Ask Disney’s ‘imagineers’ to create the perfect medieval town and they would come up with Tallinn – although Estonia’s jewel of a capital is thoroughly authentic. A firm favourite among guests on a Baltic voyage, the majority of cruise lines call in at some point from May to September.
Cruise port location
The main cruise terminal is just over half a mile from the city walls and a little further from the main entrance to the centre, Viru Gate. The dock can take at least four ships. At the main terminal there are cafés, souvenir stalls and tourist information.
Can I walk to any places of interest?
Anyone of moderate fitness can walk to the historic old town, but take a map. Ships’ shuttle buses stop near Viru Gate. Once you are there, the city centre is very compact, though reaching the upper part, Toompea Hill, on foot involves a long slope or steps.
There’s a large shopping centre close to the cruise quay, while the excellent Seaplane Harbour maritime museum is within a long-ish walk.
Most of the old city centre is pedestrianised. Both the tourist tram (which can drive within the walls) and hop-on, hop-off bus call at the cruise terminal. Taxis are reasonably priced (though check the cost first) if it’s raining or you wish to visit one of the attractions on the city’s outskirts.
What to see and do
The fairytale towers, mighty walls, church spires and domes, colourful Hanseatic League merchants’ houses and grand old palaces are pretty much all first-time visitors could wish for.
Most of the key places can be covered in a leisurely day. If rain dampens enthusiasm for wandering, quite a few historic buildings open their doors, as well as the museums.
For those who have been before, several recommended sights are close to the city – or take an excursion up the coast.
What can I do in four hours or less?
All cruise lines offer coach-plus-walk overviews of the city, lasting from two to four hours. Although Tallinn is easy enough to negotiate on your own, it’s worth considering doing one of these so you benefit from a guide’s insight. Book early to get on a morning departure so you can explore further after lunch.
Most ships’ introductory trips pass the impressive amphitheatre of the Song Festival Grounds and give glimpses of Soviet-era architecture before arriving at Viru Gate.
The main sights in the lower old town are the impossibly picturesque town square (Raekoja Plats) with Gothic town hall and ancient pharmacy; the towers and walls; and the warren of narrow streets.
Up on Toompea Hill, visitors mass at three viewpoints with different (and unmissable) perspectives on the old town. Toompea Castle – the government headquarters – the 13th century Dome Church and the exquisite Alexander Nevsky Cathedral provide additional focus points for your camera.
If Tallinn’s centre gets swamped by visitors, sneak out through the walls to Towers’ Square on the north-west side, where a picture-perfect row of conical-roofed towers is set off by flower borders.
Many cruise lines combine an old town tour with another attraction within about four hours. A recommended choice is Kadriorg, a splendid baroque palace that houses an art museum. The Open Air Museum, recreating bygone village life, is also worthwhile.
What can I do in eight hours or less?
If you’re a Tallinn newbie, enjoy a morning tour, find a spot for lunch then revisit some of the more enticing places you saw earlier.
Climb the walls and towers – of the latter, Kiek in de Kok is now a charming museum. Ascend St Olav’s Church for more wonderful views and pop into the Great Guild Hall to find out about Estonian history.
Your cruise ship may offer a more in-depth town walk (try Princess Cruises) or add another diversion such as a gourmet lunch (Holland America Line), folklore concert (Saga), medieval re-enactment (Costa Cruises) or farm visit (Celebrity Cruises).
Alternatively, you could tack on a second excursion to make the most of your day, such as trip back to Soviet times with an actor-guide (Fred Olsen, Silversea), a chocolate workshop (Azamara Club Cruises) or beer tasting (P&O Cruises).
If you do want to get out of town, there are several excursion options. A drive to a coastal spa town and monastery (Viking cruises), nature reserve hike (Oceania) and short train ride to the country market at Nõmme (Celebrity) are all rewarding, especially for second-time visitors.
Independent explorers can easily get to Nõmme and Kadriorg but could also consider the Kumu Art Museum in a striking modern building or, a few miles east, the TV Tower, with a 550ft-high viewing platform and botanical gardens next door.
Eat and drink
Taking lunch at a town square restaurant is a treat that everyone wants to enjoy, so go later to find more seats. There are plenty of quaint eateries in the side streets – try Dunkri, Rataskaevu and Müürivahe for outside tables with less dense crowds.
Estonians love their country cooking so expect to find berries and mushrooms to accompany pork, beef or game; herrings and lake perch are also popular. You will never be far from a decadent cake.
There’s a distinct craft beer culture in Tallinn, so a pint and a snack may be all you need.
Don’t leave Tallinn without…
Spending a little time in St Catherine’s Passage. This atmospheric alley is where you’ll find artisans making and selling ceramics, silk items, glassware, artworks and jewellery from their workshops. To treat a loved one, florist stalls line the route to Viru Gate.
Need to know
Estonia’s currency is the euro. Eating, drinking and shopping are all generally good value but prices increase in the more touristy spots. Modest tips are appreciated. English is widely understood by younger people.
Tallinn is a friendly, easygoing place, spoiled only by the occasional pickpocket. Secure your bags if sitting outside a café.
Best time to go
May can be a little chilly. Summers are warm and humid, with a fair bit of rain in August and September. The city centre can get packed in summer.
Most museums are closed on Mondays. Many tourist-orientated shops, and the malls, are open on Sundays.
If you’re determined to race round all the sights, the Tallinn Card (€26/£22; visittallinn.ee/eng/tallinncard) covers most museums, attractions and public transport.
There are travel restrictions in force throughout the UK governing trips both within the country and abroad. For more information, see gov.uk/coronavirus; gov.scot/coronavirus-covid-19; gov.wales/coronavirus