The Alexander Nevsky Cathedral, Tallinn (Flickr: Ilya)

7 things for free in Tallinn

16th April 2013

Estonia’s capital is a mish-mash of medieval and modern – Daisy Cropper reveals how to soak it all up on a budget

Daisy Cropper

1. Tour the Old Town

There is so much more to Estonia’s capital and culture than the Old Town but it’s a good place to start your exploration. The main square – Raekoja plats – is the heart of this medieval centre and the natural place to begin. Pick up a free city map from the tourist information centre (Kullassepa tanav) and guide yourself around the main points of interest. For a longer walk, circumnavigate the city walls, ticking off each of the 26 watchtowers as you go.

Want to have the best, unexpected experiences? Get lost in the maze of narrow lanes, centuries-old courtyards and crumbling archways around the Old Town. This way, you’ll meet plenty of locals, get away from the hordes and see the real side of Tallinn.

2. Get a free pint (of cinnamon beer)

Tallinn is packed with medieval memorabilia – but be warned, some of it is slightly cheesy. Olde Hansa hosts banquets and feasts thoroughly immersed in this theme. Food is served on wooden slabs accompanied by giant goblets, with merry maids on hand in traditional peasant dress.

Sssh... I'll let you in on a secret. Friendly customers can get a free drink. Street performers and touts stand outside trying to tempt people inside. What few people know is they have small sacks containing tiny medieval coins, which will allow a free pint of honey mead or cinnamon beer to the friendliest visitors, once inside.

3. Visit the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral

Imposing, dominating and a little bit intimidating, this building is one all visitors should see on a trip to Tallinn. Bizarrely, Russian traditions still exist inside, with scriptures in Russian and priests only speaking in Russian. Step inside the 19th-century symbol of the Tsar's power in Estonia and you’ll feel like you’ve been transported to Moscow. The elaborate cathedral is worth a look in, for the grand swirling architecture and intense decorations.

Outside, the onion-domed cathedral is juxtaposed against the simple yet purposeful Estonian Parliament building, housing the current government. Somewhat ironically, the cathedral overlooks Freedom Square and the Monument to the Estonian War of Independence, a 28-metre pillar of glass topped by a cross, which is best seen at night when it's illuminated.

4. Window shop down winding streets

One of my favourite things to do in Tallinn was simply striking out from our hotel and seeing what we could find and where we'd end up. In doing this, we stumbled upon both the Meistrite Hoov (Master's Courtyard) and Katariina Kaik (St Catherine's Passage).

The Master's Courtard houses cute cafes, creative art galleries and trinkets, all hand-made or created in Estonia. Stop by the Puu- ja Putukapood (wood and felt craft shop), the fragrant smells inside are intoxicating, while the wooden crafts on offer are oh-so-tempting.

Close by is St Catherine's Passage, this time a line of small pottery works, galleries and cafes for you to peruse. Along one wall, look out for gigantic tombstones, some dating back to the 14th century.

5. Climb Toompea Hill

Take to the highest point of the city to see red-turreted towers, surrounded by modern skyscrapers, all against a backdrop of the calm Baltic Sea. The centuries-old skyline is also a must-see at night, when ferries dot the horizon and lights illuminate the city in a warm glow.

Toompea Hill is famously where the first of Tallinn’s buildings were constructed – up a steep slope to ward off any intruders. The exact dates of settlement are disputed but historians estimate there was a wooden fort construction on this site from the 9th century onwards.

Stop by Kohtuotsa and Patkuli view platforms for the best cityscape views. Don't forget your camera!

6. Escape the city

For a glimpse into more modern Estonian architecture head for Kadriorg, a pretty suburb housing grand houses, villas and summer estates. The surrounding Kadriorg Park is one of the most peaceful places in the city, perfect for picnics, tranquil walks or people watching.

Open since the early 18th century, the park has always been for the public as a place to enjoy the outdoors. Visit in spring and summer, when flowerbeds burst with life of every colour. Spot cherry trees and rhododendrons blossom and later in the year irises and orrises blooming.

Dainty fountains, lakes and gazebos sprawled across the park will leave you plenty to explore and discover. Keen museum-goers will find a number of attractions close by as well.

7. Behind bars

I’ve broken the rules – technically this one isn’t free. It costs a whopping €2 – but it’s well worth the money. For a haunting glimpse of Soviet-era prison life head to Patarei Prison. Originally built in the mid-19th century as a fortress, the empty cells, corridors and chambers are eerily quiet. Exploring this abandoned building is a sombre and creepy experience.

One the brighter side, there's a small bar on the waterfront, selling snacks and drinks. It's slightly surreal, however, looking out on to the water through a barbed-wire fence.

Visitors are advised to tour the prison with a guide – it's very easy to get lost in there.

Budget travel tip:

Tallinn has a wealth of galleries, museums and attractions – but most have an entry fee. Culture vultures should buy a Tallinn Card (€24 for 24 hours; €32 for 48 hours) for free public transport around the city and discounts on 100 attractions. Buy in advance from: www.tourism.tallinn.ee.

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