This Underrated European City Is One of the Best Places to Travel in 2024 — Here's What Not to Miss

Tallinn, Estonia, is known for its incredibly well-preserved medieval Old Town, but from hipster neighborhoods full of art to award-winning fine dining, there are plenty of new reasons to visit.

Cityscape view of Old Town

Nina Ruggiero/Travel + Leisure

Emerging from the intense heat of the smoke sauna, I run across the wooden deck and plunge into the notoriously brisk Baltic before I can change my mind. I feel the cold sea pierce my hot skin from the soles of my feet upward, like ice water blanching a steamed vegetable from root to stem.

When I come to the surface, my travel companions are bobbing about, screeching and laughing so hard they can barely stay afloat. After flying thousands of miles and working on different time zones, our weary crew of journalists has been injected with pure, visceral energy. 

Back in Los Angeles, where I live, the sauna-cold plunge one-two punch has become a recent wellness trend, with influencers recreating the setup in their backyards and TikToking from their tubs. But in Estonia, this has been a way of life for centuries — even securing a spot on UNESCO’s Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity list

Iglupark, in the Noblessner district of Tallinn, Estonia’s capital city, offers the most modern way to experience the age-old tradition: groups can book private sessions and sweat in sleek, black saunas with buckets of beer on ice, or chill in Adirondack chairs beneath glowing string lights. But while the scene may be curated for the social media set — every last piece of wood aesthetically stacked — the intention of the practice remains the same. 

Iglu bar at Sunset

Nina Ruggiero/Travel + Leisure

“There is no wrong way to go to the sauna,” said Elin Priks, project manager behind The Year of the Sauna, an initiative to share one of the oldest living Estonian cultural traditions far and wide. Most Estonian homes have saunas — even many urban apartments — with one sauna for every 10 people throughout the country, she tells me. Estonians head to the sauna seeking stress relief and mental wellbeing, Priks said, calling it an “impressive natural pharmacy.”

Although Estonia’s sauna culture earned its UNESCO status in 2014 (years before world-famous Finland’s), a new documentary that delves into its meaning to Estonian women, “Smoke Sauna Sisterhood,” put it in the spotlight this year, making the 2023 film festival circuit and earning award nominations from Sundance and San Francisco to Munich and Hong Kong.

Top 5 Can’t Miss

Iglupark: A chic, modern sauna park on the Baltic Sea

180° by Matthias Diether: Inventive fine dining at Estonia’s only Michelin two-starred restaurant

PoCo Art Museum: Pop and contemporary art by Andy Warhol, Banksy, David Hockney, and more 

Nunne Boutique Hotel: The newest hotel in town, with views over Towers Square 

Song and Dance Festival: Estonia’s biggest musical event, occurring every five years

Less officially, this was also Estonia’s year of fine dining; 180° by Matthias Diether — minutes from Iglupark and also within Noblessner — became the country’s first Michelin two-starred restaurant. The 2023 Michelin Guide calls it stylish, futuristic, and ambitious, and the same could be said for the Noblessner. Once an industrial shipyard area, it’s now a trendy neighborhood with upscale apartments, waterfront bars, and more than one buzzy restaurant, its defunct submarine factories filled with art galleries and museums.

People Walking around Telliskivi Creative City

Nina Ruggiero/Travel + Leisure

Another Tallinn industrial-area–turned-hot-spot is Telliskivi Creative City, known as a hipster hangout with startup offices, striking street art, artisan coffee shops, galleries, independent design boutiques, and vintage stores. Its art scene is anchored by Fotografiska, the world-renowned contemporary photography museum, but its smaller galleries offer endless surprises, from the Vaal Gallery to the Juhan Kuus Documentary Photo Center. According to Visit Estonia, more than 800 cultural events are hosted in this part of the city every year.

Still, first-time visitors to Tallinn will want to start in Old Town, a UNESCO World Heritage Site lauded as an “exceptionally complete and well-preserved” medieval city — an incredible feat for a country that’s been conquered by so many nations throughout its history. Bleary-eyed on the first morning of my trip, my gaze shifted in one dreamlike moment from colorful flower vendors to the Viru Gate, the site of Tallinn’s two best-preserved stone defense towers and the most iconic entrance into the real-life fairy tale that is Old Town. 

Viru Gate

Nina Ruggiero/Travel + Leisure

“Unlike the busy old towns in big cities, Tallinn's Old Town is calm and great for relaxing walks,” said Jana Kutšinskaja, head of international media for Visit Estonia. “Locals themselves often cherish visiting the historic area."

Stepping into Old Town feels like traveling back in time, but there are modern accommodations within its medieval walls, including Hotel Telegraaf, Autograph Collection, one of the city’s most luxurious places to stay, and the new Nunne Boutique Hotel, which opened in August with views over Towers Square

A plaza with cafes and market in Old Town

Nina Ruggiero/Travel + Leisure

Staying here means waking up to winding streets dotted with churches and Gothic houses, hidden courtyards, and cobblestone squares that conjure images of 13th-century merchants trading their goods. We ascended the limestone hill to Upper Old Town for an up-close look at the pink Toompea Castle, and to take in sweeping views over the city. But first, we paused in front of the ornate, Russian Orthodox Alexander Nevsky Cathedral, a stark reminder that Estonia was under Soviet rule from 1940 to 1991. 

"Being nearly 50 years under Soviet regime serves as a constant motivator today to stay vigilant and innovating," Kutšinskaja told me, pointing to the fact that today, Estonia is a nation with a "strong emphasis on digital innovation, education, and global connectivity" — and a thriving startup scene.

Jana Kutšinskaja

Being nearly 50 years under Soviet regime serves as a constant motivator today to stay vigilant and innovating.

— Jana Kutšinskaja

It's also a nation with some of the highest literacy and secondary education rates in Europe, particularly among women, and one that prioritizes the arts. "Estonian brains are almost our only natural resource," Kutšinskaja quipped, paraphrasing former Estonian president Kersti Kaljulaid. "We have no oil or gold."

The entire country’s population is just 1.3 million, but annual theater visits average 1.2 million, and museum visits have topped 3.5 million in recent years. There are plenty of options just within Tallinn: the city boasts more than 50 art institutions. Its newest, PoCo Art Museum, is a who’s-who of the pop and contemporary art worlds, with work by Andy Warhol, Banksy, David Hockney, Jean-Michel Basquiat, and more. Meanwhile, Tartu, a university town reachable in 90 minutes from Tallinn by train or car, was just named the 2024 European Capital of Culture. (Tallinn took the title back in 2011.)

Colorful buildings and flags in Old town

Nina Ruggiero/Travel + Leisure

Perhaps the most quintessentially Estonian art form, however, is song. Historically, Estonians have used music to hold onto their national identity in spite of impositions from outside nations, and it's still common to hear snippets of choruses streaming out of churches, concert halls, and music schools while walking through the city. "Music can be found all year round and everywhere in Estonia," Kutšinskaja said, but of all the festivals (and there are many, from Tallinn Music Week to Viljandi Folk Music Festival), the Song and Dance Festival is the one not to miss.

Up to 100,000 people gather for the event, Kutšinskaja said, to listen to choirs and orchestras, and watch dance troupes perform. Of course, there's plenty of partying and dancing in the crowds as well. The next Song and Dance Festival won't take place until July 2025, but we don't suggest waiting that long to visit Estonia. Get to know this country of song and it will stick in your mind like a catchy lyric, calling you to come back and sing along.

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