Tallinn, Estonia’s compact, buzzing capital, with its enchanting heart surrounded by medieval walls, has been shaped by nearly a millennium of outside influence. While the fairytale Old Town has become the ideal weekend getaway for city-break tourists, the Estonian capital’s growing importance as a regional centre for business, arts and technology has provided it with a go-ahead contemporary feel coupled with bags of hedonistic energy.
The heart of Tallinn is the Old Town, still largely enclosed by the city’s medieval walls. At its centre is the Raekoja plats, the historic marketplace, above which looms Toompea, the hilltop stronghold of the German knights who controlled the city during the Middle Ages. East of the city centre there are several places worth a visit, such as Kadriorg Park, a peaceful wooded area with a cluster of historic buildings, and the forested island of Aegna.
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An hour’s boat ride (May–Sept Mon & Wed–Fri 2 daily, Sat & Sun 3 daily; double-check timetable with tourist office; €6 return) from Pirita harbour (bus #1, #34 or #38 from the underground stop at the Viru Centre), tiny peaceful Aegna is an excellent day-trip destination. Its forest-covered interior and clean beaches attract locals who camp here in the summer.
The fourteenth-century Church of the Holy Ghost (Puhä Vaimu kirik; Mon-Sat: May-Sept 9am-6pm; Oct- April 10am-3pm; €1) on Pühavaimu is the city’s oldest church, a small Gothic building with stuccoed limestone walls, stepped gables, carved wooden interior, a tall, verdigris-coated spire and an ornate clock from 1680 – the oldest in Tallinn.
Contrasting sharply is the late Gothic St Nicholas’s Church (Niguliste kirik; Tues–Sun 10am–5pm; museum €5), southwest of Raekoja plats. Dating back to the 1820s and rebuilt after being mostly destroyed in a 1944 Soviet air raid, the church now serves as a museum of church art, including medieval winged altars and the haunting Danse Macabre (“Dance With Death”) by Bernt Notke. It also hosts free organ recitals (Sat & Sun 4pm).
The Lauluväljak at Narva maantee 95 (wwww.lauluvaljak.ee), just to the northeast of Kadriorg Park, is a vast amphitheatre which is the venue for Estonia’s Song Festivals. These gatherings, featuring a 25-thousand-strong choir are held every five years, and have been an important form of national expression since the first all-Estonia Song Festival held in Tartu in 1869. The grounds were filled to their 45,000-person capacity in summer 1988 when people assembled here spontaneously to sing patriotic songs- in protest against Soviet rule, in what became known as the “Singing Revolution”. The next Song Festival is in July 2019.
Kadriorg Park, a heavily wooded area 2km east of the Old Town along Narva maantee, was laid out according to the instructions of Russian tsar Peter the Great. The main entrance to the park is at the junction of Weizenbergi tänav and J. Poska (tram #1 or #3 from Viru väljak). Weizenbergi cuts through the park, running straight past Kadriorg Palace, a Baroque residence designed by the Italian architect Niccolò Michetti, which Peter had built for his wife Catherine. The palace houses the Kadriorg Art Museum (May–Sept Tues & Thurs–Sun 10am–5pm, Wed 10am–8pm; Oct–April closed Tues; €5.50), with a fine collection of Dutch and Russian paintings.
The Lauluväljak at Narva maantee 95, just to the northeast of Kadriorg Park, is a vast amphitheatre which is the venue for Estonia’s Song Festivals. These gatherings, featuring a 25,000-strong choir, are held every five years, and have been an important form of national expression since the first all-Estonia Song Festival held in Tartu in 1869. The grounds were filled to their 45,000-person capacity in summer 1988 when people assembled here spontaneously to sing patriotic songs in protest against Soviet rule, in what became known as the “Singing Revolution”. The next Song Festival is in July 2019.
Marking the eastern end of Kadriorg Park is the immense, futuristic-looking KUMU (April-Sept Tues & Thurs–Sun 11am–6pm, Wed 11am–8pm; Oct–April closed Tues; €6), a must-see for anyone interested in twentieth century Estonian art. It’s certainly a wide-ranging collection: surrealism, pop art and abstraction flourished during the Soviet period, despite official hostility to such modernist excesses.
The imposing Kiek-in-de-Kök tower, (Tues–Sun: March–Oct 10.30am–6pm; Nov–Feb 10.30am–4.30pm; €6; joint ticket with Bastion Tunnels €10), dating from 1475, stands on Komandandi tee. It houses interactive displays on the development of the town and its fortifications throughout its history. Below the tower lies the entrance to a network of seventeenth-century bastion tunnels, originally built for defence by the Swedes but most recently used as bomb shelters during World War II. Guided tours (Tues–Sat 10.30am–6pm; frequency depends on demand; book in advance on T644 6686 or at Kiek-in-de-Kök; €6;) initiate you into the tunnels’ history and legend; bring warm clothes as the temperature tends to be a cool 6–8°C even in the height of summer.
The sixteenth-century Great Sea Gate, which straddles Pikk at its far end, is flanked by two towers. The larger of these, Fat Margaret Tower, has walls 4m thick and now houses the Estonian Maritime Museum (Tues–Sun 10am–7pm; €4), a surprisingly entertaining four floors of nautical instruments, scale models of ships and antique diving equipment: some displays have English captions.
South of Lossi plats, on Toompea 8, the airy and modern Museum of Occupations (daily : June–Aug 10am–6pm; Sept–May 11am–6pm; €6) brings to life the personal experience of Estonians under Nazi and Soviet occupation through use of interactive exhibitions, and displays of artefacts from 1940 to 1991. It’s well worth taking time to sit and watch some of the documentary films commemorating the anti-Soviet "Singing Revolution" of 1987–91.
Most of Tallinn’s popular clubs cater for a mainstream crowd. More underground, cutting-edge dance music events change location frequently and are advertised by flyers, or try asking around in the city’s hipper bars; expect to pay €4–10 admission.
Pikk tänav, running northeast from Pikk jalg gate and linking Toompea with the port area, has some of the city’s most elaborate examples of merchants’ houses from the Hanseatic period, including the Great Guild at Pikk 17, headquarters of the German merchants who controlled the city’s wealth; the House of the Blackheads, Pikk 26, with a lavishly decorated Renaissance facade; and the Three Sisters, a gabled group at Pikk 71. Supremely functional with loading hatches and winch-arms set into their facades, these would have served as combined dwelling places, warehouses and offices. Take the parallel street of Vene to the outstanding Tallinn City Museum at no. 17 (Mon & Wed–Sun: March–Oct 10.30am–6pm; Nov–Feb 10.30am–5.30pm; €4), which imaginatively recounts the history of Tallinn from the thirteenth century through to Soviet and Nazi occupations and Estonian independence.
Raekoja plats, the cobbled market square at the heart of the Old Town, is as old as the city itself. On its southern side stands the fifteenth-century Town Hall (Raekoda), boasting elegant Gothic arches at ground level, and a delicate steeple at its northern end. Near the summit of the steeple, Vana Toomas, a sixteenth-century weather vane depicting a medieval town guard, is Tallinn’s city emblem. The well-labelled and informative museum inside the cellar hall (late June to Aug Mon-Sat 10am-4pm; rest of the year closed; €5) depicts Tallinn town life through the ages. For an expansive view of the town square, climb the spiral staircase of the Town Hall Tower (Raekoja Torn; May- to mid-Sept daily 11am-6pm; €3).
The first thing to do when you go to an Estonian sauna is get completely naked, though in mixed saunas wrapping a towel around you is at your own discretion. Once you get used to the heat, scoop some water onto the hot stones; it evaporates instantaneously, raising the temperature. Once everyone is sweating profusely, some might gently swat themselves or their friends with birch branches; this increases circulation and rids the body of toxins. Don’t overdo it – ten minutes should be long enough, but get out immediately if you start to feel dizzy. Locals normally follow up with a plunge into a cold lake, although a cold shower will suffice. A good place to start is Kalma at Vana-Kalamaja 9a (Mon–Fri 11am–10pm, Sat & Sun 10am–11pm; public sauna for men only €9–10; private sauna for both sexes €14–20/hr); t627 1811) – Tallinn’s oldest public bath (built in 1928), containing private saunas for rent as well as men’s and women’s general baths (complete with swimming pool).
At the northern end of Pikk stands the enormous Gothic St Olaf’s Church (Oleviste kirik; daily 10am–6pm; free), first mentioned in 1267 and named in honour of King Olaf II of Norway, who was canonized for battling against pagans in Scandinavia. The church is chiefly famous for its 124-metre spire, which you can climb for a spectacular view of Old Town and the port (daily 10am–6pm, July & Aug until 8pm; €3).
Ten minutes’ walk north of the Old Town, a former engineering works on the far side of the Balti Jaam station now houses the Telliskivi Creative City, a cluster of creative companies and artists’ studios. It is also home to an assortment of cafés, restaurants and art-and-design shops, plus a popular Saturday flea market.
The Cultural Kilometre terminates outside Estonia’s most astounding museum attraction, the Air Harbour (May–Sept daily 10am–7pm; Oct–April Tues–Sun 11am–7pm; €14; Wlennusadam.eu) ,a huge hangar built by the Russians in World War I to house a fleet of sea planes. A masterpiece of modern construction, this cavernous concrete space was reopened in 2012 as an extension of the Maritime Museum. A system of raised walkways takes you past the exhibits – including fishing boats, mines, a replica World War I biplane and naval guns. The pièce de résistance is the Lembit submarine, built for the Estonian navy in Barrow-in-Furness in the 1930s. Outside, ice-breaker Suur Toll and several other ships are moored.
The 4km-worth of walls that surrounded the Old Town were mostly constructed during the fourteenth century. Today, 1.85km of them still stand, along with 20 of the original 46 towers. One of the most dramatic stretches can be found along Laboratoriumi (subsequently Gümnaasiumi), where three of the oldest towers – Nunne, Kuldjala and Sauna – can be entered from Gümnaasiumi 3 (June–Aug: daily 11am–7pm; Sept–May daily except Thursday 11am–4/5pm; €2).
Just north of the Old Town, the Cultural Kilometre (Kultuurikilomeeter) is a footpath that runs through an intriguing stretch of post-Soviet, post-industrial Tallinn. It begins beside the Kultuurikattel (“The Culture Boiler”), a former power station now converted into a concert venue. The power station’s iconic chimney is where Russian film director Andrei Tarkovsky shot key scenes of his existential classic, Stalker. From here the path heads west past a small fishing harbour, and the Estonian Design House at Kalasadama 8 (westoniandesignhouse.ee), where young designers display and sell their wares. The path continues past the atmospheric old houses of the Kalamaja district before arriving at Patarei Prison Museum (May–Sept daily noon–7pm; €3), a nineteenth-century fortress that was turned into a jail in 1920. Abandoned in 2004, it remains in pretty much the same state it was left in, providing an eerie, unsettling experience for visitors.
To do a lot of sightseeing in a short time, it can be worth buying a Tallinn Card(€32/42/52 for 24/48/72hr), which gives you unlimited free rides on public transport as well as free entry to a plethora of attractions and discounts in shops and restaurants. Check website for details.
Toompea is the hill where the Danes built their fortress after conquering what is now Tallinn in 1219. According to legend, it is also the grave of Kalev, the mythical ancestor of the Estonians. Approach through the sturdy gate tower – built by the Teutonic Knights to contain the Old Town’s inhabitants in times of unrest – at the foot of Pikk jalg. This is the cobbled continuation of Pikk, the Old Town’s main street, that climbs up to Lossi plats, dominated by the impressive-looking Aleksander Nevsky Cathedral. This imposing onion-domed structure was built at the end of the nineteenth century for the city’s Orthodox population – an enduring reminder of the two centuries Tallinn spent under tsarist rule.
At the head of Lossi plats, the pink Toompea Castle stands on the site of the original Danish fortification. Rebuilt many times, the building is now home to the Riigikogu, Estonia’s parliament.