticulously researched and crafted medieval meal at this restaurant in Tallinn, Estonia. The chefs at Olde Hansa have scoured old texts in order to recreate dishes, using indegenous ingredients, from Hanseatic traditions. Not only is the food authentic Middle Ages-era cuisine, but the atmosphere, including roving troubadours, wall murals, and server outfits, all reflect this bygone era.
Located along the Baltic Sea coast, the Estonian capital of Tallinn is a popular stop on Baltic cruises, welcoming more than 300 cruise ships each season. The Tallinn Cruise Port (Tallinna Sadam) also receives regular ferries from Helsinki, Stockholm, and St. Petersburg, making it a convenient choice for a day trip or weekend getaway.
Prangli is one of more than 1,520 islands sitting in the Gulf of Finland off the Estonian coast; it is a haven of tranquility, a rural backwater island still mainly given over to agriculture and making a perfect day’s escape from the urban maelstrom of Tallinn. Along with the minute islets of Aksi and Keri, the island forms part of a tiny archipelago that emerged from the sea 3,500 years ago and sits 19 km (12 miles) offshore northeast of the city. It’s just 6.5 square km (0.19 square miles) in area, but despite its diminutive size, Prangli supports a community of around 100 in its three villages of Idaotsa, Kelnase and Lääneots and it has a small museum showcasing island life since the 13th century, a cultural center, a store selling souvenirs, and the remnants of a former Soviet watch tower as well as a sprinkling of wooden cottages painted in cheery colors.
However, the island’s chief claim to fame is its spectacular natural beauty; the crenellated coastline hides little coves and stony beaches punctuated with fir trees; there are swathes of juniper and pine forests, stretches of rolling sand dunes and boulder-strewn silvery seas glinting under the Baltic sun. Prangli is known for its summertime fogs as the heat of the
sun makes the sea steam, while all year around there are spectacular sunsets to reward a day’s exploring.
Located on the right bank of the Pirita River, the Tallinn Botanic Garden (Tallinna Botaanikaaed) is the largest and most biodiverse botanic garden in the country. From its modern row of greenhouses—home to foreign, exotic, and local plant varietals—to the more than 6,000 plant species spread out across hundreds of acres, this botanic garden is perfect for plant enthusiasts and casual visitors alike.
The Vabamu Museum of Occupations and Freedom in Tallinn traces the history of Estonia during its occupation by the Nazis and then the Soviet Union from 1940 to 1991. By charting the crimes against Estonia’s peoples and their fight for freedom during these periods, visitors can gain a poignant window into the country’s recent past.
Situated in Tallinn Old Town, Tallinn Legends offers an immersive journey through key events and places in the city’s medieval history. Theatrical and interactive experiences featuring actors, mechanical figures, and special effects bring the bygone city to life in dramatic and memorable ways ideal for families and history buffs.
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