Tallinn: Our Eastern European Adventure Begins
The first two and a half months of our European road trip took us through countries in Western Europe and Scandinavia that were very much in our comfort zone. One or both of us Intrepid parents had been to most of these countries before and we didn’t experience any major language difficulties (either because we could get around in the local language, or in the case of Denmark, Norway, and Sweden, nearly everyone spoke perfect English).
Crossing into Eastern Europe was uncharted territory for us and we weren’t totally sure what to expect. Would we be able to communicate? Would the roads and other infrastructure be up to par? Would we be able to find food that the kids would be willing to eat? We’d soon find out.
On our first morning in Tallinn we joined the free walking tour with Tales of Reval. This was a great way to get an introduction to the history of the city, which was called Reval by Danish, Swedish and German rulers. The city was an important member of the Hanseatic league and much of the economy was driven by trading.
Walking tours often mix facts with a large dose of legends. The tradition of Christmas trees supposedly originated in Tallinn in the 1400s (Riga also lays claim to having the first Christmas tree).
The tour with Tales of Reval was free, but of course tips are appreciated and we were happy to oblige since the tour was well done and engaging for the kids.
Exploring Old Town
Tallinn’s medieval Old Town is an absolute gem, and is designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Our walking tour didn’t cover all of the sites so we set out on our own, following a self guided walking tour from a guidebook.
Much of the medieval city walls and towers are still standing, including the “Kiek in de Kök” which was so named because guards in the tower could peek into the kitchens of homes below.
The spire of St. Olaf’s Church dominates the skyline. The building was first constructed in the 12th century and may have been the tallest in Europe for a time.
The Alexander Nevsky Cathedral is more modern; it was built in 1900 while Estonia was part of the Russian Empire. After Estonia gained independence in 1918 there were calls to demolish the cathedral but funding was never secured for that effort so the building still stands.
Lennusadam Seaplane Harbour
The Lennusadam Seaplane Harbour is part of the Estonian Maritime Museum. The museum was opened in 2012 after extensive renovation of the seaplane hangers.
The name is a bit confusing because there’s only one actual seaplane in the museum; it is primarily dedicated to ships and naval warfare, including the centerpiece of the exhibition; the submarine Lembit. The name comes from the original purpose of the building; the cavernous space is cleverly used to present the exhibits as if they were at sea with the deck of the Lembit showing the water line. Ships, dinghies, and similar items are suspended above while the lower floor is bathed in blue light down with the torpedoes and submarine exhibits.
Outside of the hanger there are several museum ships, including an Ice Breaker that we were able to enter and explore.
The Seaplane Harbour was one of our favorite experiences in Tallinn and we highly recommend it.
Estonian Open Air Museum
The Estonian Open Air Museum includes a collection of over eighty 18th and 19th century buildings where visitors can get a taste of what it was like to live in Estonia during that period. Upon arrival we purchased a family combo ticket that covered both the museum and the nearby zoo for a mere 26 Euros (yay for Eastern Europe!).
The Museum has an excellent audio guide (included with the price of admission) in the form of an app that we downloaded to our phones using the museum WiFi network. The guide also includes a couple of missions that the kids completed by traveling to different parts of the museum and answering questions. Additionally, museum guides in period dress show how people cooked, worked and spent their free time.
We got hungry after walking around the expansive grounds; fortunately there was a cafe serving traditional Estonian food.
The Tallinn Zoo is located not far from the open air museum a few miles west of Tallinn, so it made sense to visit both attractions on the same day.
The Tallinn Zoo is clearly in transition. Many of the exhibits were built in Soviet times and consist of cramped enclosures made of concrete and metal. The more recent exhibits are spacious and more natural, including the newly opened polar bear enclosure.
Unfortunately the lions are still waiting for an updated enclosure where they will have more room to roam (the zoo is currently raising funds for this).
The zoo has a large aviary with some of the largest predatory birds including Golden Eagles and Sea Eagles. We would not rate the zoo as a must-visit attraction, but it is worth spending an hour or two there, especially if you plan to visit the open air museum.
Miiamilla Children’s Museum in Kadriorg
Kadriorg Park surrounds the 18th century Kadriorg Palace and it is a great place for kids to roam and play. The park is also home to the Miiamilla Children’s Museum, where the entry fee is a mere 6 Euros for a family.
We did not find the types of exhibits we would normally expect to see in a children’s museum, but the kids did get to take turns playing shopkeeper with an antique cash register and Soviet era canned goods.
One afternoon we set out to explore the trendy Kalamaja district northwest of Tallinn’s Old Town. This area has a vibrant art scene, markets, shops and restaurants.
As we walked around the skies clouded over and suddenly we were feeling a bit under dressed for the weather. Fortunately, one area of the market is for secondhand clothes shopping and we were all able to get fitted with some outerwear at 50 Euro cents per item.
Exploring Street Art on the “Culture Kilometer”
Tallinn’s “Culture Kilometer” is a walking trail that stretches from the Tallinn harbour to the Seaplane Harbour. Along the trail there are a number of artistic murals and art galleries.
We were pleasantly surprised by our introduction to the Baltic states. Tallinn has a beautiful old town, great restaurants, and a vibrant art scene. If that wasn’t enough, we found prices on things like museums and restaurants to be quite inexpensive (especially compared to what we experienced in Scandinavia!). No wonder Tallinn was named the best value destination in the world for 2018 by Lonely Planet.
None of the worries we had about traveling in Eastern Europe were remotely warranted. We had no problem communicating as most of the people we encountered spoke at least a bit of English, aside from one of the workers at the open air museum that we conversed with in German. We found plenty of great food to eat, including traditional staples such as dark rye bread and cabbage soup.
We highly recommend Tallinn as a destination for travelers, especially families. Clearly the word is already out, as the old town area can become overwhelmed with tourists on some days, especially when there are multiple cruise ships in port. This leads to our primary tip for visiting Tallinn – check cruise ship arrivals and avoid old town on days when multiple large ships are docked, or go later in the day (after 5pm) when the passengers are back on board their ships.
Bonus Section: Beach life in Pärnu
After wrapping up our stay in Tallinn we headed south towards Riga, but before proceeding to the Latvian capital we stopped for a couple of nights in the beach resort town of Pärnu, Estonia’s “summer capital”. Since this was a short stop and we didn’t do much other than go to the beach we’re including it as a bonus section rather than writing a separate post. 🙂
We hoped to spend a relaxing day on the beach, but this plan hit a bump when we realized on the first day that we’d left our passports at our apartment back in Tallinn. Fortunately Wes was able to get in touch with the apartment owner and arranged to drive back to Tallinn to collect the passports, leaving Annette and the kids to get in some beach time.
Pärnu is a very popular beach destination but our arrival was after local schools had restarted, and peak season was clearly over. Many of the shops along the beach had closed for the season and there were not a whole lot of other people at the beach. We enjoyed having it mostly to ourselves.
Check back soon as we continue our Baltics adventure south into Latvia!