Backpacking in Tallinn, Estonia

Life After the Iron Curtain in Tallinn

Tallinn is the small but enchanting capital of the Baltic nation of Estonia. Estonians have lived through centuries of foreign rule in various forms interrupted by brief periods of independence. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Estonia once again became an autonomous country in 1991.

Medieval Tallinn

Toompea CastleToompea Castle

Built in the 13th Century, the impressive castle looks over the city from the upper part of the old town. Admission is by guided tour only but if you don’t fancy it this it is still a great place to wander around with your camera taking in the views from Toompea Hill.

Old Town

The medieval old town is still in fantastic condition and easily one of the most impressive in Europe. As you wander around the cobblestone streets which are at their best in the bitter winter when snow turns the old town into a medieval winter wonderland. There are plenty of cathedrals, quaint squares and mysterious little archways which make this a beautiful yet eerie city.


Life behind the Iron Curtain

Museum of Occupation

Museum of OccupationsFor just 2 Euros will give you a good idea of Estonia’s long battle for independence. It focuses on the period of Nazi and especially Soviet rule with various video screens with real footage from the era. You can also visit a replica of a gulag (Soviet labour camp) where many Estonians were sent to a life of hardship in desperate conditions which killed the majority of them.

Ex-KGB Headquarters

This building is now owned by the Estonian government and generally not open to the public. It was once a hugely significant place that rightly generated fear amongst the residents of Tallinn. Suspected dissidents were sent here where they were inflicted to torture and beatings before often being sent to the labour camps in Siberia.

Song Festival Grounds

This was the place where Estonia’s peaceful Singing Revolution took place. As the Soviet Union began to fall apart, Estonian nationalism grew and large crowds gathered here to sing traditional Estonian folk song and wave the national colours. Nowadays it hosts the All Estonian Song Festival which attracts thousands of performers from across the country.

 

Tallinn Today: Party in the Baltic

For a city of under 500,000 people the nightlife is incredible. It is also very cheap which makes backpacking in Estonia all the more enjoyable. Weekends are by far the liveliest when dozens of late opening cellar bars and night clubs party on well into the small hours. There are also some excellent and very friendly hostels in Tallinn with great local staff and these are good places to party or at least meet travellers to hit the bars with.
Tallinn Old Town
The Estonian capital does have some more unsavoury elements. Sex tourism is quite big here with a large number of strip clubs and it attracts many large groups of men from Western Europe and especially the UK. Some of the nightlife is a bit tacky and occasionally tries to rip off tourists but you won’t have to wander far to find somewhere cool to spend the evening. There is occasionally trouble between Estonians and Russians who still make up a large chunk of the population, many of whom don’t speak the native language.


Backpacking in Tallinn – Fitting it in to a trip around the region

Overall Tallinn is a great place to go for a few days. Its size makes it easy to navigate and experience all the main sights. Locals are very friendly and welcoming of travellers and seen as Estonia is only a small country it’s easy to fit in with visiting others in the region. Helsinki is only a short ferry ride across the freezing Baltic Sea from Tallinn taking a couple of hours or so. You can get a 50% discount with a Euro Rail Pass.

You can also head south from Tallinn to the countries second city, Tartu a popular university town. Keep going and you can check out the other two Baltic nations of Latvia and Lithuania. If you’re finding the Soviet period fascinating, you might want to head into Mother Russia with St Petersburg, only a short hop over the border.

Check out our backpacking route in the Baltics for an idea of how to do this!


This article was published in June 2011.


Backpacking Route in the Baltics (Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Finland & Russia)

europe routes

iberia | central europe | baltics | balkans


Backpacking Route in the Baltics (Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Finland & Russia)

Okay, so this part of the world isn’t exactly a backpacking hotbed. It doesn’t have glorious golden beaches or ancient temples nor does it boast great food or weather. But the Baltic region is not without its charms. There is no well-trodden backpacker trail here. Every traveller you meet will tend to have their own unique reason for being in the Baltics while the locals are friendly and appreciative of anyone who has chosen to visit their little corner of the planet.

As well as visiting the three Baltic States (Estonia, Lithuania and Latvia) our route sees you dive into Finland for a quick taste of Scandinavia and also takes in a little bit of Mother Russia. On the whole this is an underrated and very budget friendly part of Europe.


TIME NEEDED – 3 WEEKS

You can see most places in a day or two and it’s quite a small area so 3 weeks should be enough.


POSSIBLE BUDGET – £700 €800 $850

These figures are based on January 2017 exchange rates and prices and DO NOT include any visa costs. Getting into Russia can be expensive not to mention complicated and you may wish to focus on the Baltic states and Finland if your funds are limited. For more see our backpacking costs in different European countries.


VISA REQUIREMENTS FOR RUSSIA & BALTIC STATES

All the countries are in the EU (standard European entry requirements apply) with the exception of Russia, which has strict entry rules and almost everyone needs a visa. However if you are from the UK, Japan or a Schengen-zone European country you can get a 72 hour stay in Kalingrad without the need for one. This is subject to change though so please check. Russian visas should be arranged well in advance but if your trip is coming up in a few weeks you can get a fast-track Russian visa however it will not be cheap!


TRAVEL INSURANCE

It is advisable to get insured for all trips abroad. Read more here about perhaps the best travel insurance for backpackers.


Baltic Backpacking Route


St Petersburg

Russia backpacking

Cathedral of our Saviour, CC BY-ND 2.0

Russia’s second city is one that has gone through many transformations and several name changes over the centuries but has always retained an almost magical feel. The Hermitage Museum (Winter Palace) is the main attraction here but there’s so much culture in the form of world class opera, ballet and contemporary art that you can easily spend many days in this city and discover plenty of new things all the time. Backpacking in Russia isn’t too common but some of the hostels in St Petersburg are fantastic with well-run trips, city tours and bar crawls to get involved in.

Getting to Helsinki is possible via a pretty quick 3.5 hour train or overnight ferry across the Baltic.

Helsinki

It’s probably fair to say that Helsinki isn’t one of Europe’s beautiful capital cities. The expense of pretty much everything here will also put you off from staying long. However it does have it’s intrigues with highlights including ice skating in the city’s squares during the long dark winter and joining the normally sedate Finns in moshing to (very) heavy rock music in the bars and clubs.

Tallinn

tallinn in the winter

The medieval city of Tallinn perches on a hill overlooking the icy Baltic Sea. It’s only a very short hop on a ferry from Helsinki but after decades as part of the Soviet Union the differences are still very evident. It’s Old Town is beautiful and the grand castle still dominates the skyline but it is also a city moving forward and has some lively and cheap nightlife which attracts visitors from all over Europe.

For more on the Estonian capital see Life after the Iron Curtain in Tallinn

Tartu

A small but charming riverside city in Southern Estonia. It’s a thriving student centre full of young intellectuals who get together in one of the many traditional underground cellar bars when night falls.

Tartu is a surprise inclusion in our list of the Top 10 New Backpacking Hotspots

Sigulda

Latvia backpacking route

Sigulda bobsleigh, CC BY-SA 2.0

Located in a deep valley this is definitely a place for the adventure-traveller. Castles, caves and eerie ruins are there to be explored. Meanwhile other exhilarating activities include breaking the laws of gravity in the state-of-the art flight simulator. There is also the opportunity to rapidly slide down the town’s bobsled track (if you come in summer it the track is converted for ‘wheel-bobs’).

Riga

With an impressive old town and some very lively nightlife, the Latvian capital draws parallels with Tallinn. However it is much bigger than it’s Baltic neighbour and is a bit ‘rough around the edges’ shall we say. There are plenty of hostels and some backpacker geared bars which isn’t always the case in this part of the world and a night out in Riga is one you’re not likely forget.

Liepaja

This seaside town boasts some of the best beaches in the Baltic and is a must-visit if you come during summer when it hosts some top music festivals. The Northern part of the city (Karosta) used to be a secret Soviet military town and makes for a fascinating visit. You can even stay overnight in Karosta Prison where you will be treated just like the military prisoners who were held here until as recently as 1997!

Klaipeda & Curonian Spit

Klaipeda has a history which stretches back to the 13th Century and the coastal town is one of Lithuania’s most culturally significant. From the town’s harbour you can visit the Curonian Spit, a World Heritage site that separates Lithuania from the Russian oblast of Kaliningrad. It is basically a narrow but very long (100km) sandy strip of land with some enormous dunes reaching a height of 60 metres.

Kaliningrad

A curious little region in between Lithuania and Poland. It is part of Russia despite being totally separate from the rest of the country although it belonged to Germany until the end of the Second World War. It’s coastal capital (also called Kaliningrad) is home to half a million people and is one of the biggest cities in the Baltics. Kaliningrad has some important relics related to the war and also bygone eras such as the 19th Century fort that now holds several interesting museums.

Kaunas

Back in Lithuania and the ancient city of Kaunas. Over the centuries it has survived numerous occupations by various foreign powers but is now flourishing as part of independent Lithuania and in some respects is more significant than the capital city, Vilnius. The Old Town boasts some fascinating Gothic and Renaissance architecture while the newer parts are a hub of Lithuanian culture.

Take a ride on the rickety Funicular for the best views of the city.

Vilnius

Backpacking Route in the Baltics

Vilnius from the sky, CC BY 2.0

Finally Vilnius which is home to a fascinating mix of people with many Poles, Belarusians and Russians calling this city home. The once thriving Jewish districts that played a significant role in the development of Vilnius are still there but Jews only represent a small portion of the population today. Cemeteries and Sculpture Parks are amongst the curious attractions here whilst the food is perhaps the best in the region with a healthy mix of tasty yet affordable cuisines on offer.


Getting Around the Baltic States

To do this route you have various options for getting around. The only major hassles really revolve around moving in and out of Russia, although this is primarily to do with getting a visa before you set out.

Ask in your hostels for their suggested transport. Your average cost for moving between two towns on the route should be roughly 10 Euros. The St Petersburg-Helsinki and Helsinki-Tallinn legs will probably be the most expensive.

Once in Estonia, coaches are probably the best way to go as travelling by train is still pretty slow in the Baltic States. Eurolines are a reliable cheap bet when you want to move between countries and seen as the whole region is pretty small, you won’t be spending much time travelling anyway.


Budget Accommodation

Advanced booking is the norm in Europe and is advisable along this route, particularly in Russia. In the smaller cities you might be able to find somewhere on foot.


When to Visit

Winters are bitterly cold and you’ll certainly need to wrap up very warm as you work your way around the frozen Baltic Sea. Advantages are some wonderful Christmas markets and the snow which blanket covers this region from December to February and certainly adds to it’s charm. There is also the outside chance of witnessing the beautiful Northern Lights but you may need to head even further north.

Come in summer and the contrast is huge. Days are long and the sun doesn’t set till 11pm in places like Helsinki and rises again a few hours later. The coastal resorts suddenly come alive and are packed with thousands of locals in party mood.

If you pick up a taste for Eastern Europe, you could also consider combining this with our backpacking route for the Balkans.

 


This article was published in August 2013.

Only the budget at the top has since been updated.