Visiting a European Christmas market is a fantastic way to kick off or enhance the holiday season. Decorations and lights are everywhere, as are regional artisanal products (i.e.: unique gifts) and it is all further enhanced by the smells of baked gingerbread, steaming cups of spiced mulled wine, grilled snacks, and warming stews.
Most people initially think of Germany and Austria when researching potential Christmas-themed destinations, and this for good reason with the ‘heavy hitters’ of Leipzig, Nuremburg, Vienna and Salzburg perennially listed on the myriad best-of and top-ten articles that can be found.
However in recent years more focus has been given to cities that may be unexpected at first, until you dig a little deeper. This year Tallinn (Estonia) unseated 2x winner Zagreb (Croatia) to take the seemingly arbitrary crown of ‘best Christmas market’.
It’s definitely not the most expansive market that you will find, but we’d argue that this is not necessarily a bad thing, because the setting of what is possibly the most well preserved Old Town in Europe provides insta-worthy shots at every turn, and the market itself is in the largely pedestrianized UNESCO World Heritage designated area in the heart of the Town Hall Square (Raekoja plats). On top of that, the Tallinn Christmas market does not dominate the experience, instead it enhances a visit and allows you to explore the rest of the city as well – which is 100% worth a trip any time of year.
A bit of history: Tallinn has been an important trading port on the Baltic dating back to the 10th century and then influence expanded further within the Hanseatic League for more detail but the crux of it is this is a) why there are so many merchant houses b )why it developed as a fortified city, and c) why so many others wanted to exert their influence over it.
It’s tumultuous history also lends to the unique feel of the city… it has the exceptional old town which dates to medieval time, a Nordic vibe from many years of Danish and Swedish rule, and then a noticeable Soviet influence when outside of the fortified city center (after WW2 the Soviets invaded what was a Nazi occupied state and ruled Estonia politically and economically until 20 August 1991).
Our advice is to take advantage of that mix that makes Estonia (and more specifically Tallinn) so unique and try experience it all.
Tallinn is very accessible – 15 minutes from the airport and as many € (with tip) by taxi and you are in the old town. Many visitors also arrive on the ferry from Helsinki which can be done in approx. 2hrs on the faster ferries if you are interested in a multi-country excursion. The city center is very pedestrian friendly and most things to do, see, taste, etc are walkable…and for those that are not – Uber works well and is very reasonably priced.
A double asterisk ** below indicates a favorite highlight not to be missed
Places to Stay:
Savoy Boutique Hotel - a 3 minute walk to the historic Town Hall Square, which is host to the Christmas Market as well as many other events throughout the year. Renovated to maintain the original architecture with a popular restaurant (and a good breakfast buffet in the morning)
Room to book: one of the top floor ‘artist rooms’.
Sokos Hotel Viru - just outside the fortified city center walls in Rotermanni (the quarter of Tallinn between the old town and the port) the Sokos Hotel Viru is well situated to explore all of Tallinn and take advantage of this formerly industrial area that has gone through (and still is in some parts) a transformation and revitalization as well as the attached shopping center and KGB Museum
Places to Eat:
Frank Restaurant & Bistro - (with a ‘speakeasy’ called Frank Underground downstairs)
Salt - (you’ll need to take an Uber to get here as it is a bit out of town – but Uber’s are easy, and very affordable in Tallinn)
Väike** - make a reservation. (there are two houses so don’t be discouraged if the ‘main’ house is booked. Local ingredients and traditional dishes done with a modern twist)
Other restaurant resources:
Pontsik Doghnuts** - 10 for €3.70! fresh doughnuts, super inexpensive, and a feeling of stepping back in time
Rost** - in a newly renovated part of Rotermanni, in a building that used to be a flour mill. Try the hand-twisted cinnamon buns
Balti Jaama Turg** - translates to: Baltic Station Market; a hugely successful renovation project – this building still has an antique/flea market on the top floor which maintains and extends maintain its Soviet market history, a grocery store in on the ground floor, and in between are food stalls, a mini brewery, a gym, a pet store, a Kalev chocolate shop, and other outdoor and indoor market stalls selling local…everything. The highlight here was Bao Jaam. A bit of insight: https://andershusa.com/baojaam-at-balti-jaama-turg-taiwanese-gua-bao-made-from-scratch
Pazzo - modern with an extensive list to try by the glass, discounts on bottles to take away, and some fun and tasty snacks
Gloria Wine Cellar - under the ancient wall there there are cosy snugs and arches and rooms to explore and a retail shop as well
Veinipood ja -baar TIKS - a cosy spot by the Balti Jaama Turg
Hell Hunt - good local breweries are represented and the food is apparently tasty as well (food not sampled)
Humalakoda: in the Balti Jaama market – they had 2x warm beers where we were there as an interesting alternative to mulled wine!
Rost** - as referenced above – good coffee and pastries, especially the cinnamon buns
Folk art and craft union - the old town is filled with some great galleries (and a bunch of touristy shops too). From paintings to ceramics to woven items and clothing with historically influenced patterns – pop your head in (or under) and have a look as you explore – you will undoubtedly find something great
A Galerii jewelry gallery – all local/Estonian made jewelry; a must-see (and great place to find something to take home!)
Kalev Chocolate - *pro tip, if you decide to do a ‘pick n mix’ as I did… all of the individually wrapped chocolates have different prices and the people behind you will know you are a newb
Oldest pharmacy in Europe - a bit of novelty factor but fun to know and see and with a unique history
And of course wander to see the well preserved old city walls, towers and steeples (St Olav’s was once the tallest building in the world) and merchant buildings – tour the fortifications alone or with a guide, visit some of the museums – duck in to any fun little galleries and shops you might stumble across, and tap in to the additional resources here: https://www.visittallinn.ee/eng and https://www.visitestonia.com/en
When to go: We love exploring places during their shoulder seasons for a variety of purposes and reasons. I would imagine that Tallinn is great in the warmer and very long days of summer, but the Christmas Market received its top ranking for a reason and the city takes on an additional charm with snow in the air / crunching under foot. Just be prepared for cold temps and plot out your day around coffees, attractions, restaurants and any other fun sights and pit stops that are about a 15 min walk from each other to thaw out and refuel as you explore!