I’m not a big softie when it comes to Christmas. But dang, Christmas in Tallinn is enough to melt the heart of even the most non-festive peeps. If you’re here over the holidays, I’ve got some tips on how to celebrate and close out this most interesting year on a warm and toasty note.
Christmas Eve, on December 24, is the big day in Estonia. Families come together for a big dinner, to hang out and exchange gifts. Some shops and restaurants will be closed on December 24–26 along with December 31 (New Year’s Eve) and January 1 (New Year’s Day). In the capital, Tallinn, there will still be plenty of things open on these days though, but you should check in advance if you want to do something particular. Without further ado, here are my suggestions on what to do, eat, drink, shop and watch.
What to do
The Old Town Christmas Market is very charming and touristy but worth a visit. It takes place on the Old Town Square with a massive spruce in the middle and stalls fanning out around it. What’s cool about the tree is that it’s usually one that’s got to be cut down anyway – one that’s gotten too big for someone’s back garden, for example. There’s even a distillery in Estonia who turns used Christmas trees from around the region into spruce tonic water. Talk about making the most of a tree.
The Old Town also has an ice rink inside it that opens every year where you can glide about in the shadow of the 13th-century St Nicholas’ Church. This year, light installations are sprinkled all over the Old Town, allowing you to have a socially-distanced stroll. There’s also a sprawling outdoor light exhibition at the Tallinn Song Festival Grounds (Lauluväljak) called ‘Christmasland’ (Jõulumaa) that you can explore.
If you want to see how Estonains celebrated Christmas back in the old day, the Estonain Open Air Museum has a Christmas programme in December as well as a Seto and Russian Christmas event in early January, which is celebrated according to the Julian calendar. If you do decide to attend some events this year, stay safe and mask up folks!
What to eat and drink
A traditional Estonian Christmas dinner consists of blood sausage, roasted potatoes, pork, lingonberry sauce and sauerkraut. Glögg (hot mulled wine) and gingerbread biscuits are also a winning combo. Estonians love gingerbread so much, in fact, that there’s a gingerbread art exhibition each year called Gingerbread Mania. You can buy the ingredients at local grocery stores to make yourself a Christmas feast, or turn to a local restaurant.
For a lavish medieval Christmas dinner you’re unlikely to forget (unless you drink too much mead), Olde Hansa is a go-to. Kaerajaan and Farm restaurants each serve a contemporary take on traditional Estonina food and offer Christmas menus as well. You should probably make a reservation during the holidays to make sure you get a seat, and to be sure the restaurant is open.
Which gifts to buy
It’s no surprise that Estonians know their winter wear. The Old Town is full of shops selling traditional knitted socks, hats and mittens, but if you’d like something more trendy, check out Woolish and Kelpman Textiles, who has a flagship store in Telliskivi Creative City.
Reflectors that can be attached to your clothes like those from Helk are also a great Christmas gift as they’re technically required by law in Estonia and help keep you visible while walking in the dark. You can find reflectors at the shops in Telliskivi’s indoor shopping streets, along with lots of other goodies.
Around Christmas, you can also keep your eyes open for himmeli. They’re these hanging mobile-like decorations, but they’ve got a cool minimalist geometric look. You can try making your own with string and pipes or straws, or buy one from a design shop as a souvenir or gift. They look awesome year-round and not the least bit Christmassy to be honest.
What to watch
My Estonian Christmas movie pick is a modern classic, Phantom Owl Forest (Eia jõulud Tondikakul), which you can rent on Netikino with English subtitles. It premiered in 2018 as part of Estonia’s centennial programme. It follows young Eia, who travels from the city to spend the holidays at her mysterious grandfather’s farm in snowy southern Estonia. There, she’s enlisted to help save the nearby forest that’s home to endangered owls. It perfectly captures Estonians’ ties to nature with a good dose of family holiday drama too.
If you’re looking for a home away from during Christmas, I’ve got you covered. My apartments in Telliskivi have kitchens that you can cook a holiday dinner in, balconies to watch fireworks from, and smart TVs to stream your favourite Christmas movies from. My friends in Tallinn are here to make you feel welcome over the holidays. Merry Christmas to all, and to all a good stay!