I take the opportunity to go for a walk around the Town Hall Square before going to bed, just to make a little spotting around… Not easy at night!
Moreover, it is relatively cold, so I don’t wander too much and get back to the hotel to study the map of Tallinn and some brochures collected at the reception, just to be prepared for the next day. It is reported that some places, such as museums or churches, prohibit taking pictures or video and I respect this rule. Some parts of the article below will therefore be presented without pictures.
First sightseeing day! Today, I wake up quite early, have a good breakfast and get directly to the tourist office to find other brochures and more importantly, my Tallinn Card. If you’ve been to the major cities of Europe, then you definitely know these Pass/Card, great deals which offer you discounts (and sometimes free entrance) on many attractions, museums, shops, restaurants, etc. A must-have in my opinion, if you stay at least 2-3 days in Tallinn. Then, towards the Town Hall Square, an ideal starting point for my visit of Tallinn.
The picturesque Town Hall Square has been the undisputed hub of the Old Town for eight centuries. Surrounded by historic merchant houses and, in summer, packed with café tables, it’s a natural magnet for tourists. Originally it served as a market and a meeting place, and was the site of at least one execution (resulting from a dispute over a bad omelette). Try to find the round stone marked with a compass rose in the middle of the square. From this spot, with a little stretching and bending, you can see the roofs of all five of the Old Town’s spires. Dominating the east side of the square is the Town Hall, built in 1402–1404 as the headquarters for the ruling burgermeisters. Today it’s Northern Europe’s only intact – and best-preserved – Gothic town hall. Look closely at the top of the 64-meter spire to see a weather vane in the shape of Old Thomas, Tallinn’s mustachioed mascot. Unfortunately, the zoom on my camera doesn’t go that far. Here is a legend told about Old Thomas:
Old thomas, the town’s favourite guard
Back in the days of yore, an archery contest was held each spring to see who could shoot a wooden parrot off the top of a high pole. It was a serious annual tradition, reserved exclusively for men of noble families. One year, so the legend goes, none of the contestants was able to hit the target. A plucky boy called Thomas was in the crowd. He was from a poor family, but had learned archery from a young age. Urged on by his friends, he gave it a shot, hit the parrot, and immediately got into trouble. But instead of having his ears boxed as his mother expected, he was made an apprentice guard. Thomas eventually became an expert soldier, performing many heroic deeds during the Livonian War and serving with distinction to a ripe old age. Years later locals noticed that the Town Hall’s weather vane, which is shaped like a soldier with a bushy moustache, looked a lot like their hero guard and started calling it Old Thomas in his honour. Nowadays Old Thomas, both legend and weather vane, is a muchloved symbol of Tallinn.
I first visit a curious little shop at the corner of the Town Hall Square, whose sign below hangs proudly above the front door. For those who do not know what it represent, it is the cup of Hygeia, pharmacy caduceus in which a snake bends his head to drink. Raeapteek means “Pharmacy of the City Hall.”
This is in fact the oldest pharmacy in Europe which is still in business. The precise date of opening is not known, but some historians date it back to 1415. Therefore we don’t exactly know its age, which adds a bit of mystery to this special place. This pharmacy was a very important place for the people of the city because in addition to drugs, we could find alcohol, ink, jewelry, gunpowder and many other products. Medieval remedies like burnt bees and powdered unicorn horn have been replaced by their 21st-century counterparts, but one room in the back displays a collection of medicinal bric-a-brac from bygone days.. Admission is free, enjoy!
Just off Town Hall Square stands a radiant, white church with an octagonal tower. This is the 14thcentury Holy Spirit Church, a spectacular structure both inside and out. The colourful painted clock on its facade is Tallinn’s oldest public timepiece, but don’t miss the carved wood interior and 15th-century altar painted by Bernt Notke. Free entrance with the Tallinn Card.
Using my city map to travel along the streets, I head to St. Catherine’s Passage & Masters’ Courtyard.
This passage which connects Vene and Müürivahe streets and is undoubtedly the most photogenic of the Old Town’s lanes. St.Catherine’s runs between Vene and Müürivahe streets, along the back of what was St. Catherine’s Church. The street is home to St. Catherine’s Guild, a group of craft shops where artists create and sell hats, quilts, ceramics, hand-painted silk and other wares. Not far from here is the beautifully restored Masters’ Courtyard where handicrafts, jewellery and chocolate confections are sold. This is the perfect place to buy souvenirs. Be careful though, as prices are high as the place is clearly intented for tourists. Well, this is also applicable to all the shops I visited… On my way to the harbour, I visit St. Olaf church, which I could see the spier from the Town Hall Square.
Once upon a time, from 1549 to 1625 to be precise, this 14th-century Gothic church was the tallest building in the world. In Medieval days its 159-metre spire would have made it a truly inspiring sight. Sadly it also made an excellent lightning rod, and the resulting fires burned the church to the ground in 1625 and in 1820. Today, at 124 metres, the current spire still overlook the Old Town, and offer to brave visitors who can climb it up (like I did) an amazing view. After all, it is not a few steps which… which will… Argh! .
Towards the harbor, I suddenly face the ramparts and fortifications surrounding the city center. By constant additions and improvements, Tallinn had one of the most powerful and strongest defence systems in Northern Europe by the 16th century. Sweden ruled Estonia from the late 1500s to 1710, during which a lot of work into improving Tallinn’s defenses was done. In addition to strengthening the city wall and its towers, builders installed secret tunnels around the bastions. These days 1.9km of the wall still stands, as do 20 defensive towers and portions of two of the six outer gates. The best places to see the wall are the Patkuli viewing platform on Toompea and Tornide väljak (Towers Square), located near the train station.
I finally reached the edge of the sea, just after crossing the coast gate, next to which stands Fat Margaret tower. This fat, sturdy defense tower was built between 1511 to 1530 to protect Tallinn from attacks by sea, but it was also part of the older Great Coastal Gate, now the town’s last intact outer gate.
As the harbour has nothing special to show, I go back to the Coastal Gate and enter Fat Margaret tower. Here you’ll find the Estonian Maritime Museum, where you can learn everything you need to know about Tallinn’s nautical past. Ancient diving equipment, antique maps and models of ships fill its four floors. Be sure to climb to the roof for a great view of the city and port. Free entrance with Tallinn Card.
It is past noon, but thanks to the huge breakfast I had this morning, I am not hungry at all. Great, more time to visit! I take this opportunity to walk the streets along the ramparts and find one of the few portions which is available to public. These are Nunna, Sauna and Kuldjala towers.
They are located on Suur-Kloostri street. Admission is free with Tallinn Card. You can enter by Nunna tower and then follow up the ramparts and visit Sauna and Kuldjala towers.
Epping Tower, located nearby, is a little bit different. It does not offer access to the ramparts, but shows exhibitions of weapons and armor from the Middle Ages on its six floors. You can even put on a coat of mail and train yourself to swordmanship. When I arrived, a group of people was already playing with all available weapons and pieces of armor, so I was quickly on my way.. Admission is free with Tallinn Card. By now, you probably understood that almost all tourist attractions are free with the Tallinn Card, great savings indeed!
I return to the Town Hall Square through Viru street and Viru Gates.
The Viru Gates is the name given to two small round towers at the end of Viru Street, but it is actually the front door of a much more elaborate complex, demolished in the 1880s to facilitate traffic. The two smaller towers covered with vines have become a symbol of the city. They cannot be visited (I think it’s obvious if you look the picture above) and have primarily a photographic appeal.
To end this day, I visit the Museum of the City of Tallinn and the Museum of Photography. The first, located in a merchant’s house of the 14th century, is an excellent introduction to the history of Tallinn, since the first signs of human presence to the Singing Revolution and independence in 1991. The second, just behind City Hall and set in an old medieval prison, shows Estonian photography from 1840 to 1940. You can see a laboratory of the early 20th century, fascinating old Tallinn photos and hundreds of cameras, including one Minox 1930s designed in Estonia. Collector! Both museums have free entry with the Tallinn Card.
Following the advice of a tourist brochure and indications of TripAdvisor, I eat at Olde Hansa, a well-known address in Tallinn.
From ceramic cutlery to candles dimly illuminating your plate, including waiters wearing linen clothes, you are thrown almost a millennium back in time. Welcome to Olde Hansa! Here, you drink your beer in a rustic jug, sitting on an old creaking chair under the troubadour which will accompany your meal with their playful medieval music. I loved the place and I had the opportunity to share a few words of English with a young Russian couple seated next to me who also shared my enthusiasm! A visit to Tallinn wouldn’t be complete without a meal in this touristic but charming place! Meals are not especially expensive and there enough to eat to fill your belly. “Aye! Another pint of honey beer!”. They also sell packages of caramelized almonds made according to the “old way”. Delicious! I came back there six more times to buy some of them. Yummy! I then return to my hotel and prepare my planning for the following day before enjoying a well deserved sleep.
Some climbing ahead today! After another large breakfast, I walk a bit in the lower city.
Then, I’m on my way to enjoy the view from the upper city and visit other buildings. On the way, I visit St. Nicolas church.
Saints, dancing skeletons and silver – not to mention the occasional organ concert – are the main attractions at this imposing, 13th-century church. Destroyed in a bombing raid during World War II, it was painstakingly reconstructed in the 1980s. Nowadays St. Nicholas’ acts as a museum specialising in works of religious art, most famously Bernt Notke’s beautiful but spooky painting Danse Macabre (Dance with Death). Free entrance with Tallinn Card.