Dream of having the confidence to travel solo?
Read my book Get Lost to find out how!
Greetings Internet Stranger and welcome to 24 hours in Tallinn. Tallinn, Estonia is one of those cities that pretty much every traveler loves. It’s cute and charming and historic, but it’s also enough off the beaten track to please more adventurous explorers. Many people visit Tallinn on a cruise ship excursion, which is pleasant enough. But you really need to spend at least 24 hours in Tallinn to fully understand the city’s charm.
The Old Town is Tallinn’s most famous area, and we will get to explore that during our next 24 hours in Tallinn. But for today, we’re heading to the beautiful Kadriorg Park. It has museums, historical attractions, flowers galore, and it’s the perfect thing to do in Tallinn on a Sunday when many attractions in Old Town are closed. I hope you’re ready to join me!
24 Hours in Tallinn
Where to Stay?
When you’re spending 24 hours in Tallinn, you want to choose the most convenient location possible. That’s why I recommend staying a short walking distance from Tallinn Old Town at the Von Stackelberg Hotel. The hotel was beautiful and had a friendly staff. They even have a sauna and a spa on the premises. But my favorite thing about the hotel was the breakfast spread. I’m pretty sure it has the finest English breakfast in all of Estonia!
24 Hours in Tallinn
What to Pack?
The weather in Estonia can be rainy. So the two most important things you’ll need to bring are an umbrella and some rain boots. My favorite travel umbrella is the Repel Teflon Waterproof Umbrella. It is strong enough to stand up to the sometimes-quite-strong winds of Estonia.
For rain boots, I recommend the Asgard Rain Boots. They are comfy/cozy and keep my feet dry all day. Plus they’re cute enough that I can wear them out and about without feeling like some gauche American with gross feet.
Finally, if you’re not from Europe, you need a universal adapter if you’re going to plug in electronics. European electrical outlets don’t work with either American or UK plugs. I suggest the NEWVANGA travel adapter. It’s usable with any electrical outlet in the world, so you won’t need to keep buying new adapters. I always carry two with me, just in case something happens to one.
24 Hours in Tallinn
Kumu sounds like some sort of seaweed supplement that Gwyneth Paltrow might hawk on Goop. But in fact, Kumu is the headquarters of the Art Museum of Estonia. It’s also one of the largest art museums in Eastern Europe. Plus, Kumu is located in the gorgeous Kadriorg Park, and if you visit in the summer, it will be surrounded by blooming roses. So any 24 hours in Tallinn that begins here is already off to a good start.
Some people don’t like museums and find them to be boring or intimidating. I say you just have to find the right mindset to appreciate them! How lucky we are to be in a museum surrounded by beautiful things and enough time to contemplate them! And you don’t need to be an expert on brushstrokes or chiaroscuro to appreciate museums. You just need an eye and a brain to enjoy…
approximately top 5: kumu
1) michel sittow
Estonia is a fairly young country. I know it seems a bit cheeky for an American like me to say that a country is young, but Estonia only just recently celebrated its 100th birthday, and for much of its 100 years of life, it was under occupation by the Soviet Union. Like many young, small countries, Estonia is very proud of its national identity and various claims to fame. And of course, one of the most important claims to fame for any country is the number of artists it has produced.
When I spend my 24 hours in Estonia, Kumu was displaying the works of a Renaissance-era portrait painter named Michel Sittow. He was born in Tallinn in the 15th century, which makes him arguably the first great Estonian artist. But back then Tallinn wasn’t called Tallinn; it was known by the name Reval. And it’s not clear to me if Sittow actually spoke Estonian or not. But he was definitely born in the area now known as Estonia! National identity is a complicated thing.
Sittow was well known as a portrait painter in the royal courts of Europe. The portrait you see above is of Mary Tudor, the sister of Henry VIII. For a long time people thought it was a portrait of Catherine of Aragon, Henry’s wife. Couldn’t Henry tell the difference between his wife and his sister? No wonder he got married so many times.
It’s hard to tell exactly when Estonian art began because it’s hard to tell when Estonia began. People have been living in Estonia and speaking Estonian for thousands of years. But Estonia didn’t form a national identity. Instead, the largest cities in Estonia, like Tallinn, were part of a Northern European trading league called the Hanseatic League, along with cities like Hamburg. As you can imagine, these cities started making a lot of money through trade.
Now that Estonian cities were making money, they started to attract the attention of the bigger surrounding powers, especially Sweden and Russia. So for a few hundred years, Estonia bounced back and forth between being part of Russia and being part of Sweden. “Everyone wants a piece of Estonia even though Estonia is very small” is a major theme in Estonian history.
All of this historical background explains why the earliest Estonian painting is just portraits of rich Germans, Swedes, and Russians. You can get all of this from looking at the paintings above. The nobles in those paintings are rich, they’re cool, they’re confident, and they’re better than you. These paintings are basically the Instagram selfies of the 17th and 18th centuries.
3) estonian nationalist paintings
In the mid-19th century, nationalism was on the rise all over Europe. The German and Italian nationalist movements are maybe the most famous, but nationalism was also a major force for smaller ethnic groups, like the Estonians, who wanted to be independent from Russia. (Russia had other ideas.)
Artists got in on this nationalist movement and tried to paint images of Estonia that would rouse the people. These nationalist paintings seemed to take on two forms. One genre was beautiful paintings of Estonian landscapes.
And the other was paintings of pretty Estonian girls wearing traditional Estonian clothes, sometimes in pretty Estonian forests. So if those portraits of fancy nobles were like the Instagram selfies of their day, I guess these portraits would be like political cartoons shared on Twitter. Only I think these Estonian girls have better headgear game than most of what I see on Twitter these days.
4) estonian modern art
Of course, Estonian painting isn’t limited to pretty trees and pretty girls in pretty hats. There are well-known Estonian modern artists, and by modern I mean early 20th century. One of the best known Estonian modern artists is Nikolai Triik. There was no art academy in Estonia in the early 20th century, so like other Estonian artists, Triik went to study abroad in places like St Petersburg, Paris, and Berlin.
You don’t need to have gone to art school in Berlin to see that Triik used color in interesting ways. I’ve personally never met a woman who had large, random, colorful blotches on her skin. Also it’s interesting how her dress blends in with the background. It makes it seem like the wall is about to swallow her up.
I must admit I’m even more curious about Triik’s name than I am his painting. It’s such a fun name! Did he get teased a lot? Did people say to him, “Silly rabbits, Triiks are for kids?” Did they sing, “It’s Triicky”? But then I remember that he spoke Estonian, not English, and none of those jokes would make sense in Estonian.
5) soviet “art”
There’s a separate floor at Kumu dedicated to art from the Soviet period in Estonian history. This period lasted from 1940-1991, and during the time, Estonia was forced to be part of the USSR. The art from this period ranges from blatant Soviet propaganda, like the poster above that features both a quote from Stalin and Stalin’s weird head in the left-hand corner…
to this seemingly a-political cartoon of a bunny holding a girl in a magical forest and it looks like their all made of cotton candy and melting. I mean, maybe there’s a political message here somewhere. I’m not an expert on Estonian politics.
With some pieces, it’s hard to tell if it’s pro-Soviet or anti-Soviet. Like this giant painting of Lenin’s head as a sun. I mean, Lenin is certainly prominently featured, but in a creepy way that will haunt my nightmares. He’s like the worst Tellytubby baby in the sun ever.
6) kumu cafe
At this point in our 24 hours in Tallinn, it will be about lunchtime. We’re going to stay in Kadriorg Park for the afternoon, so I think it’s best to have lunch in the museum at the Kumu Cafe. The cafe serves fresh, local ingredients, and I’m confident you’ll enjoy your meal here. I dined on Baltic herring, local from the Baltic sea, and potatoes. This dish was a good reminder that Estonia is perhaps more of a Scandinavian country than an Eastern European country. You could find a dish like this on the menu in many places in Finland or Sweden.
24 Hours in Tallinn
Afternoon: Kadriorg Park
Since we’ve spent the morning of our 24 hours in Tallinn inside an art museum, I thought it would be perfect to spend the afternoon strolling around the idyllic Kadriorg Park. This park dates all the way back to 1718, when Tsar Peter I of Russia ordered it built. (The Russians are more likely to call this Tsar Peter the Great, rather than Peter I. But I can see why the Estonians wouldn’t want to call any Russian Tsar great, even if he did commission a pretty sweet park.)
I’m sure you’ll have a good time anywhere you wander in Kadriorg Park. Take time to stop and smell the roses, and I mean that literally.
But if you need a little more direction, I can help you out with…
three fun facts: kadriorg park
1) what’s the prettiest place in kadriorg park?
Debatable, but I plump for Kadriorg Palace. This palace was built by Peter I as a summer residence, and he named it after his wife Catherine. Two questions about that. First, why do you need a summer residence in Estonia when you already live in St Petersburg, Russia? I don’t think the climate is too different. And two, why did he spell Catherine “Kadriorg”? Maybe when you’re a tsar, you don’t need to know how to spell?
I strongly suggest paying the small fee to enter Kadriorg Palace. There’s art inside the palace, but even if you’re all museumed out from Kumu, don’t pass up the chance to see the interior of a tsar’s summer home. You can even stop every one in a while, pose in a mirror, and say, “Who’s ‘tsarry’ now?” But don’t do it when anyone else is around because they’ll think you’re crazy.
2) where’s the quietest spot in the park?
Again, a hard thing to measure, but I’m pretty sure it’s the Japanese park within Kadriorg Park. Unlike apparently everything else in Kadriorg Park, the Japanese park was not commissioned by Peter I of Russia. In fact, the Japanese garden wasn’t opened until 2011. Masao Sone, who comes from Kyoto, designed the Japanese park to be a spot where people could meditate. Unlike Kadriorg Palace, the park is completely free to enter. So this is a perfect place for the budget tourist.
3) what about a beach, huh?
That’s so weird that you guessed there was a beach right by Kadriorg Park, Internet Stranger! Have you already spent 24 hours in Tallinn? As you exit Kadriorg Park, you’ll see the Russalka Memorial, dedicated to victims of a shipwreck. And just near the memorial is Russalka Rand, which is a public beach. Even if you didn’t bring your swimwear, it’s pleasant just to walk along the water.
I actually strolled all the way back into Old Town, staying along the water most of the way. It’s a good way to work off all the food I eat when I travel. And Russalka beach is much more enjoyable than watching Real Housewives on the treadmill at the gym back home!
24 Hours in Tallinn
Evening: Dinner at Rataskaevu16
Rataskaevu16 sometimes calls itself “the restaurant without a name”. After all, Rataskaevu16 is just the address of the building. But when a place serves food this good, they don’t need a name to be remembered. If you want to try local Estonian ingredients, this is the place to go. I didn’t have a reservation, but I showed up early in the evening, and I was seated right away.
When I’m ordering a three-course dinner, I try to balance out the dishes. I knew I wanted a heavier dish for the main course, so I decided on a lighter appetizer: a mildly spicy tomato soup with asparagus. There was white asparagus in the soup, and I always think of white asparagus as such a European ingredient. I rarely see it on menus in the US, and I don’t understand why. Are people scared of it? Do they think it’s an asparagus ghost?
24 hour treat: elk meat
I chose elk meat with parsnips, carrots, and black currant sauce for my main course. Elk is one of my favorite meats because it’s rich without being gamey. This was yet another dish that showed off Estonia’s Nordic ties. You could have found this elk meat on the menu in any Scandinavian restaurant.
24 hour treat: blue cheesecake
Ahh! A true original! I’m from New York City, and I’ve eaten many a cheesecake, but I’ve never had blue cheesecake before. This was a truly delightful dish: it was sweet but not too sweet because of the slightly pungent kick from the blue cheese and the drizzle of sourness from the sea buckthorn sauce on top. White asparagus, elk meat, and blue cheesecake are all things I’d like to see more often in restaurants in the US. Make it happen, my minions!
That’s a Perfect 24 Hours in Tallinn!
What would you do with 24 hours in Tallinn? Is Lenin’s head going to haunt your nightmares? And is white asparagus the ghost of an asparagus, or is it what happens when a vampire bunny drinks all the juice out of an asparagus? Please leave your thoughts below!
Note: If you want to know how I put my travel itineraries together, just click here. Keep in mind that while each article is about how to spend 24 hours in a place, that doesn’t mean you should ONLY spend 24 hours in Tallinn. If you have time for another 24 hours in Tallinn, try this itinerary.