Tallinn is always a magical place. But in the winter, Tallinn looks even more like it was plucked from the pages of a fairytale.
Somehow, the city looks more striking against a muted, cloudy sky. Red roofs, candy-colored façades, spires reaching skywards in shades of green and silver, all against the backdrop of the Baltic Sea: it’s what you dream of when you think of historic European cities.
But most historic European Old Towns – even my beloved Prague, where I lived for six months and where my curiosity about the world turned into clinical wanderlust – are ridiculously crowded in the months leading up to Christmas.
But not so in Tallinn in winter. This charming medieval Old Town is miraculously sedate in the winter. In fact, once you realize that won’t be packed elbow-to-elbow in the narrow streets of the Old Town the way you would in summer, visiting Tallinn in winter starts to seem like a reasonable idea after all.
Sure, winter temperatures hover around or below 0 Celsius, and the sun sets around 3 PM. But isn’t it worth it to have a piece of this fairytale city all to yourself?
I’m an advocate of visiting Northern cities in the winter – an unpopular opinion, for sure – but bear with me. In the winter, Tallinn’s Old Town becomes all the more beautiful. Dustings of snow cradle the rooftops if you’re lucky (though we got unlucky and had a week of drizzly weather).
The already-cozy cafés, with their Scandinavian-inspired design, seem even more snug and warm.
And if you get cold, a steaming cup of glögg (mulled red wine) will set you right, like a delicious warm hug from the inside out. I decided when living in Prague in the winter that if a wine is served hot, it’s basically a breakfast food and therefore perfectly fine to drink before noon. So take that as a license to glögg to your heart’s content (I know I will).
Starting in mid-November, Tallinn has an adorable Christmas market in the Town Hall Square that’s definitely worth a visit. I’ll admit it here for the entire Internet to see – I’m a bit of a Christmas Grinch.
But the Tallinn Christmas market, with its enormous tree, cute wooden craft booths, piping hot fresh pancakes, and all the glögg you can drink is one of the coziest places in all of Tallinn.
Breaking away from the Old Town, there’s still plenty of things to do in Tallinn in winter.
The bustling hipster neighborhood of Kalamaja is full of hidden gems and liveliness even in the winter, with groups of friends chatting in restaurants and bars all over the neighborhood. The area around Telliskivi Creative City is full of cafés and bakeries oozing hygge, that Danish buzzword that the world has simplified to mean “coziness.” Soft lighting, cozy pillows and throws and expertly pulled espresso all beckon you to take a break from the Tallinn winter and warm up indoors.
Despite my love for wintry destinations, I’m a Californian at heart and can’t stay outdoors in the cold for long.
To cope with the winter, one of my favorite things to do when traveling in cold weather is to spend my time getting my nerd on, holed up in various local museums — the quirkier, the better.
Luckily for those who visit Tallinn in winter, the city has a ton of amazing museums to choose from. The KGB Museum located in the Viru Hotel is my favorite — I’m a huge sucker for Soviet history, having studied 20th-century Russian history in college (which, plot twist, has proven to be one of the more relevant classes I took as an undergrad).
Another favorite way to while away the Estonian winter is by visiting the Seaplane Harbor Museum. The museum is located just outside of hipster Kalamaja and is housed within an old seaplane hangar, and before you roll your eyes at me for being the biggest nerd on the planet, is actually super awesome.
For people hipper than myself, check out the Kumu (Estonian Art Museum) just outside the city center in Kadriorg Park to get an idea of Estonian history and expression through centuries of art. Bonus points for Kadriorg: I had the best pastry in all of Estonia at the nearby Gourmet Coffee, with a perfect flat white to boot.
And even though the sun sets at 3:30, the joy of that is that afternoon golden hour seems to last that little extra bit longer, and the blue hour feels just a little bit brighter.
With only a few hours of daylight, you have to use your time wisely in the winter. You start approaching each day with a plan, relishing those few moments of sunshine and finding the beauty even in the liminal moments of twilight.
In winter, the masses of tourists clear Tallinn’s city center and it’s somehow easier to see beyond the postcard-perfect streets into the modern, beating heart of a young and creative Estonia.
At the crosswords of Eastern Europe and the Nordics, Estonia manages to merge aspects of both without fitting solidly into either, something distinctly its own.