I Heart My City: Karina’s Tallinn

Karina Vabson is a Tallinn, Estonia native with a thirst for world exploration. So, after living in Spain, Iceland, and Denmark, her home city’s history and architecture called her back to where her journey began. Karina now shares her passion for the city as a local expert for Spotted By Locals, where she reports on all that this Baltic gem has to offer. Check out a few of Karina’s favorite things about Tallinn, then add your own two cents by leaving a comment.

Tallinn is My City

When someone comes to visit me, the first place I take them is to the Kalamaja neighborhood. It has a market, coffeehouses, old wooden architecture, a park, and many other little surprises behind every corner.

My city’s best museum is Seaplane Harbour (Lennusadam) because of its majestic urban architecture. Built in 1917 as a part of sea fortress, it was created by Danish engineers from Christiani & Nielsen, the same firm that designed the Sydney Opera House.

Eesti Esindus is the place to buy authentic, local souvenirs. Everything in the store is cool, from the strawberry mint jam and elk meat to the wool hats and sweaters that you’ll actually want to wear.

You can see my city best from St. Olaf’s Church. It’s a good alternative to the TV Tower because of its views of Old Town and its amazing architecture. You can also see the nearby seaport and islands.

Locals know to skip Kalev Spa and check out the public sauna of Kalma instead. Kalma is the only sauna in Tallinn that is still heated by wood, not by electricity.

In the past, notable people like chess grandmaestro Paul Keres and explorer Adam Johann von Krusenstern have called my city home. Probably the world’s best-known Estonian, the composer Arvo Pärt, still lives here.

Summer is the best time to visit my city because the days are long and nights are short. At the end of June it gets dark around midnight and the weather will allow you to have a memorable voyage if you are coming by ferry from Helsinki or Stockholm. Summer is also the best time to check out Pirita Beach.

The best place to spend time outdoors in my city is the Paljassaare peninsula, where you can explore the old Soviet military zone and the shoreline. The best way to see it is on a bicycle.

My city really knows how to celebrate Christmas because it has the best the best Christmas market in Europe. From the snow and cold temperatures to the smell of glögg and gingerbread in the middle of the medieval town, there’s no better place to get in the Christmas mood. In fact, Tallinn displayed the first ever public Christmas tree back in 1441!

You can tell if someone is from my city if they never have cash on them and if they only run the shower water when washing off the soap! Most shops in Tallinn accept debit cards and water here is quite expensive.

For a fancy night out, I go to Restaurant Tchaikovsky, then hit up the Estonian National Opera to see a ballet. A famous Estonian couple performed as soloists at the Royal Ballet in London for 17 years but recently returned home to work as art directors at our very own ballet.

Just outside my city, you can visit the islands of Aegna or Naissaare.

My city is known for its medieval Old Town, but seaside neighborhoods like Kopli and Kalamaja give Tallinn its special authentic value.

The best outdoor market in my city is Balti Jaam for junk and antiques and Keskturg for food from local farmers.

Boheem in Kalamaja is my favorite place to grab breakfast, and F-building is the spot for late-night eats.

To find out what’s going on at night and on the weekends, read Kultuure.info.

My city’s biggest sports event is the SEB Tallinn Marathon. You can watch it around town or by the seaside, but it’s better to take part in it for some intensive local sight-seeing!

When I’m feeling strapped for cash, I buy a bottle of wine and go to the pier at the Old City Marina to watch the boats and yachts at sunset.

To escape the crowds, go to Kadriorg, a park and a palace founded by Peter the Great. The nearly 250-acre retreat is the perfect spot to get away from it all.

If my city was a celebrity it’d be Robert Downey, Jr. because he can be very raw and sophisticated at the same time. Like Downey, Tallinn’s been through a lot, but it has managed to recover.

The dish that represents my city best is shashlyk, a traditional grilled meat dish from the Caucasus that’s available almost anywhere — especially outside at picnics and large gatherings. Vana Tallinn liquor is my city’s signature drink. It can be mixed with coffee, ice cream, and sparkling wine.

Laudsepatöökoda is my favorite building in town because it unites old and new architecture.

The most random thing about my city is that the first Tallinn tram transported locals in 1888, and today the entire system is free for inhabitants.

Rock Café (not to be confused with a similar sounding chain restaurant) is the best place to see live music, but if you’re in the mood to dance, check out Club Privé.

Eurovision Song Contest 2002 could only happen in my city.

In the spring you should visit the Tallinn Botanical Garden and TV Tower.

In the summer you should try to spend as much time as possible at the seaside. You can explore the whole city by following the shoreline.

In the fall you should go to Pierre Chocolaterie to have a cup of thick hot chocolate. Then, explore the city by taking Tram 1 from Kadriorg to Kopli.

In the winter you should go cross-country skiing in Pirita forest to explore nature and take in the spectacular views.

If you have kids (or are a kid at heart), you won’t want to miss Ahhaa, a science center where kids can experience 4-D cinema, conduct experiments, and make DNA chains out of marzipan and gummy bears.

If there’s one thing you should know about getting around my city, it’s that we do not have a subway. We do have, however, environmentally friendly trams and trolleybuses.

The best book about my city is The Compromise by Sergei Dovlatov. (And, in case you’re wondering, the best movie shot in my city is Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker.)

In 140 characters or less, the world should heart my city because Tallinn blends history and raw industry with parks and waters that haven’t been spoiled by commerce.


  1. Philip Cooper
    United Kingdom
    August 18, 2013, 6:50 am

    I want to visit next year with my wife and hopefully avoid both it being too cold and too crowded – when would be the best time to go please then?

  2. Thomas Duncan
    Sudbury, ON, Canada
    July 8, 2013, 7:12 pm

    What a jewel! I was absolutely astounded by the beauty of Tallinn. I had only booked it as a quick two-day side trip for a month-long trip working in Helsinki. Had I known it was so beautiful I would have gone over (quick ferry from Helsinki) every weekend. I could not possibly say enough about such a gorgeous city – including the locals. I will most definitely be planning a (much longer) trip in the near future.

  3. MC
    March 24, 2013, 3:01 pm

    I think some of the things in this article are a bit off. Your love for Paljasaare and Kopli (Thenk God Lasnamagi wasn’t added to the list) for example might come from childhood there but to actually recommend this to anybody is quite out there. Kind of like telling somebody to take a walk in Bronx in the middle of the night. Also mentioning shashlyk as the food of your city is disappointing and has roots in the typical russian neighborhoods (did you mention Kopli?). I think it’s sad that so many people still try to popularize things that have nothing to do with Estonia or estonian culture eg shashlyk or the nesting dolls. Estonia has a beautiful nature, great food and restaurants, wonderful hotels and amazing old town.
    Granted I have been away from Estonia for years but still have a close contact through friends and family and Tallinn has so more to offer than these few things that people who “try” to come off as artsy usually mention. I have never seen/heard or known anybody who would go sit at the the pier by the harbor/old town unless they had a death wish. As much as older generation loves Vana Tallinn, younger prefers coolers, ciders and beer made by Saku. Tallinn has a great christmas market but doesnt come even close to the ones in Germany ( a la Nurnberg, Berlin, Munich etc). And trams and trolleybuses are more pain than anything else.

  4. estonie-tallinn.com
    March 19, 2013, 5:04 pm

    While I would definitely agree with most of the things, I’m kind of surprised but several but I guess it’s just a difference of taste. For example, I would not recommend going to Paljassaare peninsula, not really the nicest place in town (for sure most of the readers would be really scared there) when you can go to Kakumae or Pirita instead. My favourite place would be the cliff in Tabasalu.
    In terms of shopm Eesti Esindus has some nice produtcs but most of them are 3 times more expensive than in any normal store, so I’d buy my souvenirs somewhere else (at least for all food and drinks).

    Apart from that I think it’s spot on: Pierre Chocolaterie, Seaplane harbour… but I don’t really get why the trams and trolleys are environmentally friendly,,, they work with electricity and in Estonia electricity come at 90% from oil shale which is one of the least environmentally friendly things in the world….

  5. Cheryl-Anne Millsap
    Spokane, WA
    March 17, 2013, 2:13 am

    I spent a few days in Tallinn last spring and loved it. More Americans should visit. The city is beautiful and the people are wonderful.

  6. Tammy
    March 17, 2013, 1:09 am

    Beautiful, charming and very welcoming :) Wonderful article.

  7. WaterHabitatRetreat
    March 14, 2013, 8:11 am

    Good one. I enjoyed reading about this beautiful location, tallinn.

  8. Lee
    March 14, 2013, 6:57 am

    Terrific article. We had a wonderful time exploring this charming city in 2010. It was – frankly unexpectedly – one of our favorite port of calls on a Baltic cruise. This article makes me want to go back and stay longer!