Tallinn, the capital of Estonia, is a perfect Christmas holiday destination for anyone looking to escape tedious family gatherings, couples seeking a romantic getaway, aficionados of enthralling history and medieval culture, and families hoping for a fairy-tale experience on a modest budget.
You can immerse yourself in festive activities, taste the flavours of the traditional Christmas foods and drinks, and soak up the truly magical atmosphere of the Christmas market which stays open well into the New Year! You may even run into Santa and his reindeer.
So, let’s find out a little more about this remarkable holiday destination.
Estonia is one of the youngest countries in Europe, after declaring formal independence from the Soviet Union in 1991. It joined the European Union in 2004, and also became a member of the eurozone in 2011.
Although a relatively small city with a population of just over 440,000, Tallinn is the largest city in Estonia and one of the largest ports in the Baltic sea region.
Tallinn’s rich history is what makes this city unique culturally and architecturally. The city, also known in the past as Reval, actually dates back to the early XIII century. Thanks to the well-fortified stone walls that surround the city, Tallinn has never been razed and plundered.
Although Tallinn suffered greatly during World War II, following the bombing raids by the Soviet air forces, and then underwent a harsh architectural transformation under the socialist regime of SSSR, much of its medieval Old Town still remains unchanged.
The fairy-tale Old Town charms visitors with narrow cobblestone alleyways, tall spires and picturesque medieval gabled houses, protected by the defensive city walls and a tower. You can still see the contrast between the upper and lower old towns where the upper was for the gentry and the lower for the peasants with the corresponding contrast in architecture. In fact, Tallinn Old Town features on the UNESCO World Heritage List as a beautifully-preserved example of a medieval town.
The language and the people:
Estonian is the official language in Estonia. Estonian is a unique and difficult language, distinctly related to Hungarian, Finnish and to the Sami languages of the Nordic countries.
With over 37% of the population coming from the Russian ethnic group and large numbers of Russian tourists, Russian is also widely spoken. However, it is a highly unpopular language, which comes as no surprise, given Estonia’s historic background.
Due to the proximity of Finland, high volumes of Finnish bargain shoppers visit Tallinn daily. Some Estonians find this overbearing, which makes Finnish another highly unpopular language.
Luckily, English is widely spoken and well accepted as an international language, particularly by the younger generation of Estonians who learn English at schools.
Young Estonians are very modern and tech-savvy. In fact, when you talk to people, they are likely to point out very proudly, that Estonia is the European equivalent of the American Silicon Valley, and of course, that the Skype software was created by Estonians. Interestingly, in June 2017 Estonia declared internet access as a basic human right. It’s no surprise that with over 75% per cent of Estonians using the internet regularly, Estonia has a thriving IT start-up culture.
Tallinn boasts a first-rate, modern airport, very conveniently located just 15 minutes’ drive from the Old Town. The city’s public transport is also second-to-none, with a wide network of city line buses, trolleybuses and trams running regularly during the day and night-time bus services available
At the cost of around 2 €, you can buy a single-ride ticket from the driver. If you plan to travel more, you can purchase a QR-ticket. One QR ticket can cover up to 10 rides, with each ride costing around 1€.
1, 3, 5-day tickets (costing between 3€ and 5€), and 30-day travel tickets are also available for about 23€.
Tallinn Card, which is similar to the London Oyster card, is available to those who use the public transport regularly over a longer period of time.
Children of pre-school age and passengers travelling with children under 3 years old travel free of charge.
ISIC Scholar and ISIC Student cards are also recognised and entitle travellers to discounts on public transport as well as in many shops and museums.
You can buy your tickets online from https://tallinn.pilet.ee/buy, or from the ticket sales points and portable kiosks at stops.
Whichever ticket you decide to buy, just remember to validate it when you get on the bus, trolleybus or the tram at the start of each journey (except for the single-use ticket bought from the driver).
Equally, if your hotel is located close to the Old Town, you may simply wish to explore the town on foot.
Tallinn is probably not the cheapest place to do your shopping. Its proximity to Helsinki means that it is regularly visited by shoppers from Finland, for whom the prices are significantly lower than in the Nordic countries. Tallinn also benefits from the wealthy Russian tourists eager to spend their money in the stylish Estonian shops. This alone tends to push the prices up.
Luckily, it’s not just the prices that make shopping a delightful and satisfying experience. The abundance of small and independent shops, as well as large retail units hosting the world’s best-known brands, and Tallinn Central Market should cater for all your shopping needs.
Food may be slightly on the expensive side, particularly in the restaurants located in the Old Town. However, the unique food and dining experience is well worth the price you will pay!
Tip: When you go to a restaurant in Tallinn, it’s worth asking the waiter how the ordering is done, as in many places you will need to order and pay at the bar before your food is served, and there are no official notes or indicators telling you this is the expected code of practice.
If you are looking for a hearty, tasty and pocket-friendly meal, join the locals in Lido buffet restaurant, open in the Solaris shopping centre, along Estonia puiestee road. The restaurant in itself is a fabulously designed mini-town, with stylised house facades, incorporated into the floor of the shopping centre and cinema complex. It offers a multitude of tasty, freshly-cooked traditional Estonian food served at help-yourself buffets. Highly recommended!
However, if you are after a special-occasion restaurant experience, visit one of the exquisite restaurants in the Old Town, like: Olde Hansa, Peppersack, Maikrahv or Rataskaevu 16.
Each restaurant offers a completely unique experience:
Olde Hansa – perfect for a romantic and intimate meal by candlelight.
Olde Hansa is based in a UNESCO Heritage Protected Building dating back to 1370, and comes with the attached traditional pottery workshop and giftshop. The inside of Olde Hansa is lit by candlelight only, and you can admire the stylised medieval-like tapestry, murals and paintings on the wall. All of the dishes on the menu, including many wild game delicacies, are cooked using 15th century recipes and served in hand-crafted crockery, by waiters dressed in medieval costumes. While eating your meal, you are treated to a medieval musical performance, involving a bard singing period-style songs and playing hurdy-gurdy. Guests are offered complimentary schnapps to drink with their meal. If you come to Olde Hansa for a meal, you must absolutely try their traditional rose pudding and lingonberry juice!
Peppersack – a great place for a family or a large group meal. Couples can also enjoy their meals in private corners, blocked off from others by walled wooden seating.
Peppersack is another period building, located in the immediate vicinity of the Town Hall Square.
Their menu includes quite modern and European-based dishes. Guests ordering grilled meats can watch their meals being made in the open kitchen in the basement. Peppersack also serves highly praised and delectable house beer, brewed according to historic recipes.
Every evening, around 20:00 the restaurant staff put on a theatrical show for the diners, with a love story and a sword fight on the staircase in the main room of the restaurant. The show is entertaining for children and adults alike, and not to be missed!
Maikrahv– a vibrant restaurant ideal for diners with more modern palates.
Located in a XV century building under the town hall square, Maikrahv provides a well-balanced mix of the old traditions and the modern cuisine. Maikrahv offers decidedly modern and down-to-earth international dishes, which are served by waiters dressed in period costumes. The décor is quite regal and suitably displays the historic features of the building.
While dining, guests can often enjoy music events and performances by contemporary Estonian artists (tickets can be bought indoors or online: https://maikrahv.ee/en/events).
Rataskaevu 16– it is Tallinn’s highest-rated restaurant, serving traditional Estonian food.
The restaurant uses the address as its name (Rataskaevu 16), and attracts locals and tourists alike. You will definitely need to book a table in advance if you want your dining space guaranteed!
Kompressor – a must-visit for all amateurs of coffee and pancakes!
Kompressor, located at Rataskaevu 3, is one of the Old Town’s classic cafe-restaurants. The café is perhaps not the most stylishly decorated, but it offers fabulous food at reasonable prices and a friendly service. Kompressor specialises in mouth-watering sweet and savoury pancakes with a variety of fillings. The pancakes are so huge that you will probably want to share it! If you do not fancy pancakes, you can order a salad, soup or an omelette.
Christmas in Tallinn
The Old Town in Tallinn is a breath-takingly picturesque place all year round, but there is an especially magical feel about it around Christmas time. Particularly if you get lucky with the weather and the city gets covered in snow.
At some point in November, a tall, beautifully decorated Christmas tree appears in the centre of the Old Town Hall Square and the Christmas lights get switched on around it. Shops and restaurants in and around the square decorate their medieval facades and windows with colourful lights, candle bridges and festive decorations, and the Christmas market sellers start luring visitors to their stalls with hand-made arts and crafts, Christmas decorations, leather goods, clothes, toys, cold meats, honeys and preserves, hand-made gingerbread and marzipan, hot food and mulled wine (glögi).
There is also a place for the stage, where traditional music bands, choirs and dancers perform live to the Christmas market audiences, which adds to the special jubilant atmosphere. Children usually gather around the reindeer enclosure, where they can freely chat to Santa.
The Christmas market is held each year, typically between 1st December and 8th January in the Old Town Hall Square, and it stays open throughout the Christmas holidays. This is a most unusual practice as Christmas markets in most European countries tend to close well before 24th December. The main reason why the Christmas market in Tallinn stays open for so long is that even though Estonians celebrate Christmas Eve on the 24th and Christmas Day on the 25th December, many of their citizens of Russian origin and Russian visitors observe the Eastern Orthodox liturgical calendar, in which January 7th marks the birth of Jesus Christ.
Even though the market stalls stay open, shops usually have shortened days on 23rd and 24th December, and some stay closed on 25th and 26th. Restaurants in the Old Town stay open throughout the holiday, but they can be very busy – so early booking is advisable, particularly on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. Most restaurants and cafes offer festive menus and some, like the Olde Hansa or Peppersack, also provide additional services and special entertainment, which will make your Christmas experience exceptional and unique.
Connoisseurs of ginger bread can visit the ‘Gingerbread Mania’ exhibition, where each Christmas over 100 artists, architects and designers attempt to prove that practically anything can be made out of gingerbread dough! ‘Gingerbread Mania’ is usually held in the centre of Tallin, in the Design and Architecture Gallery, along Pärnu street, (next to the Tammsaare park). Each year is marked by a different theme, and roughly 300 kilograms of gingerbread dough is used to create the most unusual and surprising shapes. (Tickets cost around 2€ for adults, and 1€ for children and pensioners.)
After you have done your sightseeing walks around the Old Town alleyways and along the city walls, completed your shopping in the market and got fully entertained by the stage singers and performers, you may want to try yet another attraction – skating, particularly if you have brought the kids along on your holiday.
Tallinn’s traditional open-air ice skating rink is located in the Old Town, next to Harju street, besides St Nicholas’ Church. It usually welcomes guests of all ages and skiing abilities from the end of November through to April, when the spring finally sets in.
Amateurs of jazz enjoy a special pre-Christmas treat, too. Each year a Christmas Jazz festival is held at the end of November till the beginning of December, featuring concerts by international artists in intimate venues across Tallinn.
If you get tired with the busy atmosphere of Tallinn at Christmas and fancy a trip out, you can go to Lahemaa, which is the largest national park in Estonia, situated one hours’ drive east of Tallinn. If you go to the west of Tallinn, you will find the Jägala waterfall, which is the widest natural waterfall in Estonia. When the weather gets frosty and snowy, the waterfall freezes, and you can admire a sparkling wall of icicles in the winter sunshine.
While Tallinn is an especially magical place at Christmas with a multitude of attractions and festive activities on offer, it remains unaffected by mass tourism. The city’s medieval Old Town, beautiful orthodox churches, steep spires and stone city walls create a perfect setting for a fairy-tale Christmas, particularly when the streets get bathed in sparkling-white snow.
The Christmas market and the live performance of the local artists and choirs add to the festive spirit and will make your experience complete. So, don’t wait any longer – visit Tallinn this Christmas!