Travel 4 minutes 09 December 2023

Estonia's Christmas Markets

From Tallinn to Tartu, Estonia hosts some of the best Christmas Markets around

With its winding cobbled streets, characterful old merchant houses and striking red-tiled roofs dating from the 13th-16th centuries, Tallinn’s UNESCO World Heritage Old Town is a beautiful place to visit at any time of year, however during the festive season there’s that extra touch of magic in the air that makes it a truly special place to discover.

The Town Hall Square is where the festivities begin, with the erection of Tallinn’s legendary Christmas tree – it was in this very spot back in 1441, that the first public Christmas tree was put on display in Europe. Due to its historical importance, the city launches a contest every September, looking for a fir or spruce tree that is full-bodied with dense, symmetrical branches. This year’s winner was a 14m spruce tree from Kiili Municipality, which was lit on the 1st December at the official opening of the Christmas Market.

Credit: Sergei Zjuganov
Credit: Sergei Zjuganov

Tallinn’s market is said to be one of the best in Europe, and it’s from this central point of the Square that you’ll find the characterful wooden stalls radiating outwards. There’s all manner of handicrafts on offer, including the likes of: woollen scarves and jumpers; sheepskin slippers and blankets; hand-crafted leather gifts; and tree decorations and carved wooden ornaments. Up above, the dark skies glitter as fairy lights reflect off fluttering snowflakes – Tallinn receives just 6 hours of daylight during the winter solstice – and there’s a welcoming glow from the shops and restaurants which fringe the Square.

When you’re done purchasing gifts, you can warm yourself up with a mug of spicy-sweet glögg (traditionally, a spiced mulled wine or spirit flavoured with local berries and fruits, but now available in a variety of non-alcoholic forms too), while you watch visitors both young and old joyously spinning around on the carousels. Next, head to one of the piparkoogid (gingerbread) stalls, where you’ll find ready-made cookies – including those made to a ‘health-benefitting’ medieval recipe – and intriguingly flavoured doughs, alongside some stunningly artistic gingerbread creations that border on works of art.

Credit: Rasmus Jurkatam
Credit: Rasmus Jurkatam

If you fancy getting hands-on, seek out the craft workshop, where you can create your own Christmas ornaments or try your hand at making a reflector (mandatory attire when walking the dark streets of Estonia). However, if you're the kind of person who prefers being a spectator, then make for the stage on Friday and Saturday evenings (5-7pm) and Sunday afternoons (12-2pm) to take in an array of performances, including some classic shows complete with traditional dress. Accompany this with a plate of sausages, potatoes, stewed sauerkraut and, of course, black pudding served with lingonberry sauce to really get you in the local mood.

If eating on the hoof isn’t your thing, then just a stone’s throw from the Town Square you’ll find a whole host of places where you can shed your layers and cosy up for a good meal. There are some great places to stay nearby too, so you won’t need to walk far to drop off your present-laden bags.

Tchaikovsky Restaurant
Tchaikovsky Restaurant

For the complete package, make sure you’ve booked a room at the Michelin-recommended Telegraaf Hotel, which is located less than 100m from the main square. As the name suggests, it sits within the 1878 former telegraph centre, a place where people would connect with each other – and this sentiment remains today. It’s one of Tallinn’s boutique hotels and, while its bedrooms retain something of an old-world style in their proportions, they have been brought smartly up to date. It also benefits from a lovely spa – and what better way to warm up after a day at the market than in the sauna, hot tub or steam bath?

After this, get glammed up and head to the lobby bar for a cocktail or two. Then it’s on to Tchaikovsky, the hotel’s striking glass-roofed restaurant. With an impressive chandelier taking centre stage and gilt-framed pictures adorning the walls, this is a place that will make you feel special. Tradition underpins the menu but there are also modern influences to be found, and flavours and textures marry together beautifully in the flavour-packed dishes.

Schlössle Hotel
Schlössle Hotel

At the other end of the design spectrum from Telegraaf is Schlössle, which translates as ‘little castle’ in German and is one of the city’s most classically elegant luxury hotels. It sits within a picturesque townhouse boasting 13th century origins, and its guest areas simply ooze historical ambience, with exposed stone walls and heavily timbered ceilings lending the spaces an inimitable character. Bedrooms range from a Superior to a Presidential Suite, and for those who like to kick-back the old-fashioned way, there’s even a cigar lounge.

When it comes to dining, there are some great options close to the hotel. Within a five-minute walk you’ll find the aforementioned Tchaikovsky, as well as both Rado and Cru; together, they provide a great range of styles – perfect for if you’re in the city for more than one night.

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Rado positions itself at the opposite end of the scale from its historical surroundings by being contrastingly modern in both its looks and its culinary offering. Its ground floor emits a buzzy vibe, while the basement is better suited to a more intimate dinner à deux; wherever you sit, you’ll be well looked after by the amiable team. During the winter months, the blackboard menu changes weekly – listing a selection of carefully prepared, contemporary dishes – while the wine list is updated monthly and features an increasing number of local and natural wines.

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A short walk further on you’ll find Cru, set on one of the Old Town’s busiest pedestrianised streets and located in a blue-hued, period building that also plays host to a hotel. The restaurant occupies the ground floor but comprises several rooms set over slightly different levels, giving it a cosy, welcoming atmosphere. In keeping with the rustic feel of the place is a classically based menu of flavoursome, well-cooked dishes which pay good attention to detail. Dishes reflect the locale but come with some extra twists too.

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For those who fancy a Christmas road trip, 180km southeast of Tallinn you’ll find Tartu, Estonia’s second largest city, which is best-known for its prestigious 17th century university. In the Town Hall Square, you’ll find the Kissing Students – a statue of a young man and woman in an embrace – who, at this time of year, are encircled by skaters gliding around the open-air ice rink under the romantic glow of fairy lights.

Glittering glass pavilions line the cobblestones and are home to a range of exhibitions and activities: one hosts cartoon screenings, concerts and workshops; another is filled with straw for the children to play in; while others are themed around the Song and Dance Festival or Tartu’s designation as the European Capital of Culture 2024.

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Starting on the first Sunday of Advent (3rd December for 2023), crowds gather in the Square weekly, to witness the lighting of each Advent candle. The aroma of mulled wine and gingerbread fill the air, and there’s plenty of opportunity to top up on festive magic with a pony or sleigh ride around the local streets. For those who like tradition, the 9th December is a great time to visit, as 800 dancers from Tartu County take over the city for the Wintry Tartu Folk Dance Day.

When it’s time to both warm up and fill up, head to nearby Hõlm for beautifully presented modern dishes with appealing flavour combinations, or stroll a little further on to Joyce, for creative dishes and tasty cocktails in a buzzy brasserie atmosphere.

So get planning, book your trip and we’ll see you there!

Tallinn Christmas Market

Christmas Market Opening Hours
Tallinn: 10am-10pm 1st December 2023 – 7th January 2024
Tartu: 10am-10pm 3rd December 2023 – 7th January 2024

Tartu Photos Credit: Peeter Paaver
Tallinn Video Credit: Sergei Zjuganov


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