Our first port of call after leaving the UK was to visit the ridiculously picturesque city of Tallinn, Estonia. Because Tallinn in winter is absolutely magical.
There is a TON to do in this city, so if you have the time, I recommend staying on the longer side. For starters, there are over 40 museums in Tallinn. Like us, Estonians love a good museum! If you’re missing your hipster friends, you can explore the artist district of Kalamaja filled with cute cafes and art galleries, or the cultural centre in Telliskivi. If you’re in the shopping mood, check out Balti Jaam or Keskturg market.
But, if you’re like us and you’re looking for something a little darker, then you’ve come to the right place. Because, naturally, we spent our time in Tallinn focused on the macabre. Here are our recommendations for dark tourists visiting Tallinn.
Exploring Dark Tourism in Tallinn
There is plenty of dark history in Tallinn. However, I can’t say that Estonia in general has embraced or acknowledged this history as much as some European countries. And throughout most of the Baltics you will find it much easier to find information regarding the Soviet occupation than the effects of the Holocaust – though they were greatly impacted by both. This is particularly true in Estonia.
Nevertheless, dark tourism options are available. If that’s your jam, keep on reading! And yes, I did alphabetise them.
“Broken Line” Memorial
Early in the morning of 28 September 1994, a ferry bound for Sweden sank off the coast of Finland. The ferry departed from Tallinn the previous evening, and was expected in Stockholm later that morning. Unfortunately, due to unfavourable weather conditions and poor cargo distribution, the MS Estonia ferry sank. On board were 989 people; 803 passengers and 186 crew. Only 137 people were rescued, while 852 drowned – 757 of whose bodies were never recovered from the Baltic Sea.
It was the worst maritime disaster in Europe since WWII.
On 1 January 1996, the memorial was unveiled. It is free to the public and accessible 24/7. There is a plaque naming each victim. It isn’t a time consuming venture, but worth taking the time to visit and silently reflect.
The memorial is logically located next to the Estonian Maritime Museum and down the street from St Olaf’s Church.
RELATED: Books About Shipwrecks
KGB Headquarters/Prison Cells
The two KGB focused museums were by far my favourite dark tourism spots in Tallinn. But each place had a completely different atmosphere. While our guide at the Hotel Viru possessed a brilliantly dry sense of humour that had us in stitches, the KGB prison cells, exuded a much more sinister vibe.
The cells are located at Pagari 1; a building with a very dark history. But it wasn’t always dark. Initially, the building was intended to be purely residential, although it did house the Provisional Government of the Republic of Estonia in 1918. Inside these walls, the Estonian War of Independence was conceived. Upon successfully gaining independence, it became home base for the Ministry of War of the Republic of Estonia until 1940.
That’s when things take a turn for the dark. From 1940, Pagari 1 became the headquarters of the NKVD, later (and better) known as the KGB. The basement floor of the building was converted into cells for interrogations, torture and imprisonment. The walls were bricked up to mute the screams of those held within.
Although other buildings housed prisoners, the ones at Pagari 1 were by far the most brutal and infamous in Estonia. As you walk through the basement, each former prison cell has been converted into an exhibit about the KGB’s cruel regime and what happened within. Artwork by former prisoners hangs outside the solitary confinement cell. The pieces demonstrate some of the torture inflicted upon inmates.
Many of those locked up at Pagari 1 were ordinary citizens, accused falsely by neighbours or co-workers. It was a time of terror, and Pagari 1 was a true house of horrors. If you’re interested in learning more about one of Tallinn’s darkest times in history, start here.
KGB Hotel Viru Museum
We meet our fantastic guide, Pawel, in the Hotel Viru lobby. During the Soviet era, the 23rd floor was used as a radio centre by the KGB to spy on guests. Due to strict laws under the Soviets, Hotel Viru was the only hotel non-Soviet foreigners could stay in, such as diplomats and journalists. It was also the only place that could legally sell alcohol – to foreigners. Because of this, it was considered a hotbed for anti-Soviet, anti-communist activity, and thus the perfect place for KGB operations. 60 of the hotel rooms were fitted with bugs, and many of the rooms unavailable to guests as the KGB used them to spy into neighbouring rooms.
Pawel takes us to the top floor, the 23rd floor. You know, the one that technically doesn’t exist. Or, at least it didn’t during the reign of the KGB. Although they left in 1991 with Estonia’s independence, the sealed off 23rd floor, wasn’t discovered until 1994. Ingeniously, even from the outside, the floor looks as though it doesn’t exist. However, the view of the city is stellar.
Once inside, it’s like stepping back in time. Pawel walks us through each room, recounting horror stories and facts. We were lucky enough to have the entire place to ourselves, so took our time exploring!
You have to book to tour the KGB Museum, and at €11 per person it isn’t the cheapest activity. But this tour was the highlight of Tallinn for me. So budget for it!
Bonus: you can stay at Hotel Viru. It’s definitely the top end of places to stay in Tallinn, but if you’re not on a strict budget and want to stay in a piece of history, this is your place!
Kiek in de Kök, the Bastion Passage & the Carved Stone Museum
There are several dark tourism elements at the Kiek in de Kök, starting with the building itself. Kiek in de Kök literally translates to ‘peek into the kitchen’ due to the fact that those guarding in the tower could look directly into the kitchens of those below. During medieval times, the tower was one of many lookout spots along the fortified wall. The city of Tallinn was attacked multiple times, however no foreign forces were able to break through the wall. The Kiek in de Kök tower is four meters thick, and although cannons were able to knock out chunks of the wall, the damage was minimal. So minimal, in fact, that the cannon balls left behind were used to fill in the gaps of the tower.
These are easily visible from outside the tower.
Inside are three museums: the history of Kiek in de Kök museum (we didn’t do this one), the Bastion Passages and the Carved Stone Museum. The darkest of these is the Bastion Passages, which can only be accessed by guided tour. We definitely recommend checking out the tunnels. Each room houses props and exhibits that take you back in time through Tallinn’s history.
My favourite rooms represented the history of the punk movement in Tallinn, the cold war and the years the homeless lived in the tunnels.
Our Bastion Passages tour took us through the Carved Stone Museum, as well. Not necessarily dark, but very interesting and some fascinating carvings. Including quite a few that represent the country’s pagan history. There are also some creepy faces peering out from the walls that were put in deliberately by workers clearing out the tunnels (apparently the wall used to be very smooshy and easy to manipulate) – you can see one further up in this post.
VABAMU Museum of Occupations and Freedom
The Vabamu is incredibly comprehensive. It extensively covers Estonia’s history of occupation (duh, Dagney, that’s in the name!), including fascinating interviews with those who lived through the various occupations and regimes.
Since its inception in the 13th century, Estonia as a whole, has been largely under foreign rule (except for a brief period between 1918-1940). Beginning with the Danes, it then exchanged hands several times, though remained largely under the thumb of multiple Russian governments – including the Tsardom of Russia, the Russian Republic and the Russian Empire – and, of course, the Germans during WWII, before falling back under Soviet rule during the USSR.
Following years of oppression under Soviet rule, including unjust arrests, deportations, and torture, tensions throughout the Baltics were at an all time high. Thanks to several revolutions and policy changes throughout the USSR, Estonia regained its independence on 20 August 1991.
If you’re the kind of person who reads everything, make sure to set aside a significant amount of time for this one because there is A LOT of information inside.
Other Places of Note
Harjumäe Park (Harju Hill Park)
While not strictly dark tourism, this hill used to be a meeting point for illicit activity. Under Soviet rule, many Western products such as jeans, music and films were outlawed, considered to be anti-Communist propaganda. However, the youth would meet on the hill to exchange goods.
It was the perfect meeting point because those on the top could see anyone approaching from every direction. If NKVD were spotted by someone, they would alert the others and they would run away in another direction.
You can still get great views from here – especially of Kiek in de Kok and Vabaduse Väljak.
Naturally, we forgot to get a photo, so instead, the above photo is of a Soviet soldier and a tank attacking the city. I think it still works!
Patarei Sea Fortress (CLOSED)
Patarei was initially built in 1828 under Tsar Nicholas I as a sea fortress to protect the sea. It served as an artillery battery under the his empire. When the Soviets re-occupied Estonia in the 1940s, it was converted into a prison.
In 2007, Patarei opened to the public as a culture park and memorial to the victims of communism.
Unfortunately, it was closed in 2016 for its own protection. Patarei is now listed as one of Europe’s most endangered sites. Sadly, I didn’t make it to Patarei on my initial visit in 2014 (although we intended to go!). Visitors are still able to access Beeta promenade, and view the exterior of the prison. We did not do this, as I didn’t need a reminder that I missed my chance!
Vabaduse Väljak & The Monument to the War of Independence
Vabaduse Väljak, or Freedom Square, is another important site in Tallinn. During the rule of the tsars and throughout Estonia’s first period of independence, it was a place of celebrations and parades. Sadly it fell into disrepair during the Soviet era.
It wasn’t until 2009 that Vabaduse Väljak was renovated. It is also a reminder of the city’s history. The square houses St John’s Church, a simple church, as well as Soviet era buildings, the Monument to the War of Independence (commemorating Estonia’s war for freedom in 1918-1920), and the foundation of the Harju Gate tower.
The Monument to the War of Independence was under construction when we visited, so we were unable to see it under the scaffolding.
Have you visited any of these places in Tallinn? What did you think? Did we miss any must-see dark tourism spots? Any dark tourism recommendations for elsewhere in Estonia? Let us know in the comments!