Tallinn in winter: a city travel guide
This post is all about visiting Tallinn in winter. Tallinn is the proud capital of Estonia. Located on the Gulf of Finland it was an important trade city in the Baltic region.
Tallinn is a small city, but with its rich history and well preserved medieval old town, it is extremely picturesque. Since the fall of the Soviet Union more and more people explore the beauty of this city.
In summer the amount of tourists surpasses the actual number of residents. Surprisingly there are very few people that consider a visit to Tallinn in winter. Tallinn is a great winter destination though and there are still plenty of things to do.
Why visit Tallinn in winter
Tallinn is more or less on the same latitude as St Petersburg, Stockholm and Oslo. This means Tallinn in winter sees cold weather with short days.
Due to climate change, frost is no longer a guarantee when you visit Tallinn in winter. Still, temperatures often drop well below zero. Chances are high that you will see the city covered in a thick blanket of snow, making it even more picturesque.
There will be greyish days when the morning starts with an ethereal mist surrounding the medieval buildings. Other days welcome you with a clear blue sky while the winter sun warms your face.
And yet, despite all this beauty, you will meet very few other travellers. Tallinn in winter can be eerily quiet and peaceful. No crowds of cruise ship day trippers or waiting in line to enter a museum.
Streets were almost empty except for well dressed locals. Often I was the only person in a restaurant getting all the attention I wanted. Another advantage is lower prices for accomodation.
I visited Tallinn twice. Once in summer and now also in winter. Personally, I can say that I prefer Tallinn in winter.
Things to do in Tallinn in winter
There are plenty of things to do in Tallinn in winter. Basically everything you can do in summer, you can also do in winter. It’s just less busy.
There are a few winter specific activities too like the christmas markets and the Uisuplats ice rink. Below you find the best things to do in Tallinn in winter
Wander around Tallinn Old town
Tallinn’s medieval old town in winter feels like a journey back in time. The cobbled stone streets are almost empty and you can enjoy the 13th and 14th century architecture at peace.
Tallinn’s importance in trade is clear with old Hanseatic merchant homes, the ancient town hall and the great guild hall. The Great Guild Hall now has an interesting museum you can visit
In winter it is so quiet that Tallins old town almost feels like a living museum. But don’t be fooled. There is also a great cafe and restaurant scene.
Raekoja plats is the center of action in Tallins old town. Tallinn and Riga compete with having the first christmas tree set up in a town square in Europe.
No matter who was really first, it is a yearly tradition that returns along with a nice christmas market.
Raekoja plats is also home to one of the oldest pharmacies that is still operating. The ancient town hall is well worth a visit.
Alexander Nevski cathedral
The Alexander Nevski cathedral is the biggest orthodox church in Tallinn. The church opened its doors in 1900. Already in 1924 there were plans to demolish the church, because Estonians disliked the obvious Russian style.
Like the Alexander Nevski monastery in Saint Petersburg, the church is dedicated to the saint Alexander Nevski. He stopped the advance of the German crusaders at the Battle of the ice on Lake Peipsi in 1242.
During Soviet times the church closed down, but nowadays it is once more an active place of worship for the Russian community.
Toompea hill viewpoints
Tallinn’s old town was partly built on top of a hill and in addition it was protected by the city walls and a number of round watchtowers.
Toompea hill is the highest point of the old town and offers several viewpoints where one can have a beautiful panorama over the city.
The Kohtuotsa and Patkuli platforms are only a few minutes walk apart and offer slightly different views. Both are well worth a visit in winter.
Kiek in de kok
Kiek in the Kok was one of the circular towers built to protect the city. It is now an interesting museum about the fortifications of Tallins old town. You can climb the artillery towers and visit the underground bastion passages.
The name Kiek in de Kok translates as peep into the kitchen. From the top one could look into the kitchens of the homes around the tower.
Saint Catharine passage
The Saint Catharine passage is without doubt one of the most scenic and medieval looking streets of Tallins old town.
Here you can see fragments of the ancient Saint Catharina monastery. One of the oldest buildings in Tallinn.
The narrow street is crowded in summer, but in winter it is easy to take pictures.
Uisuplats ice rink
Close to freedom square is the Uisuplats ice rink. A winter only activity in the heart of Tallinn very popular with families and kids.
Visit a museum
I am not much of a museum person, but Tallinn has a number of excellent museums about Estonia’s complicated history.
Tallinn is such a modern developed city and at times feels more Scandinavian than Eastern Europe. But WW2 and the Soviet occupation had a huge impact on the country.
KGB Prison cells
The large grey green building at Pagari street looks like any other building, but it’s basement holds a dark secret.
This was the KGB headquarters and anyone that was suspected to be an enemy of the Soviet state ended up in its cellars in the basement.
After days of interrogations and torture some were shot. For others it was the start of a journey to the Patarei prison or Siberia.
The strength of this museum is that the cellars are still the same as they were left. It’s a very small museum, but one that gives a strong message of the injustice and inhumanity of political repression by the Soviet regime.
Like the KGB cells, Patarei prison is also a symbol of Soviet terror as well as Nazi terror.
The Patarei Prison started as a fortress built by the Russian tsar in the late 19th century. When Estonia gained independence in 1918 it became a prison.
During WW2 both the Nazis and Soviets took control and used the prison to keep political prisoners. Either they were executed or sent to other camps.
When the Nazis were in charge many jews stayed at Patarei before going to concentration camps in Poland or Germany. When the Soviets took over, prisoners were sent to the gulags in Siberia.
It is now home to the Patarei Prison museum. Unfortunately it was closed when I was there, but I think it is well worth a visit in addition to the KGB cells to get a complete picture.
Because Patarei was closed I did visit the Vabamu museum of occupations and freedom. This museum is all about the long road to Estonia’s independence with a strong focus on freedom from Soviet repression.
It’s a very interesting and interactive museum showing different aspects of the Soviet occupation and what freedom means to Estonia now.
Viru KGB museum
The KGB headquarters were at Pagari street, but they had another secret office at the Viru hotel.
The Viru hotel opened in 1972 and was the only hotel where foreigners were allowed to stay. There were rumours that there was a secret floor on top where the KGB was spying on both the hotel guests and the people in Tallinn.
The rumours were true. The Viru hotel still exists, but the secret 23rd floor is now open to the public as the KGB museum.
Sea plane harbour
The seaplane harbour is Tallinn’s museum about its maritime history. The museum is very child friendly and I would say it is actually more for children than adults. Still, it was interesting to see an Estonian Soviet submarine and an icebreaker from the inside.
The submarine Lembit and the icebreaker Suur Toll played a big role in the evacuation of Estonians when Germany took control of Tallinn in WW2.
Explore Kalamaja neighbourhood
Kalamaja is a quiet area northwest of the old city. It used to be a working class neighbourhood for the working class fishermen and fish mongers.
One of the main attractions of Kalamaja are the traditional wooden houses where the fishermen used to live. Unfortunately many are now in a bad state and they seem to be replaced by more modern buildings.
For me, Kalamaja is an eclectic mix of brand new apartment blocks in Scandinavian nordic design, Soviet architecture and the traditional wooden homes.
Still, Kalamaja is without doubt the best place to see wooden homes in Tallinn. I enjoyed my time wandering around Kalamaja to see a more authentic side of Tallinn.
Kalamaja has a number of local shops and cafes. It is also home to Kalma Saun. A basic Russian style banja and a great sauna experience.
Telliskivi Creative city
South of Kalamaja is Telliskivi Creative City. An old industrial area that has become the place to be for young and creative people from Tallinn.
There are art galleries, tech startups, restaurants, cafes, boutiques and unique shops. The creativity is present everywhere and it is one of the best places in Tallinn to see street art.
Tallinn’s Soviet history
Tallinn is a city that has changed tremendously since the fall of the Soviet Union. Not many Soviet buildings survived the building spree that followed.
For those interested in Tallinn’s Soviet history there are of course the KGB museums and the Vabamu museum. However, a few iconic Soviet structures are still around
One of the largest Soviet buildings in Tallinn is Linna Hall. It was built in 1980, because Tallinn was hosting the sailing events for the Moscow Olympic Games.
Even after independence the huge concrete building was used as a concert hall. But, the last concert was in 2009. Despite its prime location close to the old town and at the seafront, it is now abandoned and left to crumble down.
For some time the roof was still a popular hangout place for the youth. This is no longer allowed for safety reasons, although some people ignore this.
I can imagine the views over the sea and harbour are quite nice. In winter the freezing wind made it into a brief visit for me.
Soviet statue graveyard
So what happened with all the Soviet statues you might think. Apparently Estonia also didn’t really know what to do with the statues of controversial people like Lenin and Stalin.
They were first dumped in the back garden of the Estonian History Museum in Maarjamae palace. A so-called Soviet statue graveyard.
In recent years the statues have been rearranged to look more like an outdoor exhibition part of the History museum.
Right next to the Maarjamae History museum is also the WW2 memorial. It was built to remember the soldiers that died in the Soviet Red Army during WW2.
In the Soviet Union WW2 is also known as the Great Patriotic War. Almost every major city in the Soviet Union had such a memorial including Tallinn.
Tv tower Teletorn
The Tallinn TV tower was also built in 1980 to provide telecommunication services during the Moscow Olympic Games.
The tv tower then played an important role when Estonia declared itself independent in 1991.
4 men stayed up in the tv tower to keep broadcasting the Estonian news and prevented the elevator from working while Soviet troops surrounded the tower below.
In 2012 the tower was renovated. The observation deck at 170 meters height provides beautiful views over Tallinn and the Gulf of Finland.
Balti jaam Turg
My first visit to Tallinn was more than 15 years ago and a lot of things have changed since then. Most of all the Balti jaam market.
From a chaotic bazaar where babushkas were selling vegetables, preserves and soviet memorabilia to a hygienic and fancy market with a great food court. Luckily still selling delicacies from the former Soviet republics such as Georgian khachapuri and Uzbek samsa. For me this was a symbol of how much Estonia has progressed.
Kadriorg palace and park
One of the most beautiful places to visit in Tallinn in winter, besides the old town, is the Kadriorg park and palace.
Kadriorg palace was built by Tsar Peter the Great for his wife Catherina. Compared to the Romanov palaces around St. Petersburg, Kadriorg is a relatively small palace.
After independence the palace became state prroperty and it is now home to Estonia’s art museum.
The Kadriorg park is a true winter wonderland in Tallinn. In winter the bright colours of the palace contrast sharply with the white snow.
Things to do near Tallin in Winter
The Jagala waterfalls are one of the most spectacular places to visit near Tallinn in winter.
The jagala river flows all the way to the gulf of Finland. At the waterfall, the water crashes down from a 50 meter wide rocky crest.
In winter, the waterfall becomes a frozen wall of icicles. I had seen frozen waterfalls before on the Gokyo lakes trek in Nepal, but none as big as the Jagala waterfalls.
The Jagala waterfall is only 8 meters high and in summer it is just a nice waterfall. In winter it is truly spectacular.
How to get there: bus 154 only runs 3 times a day from Tallins balti jaam to kogi kauplus from where it is a 30 minute walk to the waterfall. The best way to visit is with your own car. There is a large parking area next to the waterfall.
Viru Bog trail
Viru bog is one of the few places in Lahemaa National Park that you can get to by public bus. It is also one of the few trails that you can still do during the winter.
The 6 kilometer loop goes through the forest and also follows a board walk through the bogs. It is a popular trail among locals as well. The path is well trodden, although it is difficult to see the boardwalk when there is a lot of snow.
Viru bog is absolutely beautiful and the perfect nature getaway from Tallinn in winter. The bogs will be frozen and covered under a layer of white snow that is only disturbed by the occasional footprints of wild animals.
How to get there: unfortunately bus 151 only runs twice a day to Viru bog. You need to get out at Loksa tee. A bus stop right next to the main road. From there it is 800 meters to the parking where the trail starts.
Where to eat in Tallinn in winter
Balti jaam turg
One of my favourite places to eat is the food court at Balti Jaam where your main difficulty will be choosing what to eat.
Inside are a number of stalls selling everything from burgers, pizza, pasta, samsa and pelmeni.
At the entrance you will see Meie Gruusia that has delicious Georgian food. The khachapuri was made fresh from the oven and I can also recommend the Kharcho soup.
Right behind Meie Gruusia are the Samsa family bakers with nice Uzbek food such as plov and laghman.
Moon was one of my favourite restaurants in Tallinn. The menu is inspired by Russian food, but with their own twist. I can recommend the siberian pelmeni in mushroom broth and the chicken kiev.
It is located a bit outside of the old town, but even in winter the restaurant was busy.
At first I thought I entered some kind of tourist trap. Once you sit down inside it feels like you are back in the Middle ages. A dark tavern and ladies dressed in medieval clothes.
They have only a few things on the menu. Stuffed pies, Wild meat sausages, Elk soup and dried elk meat. Prices are very cheap, especially considering the central location on Raekoja plats.
It all made me wonder whether the food would actually be any good. While the dried elk meat wasn’t really my thing, the elk meat soup and the sausages were really delicious. Definitely a place I recommend for a light meal.
Rataskaevu 16 gets really good reviews so my expectations were pretty high. The menu is influenced by new nordic cuisine using local and fresh ingredients.
I had the elk roast which was really nice. I found Rataskaevu a decent place to eat in the old town. It feels a bit up market, but prices are still reasonable.
Where to stay in Tallinn in winter
Hestia hotel Il Marine
I stayed in Hestia hotel Il Marine where I could get a good winter deal. One of the biggest advantages of Tallinn in winter are the lower prices for accomodation.
This hotel is actually a bit more luxurious than I am used to and therefore really enjoyed my stay. It has everything you need and is within walking distance from the Old Town.
I already mentioned the Viru hotel. The only hotel where foreigners could stay during Soviet times.
Viru hotel still operates and you can stay in this iconic hotel if you like.
Tallin in Winter Travel tips
How to get to Tallinn
Tallinn is easy to reach. Tallinn’s international airport has direct flights to most other European capitals.
There are also good bus connections with neighbouring countries. I would recommend Lux express. Lux express has very comfortable buses that I have used on a number of occasions. They have buses between Tallinn and Riga, Vilnius and St.Petersburg. You can check the bus times on T pillet.
How to get around Tallinn
Most sights are within walking distance of each other so I rarely used public transport. You can buy bus tickets online at pilet.ee or use their app.
If you plan to use public transport more often you can buy a smart card for 2 euro where you can load the tickets on. I bought my card at the information tourist office.
Tallinn in winter safety
In general, Tallinn is a safe city for travellers, including solo female travellers. Like in any big city the biggest thing to look out for is pickpocketing and petty theft. If you use your common sense it will be easy to prevent any problems.
In winter though, ice becomes another danger. As amazed as I was by the beauty of Tallinn I was as well by the people who walk, even run when they have to catch a bus, through the streets as if nothing is wrong. Meanwhile I am carefully navigating the ice below and above me.
Coming from Holland, real cold winters are something from the past. I am obviously not used to ice and I sometimes had a hard time walking on the sidewalks that can be very slippery. The most tricky is when there is fresh snow and you can’t see the ice underneath. But trust me, it is there.
Watching the sidewalks carefully for slippery parts is important, but it is also a good idea to look up once in a while. Icicles hanging from the roofs of buildings occasionally fall down.
Due to climate change freezing temperatures are no longer a guarantee. It can happen that there is no snow and no ice during your visit. When I visited in January temperatures were between -4 and +1 degrees celsius. On a windy day it can feel much colder though.
My biggest advice is to dress warm and bring enough warm clothes. At least a good windproof jacket, a woollen hat and warm gloves.
Keep in mind that days are short. To make the most out of daylight hours sometimes requires a bit of planning. For example, saving museum visits at the end of the day when it already gets dark.
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