Tallinn: prettiest capital city in Europe
Tallinn, how I love this city. I have been here for quite a few times and I always find something new to see or do on every visit. I first visited the city in 2006, two years after Estonia gained European Union membership and on average since then, visited the city every two-three years. Tallinn for me is an all year round destination but I really do love it in the winter months when there is a lot of snow to which the views of the old town rooftops from Toompea Hill are one to treasure (and they sure do look like scenes from Christmas Cards). With a lot of history, good food, fantastic drinks, lovely people and stunning building facades, this is my lowdown on what ‘first timers’ should expect and should do when visiting Tallinn. Believe me, visitors will not be disappointed. Also I like to point out, as Riga in Latvia is my second home, I will try and not be biased.
First off the sights. Where is the best starting point? I always say to visitors, start off at the Viru gates on the eastern side of the old town, as this is the ideal place to meet people, start tours and is also an easy landmark to find. The Viru Gates is classed as the main entrance into the old town and is formed off two gate towers.
Tallinn is known for its medieval buildings, walls and towers and the first one to check out is Fat Margaret’s Tower located on Pikk. Built in the 14th century, it’s eighty-two meters in diameter and has five meter thick walls. The tower is a stone-throw away from the harbour, so the tower needed to withstand attacks from hostile forces trying to enter the city here. These days the tower houses the Estonian Maritime Museum.
Nearby on Lai Street is St Olaf’s Church to which is one of my favourite points of the city to get a view from the north. The church was once the tallest building in Europe between 1549 and 1625 due to its 124 meter high spire. One of the legends I heard when I was walking around is that the church was built to attract more merchant ships to the city. There are also various reasons why the church is named after St Olaf but is more than likely named after the Norwegian King, Olav Havaldsson. The church was first mentioned in 1267 in local books.
Talking about views (and the best place to get the Christmas-card wintry scene if there is a lot of snow) is on Toompea Hill. There are two viewing platforms called Kohtuotsa and Patkuli (you can’t miss them when walking around at the top of the hill). For me, this is the best place to get the views of the city and probably use a lot of your camera batteries.
Toompea Hill, what’s it all about. Here is where Tallinn started back in 1229 where a gang known as the Knights of the Sword built a fortress here. My favourite thing to do here as well as checking out the viewpoints and cathedrals is walking around the cobbled streets. There are some courtyards, small lanes and the odd merchant house to check out. Tallinn’s Old Town is split into two, the Lower Town (where the Town Hall Square is located) and Toompea Hill, which overlooks the peasants back in the day. Here on top of the hill is also the parliament (located in Toompea Castle). The power is at the top of the hill folks but as a visitor, I would recommend a couple of hours up here at least to take in the beauty of this medieval centre.
One of the main landmarks on Toompea Hill is the Russian Orthodox Cathedral. However the cathedral is named after Alexander Nevsky who was a duke who lead an army into south-eastern Estonia and the Pskov area of Russia in the 13th century. The cathedral was designed in 1894 and was completed in 1900. However despite the cathedral being so pretty and beautiful inside and out, there are some structural damage and this has baffled some people on why the cathedral is damage (in small portions that is). One reason (and this is legend of course), the cathedral was built on the grave of a hero of the country, Kalev who is probably a little bit cheesed off and is causing all the problems.
Another church to check out on Toompea Hill is the oldest one in the country, the Dome Church (also known as Cathedral of Saint Mary the Virgin). The church was founded by Danish invaders in the 13th century but then had a revamp two hundred years later with the current Gothic facade. However the inside needed another refurbishment due to a fire breaking out in the 1680s. As well as the nearby viewing platforms, visitors can also go up the tower here to get amazing views of the Old Town. (Only open between 1030-1530 every day apart from Monday’s and do not come during the Sunday Service, that is just rude if you do).
Where did the Kiek in de Kök tower gets its name from? Well, another legend, this time it is claimed that medieval soldiers joked that from the top of the tower, they could see right into the kitchens of the houses below.
Underneath the tower is the Bastion Passages which were built by the Swedish Empire in the 17th century to help protect the city and spiral all over the place. Down here is also the Carved Stone Museum which displays carved stone fragments including family crests which date back to the 15th century. Allow a couple of hours to do the museums, tower and all the passageways. Worth paying the fee to go inside.
Cat’s Well – all medieval cities, towns and villages probably had a well in the centre and Tallinn is no exception. However the residents back in medieval days didn’t exactly have the cleanest of waters to drink from. I will explain. Located on the corner of Dunkri and Rataskaevu, the Cat’s Well has a legend behind it. Some of the locals were thinking than an evil water spirit lived at the bottom of the well and threatened to make all the well’s in Tallinn dry if it wasn’t given regular animal sacrifices. The locals kept the spirit happy by throwing carcasses of sheep and cattle down the well but then started to throw stray cats. Locals would round them up on the surrounding streets and then either threw them down the well dead or alive. This happened so much that the local’s started calling the well ‘Cat’s Well’. It was noted that the sacrifices were working as the city always had water to drink from. However the quality of the water was so poor, that the well hasn’t been used since the mid nineteenth century as water was sourced from elsewhere. This also means the cats of Tallinn are safe to wander the streets again.
On the southern side of the Lower Town is the Freedom Square. The main point of interest here is the three-nave Saint John’s church which has a neo-Gothic facade inside and out which has stood here since 1867. Inside the oldest church bell with Estonian text from 1872 is found in the church tower. Opposite the church is the monument to the War of Independence (which looks like something out of the film Thor or the television sci-fi show Stargate SG-1). Since the square was built it was known as Heinaturg (Haymarket), Peetri Plats (Peter’s Square) and Volduvaljak (Victory Square in the Soviet times). However Freedom Square was first used in 1939 until the Soviets renamed it in 1948. However before Estonia regained full independence, Freedom Square came back to use in 1989.
Now I have to admit, I didn’t get a chance to go inside the Town Hall on all my visits but I love the facade. However, if visitors lookup to the sky, one of Tallinn’s most recognised and legendary figures Vana Toomas (Old Thomas) can be seen on a weathervane which is placed on the top of Town Hall Tower. I love stories like this from medieval times. Toomas wasn’t like his namesake (‘old’), as his story started out when he was a boy. He won an annual archery contest that was only meant to have people from nobility to take part. Toomas thought he would get into trouble for winning but instead was invited to become an apprentice guard. The following years he did very well during the Livonian war as he did some heroic deeds but then went to serve the city well past the retirement age. Back to the modern day and the locals of the city started to notice a similarity between Toomas and the weathervane, so Tallinn’s officials decided to honour him by giving his name to the vane. Toomas since then as also become a symbol of the city.
However there is another version of the story where a drunken priest killed a barmaid by throwing a ceramic tankard of warm beer at her head. At this point of time, executions were forbidden inside the Old Town but the pissed off onlooking crowd shouted out ‘You must DIE!’ dragged him outside onto the square and beheaded him. Lucky on my visits to Tallinn, the restaurant service I never had a problem with, still a bit slow compared to Western Europe but I don’t think I would start an argument and kill a waitress.
One end of the square is the oldest running pharmacy in Europe. With no actual record of when the Raeapteek was opened, it’s kinda hard to put a date on it, however with some records laying about, the pharmacy was already on its third owner in 1422. Some treatments which could be brought in medieval times was burnt bees and mummy juice (is that breast milk?) and even spiced wine to cure the flu. The pharmacy today does not sell that kind of stuff but plenty of modern day drugs instead and lots of varieties of condoms! Also inside the shop is a museum displaying medical instruments.
Around the old town, every single street will either look pretty or there is something to see. Even if its the only handcraft shop on the street, it’s still worth checking out for a local souvenir to take home. Tallinn has plenty of these gift shops and I have to admit, I do spend quite a bit of time in these. They are probably the best in Europe.
Bars and Restaurants – my recommendations
Now Tallinn is fantastic for food. There are so many options here but in the last few years, the city has really stepped it up a level and there is so much choice and variety of restaurants to choose from. My favourite one which I keep going back is the Beer Garden located on Inseneri, not too far away from the Viru Gates. The first time I went there, there were murals on the walls of Estonian girls in Bavarian type dresses holding glasses of beer in their hands but they are now gone. Now as well as being a restaurant, it is also a sports bar which is handy as every time I come to Tallinn, the ice hockey world championships is usually on and this is the place to watch it. The food on the menu ranges from the usual salad, chicken, fish, meat, potato meals with a good range of bar snacks, starters and deserts. The choice of beer is great but I always go with the local lager, A le Coq. I totally recommend this especially when with a group of friends. Their website is here.
Just to the east of the Viru Gates is one of my favourite bars in the city. Right at the top of the Radisson Blu Hotel on Ravala Street is Lounge 24, a bar which offers the finest cocktails, beers, wines, snacks with fantastic service as well as amazing views overlooking the Old Town and the Baltic Sea. I came here on the longest day of the year and thankfully the skies were clear. So I managed to get the best sunset ever which before 23:00 hours but the sun just dipped under the horizon for quite some time afterwards, not disappearing totally until well after midnight. It was one of the best sunsets I have ever seen in this part of the world.
Updated: I managed to do a one night stay here in the summer of 2020, check out my full review here.
Outside the Old Town of Tallinn
Don’t just think there is just the Old Town of the city to see, there are also some great places to check out. To the south-west of the city there is Glehn Park to check out which is really good on a summer’s day as I found out. The park was designed by local landowner Nikolai von Glehn who is described as eccentric. He even designed and built the castle (not a bad job I have to admit, looks pretty with all the trees surrounding it). The park and castle was completed in 1886. At the time Glehn designed his own chairs, tables and carved out figurines as decorations for the castle. However during World War I the whole place was looted but the outside walls of the castle survived. The castle now belongs to the local university. There is also a small observatory tower nearby however the most amazing thing I (and Amelie of course) loved about this park is the sculptures. There is a tall strange horned man in a small clearing of trees which the locals call the devil, however the statue is that of an mythical hero in Estonian folklore, Kalevipoeg. However this sculpture isn’t the original as that got destroyed during the war because the Russian army were afraid that the horns were a secret transmitter device sending out information to German ships on the Baltic nearby. Nearby is a crocodile sculpture which is meant to represent the beast lurking behind the hero, Kalevipoeg. To get to this park, the nearest train station is Hiiu and then about 10-15 minutes walk from there, or take a taxi from the Old Town and it is about a 10-15 minute drive.
To the north of the park is the Russalka Monument (which is on the seafront) and is a monument to commemorate the crew of the Russian armored ship Russalka, which sank in the sea in 1893.
Further east along the seafront is the Tallinn’s Song Festival Grounds which has stood here since the 1960s. The main event to be held here is the Song Festival which is held every five years. 25,000 singers take part and there are usually over 100,000 people inside the venue watching. There is a tower here which visitors can go up (it’s forty-two meters high) and the views of the city and the sea are to be had.
Last of all, near the Tallinn’s Song Festival Grounds is the Maarjamäe Memorial (located on Pirita Road) and it is a memorial to those who had died defending the Soviet Union in the Second World War. In the centre of the memorial is a thirty-five metre obelisk and surrounding it are graves to some of those who had fallen and a bronze sculpture of a flock of birds.
Getting to Tallinn
Tallinn is very well connected and easy to get to. With flights to the airport (which is located not too far away from the city centre), airlines such as Ryanair, Finnair, Air Baltic, Lufthansa, and Scandinavian (SAS) all fly here from various parts of Europe. Visitors can also arrive by ferry, the most common routes are from Helsinki, Stockholm and Saint Petersburg. The international coach services are excellent and comfortable in the Baltic’s and there are services to Riga, Vilnius and Saint Petersburg. Most popular coach companies is Lux Express and EcoLines.
There you have it guys, these are my recommendations of places to hit up with the odd bar and restaurant to eat out off. I have been here for quite a few times and I can’t wait to visit the city again very shortly. There is always something new to see and do every time I come here and I can tell my readers now, you will get a warm reception from the locals. They are amazing, nice and helpful. Also one last thing, don’t even bother looking for a phone box, there isn’t any in Estonia. They are all gone! The first country in the world to get rid of all their phone boxes. Thought I chuck that in there.
Please note that while I was not working with any of the companies mentioned on this page and that my trip to Tallinn was all paid for by myself. I love Tallinn so much and want to show you the city through my eyes and give you the best advice possible. My reviews and experiences written about in this post are 100% genuine. I value my readers too much to lie to you. My blog would be nothing without you and your continued support!