I usually like to prepare really well for any trip away, spending ages looking up all the attractions, working out how to get around the city and planning out my visit but time ran away from me and on the day before we were due to leave for Tallinn I was totally clueless about what to see when we got there. My research had pretty much stalled when I checked the weather reports and saw that the 'highs' (I use the term loosely) were predicted to be minus 3C.
Somewhat less inspired than I should have been by discovering how cold it would be, I did a very quick bit of research on travel sites, official and not so official, and tracked down the Tallinn Card which seemed include everything that the city had to offer, pretty much all inclusive. The card can be bought for a range of durations, starting from as few as 6 hours (ideal for Finnish and Swedish booze cruisers) up to maximum of 72 hours and it covers all the local transport as well as dozens of museums and sightseeing attractions. Several guided or self-guided tours are covered including 'hop on hop off' buses and a few cruises. If it doesn't offer free entrance, then chances are that you'll be eligible for quite a chunky discount on any other attractions as well as cut prices in some of the shops and restaurants.
For a small capital city with a population of just half a million it's quite astonishing how many museums the Estonians have squeezed into Tallinn. There are nearly 30 museums covering everything from maritime history to photography and art and design as well as Estonian history both old and relatively new. Sadly for us, a lot of the museums weren't open (for example the City Museum and the Kiek in de Kok Museum were both closed for renovations) or were just not very practical to visit in such cold weather (for example the Open Air Museum would have been more of a Cold Air Museum). Churches were a bit more accommodating and handy for getting out of the cold although all had complete bans on photography. Even more disappointingly a lot of the sights don't open at all in the winter including the Town Hall which I really wanted to see.
We took the 'Official Sightseeing Tour' on Saturday morning and were picked up from our hotel which was very convenient. With just four of us on the tour, the poor guide was hopping back and forth between English and Finnish as we belted round the snowy streets of the suburbs of Tallinn. We had planned to take one of the Hop On Hop Off bus tours in the afternoon until the lady in the Tourist office explained that actually the system was less than useless since the low demand so early in the year meant once you got off, the next bus wouldn't be back for another 3 hours. Not so much 'hop off' as 'get off and abandon all hope of ever being rescued'. Hence we spent most of the afternoon bobbing in and out of any museum with heating leading to a fairly bizarre cocktail of mixed museums.
My research had told me that we could get the Tallinn Card at the airport and then use it for transport into the city. Even though the bus is only 20 EEK (yes, we giggled – how many countries name their currency after mouse noises?) which is about £1.20, we figured we'd buy the card as soon as we arrived. The lady in tourist info at the airport sent us to a travel agency to buy the card where the assistant knew almost nothing about how it worked or what it offered. I think my half hour browsing the website the day before had pretty much qualified me for the distinction of 'best informed person in the airport' on the topic of the Tallinn Card.
The six hour card costs just 12 Euros but offers a very limited range of attractions and discounts and excludes a lot of the tours. It's designed for Finns and Swedes who've arrived on the morning boat and are leaving the same evening after filling their cars with cheap booze and cigarettes. The 24 hour card costs 24 Euros with 48 hours for 28 Euros and 72 hours for 32 Euros. Lest you're thinking 'Wow, that's a big bargain if you buy for three days', it's worth being aware that you can only do each thing once during the duration of your card and your stamina for intensive cost-saving sightseeing could be seriously limited by over-consumption of the city's famous beer or nightlife. If you're thinking that you'd rather have longer, then keep in mind that Tallinn's really not very big and three days should be plenty to see most of the sites. And if you've got longer, then after three days bobbing around the city on the busses and trams, you should pretty much know your way around and be ready to do your own thing.
Did we get value? Yes, but only just. I think if we'd been there in the summer we'd have blitzed the city and easily have run up three times the cost of the card on all the things we would want to see. I've kept the guide so we can plan better next time to do some of the more far flung museums, cruises and things that need good weather.
During our 48 hours we managed to knock off the following included attractions:
• Bus to the hotel 20 EEK per person
• Maritime Museum 50 EEK per person
• Official sightseeing tour 300 EEK per person
• Museum of Photography 30 EEK per person
• St Nikolas Church Museum 50 EEK per person
• Museum of the Occupations 30 EEK per person
• Town Walls 20 EEK per person
Total cost without the card would have been 500 EEK which was 65 EEK more than we paid but quite honestly we'd not have bothered with all those museums if we hadn't had the card or if the weather had been warmer. For the summer, there are lots more tours available and I'm already planning a return trip to see the Open Air museum, the Botanical Gardens, the two big art museums in Kadriorg Park, the zoo and a couple of the Hop On Hop Off tours. Probably the only thing you get in winter that’s not available in summer is the ice rink but sadly I couldn't persuade my husband (who spent most of the weekend trying not to fall over on the snow and ice in the streets) to give it a go.
If you want to be saved the bother of putting your hand in your pocket every few minutes for entry fees, the Tallinn Card is a nice easy way to spend some time in the city. It's undoubtedly much better value in the summer than in the depths of an Estonian winter when most of the city is hibernating. In most respects it's really up to you to make the most of the opportunities that it offers.