Our visit to Tallinn came the very next day after our port day in Stockholm. The following two days would be spent in St Petersburg, and then it’d be immediately on to Helsinki. It’s not often that a cruise will give you five port days in a row, so Tallinn was always going to be part of something interesting.
Tallinn has been an important port for trade between Russia and Scandinavia for centuries, if not millennia. It is, after all, situated just 50 miles (80 km) from Helsinki, as the gull flies. As a result of this longevity, the port is conveniently located for cruise ships, in relation to Tallinn itself. Particularly in regards to the original fortified settlement, which is now known as Old Town, and is signposted as such.
Within the walled area of Old Town, are two distinct districts. The furthest, from the where the cruise drops you into Tallinn, is the Upper Town. This is the relatively smaller area, atop Toompea Hill, and showcases the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral and St Mary’s Cathedral (Toomkirk). The rest of the Old Town is the Lower Town, and is centered around the Town Hall Square.
There is of course, much more to Tallinn than just the Old Town but the reality is that you’re unlikely to have enough time to see much of it. Because the cruise into Tallinn is only day two of the five consecutive port days, there is a real sense of time crunch… The ship doesn’t dock until 10 am and you need to be back on board by 4:30 pm. That leaves a maximum of six and a half hours. This is demonstrably not enough time to get the most from a nation’s capital city. Which is why we never left the highly touristic Old Town, during our cruise’s visit to Tallinn.
Staying in the Old Town, as a tourist, is great; you’re certainly well catered for. But, if you’re after a real sense of the local people and culture, you’re not going to get much of that in the Old Town. But then, the Old Town is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and it’s certainly worth seeing. Still, the choice of heading into the rest of Tallinn is there, if you want it.
To put this into context, all of the excursions on offer from the cruise ship were into the Old Town of Tallinn. And, due to the close proximity of the tourist attractions, these excursions were in the lower price range. In this instance, two of the excursions were priced at $29.95 (£24/€28) per adult and $19.95 (£16/€18)* per child. One was two and a half hours long and the other three and a half hours. Both involved a bus transfer to and from the Old Town and then a narrated walking tour around various of the sites.
* I’m actually writing this up in April 2020, a couple of months into what’s being called the Coronavirus Pandemic‡. This is the first time I’ve looked at the exchange rate since it all started. Wow, the markets are a mess!
‡ On which note, I can’t help but wonder where history will place April 2020 in terms of the Coronavirus Pandemic. Looking back, will ‘now’ be considered the height of the Pandemic? Maybe the start? Will history even consider this to be a Pandemic at all? Or, going the other way, will there even be enough of society left for these words to be accessible…?! Time is a funny concept, really.
Which is why I’d better stop wasting yours with my whimsy…
Back to the option of excursions into Tallinn from your cruise ship:
While the Old Town is a short walk from the port, you may find the comfort of the coach transfers, as well as the local history and geography knowledge, worth the money. As ever, there are a wide variety of other excursions to choose from, ranging up to six hours and a cost of $139.95 per adult. On our particular cruise, there was also a four and a half hour ‘Local Market and Culinary Course’ option for $189.95 per adult. This involved being taught elements of the Estonian culinary culture, which is nice if you’re into that sort of thing..
But most people will not need to take an excursion, because Tallinn really isn’t that far away. Within the dock itself is a handy sign telling you the distance to the Gate of the City (450m) and the Old Town (800m). If that’s within your walking range, walking is all you need. It was within our range, so walking is what we did…
The first thing we experienced after leaving the ship was a booth selling transfer tickets. Displayed on the booth was a map of the city, but it wasn’t offering any such maps for sale. The booth was selling trips, not the means for you to avoid such trips. Anyway, the cost of a one way trip to the Old Town was €5. A round trip was €8 and a family ticket was €21 (presumably return tickets). We walked on.
Past the booth, heading for the port exit, was a building full of stalls selling local souvenirs. Immediately on the right was a desk handing out maps. These ‘maps’ were primarily to promote local businesses, with the map element more as an afterthought. That said, once you get to the Old Town, the map is fine, it’s the ‘getting there’ aspect which the map falls short on. Mind you, following the crowds seemed to work.
There were signs that pointed you in the right direction, but these signs using an ‘as the crow flies’ approach. Basically though, providing you pass the chimney stack on your right, you’ll be fine…
Still walking towards the gate, you’ll pass people trying to sell tickets to the local Hop on Hop off bus service. In our case, the gentleman trying to sell the tickets seemed wildly pessimistic of my physical abilities. He insisted that it’d take me about 90 minutes to walk into town. And, even if I made it that far, I’d never manage the climb to the upper town. I liked him! The climb into the Upper Town, incidentally, turned out to be about 200 meters long, up nothing more than a moderate slope. So, I’m glad we found the strength to decline his the offer and press on.
Next we passed a taxi rank and a ‘city bike’ rent and tour organisation. As is often the case, there are a multitude of readily available options to get you where you’re going. Tallinn also has a thriving bus and tram network but you’ll have no use for either of these if you’re simply going to the Old Town. Tallinn also has a Balloon on a winch. This can offer views of up to 25 miles if the wind is down and the weather clear, should you wish to try something a little different…
After about 10 minutes we found the gate to the city, at the far side of the huge round building that dominates that part of the city. Walking through the gates, you realise that you’re going somewhere special; the city has retained an impressively historical look, and feels almost medieval in places. There is limited traffic, both motorised and cyclists, making it ideal for the walking tourist.
I suspect that a good part of the reason that there are so few cars is the remarkably uneven cobbled streets. These seemed like they would be quite tricky to drive on. They were certainly unpleasant to walk on, at times. If you have hiking boots, or other footwear with ankle support, it’s certainly worth considering wearing them. Oddly enough, the majority of cyclists I did see were bicycle taxis. Given the nature of the roads, it didn’t seem likely that this would be the most comfortable mode of transport. But they’re there if you want them.
Once inside the walls, we decided to roughly follow the walls in a clockwise direction. This route seemed to take us past most of the notable tourist attractions, although virtually all the streets were impressive enough in their own right.
No matter which route you take, once you pass through the gate, the first thing you’ll come to is St Olaf’s Church. This building used to be the tallest in the world (between 1549 and 1625) and is still an impressive 123 m high. It also has a tower that you can climb for only €3 per adult and €2 per student. The top of the tower offers some amazing views over the whole of Tallinn.
Or so I’m told… None of us were really up for the climb, so we bottled it. Besides, if we really wanted panoramic views of Tallinn, there was the Balloon by the Port.
We didn’t do that either…
Look, if I want to see Tallinn from the air, I’ll go on Google Earth, so let’s just move on, shall we!?
To the south and west of St Olaf’s, at the other end of the Old Town, is the Upper Town and, as the name suggests, to get to it will involve a bit of an uphill walk. The local artistes take full advantage of this, and your slow walk up Pikk Jalg will be lined with artists and musicians, plying their trades. They’re not intrusive and I thought the musicians were really quite good. The walk is only a couple of hundred meters and is not that steep. Believe me; you can make it!
The Upper Town has some seriously impressive buildings and the oldest church in Tallinn. When it comes to the upper Town, I believe the expression is, ‘steeped in culture’. There are some good viewing points and a number of cafes and restaurants. Which is good, because you may well feel you deserve a sit down and a drink at this point.
Leaving the Upper Town, the good news is that the only way is down. The better news is that the centre of the Lower Town is a beautiful place with a number of open squares and a great many interesting shops, as well as plenty of places to get food and drink.
While the whole of the Old Town had a very pleasant atmosphere, in and around the Town Hall Square of the Lower Town, it was better still. There was a real buzz to the place, helped in no small part by the amazing architecture and overall cleanliness of the city. I don’t recall seeing any rubbish on the floor, or graffiti on the walls, at any point in Old Town.
In the Lower Town were a number of people dressed in, what I assume was, traditional clothing, tempting you into their restaurants to sample the wares. All this just added to the fun of the experience. For us, I mean. Not for the people who had to dress up. Oh, no; not for them…!
In terms of shopping, there was an emphasis on Baltic amber, as you might expect given the region, but the prices seemed more favourable than in other cities. There was also a Russian feel to the goods, with replica Faberge eggs and Russian Nesting Dolls, in many places. A number of places offered winter and Christmas based products: woolly hats and glass tree decorations. Odd to see at the height of summer but strangely welcome at the same time.
All of the shop keepers had a very good grasp of English, which I hadn’t really been expecting and was a nice bonus. Everyone we talked to was also helpful and friendly, which always helps.
There was no obvious tendency towards baked goods but that might only be the case within the Old Town. Outside the Old Town, of course, is a bustling capital city, with all that entails. There was some very fine ice cream, though.
The beauty of the Old Town of Tallinn, besides the literal beauty of the buildings, is its compact size and easy location in relation to the Port. It meant that, despite the relatively short visit, you felt that you’d really had a chance to explore the city.
The great thing was, that even after the walk back to the Port, the quay was lined with small stores. The stores all sold variations on the, ‘what I think tourists might want to buy’ theme. But there was a decent variety on offer and, due to the number of stores, the prices were reasonable too. There were even a couple of bars where you could savour a last, local beer in the afternoon sun, before embarkation.
When you do get back to the Port, there is a very casual approach to customs inspections; they just check your ship pass!
All in all, we enjoyed the Old Town of Tallinn, once we got there. I think the route from the Port to the Old Town could have been made clearer, or better maps made available, but if we found it, it can’t be that difficult.
It was nice to feel that you’d really explored the city during your visit. Our trip lasted about five hours and we walked about seven miles. And while this exploration missed everything outside of the Old Town, that didn’t seem to matter; the trip felt like a complete success.