Project Description

It is hard to choose what best describes the capital of Estonia… Medieval charm or impressive modernity? On one hand, its historic center includes streets, houses, walls and towers that seem to come straight out of a storybook and secondly, a few steps away are brand new restaurants, cafes and clubs. It can be regarded as old, new or a mixture of both, Tallinn is the ideal destination for a relaxing holiday. The old town is relatively small and everything can be seen on foot. Excursions, cultural events, restaurants and shops are conveniently gathered for the tourists to enjoy. And activities abound! Whatever your program may be and whatever Tallinn you are looking for, its doors are open!

A MEDIEVAL SPIRIT AND A MODERN AMBIANCE

Tallinn, or simply all capital cities of the Baltic States are certainly not part of the holiday destination which comes first to mind, am I right? However, after a tour of a few days walking the streets of Tallinn, Riga and Vilnius, I can tell you that these capital cities and the countries they represent are far from the stereotypes we can imagine.

The trip starts at Geneva airport with a stopover in Berlin … And what a stopover! Indeed, our flight had some delays and we were informed just before arriving in Berlin that the connecting flight would perhaps be missed. Great, my vacation has just begun and I already imagine the worst: missed connection, luggage not following, etc. Fortunately, just after landing, the staff informs us that the flight Berlin-Tallinn is waiting for us as we are 4 passengers to take it. They also inform us not to hang out too much and that the gate will close in 10 minutes… I think I’ve never run so fast. Does Berlin airport look great? I don’t know, I haven’t seen it! I finally get on the plane and sit, breathless but happy not to have to wait until the next flight in the middle of the airport…

After one and a half hour, I land at Tallinn airport and get my bag, which has followed me without any issue. Whew! As we are in the Schengen area, no entrance formalities. It remains for me to reach the city center by bus number 2 which I spotted on the Internet before departure. So I wait about 15 minutes at the bus terminus. The bus arrives, I buy my ticket directly from the driver (€ 1.60, ~ 2 CHF) with Euros I withdrawed at the airport and asked him to let me know when we are reaching downtown. Not sure he understand me, but we’ll see. I also planned to take a taxi outside the departure hall, because the transfer from the airport to the city center costs about 10 € (12 CHF), which is much cheaper than in Switzerland, but as we are only 4km from the center, bus will be fine. In the worst case, I go down to a stop and ask my way. Finally, no need to do so as the driver jabbered a few words to me after 15 minutes, so I get off the bus. Some English signs leading to the historic center of the city will eventually help me reaching my hotel.

As I had no idea about quality and cleanliness of accommodation in this kind of country, I chose to book a good hotel, not necessarily too expensive, but at least situated close to the historic center. In this, My City Hotel Tallinn totally met my expectations.

  • Right in the middle of Tallinn, very close to the old town.
  • Spacious and bright rooms, tea/coffee maker.
  • Free Wifi connexion.
  • Good, varied breakfast buffet.
  • Several night clubs around and you can hear them.
  • Old carpets in my room.
  • Outdated decoration.
  • Wifi connexion not great, frequent disconnections.

tallinnhotel2

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.

TOOMPEA HILL, THE UPPER-CITY

Toompea is a limestone hill in the center of Tallinn. Overlooking the city from 20 to 30 meters, the top forms a small rectangular tray of about 400 meters by 250. According to the legend, the hill is a tumulus erected over the grave of Kalev by his inconsolable wife Linda. The question to ask yourself before climbing the hill is: by what leg do I go up? Yes, you read that right. No, I’m not talking about your legs … Read below.

Tallinn’s Two Legs

Old Town is divided into two distinct parts: Lower Town and Toompea hill. Connecting these areas are two picturesque streets known as Tallinn’s two ‘legs’: Pikk jalg (Long Leg) and Lühike jalg (Short Leg). Most visitors prefer to climb up to Toompea by one of these ’legs’ and return to Lower Town by the other. In old days, the long, straight Pikk jalg was the passageway for carriage traffic heading to and from Toompea. It starts at the four-storey Long Leg Gate Tower, which dates to 1380, and ends at the striking, onion-shaped domes of the St. Alexander Nevsky Cathedral. One of the walls that flanks Pikk jalg has become a favourite spot for local artists selling their sketches and paintings. The much narrower, winding Lühike jalg used to be the main way to get to and from Toompea by foot. This curious, little lane, most of which runs up a set of stairs, is home to a number of small art shops, as well as a museum and a café. At the top of the street stands the Short Leg Gate Tower, which was built in 1456 and is reputed to be one of the most haunted buildings in the Old Town. The tower was extensively rebuilt in the 1980s, but the huge, 17th-century wooden door is the original one.

The first building that can be seen after the climbing is Alexander Nevsky Cathedral.

One piece of architecture that seems out of place here. Most Estonians aren’t thrilled about the church due to its placement and early political significance: it was established here in 1900 as a symbol of tsarist power over the Estonian people. Now the cathedral is the main worship place for Estonia’s Russian Orthodox faithfuls. I did not go inside as a ceremony was held and I didn’t want to bother anyone.

Just in front of the cathedral is Toompea Castle and Pikk Hermann tower.

Toompea Castle has been the seat of power in Estonia since the German Knights of the Sword built the first stone fortress here in 1227-29. Even these days it’s home to the nation’s Parliament, Riigikogu. Most visitors’ first view is the pink, Baroque palace dating to the time of Catherine the Great. Go around, back down the hill to the left for a more Medieval view. From below, the castle takes on a much more fortress-like appearance. It can also be visited. Unfortunately, a group of about twenty tourists rushes in when I arrived. I then told myself I would go later, but I eventually didn’t do so. I go around the castle on the left to a little garden, overlooked by Pikk Herman tower (“The Great Hermann”).

Standing at the southwest corner of Toompea Castle is the Pikk Hermann (Tall Hermann) Tower, a vital symbol of Estonian nationhood. Originally built in 1371, it reached its current 46m height after reconstruction in 1500. As it is the castle’s tallest tower, locals say that whoever put its flag here rules Estonia. In 1989, the Estonian blue, black and white flag replaced the Soviet flag on Pikk Hermann for the first time, a symbolic victory for the independence movement. Nowadays the Estonian flag is raised here each morning to the tune of the national anthem.

Towards viewing platforms, famous observation decks of the city, I stop to visit the Cathedral of the Virgin Mary.

The more common name for this gleaming, white church on Toompea is “Toomkirik” (Dome Church) and it’s now the main Lutheran church in Estonia. Established sometime before 1233 (and rebuilt several times since), it was the church of the German elite nobility. Inside you’ll find their coats of arms and tombs. Free entry with the Tallinn Card.

Finally, the highlight of the day, the viewing platforms! It is a must for visitors, especially if the weather is favorable. We can then admire the city from different angles.

In the old days the nobles living on Toompea hill would look down – both literally and figuratively – on the merchants and artisans living in the town below. Now so can you. Two viewing spots in particular offer great views of the city : on Kohtu street are Patkuli platforms, giving sweeping panoramas of the Old Town’s rooftops, towers and beyond and Kohtu platform, from which one can admire an unforgettable view of the city’s Medieval neighbourhood against the backdrop of its new financial district. The Patkuli platform, on the other hand, offers the best vantage point to see Tallinn’s fairy tale city wall and towers, as well as St. Olav’s Church and the harbour. From Patkuli, a winding series of steps lead down to the cliff face to Nunne street, below. That’s the path I followed.

Then I went to another well-known attraction of Tallinn, “Kiek in de Kök”.

Those interested in walls, towers and cannons should get in this museum presenting the town’s defenses. The name of this 38m tower literally means “a peep into the kitchen”. Indeed, it was so high that guards said they could see right down the chimneys of the houses below. It was built in the 1470s, but quickly expanded and strengthened, giving its walls up to 4m thick. Free entry with the Tallinn Card.

This museum is also the starting point for visitors who want to tour the tunnels hidden under Toompea. However, the Bastion Tunnels can only be visited with guided tours held from Tuesday to Sunday. Booking well in advance is highly recommended (free with the Tallinn Card).

Under the city

Like any Medieval town, Tallinn has its underground passageways, particularly an impressive defensive tunnel systems built in the 1600s during the Swedish occupation. Back then, the threat of an attack was a constant worry, so planners constructed high bastion walls around the outside of the fortified city. They also installed tunnels under the base of the walls so they could safely move soldiers and ammunition where they were needed, not to mention spying on the enemy. Some tunnels were forgotten. In 2003, workers digging a foundation near the Museum of Occupations found a pentagonal system of limestone-lined tunnels dating to the end of the 17th century. Other tunnels have always been well known, in particular the ones that run underneath Harju Hill and Linda Hill at the edge of Toompea, which are open for tours. These tunnels have a fascinating history: they were built in the 1670s, but hardly used until they were turned into bomb shelters in the 20th century for World War II. During the Soviet period they were further modernised with electricity, running water, ventilation and phones.

I was lucky because a small group of people was waiting and they asked me if I wanted to go with them. Sure! First of all, we see a short film which explains the history of the tunnels, how they were discovered, etc., followed by the visit of the so-called tunnels. Some parties have retained their medieval appearance, while others are littered with the debris of the Soviet era. The circuit also includes a train ride that allows visitors to experience the different ages past the tunnel, and even a look into a possible future.

A hundred meters below the tower is another museum I wanted to visit, the Museum of Occupations.

This modern museum situated at the border of Old Town is the first in the nation dedicated to the 1939 – 1991 time period, during which Estonia was occupied briefly by the Germans, and for a longer time by the Soviet Union. Audio-visual displays, photos and sound recordings highlight the events of this era, repression and popular resistance, as well as showing how ordinary people coped with the day-to-day realities of this difficult period. Very interesting, I recommend it. Free entry with the Tallinn Card.

This evening, dinner at Kaerajaan, on Town Hall Square. Great meal and great service. Meat (hunting) was excellent and the dessert tasted like “get-another-one.” Top notch!

The following day, I take a bus from Tallinn to Riga with Lux Express. 13€ for a one-way trip, comfortable and spacious. Be careful however: if you see any object stand on your seat, like a package of cigarettes for instance, get ride of it outside of the bus without touching it with bare hands. I have a story about it, but that’s for another time!

REVIEW OF MY TRIP TO TALLINN

Well, it was a great discovery! As I said, this is not the first tourist destination that comes to mind but the city is charming and medieval enthusiasts like myself will surely be delighted. Accommodation and food are fairly priced, unlike souvenir shops, which were significantly higher compared to what I have already seen in other major cities. Facilities are nice and there are many things to do and see. I will certainly go back there. Moreover, Helsinki in Finland is only 3 hour away by ferry, which is ideal for a “one-day trip” if you get around the city faster than expected.