After spending the first half of my Christmas weekend in Prague, I flew up to Tallinn, Estonia to spend actual Christmas eve there. Estonia is the last of the three Baltic states that I had yet to visit, I started 2018 with a trip to Latvia and Lithuania and it seemed fitting to end it with a trip to Estonia! The EU Public recently voted Tallinn as Christmas City 2019 and the #1 Christmas Market for 2019 as well, which was another reason I wanted to visit and spend Christmas 2018 in Tallinn, and it lived up to this ranking, although for me personally #1 Christmas Market to date is still Nuremberg, but Tallinn is #2. It was indeed a magical fairytale white Christmas. 2018 is also the year that all three states were celebrating the centennial of their independence.
Of the three Baltic capital cities I visited, Tallinn is my favorite. Small, quaint, full of history and beautiful. Riga, Latvia comes very close as well. And Christmas here is magical.
Tallinn’s consists of largely original and untouched Medieval Gothic and Renaissance/ Baroque architecture as well as influences from the Russian Empire, classicism and Soviet styles. This creates a beautiful city with many faces that tells its own history. Tallinn Old Town is tiny but beautiful and feels very much out of a fairytale with tall Church bell-towers and Merchant homes lining the streets.
There are direct flights to a few major European gateways like Amsterdam and Frankfurt, but more often than not you will probably have to connect within Europe or via Riga to get to Tallinn. The main airline is Air Baltic, national airline is Nordica and most European carriers fly here seasonally, with few flying year round. All sites are within walking distance of each other from museums, to Old Town to a few places just outside of Old Town. If not you can take the bus or ubers are widely available and cheap. To and from the airport, you can take the bus, taxi (metered but at a inflated rate exiting the airport), or uber. I took a taxi both ways (no ubers early in the morning at 5AM), from the airport to my hotel it was 17 Euro, from my hotel to the airport it was just under 10 Euro, and both ways there was no traffic. The rest of my time I just walked around.
There are many hotels, AirBnB, and hostels in Tallinn. Most are quite affordable. I chose to stay two nights at Centennial Hotel Tallinn just a short 15 minute walk outside of Old Town. Breakfast was included with the rate as well as a complimentary bottle of wine.
Unfortunately most if not all museums and sites were either closed for the winter or for Christmas holidays. In the summer you can climb up the various Church towers for views of Tallinn but these are closed in the cold windy winters. The daytime here during the winer is also short, with sunrise at 9AM and sunset at around 3:30PM.
NOTE: While museums and government run places are closed, most shops, cafes, restaurants remain open on 12/24 and 12/25, though some may have limited holiday hours. Further, the official hours of the Christmas Market on 12/24 is 12PM-3PM, but I learned that most stalls remain open through the night until around 8PM, but which point many vendors head home to spend Christmas eve with family.
- I landed at around 9PM and headed to the hotel to settle in.
- Having not had dinner yet, I was quite hungry and I was also not sure if shops and restaurants would be open on the 24th. When I was in Bratislava on 12/24 in 2017 everything was closed. So I headed to Olde Hansa Restaurant for dinner. Olde Hansa is a restaurant located right by old town square and is a Medieval themed restaurant. It may sound touristy, and it kind of is with prices to match, but it is a really fun experience, locals also dine here and is definitely part of the Tallinn experience/ story. This was a great way to kickoff my time in this city. The restaurant is house in a merchant house and is only lit by candles. Medieval music plays as wait staff dressed in period outfits address guests as “My lord” or “My Lady” or “Master.” Dishes are mainly Medieval recipes with a limited number of ancient Estonian ones too. Portions are quite large, as they would have been in the day and its heavily meat-centric, vegetarians will have a hard time in Tallinn. I ordered some house brewed Dark Honey Beer, delicious. Some Giant leg of pork. with cranberries, pickles, sauerkraut, ginger, sweet potato, horseradish cream, spiced barley and finished with delicious apple crisp served with warm almond milk cream.
- By this time it was already 11PM, Christmas Market hours officially ended at 10PM. But nonetheless I decided to turn the corner and check out the market. It was snowing, and a few booths remained open. I grabbed a cup of mulled wine with the few others still at the market and just enjoyed the snow falling on Town Hall and the Christmas tree and wooden booths of the market. Already a fairytale white Christmas. It was quiet, some people and families around, mulled wine warm in my hands, specks of snow coming gently down and covering the city in white (it was already covered from prior snowfalls). After enjoying the magical moment, I walked back to my hotel. It was nice to see people were still out and about, whether young (lining up to go clubbing) or old or families.
- The great thing about Nordic winters is that you can really sleep in as the sun doesnt come up until 9AM. I slept in a bit and then had some breakfast before heading into town just after sunrise at around 9:45AM.
- I walked by Vabamu, Museum of Occupation, which was closed but the building is cool and I think would be worth a visit when open. Though having been to occupation museums in both Riga and Vilnius I had a general idea of what I was missing since the contents of the other two were similar.
- I then walked a few minutes uphill to the top of Toompea Hill. This hilltop is home to many consulates and government buildings such as Toompea Castle, and the Estonia Parliament, Estonia Academy of Science, and some stunning churches. The Russian style Alexander Nevsky Cathedral and the Toomkirik Church. There are also two viewing platforms with sweeping views of Tallinn and Old Town; Kohtuotsa viewing platform and Patkuli Viewing Platform. The former has a better view of Old Town and really capture that fairytale vibe that Tallinn is known for. Meandering the streets, that all connect to each other, on the hill was great in the morning. Few tourists and locals made for empty magical streets with snow capped rooftops and colorful houses. NOTE: Public restrooms are few, but many stores and cafes will let you use their restrooms for 1-2 Euros or if you buy a cup of coffee/ mulled wine.
- After getting lost in the streets and taking in the views of Tallinn. I walked down some steps by the Patkuli view point. I entered through original Medieval city gates and meandered the streets of Old Town Tallinn. I came upon St. Olaf’s Church, once the tallest building in Europe, the top is open in the summers and on Christmas eve the Church itself was closed. Walked by some beautiful and colorful Merchant houses before heading on to Pikk street which is the main shopping/restaurant street. The Old Town train bus also passed me, normally touristy but during Christmas it was cool.
- I popped into Maiasmokk Cafe, the oldest cafe in Estonia, for some Estonian Chocolate Cake and coffee. I ordered Vana Tallinn coffee, thinking it was some Tallinn coffee, but its actually coffee spiked with Vana Tallinn, Estonia’s rum liquor. Both cake and rum coffee were delicious. The cafe is famous for its chocolate products as well as Marzipan. The cafe is great and has that old Viennese cafe vibe.
- A short walk from the cafe through old town is Viru Gate, one of the many gates that lead into Old Town, but this one is one of the main ones and its beautiful, especially at night with the Christmas lights.
- It was fast approaching 12PM, which means the Christmas market was opening and on 12/24 the Mayor was to declare Christmas peace from Town Hall right at noon. I gathered with the locals and handful of tourists in the Old Town Square to watch and listen. While I couldnt understand a word, it was quite incredible to stand amongst the locals next to the Christmas Tree, in the cold, snow covered houses and hear and see the Mayor make his speech from an open window. And when the national anthem played you could tell local v. tourist as locals took their hats and beanies off and placed their hands on their hearts.
- Once the mayor finished his speech, everyone cheered and then began to shop and eat at the market. I first just walked around and checked out every booth to see what they had on offer. Lots of hand crafted goods, some booths had the same things but definitely felt less commercial and more local and authentic than Prague. Most goods were under 20 Euros, the 100% Estonian wool items were a bit more pricey but for wool products the prices were reasonable. I got myself a linen dish towel with Estonian fish print and matching oven mittens. I walked by a stall selling smoked and cured game meats and sausages. There was boar, bear, deer, moose and elk meat, the best was deer. For lunch I had Estonian traditional food: Blood sausage with potatoes, sauerkraut and cranberry sauce, so good. The potatoes from the vendor called “Grill” was perfectly crispy on outside and chewy on inside. All paired with Mulled wine. The atmosphere is great. While the ground was not covered with snow, buildings and booths and Christmas Tree were covered, it was below freezing, cloudy and misty and I was surrounded by Medieval/Classical architecture as well as Christmas music playing and the laughter and voices of families and children. The air was filled with the smell of mulled wine, smoked meats, sauerkraut and grilled meats. It felt just like what a fairytale Christmas would be like, something right out of Frozen.
- After enjoying the market, I walked about 15-20 minutes to the Radisson Blu Sky Hotel to visit Lounge 24 which offers panoramic views of Tallinn. The views were beautiful even as the fog started rolling in. I ordered myself an 8 Euro Vana Tallinn made mojito and relaxed a bit.
- From there I walked back to Old Town via a different route and explored some more of Old Town. The great thing about Tallinn Old Town is that there is really no way to get lost, all paths are connected and you can easily walk by and get to sites and shops within minutes. I walked towards St. Nicholas’ Church and Museum, which was also closed but in the summers you can go up the tower as well. I wanted to check out Porgu, a restaurant and pub home to a massive selection of beers on tap. I continued to just meander through different streets and then came upon the Mayeri Trepp steps lined with vases commemorating Estonian independence, I walked up to the top of the small hill on the edges of old town. The War of Independence Victory Column is also here but it was covered for restoration. Atop this hill is also a plaque that I bet is often overseen, it is a Memorial plaque marking the day Estonians, Latvians, and Lithuanians joined hands and formed a human chain across all three nations in silent protest against USSR/Nazi occupation. It was peaceful and was part of the movement that got their freedom. The plaque is of two footprints in a red stone.
- The hill offered a nice view of Toompea hilltop and some of Old Town structures like the Kiek in de Kok Museum and Bastion Tunnels, again closed, but a beautiful Medieval watch tower. It was approaching sunset at this point so I decided to walk back up Toompea hill to the view points to catch the sunset (there really was none due to the thick clouds), but i did get to see the entire city light up.
- I then walked back down the hill and passed some sites I saw earlier, now all lit up under the dusk sky, beautiful. I walked down and through new streets and ended up back at the Christmas Market. Wanting to capture some Christmas light scenes, I walked back to Viru Gates with the street lit up now, it was great.
- For dinner I had some Baltic salmon, with sauerkraut, potatoes, cranberry sauce, rye bread and mulled wine, as well as some pan fried dumplings with fennel and sour cream. I had two desserts, Gingerbread cookie and Estonian Christmas drink (apple and spices, more herbal than spiced) as well as Semla, Nordic Profiterole with chocolate and Glogg (Nordic Christmas spiced wine) served with a shot of Vana Tallinn.
- It was about 5PM by this point and I decided to return to the hotel to do some work as it was daytime in the United States.
- After some work, I decided to head back to town to walk around one last time and to grab some last minute gifts at the market. I took new paths again and walked back up the Toompea hill for some night views of Tallinn before spending the remaining of the night at the market again soaking it all in and enjoying the company of families and other travelers on this Christmas eve.
- Woke up very early on Christmas morning and my hotel prepared a breakfast to go bag for me and ordered a taxi for me after my scheduled uber was nowhere to be found. I then headed to the airport for my 7:20AM departure to Amsterdam and onwards to Atlanta.
Tallinn exceeded my expectations. The city itself is beautiful, quaint, easy to do and navigate, it seems everyone speaks English and welcomes you with a smile. I was expecting it to be my least favorite of the three Baltic states but it turned out to be my favorite. I can easily see why this was voted Christmas City 2019, especially if in 2019 it is snowy on Christmas again, then Tallinn will most definitely be the place to be for Christmas. The Christmas market is authentic, though not historic, warm, and a good size. It is also a cheap European city.
I shall have to return in the summer when more sites are open and daylight is almost 24 hours.