The Saturday City: Tallinn

Tallinn city wallI have always viewed the Baltics as sort of the outer frontier of European travel. A place well off the beaten Eurotrip path that most travelers follow. I couldn’t say where the genesis of this thought came from, but probably from the fact I can count on one hand the amount of people I know who have gone here or even thought about going here. I rarely hear the Baltics mentioned by anyone.

So I was excited to head to Tallinn, Estonia in the Baltics to see an amazing city free of large tour groups, tacky souvenirs, and overpriced restaurants. I have nothing against tourism, but I like my medieval towns to be empty and quiet. It personally helps me appreciate them more. People have always told me that Tallinn was this quiet, medieval town devoid of the tourist crowds you see in places like Prague or Bruges.

But it wasn’t like that at all.

It’s true that the city is beautiful. Visiting here is like stepping back a few centuries – and they have done a good job of preserving their history and medieval structures. The cobblestone streets are lined with medieval homes and ancient churches. Tiny alleys lead to tinier lanes where you find cloistered yards. The city is still ringed by much of its original stone wall and many guard towers. It’s breathtaking.

Tallinn city walls

But with Tallinn the “European Capital of Culture” this year, part of the Schengen Treaty zone, as well as being a very cheap country, the crowds are here, and here en masse. I saw countless tours with the signature umbrella-carrying guide. I had to jostle my way through the city and could never find a quiet moment, even in one of the churches.

With lots of cheap flights from the UK (and a lot of cheap alcohol in Estonia), you also see lots of stag (bachelor) and hen (bachelorette) nights here. At night, the city can get rowdy as the bars fill with drunk tourists. One of my favorite moments in Tallinn was when I saw an English guy say to his friend, “Hey, it’s only 2 Euros for a pint! Let’s go get drunk!” (It was about 1 p.m.) and these Estonian kids walked by and, in a mocking tone, said to each other, “It’s only 2 Euro, let’s get drunk! F$%$ing English.” I couldn’t help but laugh.

It was this mass tourism that left me with mixed feelings about Tallinn. I’m pulled between hating the touristy aspect of the city and loving the sheer beauty of it. It’s pretty hard to dislike a place that looks like this:

street in Tallinn, Estonia

Tallinn rooftops

archway in Tallinn, Estonia

round tower in Tallinn, Estonia

town square in Tallinn, Estonia

See? Magnificent!

I think I just came at the wrong time of year. I find nothing wrong with touristy places or crowds (I love Paris and I live in New York), but there’s only so many people that can be crammed into such a tiny place like Tallinn before it’s simply too much to handle. It’s annoying trying to jostle through narrow streets while tour groups collide into you.

Moreover, there are a lot of cheesy medieval restaurants, sellers, archery, and tours around. The city has a strong medieval history (the city dates back to the 13th century), and, while it is fascinating, sometimes it feels a little too Disney World.

medieval dressed people in Tallinn, Estonia

My favorite time in Tallinn was when I roused myself on a Sunday morning at 7 a.m. to wander the city before the crowds came. Walking around in the crisp morning air, I saw the magic of Tallinn that everyone talked about. The streets where silent, except for the sounds of birds and shops opening. The cobblestone alleys were free of crowds. Little old ladies strolled to church. It was easier to appreciate the city without the crowds. You could just sit and marvel at the architecture in peace as you pictured life here hundreds of years ago. It was during this peaceful walk that this medieval capital radiated history and allure and I saw why everyone would want to come here.

And so this walk caused me to love Tallin a lot more than I previously had. I no longer saw the crowds and mass tourism that had so tainted my vision before.

Tallinn, Estonia

All in all, Tallinn is a beautiful place – there is no denying it. I still feel it is too touristy for such a small place. I think the best time to visit Tallinn would be off-season, when the crowds are gone. That way, you wouldn’t have to wake up so early just to have the city to yourself. I want to eventually do the whole Baltic region, and, when I do, it will be during the off-season to avoid the horde of summer travelers.

Medieval cities are much better when they are empty and peaceful.

Or maybe I’m just a grumpy guy who hates crowds.

  1. I have actually spent a short amount of time in Tallinn and really enjoyed it! It’s definitely a place most people have not been, and a lot have never even heard of it, but it is so beautiful. I was lucky and didn’t hit it during a high tourist time and wish I could have spent longer there. You got some really great pictures.

  2. Love that you posted the Estonian kids’ comment! Tourists often forget the impression they are leaving on the locals. And I’m glad you did the 7am walk…many travellers miss out on the beauty of early morning tours.

  3. You know that I have a personal attachment to Tallinn since I was lived 65 km south of there for two years when I was in Peace Corps. At the time, Tallinn was the “big city” compared to my village of 3,000 people. When I left in 2000, it was before the era of stag parties – beer used to be around €1 at that time. For an old town as tiny as Tallinn’s I can sadly see how they would influence the feel of downtown – love the quote you gave from the Estonian guy.

    But, I am glad you had a chance to see the old town in the early morning. It is a beautiful place.

    • NomadicMatt

      I would have liked to experience Tallinn pre-tourism boom. I’m sure it would have been like my morning walk all day, everyday.

  4. Yolene

    *sigh of memories* I’ve live in Tallinn for a year back in 2002-2003. It certainly is different now that people actually know where it is (seriously : back then when i said to people i’m going to live in Estonia they were like “but there is war there ! it’s ex-yougoslavia, girl !”). Yet i’d say it felt very different in the summer than any other time of the year. Summer makes it Disneyland indeed. Winter is the best time : foreigners are afraid to visit a place which hardly gets any sunlight and gets really cold, but then that’s when you can experience the authenticity of the place, running in the snow in those medieval street until you can find a good old tavern to sip a beer next to the fire. Although even then, there is a constant of drunk tourists who don’t care about the place at all, and they’re “famous” for that : it was mainly Finns in the week-end (but hey beer is so expensive in Finland that it’s truely a reason enough to go abroad).
    I have kind of a loose plan to go back there in 2012 (10 years later, wow time flies), thanks for the reminder, and i’ll try to pick sometime out of summer (i remember end of september was really nice)
    Tallinn is such a lovable city. But wander out of old town too, it’s very different.

  5. Try Vilnius next time! I was there in October and fortunately did not see at all crowds of tourists. Also, it was not too cold at that time of the year so I guess it is a good choice to see the town in calmness.

  6. Awesome photos Matt! I’m with you and not liking crowds too much, but Tallinn looks like a place that would be worth fighting the crowds to see the beauty of the city and the ancient medieval buildings.

  7. I cringed when I read the paragraph about the Brits and our obsession with the price of beer. We are not all like that, I promise! I would still love to see this place. While filled with tacky tourists, it still has an air of character and aura. Great photos.

  8. A place as beautiful as your pictures will unfortunately bring the crowds. And a place that has 2 Euro pints will bring hordes of drunks like myself. I am booking a flight there soon and getting f#cking drunk. At least there are always times and places where you can find a little solitude like your walk showed.

  9. It’s been a very popular destination with stag parties in Europe — and as a cheap booze destination for Finns — for many years now. Glad you managed to get past that…

  10. Hi Matt,

    I bought your “how to build a travel blog” last year, and if I´m not wrong I believe I sign into TKA through an affiliate in your blog or Ebook. I haven´t been working much on it but with the new TKA 2.0 stytle decided to start working on it again.

    For some family problems I´m back home in South America and I´m planning to start spending more time here, just do weekly or one or 2 month trips as often as possible but with a base here.

    The pictures from Tallin are amazing, very nice city, pity you didn´t go in a less crowded time.

    It´s a city I´ve been thinking to visit many times, maybe if things go right here and it´s not to late into the cold season, I might take a 2 week trip and do a Helsinki-Tallin-Riga-Vilnus-Minsk trip cycling which is one of my favourite sports besides surfing and kite surfing.

    And with the south american currencies getting stronger even better!:)(for us), it´s almost like the 90^ when travelling Europe was cheaper than S. America!

    Cheers and hope you have a great time in Mexico(I just read your newsletter)

  11. I really appreciate your photos. I really love it. I really want to go to Estonia- a new place to discover. Really nice post. Thank you for the information.

  12. john harold

    I go to Tallin next week but on seeing weather forecast, I was concerned about enjoying my stay. However, after reading your comments, its probably just as well that I go off season as it won’t be took packed with tourists.
    I’ll try to post comments on my return home.

  13. Hiya Matt,
    One of the first bloggers I’ve come across whose been to Tallin. I’m trying to figure out deets for a 10+day trip between Estonia and Finland. Both look incredible with many places to see… didn’t realize Estonia is becoming the touristy city.
    LIke you, I’m not a fan of tons of tourists in a place because it definitely gives a different impression!
    Nice photos!

Leave a Comment