After an easy 2 hour ferry ride south from Helsinki, we arrived in Tallinn, the capital and largest city of Estonia. Tallinn was founded in 1248 but the earliest human settlements date back 5,000 years making it one of the oldest cities in Northern Europe. Tallinn, with its prime location on the Baltic, was swept up by the geopolititcal games of its more powerful neighbors. It was conquered by Denmark and then sold to the Hanseatic League in 1285. Then it came under Swedish rule in 1561 and then Russian rule in 1710. Finally, Estonia gained independence in 1991 and Tallinn once again became its capital. We spent our day wandering around Tallinn’s Old Town which is one of the best preserved medieval cities in Europe and was made a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1997. Outside the Old Town, Tallinn has often been referred to as the Silicon Valley of Europe and the techie vibe here is unexpected given the beautiful cobbled streets and well preserved medieval architecture. There is free wifi everywhere and I didn’t realize Tallinn is home to Skype.
There are frequent ferry crossings from Helsinki to Tallinn. We took the Tallink Silija Line. Make sure you choose either the Star or Megastar cruise ships because they are faster and newer. You can book to sit inside one of the lounges or alternatively you can book a table at the restaurant on board. Otherwise, there are no assigned seats and sometimes may be hard to find a seat for the 2 hour boat ride. Upon arrival in Tallinn, it is a easy leisurely stroll to Tallinn’s Old Town.
As we approached Tallinn, we could already see the skyline of the Old Town set on a hill with medieval buildings sprawling down the slopes in all directions. Tallinn’s two-tiered Old Town is one of Europe’s most charming walled cities. The many narrow streets and staircases surrounded by medieval city walls make the Old Town seem like a labyrinth. The most important political and religious buildings are located at the top of the hill and the lower areas are mainly for residential and commercial use.
We made the mistake of taking one of those cycle rickshaws from the port to the Old Town. It is a tourist scam! We approached the line of cycle rickshaws and asked how much it would cost for the 2 of us to go to the Old Town which is only about a 10-15 minute walk. The driver didn’t answer but pointed at a printed price list on the side of the seat. There was a list of prices to various places and on the top was the price to Old Town at €25. We thought okay that’s not too bad so we got on. When we arrived at the Old Town and gave the driver the €25, he pointed to the very bottom of his pricelist and in fine print, it said all prices are per person. This means that our stupid 5 minute ride cost us €50! Plus there was nothing at all to see along the way from the port to the Old Town. What a scam! But it definitely gave us a terrible first impression of Tallinn.
We entered the Old Town from Fat Margaret’s Tower which has been transformed into the Estonian Maritime Museum.
Pikk Street (Long Street) is the medieval merchant’s main street leading from the harbor up into town.
“Three Sisters” is a typical Hanseatic merchant home of the day. Now a boutique hotel.
Many of these colorful buildings used to be warehouses.
Church of the Holy Spirit is one of the oldest structures in Tallinn, built in the 14th century.
The 15th century Gothic Town Hall dominates Town Hall Square.
Raekoja Plats or Town Hall Square is the heart of Tallinn’s Old Town. It is filled with outdoor cafes where you can sit in the sun and just watch people come and go at this busy square.
The Wheel Well which made fetching water easier.
St. Nicholas Church is a medieval church dedicated to Saint Nicholas, the patron saint of all fishermen and sailors. Built in the 13th century, it now houses a branch of the Estonia Art Museum.
St. Nicholas Church
From St. Nicholas Church, we climbed the steep Luhike Jalg (Short Leg Lane) up to Toompea Hill.
After the steep short climb up, you will arrive at the Danish King’s Garden set next to Toompea on the slope facing St. Nicholas Church. Legend has it that this was where a flag, that later became the national flag of Denmark, descended from the sky during the Danish invasion and turned the course of the battle in favor of the Danes.
There is a cafe built on the top of the city wall that can be accessed from the Danish King’s Garden.
View of St. Nicholas Church from the Danish King’s Garden.
Parts of the old city wall
Kiek in de Kok is a six-storey artillery tower meaning “Peek into the Kitchen”. The name possibly came from soldiers joking how the tower at 38 meters high can see everything below including down chimneys into other people’s kitchens. Now it houses war memorabilia and the top floor cafe is a great place to take a break and admire the views over the city.
Up on Toompea Hill stands the Alexander Nevksy Cathedral.
Up on Toompea Hill was where the aristocracy and clergy used to stay.
Alexander Nevsky Cathedral is an ornately decorated Orthodox cathedral with the largest church bells in the city. It is built in the typical Russian Revival style between 1894 and 1900 when Tallinn and Estonia were part of the Russian Empire.
Across from the onion-domed Russian Cathedral is the pink Toompea Castle which is an ancient stronghold that houses the Parliament of Estonia today.
In the distance is St. Mary’s Cathedral or Dome Church. It is Estonia’s oldest church established in the 13th century.
Dome Church was originally a Roman Catholic cathedral and became Lutheran in 1561. It is now an Evangelical Lutheran Church and the seat of the Archbishop of Tallinn.
Beautiful view of Tallinn from the Patkuli viewing platform. In the middle is St. Olaf’s Church which was once the tallest building in the world from 1549 to 1625 and its tall spire has been hit by lightning around 10 times.
Nearby is another view point called Kohtuotsa viewing platform and provides excellent views of the red roofs and church spires of the Old Town as well as the highrises of modern Tallinn.
Descending back to Lower Town along Pikk jalg.
Make sure to take a walk along the medieval city wall that encircles the Old Town. There are only a few sections open to visitors. One is via the gate on Suur-Kloostri. From the wall, you can climb up to the old watchtowers. The stairways are steep and narrow but well worth the view when you get up to the top. 26 towers out of 45 still remain today with Viru Gate being the best preserved and many others converted into museums. This area is known as Lower Town and is where the merchants and artisans used to live. It is still Tallinn’s busiest shopping area till today.
Climb up to one of the old watchtowers via the gate on Suur-Kloostri.
On top of the medieval city walls
Another section of the wall we can still access is on Muurivahe Street. Underneath the old walls are stalls selling handmade knitwear and other souvenirs lending the name “Sweater Wall”.
Atop the old city walls overlooking Muurivahe Street.
Across from Telegraaf Hotel is the entrance to Katariina Kaik, a passageway filled with local artisan shops connecting Vene Street with Muurivahe Street which runs along the old city wall.
Continue along Viru Street to arrive at Viru Gate.
Viru Gate marking the end of our visit to Old Tallinn.
I had a truly pleasant day wandering the cobblestone streets of Old Tallinn. The setting cannot be more fairytale-like where every pastel colored house seem to have a story to tell. Tallinn is a photographer’s dream. I could stay here for days wandering the windy streets, looking at the colorful medieval houses, and sitting in the central square and watching the world go by.
From here, my summer holidays continue in Iceland. Stay tuned for my next post!
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