The best destination comparison site!
The best destination comparison site!
Both Tallinn and Istanbul are fantastic cities, but which is better for your city-break or holiday?
We understand your dilemma. There is an abundance of travel guides for both cities, but few actually comparing them, and advising you which is the better for your trip.
This article will provide our unbiased and independent views of Istanbul and Tallinn, hopefully making your choice that little easier.
The article is divided into the following sections, and can be jumped to using the links:
• Introduction to the cities
• Scores and ratings
• Which one should I, friends, or family visit?
• When to visit and weather
• Who is the city suited for?
• The perfect 48hours (with map)
• Tourism details (where to stay? airport details?)
You could be forgiven for thinking you'd been plucked from the 21st century and dropped back in the 1300s when you step foot in Old Town Tallinn. Cobblestone lanes braid their way through stooped taverns with drooping roofs, chimney stacks, and grey stone keeps that echo The Lord of the Rings.
With one foot in Europe and the other in Asia, Istanbul is the bridge between two continents. As much of a cliché as that might sound, this really is a place where you can wander between spiked mosque minarets on one street and be gazing at a Byzantine cathedral the next, and where shisha smoke mingles with the smells of falafel;
Most travelers aim for the north-western portion of the city, and separated from Asian Turkey by the Bosphorus Strait. Its districts include enthralling Sultanahmet – the home of the iconic Topkapi Palace and the legendary Hagia Sofia – and vibrant, youthful Galata.
Those who prefer off-the-beaten-track adventures can go over to Asian Istanbul, for atmospheric areas laced with hookah plumes and bazaars.
Which city would I go to?
Which one would I recommend to my parents?
Which location for my 19-year-old cousin?
Which for my food obsessed friend?
Note: The above comparison does not consider the weather, and assumes travel at the best time of year (which is detailed later in this article)
The following sections compare the two cities and considers; how long to spend in them, when to visit, and provides suggested 48hours in each city (along with an interactive map).
The final section is tourism practicalities and includes which airport to fly into, what district to be based in and how best to explore the city.
We hope that you find all of this information useful, in planning your next exciting trip!
Don't think you can distil Istanbul into a few short days. Even with weeks to explore, this vast metropolis (it's one of the largest in the world, let alone Europe) will surely still hold secrets. That said, a fly-in jaunt for a weekend is always going to be fun. You'll just need to pick your side of town and focus on the sights you want to see the most. So, choose between the Old City streets and Asian Istanbul before arriving, and plan accordingly if time is limited.
For those with longer to spare, this great Turkish town is your oyster. You'll be able to cross the Bosphorus to explore districts of steamy hammams and mosques. You can have whole days in the Grand Bazaar and Ottoman palaces. You might even be able to head over to Agva (for beaches) and the islands of Marmara (for wild hikes in pine woods). Basically, having too much time is rarely an issue.
Tallinn might not be the biggest European capital, but it's a place that always seems to have another secret up its sleeve. Yes, two days might be enough to see the old city walls, wander Toompea Hill and sample the delights of the Estonian kitchen, but there's certainly enough to fill trips of four, five or even more nights.
Have a think about what you're after from your travels and then decide. If you're eager to squeeze in a few nights on the town (a good shout, as Tallinn is downright hedonistic), daytrips to the wonderful forests and coast swamps of Lahemaa, and a couple of the museums, you'll probably want to give yourself some extra time.
The summer is considered to be the finest time in the Tallinn. From around May onwards, the temperature picks up to the high teens and early 20s, there's more sun, and the days are longer. From June onwards, the travellers and the crowds come, lending a buzz to the bars of the Lower Town.
There's no question that Tallinn looks downright gorgeous under plumes of snow in the midwinter. Some say it's the most enchanting time of all, as the nights draw in and there's ice glinting like diamonds on the roofs of the old churches. On the main Town Hall Square, you'll also be able to enjoy the delights of the Tallinn Christmas Market from early December onwards – think handmade Estonian decorations, hot wine, and traditional pastries. Don't expect to be warm, though. The Baltic gets sub-zero and bitter winds all throughout the season.
When things get hot in Istanbul, things get really hot. In fact, it's not uncommon for summertime temperatures to creep over 30 degrees. What's more, June to August is when the crowds come, packing out sights like the Grand Bazaar.
The upshot here is that spring and fall reign as the top times in the calendar to plan a visit. March, April, September and October tend to be cooler, less busy and less expensive.
Winter can bring snows. Photographers will adore the city when it's blanketed, as the Hagia Sofia and the Blue Mosque look simply stunning under a sheen of the white stuff. However, the months from November to February can be bitterly cold, so off-season visitors will need to wrap up warm and forget having al fresco Turkish coffees on the street side.
There's no doubt that Istanbul is one of the more adventurous and unusual breaks for European travellers. Most folk come to Turkey on package holidays, with pre-booked hotels by the sea. But this destination forgoes all that in favour of enthralling Ottoman history and heady bazaars.
It's a place that will help you break out of the comfort zone and push your boundaries a little.
Those keen on seeing a city that's walkable and compact should certainly steer clear of Turkey's largest. At 15.5 million strong and covering two separate continents, this isn't a bitesize destination by any stretch.
If you're keen to go a little off the beaten path and discover somewhere laced with rich history and culture, Tallinn is beckoning. With more and more low-cost flights now serving the local airport, a trip to this north-eastern corner of the continent isn't the chore it once was.
So, anyone eager to ditch the mainstay cities of Western Europe is in luck. Adding to that is an Old Town that's been called the best-preserved medieval quarter in the world, so there's loads for fans of original architecture and atmospheric neighborhoods.
Being so far north means there's nothing like the warmth of the Med or southern Europe up in these reaches of the Baltic. Yes, the summer months can get hot and the sea is only a stone's throw from the city, but Tallinn is hardly a beach destination.
Also remember that this is a small capital by global standards. It's certainly not the pick for anyone on the hunt for a colossal, electrifying metropolis.
You can unearth some seriously jaw-dropping sights, taste some unforgettable food, and get a grounding in Turkish history with only 48 hours to spend in Istanbul.
Day 1: There's really nowhere else to begin but Sultanahmet. This is the Istanbul you will have seen on the postcards; the land of minarets and mighty mosque domes. The kingpin of it all is the colossal Hagia Sophia.
In its long life of more than 1,500 years it's been an Orthodox cathedral and a mosque. It's now a museum containing gorgeous mosaics and frescos, although the star of the show is still its dome, flaunting an amazing 30-metre diameter.
Sitting opposite just to the south is the majestic Blue Mosque. Built in the early 1600s, it's still in working order. And even more history awaits in the Topkapi Palace Museum, which is a few blocks northwards. That sprawling complex reigned as the home of the Ottoman sultans. It's now a UNESCO site and occupies a stunning perch above the Bosphorus.
Day 2: Big, modern Taksim Square starts day two with a sighting of what 21st-century Istanbul is all about. Be sure to take a glimpse of the honorific statue at its heart.
That's the Republic Monument, made to celebrate the foundation of the Turkish state in 1928. Nearby Istiklal Street has abundant choices on the food front, no matter if you're craving a gritty Turkish coffee or a regional breakfast spread of mezze cheeses, flatbreads, and olives.
It's also a busting artery of the city, with high-street shopping and a classic trolley car running its length. One thing you can't miss – literally! – here is Galata Tower. Built by the Genoese to protect their European strongholds from the east, it's a mind-blowing fortification that boasts sweeping panoramas from its top floors.
Your afternoon session should be dedicated to exploring the Bosphorus. There's really no better way to do that than on a boat. Some cruises even offer stops in Asian Istanbul and meals with the sunset to boot.
48hours in Tallinn
Wander the Lower Town, see Russian-style cathedrals, taste medieval broths in immersive eateries, gaze at the frothing Baltic waves, duck under ancient fortification walls – all that and more should be a part of any two-day itinerary for the Estonian capital…
Day 1: The Town Hall Square (Raekoja plats) at the very core of the city is always the perfect place to begin. Go there and the sightseeing will start immediately. The eponymous Town Hall itself is the main attraction. It's a beautiful 36-meter structure with a tower that's topped with the Old Thomas weathervane, now a symbol of the city. You're also at the perfect starting point to get lost in the Lower Town of Tallinn.
That's the largest part of the historic center, a UNESCO site, and the place where merchants and guilds would once have plied their trade. Viru Street is one not to miss within. It's a hubbub of shops and eateries, all leading to the handsome Viru Gate, which dates all the way back to the 14th century. A whisker to the north is the Hellemann Tower, offering travellers access to a high lookout point and a 200-metre stretch of the City Walls.
Once you're back on dry ground, delve into the Lower Town once again, going north via Pikk Street. At its end you'll emerge into the hipster area of Kalamaja. Boho coffee shops and Mexican eateries combine there, but the best way to spend the evening is in the block behind Tallinn's train station, where industrial-chic cocktail bars like St. Vitus mix up creative long drinks.
The Raekoja plats plaza is at the heart of Tallinn
Day 2: The early hours see you head above the Lower Town to Toompea Hill. Once the main keep and most fortified part of the historic city, it's still one of the most important postcodes in Estonia. On one side is the soaring Alexander Nevsky Cathedral, sporting onion domes and filigrees that evoke the Russian Empire.
On the other is St Mary's Cathedral, the oldest in the city. This is also the home of the modern Parliament of Estonia. On sunny days, the views across the historic town from Kohtuotsa are some of the best going, taking in the Paks Margareeta tower in the distance and Town Hall Square below.
Descend from Toompea and go back to the centre to find the immersive tavern of III Draakon. A fun-filled character pub, it's got food that mimics the diet of the 1400s and curt service to match. As evening draws in, pinpoint the nightlife hubs of Rataskaevu and Voorimehe for something a little hedonistic!
The modern Istanbul New Airport is the main hub serving this big city. It handles the largest amount of air traffic in Turkey, so expect to find lots of connections in from Western Europe and beyond. Regular shuttle buses link the terminals with the downtown in around 50 minutes to one hour, but, be warned, travel times can vary greatly depending on traffic. The smaller Sabiha Gokcen International Airport hosts most of the services coming in from across the Middle East. It's over on the south side of the metropolis.
Istanbul's tourist areas suffer from the same scams as many other European cities. Fake guides, pickpockets and unregistered taxis are particularly common, so be sure to have your wits about you when sightseeing. Be wary when converting cash in the Old Town area too, because extortionate commission rates and even fake banknotes have been reported.
Choosing a hotel in Istanbul really depends on what you want. Sightseeing in Sultanahmet is what most people come for and there are loads of hotels to pick there, even if paying a premium is normal. Beyoglu is better if you're after chain hotels and boutique stays, and it's right on the more modern and happening part of town. Asian Istanbul will likely be cheaper, but also a ferry ride from the most famous attractions.
Tallinn Airport is small, but it's served by low-cost carriers coming in from Scandinavia, Russia, and Western Europe. It's only a few miles from the Old Town, and the trip can be done on bus number 2 or with a private taxi – expect to pay in the region of €7-11 for that. Other travellers might come across the Baltic on ferries from Helsinki. They cost about €20 and go several times throughout the day from the port in Finland.
Tallinn is a very safe place to travel. It's got low crime rates, and, aside from the ubiquitous pickpockets and taxi scammers, there's rarely any serious issues. Some people have reported extortion scams in nightclubs, but that tends to be limited to the more unsavoury establishments that we think it's best to avoid anyway.
Tallinn is pretty compact and small for a European capital. It's long since burst the seams of its old core, but most of the main sights, bars, pubs, cafés, and museums are still hemmed in by the medieval walls. That means you'll usually be able to walk pretty much anywhere you want. Just be wary of cyclists in the narrow Lower Town streets and icy cobbles in the winter months. Both can be dangers.