The bus ride from Riga to Tallinn on Ecolines was pleasant and comfortable for a bus ride – just over four hours. I had an empty seat next to me. This bus was more comfortable (a nicer, luxury bus) than the buses I had taken (shorter rides) between Lithuania and Riga, but it was still long a long ride that would have been a lot more pleasant by train.
I was surprised that soon after our bus crossed the border from Latvia into Estonia, the police stopped our bus for a random passport check. An officer boarded our bus at the front and checked only the first few passports, including mine. She looked over my passport carefully, inspecting almost every page – I’m sure she looked at it for at least 30 seconds and longer than anyone else’s passport before finally handing it back to me without comment. Then she got off the bus without checking any more passports, and we continued on.
The inside of the Tallinn bus station is nice and modern. There, I bought a 72 hour transit pass and then followed Google Map directions to the right tram stop and headed into Tallinn. Tallinn’s bus station is far from the center of town – it would have been a long walk. My hotel, the Baltic Imperial, was actually quite close to Tallinn’s main train station, which is just outside the old town in a fantastic location. Sadly, I didn’t get to take a train anywhere in Estonia.
I doubted ahead of time that I needed three nights in Tallinn, but that’s how it worked out. I had a list of things to see/do in Tallinn, just like in the other towns, but nothing on my Tallinn list seemed very important or amazingly interesting, so two nights just for Tallinn would have been plenty for me. I had given myself an extra night (one of those three nights) between Riga and Helsinki thinking I might decide to stop somewhere on the fly like Parnu or Tartu for a night, but by the last day in Riga when I was nailing it all down, I just didn’t feel like making too many more stops or hotel changes. In the end, I decided three nights in Tallinn a one day trip somewhere would work out fine.
As much as I loved Riga, after a few days in that huge city, the size made me feel a little stressed – I found myself walking or taking the bus a lot to get around. Tallinn is far smaller and intimate, especially the old town where most tourists would spend time, and I felt more relaxed there. Getting from place to place was easier and quicker, and I felt I could get a basic orientation for Tallinn fairly quickly vs. the larger Riga.
Tallinn’s old town really is two towns, the lower and upper town. Most tourists will spend time in the old town square in the lower town – more restaurants and shops – but the views down from the upper town (Toompea Hill) are fantastic. Tallinn is on the Baltic Sea, but there’s not really a public “waterfront area” where you might enjoy roaming (I did wander over to a beach near the ferry terminal – see below).
Tallinn’s old town square (lower town) has a lovely, authentic feel to it: a nice old town hall, cool old buildings, cobblestones… Yes, it feels touristy, and there are plenty of restaurants with menus that show pictures of the food…but unlike in Riga, there seemed to be no chain restaurants (no TGI Fridays or Subway) right in the old town. The McDonalds and Subway restaurants I saw were only at the very edges of the old town.
I explored Tallinn’s old town town quickly the first evening, grabbed a pizza for dinner from an Italian restaurant a few blocks from the hotel, and stopped at a nearby grocery store (open 24 hours) for some water and snacks. I tried to shoot some night pictures the first night – I could walk up to Toompea Hill, the best viewpoint in town, from the Baltic Imperial, in about five minutes. But it just wouldn’t get dark in late May! By midnight, it still seemed like twilight. So my pictures don’t really seem like “night shots.”
The second day I took the free walking tour at noon (a large group of about fifty people, because there was only one guide where normally there would be two). The tour guide was good – when they work for tips, you seem to get a better tour, I’ve found – giving me a good basic overview of Tallinn.
The rest of the day I explored more of the outskirts of Tallinn. I explored Kadriorg Park – pleasant little park with a sort of castle (I didn’t go inside). Later I continued further out to the Song Festival Grounds, famous for Estonia’s ‘singing revolution,” an outdoor amphitheater where in the late 80s, Estonians from all over the country gathered to sing Estonian songs in defiance of Soviet laws against doing so. The grounds were completely empty when I was there, so there wasn’t much to see, but you can walk through the grounds. They are open to the public.
From the Song Festival Grounds, I walked down to the waterfront. There are some beaches there – not particularly nice. You can sort of walk up from there toward the ferry terminal, but it’s blocked off – I wound up detouring through what looked like some abandoned industrial areas and a construction site (the locals were walking it – why not?). Eventually I found my way back to the tram stop and did a final walk out at the ferry terminal. I wanted to see how far of a walk it would be the final morning for me to catch the ferry to Helsinki.
For dinner, I had a burger at the Estonian Burger Factory, a little place just outside the old town I had heard about – so good that I ate there two nights in a row. There were plenty of places right in the old town to eat, close to my hotel, that probably would have worked fine, but I wanted to get away from the tourists a bit. The Estonian Burger Company is a bit of a walk from the old town but well worth it (I took the bus part way, because it was covered by my pass anyway).
My third and final day in Tallinn, I took a 1.5 hour bus (each way) out to Haapsalu, a town on a bay close to the ocean in western Estonia. (See next page.) I considered day trips to Parnu or Tartu by train, but I was not excited about exploring yet another “town center” or another resorty beach town after seeing one in Latvia. Haapaslu sounded (and was) different than that.
My final morning, I took an Eckerö ferry from Tallinn (19 Euros one way when booked online; from the agent at the ferry terminal, it would have been 30 Euros; she insisted it was the same price online but it wasn’t.) It would have been about a 20 minute walk (dragging bags behind me) from the hotel to the ferry terminal, but I took a bus part, using the last day of my transit pass. I was confused at first, because I expected to take tram #1 or #2 like I had taken the previous days – these trams seemed to run so often that you didn’t really need to know the schedule. But I didn’t see either tram running after a few minutes. Finally I checked my phone, and Google Maps told me to take a bus – ?
Turns out the trams went down for maintenance of some sort for a while on June 1, that very day. So I took a bus part way and walked the rest of the way to the terminal.
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