You know those fairy tale towns that you see in animated Disney movies? The ones that are so perfect that they couldn’t be real, with narrow streets lined with tall, brick capped buildings and perfectly imperfect cobblestone streets? When I woke up, that was outside of my balcony window. Tallinn, it seems, is like one of those perfect fairy tale towns come to life. And it was just beyond our balcony window.
We docked in Estonia before I woke up, which admittedly, was a little late – we didn’t have an excursion booked for Tallinn since the city center was within walking distance of the ship. We woke up a little later, took our time getting ready and had a leisurely breakfast up at the Garden Café. Our plan was just to walk around and shop, take some pictures and maybe find a coffee shop. You know. Basically our usual.
Tallinn is so wonderful that I wish we got an earlier start. If you visit Tallinn, with or without a tour, get off the ship and give yourself as much time in port as possible, especially if you have as beautiful a day as we did, with pure sunshine and temps in the mid 70s.
((And to be fair, we were off the ship by 10:30 am, which is still early, but a little later by our standards!))
The only thing I knew was that I wanted to visit Toompea Hill to see a lookout over Old Town that I had seen on Instagram. We had a few options: we could walk, but that was a long straight shot uphill. We could take a taxi – there were plenty available at the pier. Or we could take the hop on hop off bus, and since that’s always the perennial favorite amongst our family (and because they offered a slight discount at €15 a person at the pier), we bought a ticket and hopped on. We booked our tickets to the CitySightseeing bus since they had the most lines, but if I had to do it again, I would have gone with the other bus company at the pier. Everyone books CitySightseeing because they’re in the most cities and the most well known, which also means they’re usually the most crowded.
We settled into our seats on the upper deck and I couldn’t have asked for a more beautiful day. It was the warmest day Tallinn had in months, and the warmest it would have for weeks, like some version of beautiful fate. We settled into our seats and plugged in our earplugs as the big red bus drove through the newer part of town en route to Old Town.
Tallinn is a fascinating city. The picturesque, grandiose Old Town lays clustered in its beautiful glory on one side, but on the other is this modern city, with shopping malls and skyscrapers. They sit next to each other in stark juxtaposition: modern technology hub next to medieval town. Fun fact from the Freestyle Daily: Tallinn is one of the top 10 digital cities in the world, with the highest number of startups per person in Europe. About a third of Estonia’s total population lives in Tallinn, at roughly 445,000 residents. For most of its history, the city was known as Reval, changing its name to Tallinn in 1918, but name change aside, it’s one of the oldest cities in Northern Europe. Our ride on the bus began in that newer part of town, as we drove past Viru Square, Freedom Square and the Song Festival Ground, where every five years, they hold the Estonian Song Festival, which is one of the largest choral events in the world. My favorite part of this part of town, though, was Tammsaare Park, a large park in the city center.
The bus drove along the park as it made it’s way up towards the upper part of Old Town, and we hopped off at Toompea Castle, right near Kiek in de Kök, an old artillery tower that, in German, translates not to the phonetic meaning, but “Peek into the kitchen.” Go figure.
We didn’t know entirely where we were going, but there were signs every few yards and we just kept walking towards the scenic overlooks, trying to keep in mind where the lower city was to guide us. On our way, we came across the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral, a church built during Russian rule on top of the hill where its cross would be seen from both land and sea (a sign of the success of the Russian Orthodox). It wasn’t as grand as the churches we would see in St. Petersburg, but it was fascinating to see this big structure in Russian style against the medieval backdrop of Old Town.
Even though we didn’t know where we were going, we had so much fun walking around, taking so much joy in turning corners and discovering the beauty that came into view with every new street. The buildings were so colorful and unique, and since we weren’t with any tour group, we were experiencing them on our own time, without a crowd of people around us.
We turned a random corner and suddenly the viewpoint I was looking for was right in front of us. Just like that. And it was spectacular. This birds-eye view is the best in the city, stretching out from the lower part of Old Town all the way out to the sea.
The bus stop wasn’t too far away, but we’d already come so far and enjoyed walking it so much that we decided to continue touring Old Town on foot. We stuck to the sidewalks as much as we could – most of the streets are the original cobblestones, which are uneven and difficult to walk on, even in good walking shoes. Not far from our lookout, we found Pikk Street, which Stephanie had came across in her research as the easiest incline to go from the lower Old Town to the upper, and if it was the easiest up, it had to be the easiest down. And it wasn’t difficult, really. You might have a bit of a challenge going in either direction if you’re not fully mobile, but if you stick to the paved sidewalk instead of the cobblestone street, it’s much easier. There was a violinist playing on the side of the street and it was something we found throughout the city: violinists and accordion players and all kinds of musicians just playing music.
We continued down Pikk Street, stopping in souvenir shops as we went and peeking down side streets to see what we’d find. We stopped in a grocery store to pick up some water bottles (€0.50 — a steal given what we were paying in Copenhagen!) and really just enjoyed walking around. You don’t need a tour to see Tallinn. In fact, I think I’d have enjoyed it a bit less if I had been with a tour. Having the complete flexibility and freedom to explore Old Town was perfect for us. I wouldn’t have changed a single thing.
There was loud music and chatter coming down one of the side streets, so we turned and found ourselves in this wide open square that was lined with cafes and shops. We weren’t hungry, but we can always go for some coffee. We walked around perusing our choices, settling on Kehrwieder, a small café that was full service outside, but counter service inside and boasted a top TripAdvisor rating on their signage, as well as the fact that they roasted their own beans and made their own chocolate. Sold, sold, sold. We opted to go casual and grab our coffee on our own inside instead of the full service patio and the inside of the café was so cool. It was this dark cave of sorts, with mismatched couches and décor, a robust coffee menu and a display case full of treats that made our mouths water. And the coffee? Just as good as that TripAdvisor sign said it would be.
With only an hour left until back onboard time, we decide to start making our way back to the ship, heading back to Pikk Street and making our way to the entrance of Old Town. We stopped in a few more shops to pick up some nesting dolls, but decided to do our shopping near the pier, since our research had indicated that’s where the best prices were.
The walk back from the entrance of Old Town to the ship took about 20 minutes, and we walked at a ridiculously slow pace because it was just so beautiful out that we wanted to enjoy it for as long as we could. The streets outside of Old Town are wide and even and easy to walk, but I’d definitely do it the same way over again: I’d still take the bus (or a taxi) up to upper Old Town and then walk down and back.
Unlike most ports of call where the prices are higher at the shops at the pier, Tallinn’s cheapest prices are in the small market just outside of the official terminal shops. The specialties are wooden items (especially those made from local juniper trees, which smell ahhhhmazing), cold weather clothing and amber jewelry. We bought our standard souvvies (guide books and magnets for me, patches for Stephanie, postcards for Mom), and we also picked up some wool hats (and I was really tempted by some wool boots, but it would be a solid six months before I’d even think about cold weather again, so I had to resist). All of the booths in the craft market took credit cards, though you could definitely pay in cash if you were so inclined (Tallinn is on the Euro).
We walked through the terminal shops, which had their own cafes and shops, but all seemed overpriced and generic, so we mostly passed right through on our way to the pier, where Norwegian staff were handing out moist towels and cool beverages.
The Garden Café was shutting down lunch right around the time the Getaway set sail, so we headed up for a quick lunch before taking a walk around the public upper decks. Stephanie hadn’t seen them on embarkation day because it was so cold out and they were bustling today since it was so warm out. If we had warmer weather on our sea days, we’d have a ton of fun options available to us.
We settled back in the room and onto our balcony for sailaway, where we left before the Viking Sea for the smooth waters ahead towards our next port of call in Russia.
Later on when it came time to decide what to do for dinner, we flipped through the menus on the NCL iConcierge App (which allowed us to see every menu for every venue for every night upfront, which was super convenient!) and since the Taste and Savor menus didn’t have anything super appealing, Stephanie and I decided to try something different and give Shanghai’s Noodle Bar a go, while Mom opted to skip dinner and head to bed early.
From what I gathered from other reviews, people either love or hate Shanghai’s. It’s one of the ship’s complimentary dining venues, serving (limited) dim sum options, noodle dishes and soups and if the wait time was any indication, Shanghai’s definitely tipped the scales towards love: we had to wait 45 minutes for a table. On the Getaway, Shanghai’s is tucked in an open corner of the casino, which leads to a really odd ambiance, but we were seated right in front of the open kitchen, which provided some fantastic entertainment as we waited for our food.
To order, you check off boxes next to the dishes you want to order, which keeps things efficient and accurate, especially when you’re ordering a bunch of dishes. Stephanie and I weren’t sure what the portions were like, so we ordered a bunch of dishes and shared. And, you guys, I’m obsessed. Everything we tried was so good, especially the dumplings and the soups. All of these new options Norwegian offers over Carnival and Royal Caribbean were definitely ruining me for future cruises.
Pork Pot Stickers and Vegetable Spring Rolls
Beef Chow Fun
Char Siu with Rice Noodles
Vegetarian Fried Rice
Five Spice Chocolate Cake
After way too many pot stickers and a few pots of green tea, Stephanie and I hit the Waterfront to watch the sunset. There wasn’t a production show and we had an early morning in St. Petersburg, so a beautiful sunset was the perfect way to end our day.
And then we went to bed early, because before we even woke up, we’d be docked in Russia, and I couldn’t even begin to imagine the kind of adventure we’d be in for.