I first laid my eyes on Tallinn last November. At the time, I was on my first official solo trip to Helsinki, the Finnish capital situated 80 kilometers north of Tallinn. Given their close proximity and shared heritage, these two cities are often referred to as twin capitals, Baltic sisters, or simply Talsinki. During my November trip, I entertained the idea of crossing the Gulf of Finland to Tallinn, but with a jam-packed Helsinki itinerary that left no room for spontaneous day trips, I had to put Estonia’s Medieval capital on hold. Luckily I found myself in the same corner of Europe just three months later, this time to explore each of the three Baltic states – Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia. I started my travels in Vilnius, then carried on through Riga, and finally arrived in Tallinn, just in time for the coldest week of winter. Visit Tallinn kindly provided me with a Tallinn Card during my stay and I bounced between churches and museums, desperately trying to stay warm.
The Upper Town
Tallinn’s UNESCO-listed Old Town is divided into two sections – the Upper Town, more commonly referred to as Toompea, and the Lower Town. Toompea has always been where the central power of Estonia is seated, regardless of the nation’s ruler at the time. Aside from the Toompea Castle, this hill is also the site of two stunning cathedrals, Cathedral of Saint Mary the Virgin and St. Alexander Nevsky Cathedral. The Cathedral of Saint Mary the Virgin, also called the Dome Church, was founded in the 13th century and has been rebuilt many times since. This lavish church once served Tallinn’s nobles and its repeated rebuilding has led to a variety of architectural styles including a Gothic nave and a Baroque spire. While the architecture was fascinating, I was even more impressed by the extravagant coats of arms being displayed on the interior walls of the church. In sharp contrast to Estonia’s main Lutheran church, the St. Alexander Nevsky Cathedral is a Russian-style onion-domed structure built in 1900 and is Estonia’s main Russian Orthodox church. An ensemble of 11 bells sit within the towers of the church and play before each service, and the walls are beautifully decorated with mosaics and icons – all the more reason to visit since photos are not allowed inside.
Another highlight of Toompea hill is its array of breathtaking viewing platforms, most notably Kohtuotsa and Patkuli. Back in the day, Estonia’s rulers would use their position on the hill to keep a close eye on the town and its inhabitants below. Today, these platforms provide some of the best views of the capital and the harbor. The Kohtuotsa viewing platform displays an interesting contrast between the Medieval old town and the modern financial district, and the quote “The Times we had.” written on the left hand wall. The Patkuli viewing platform sits atop a limestone cliff and is accessible from Nunne street via the winding Patkuli stairway built in 1903. Its north facing position looks over Shnelli Park and the Town Wall, and the quote “Save the camera, honey. Enjoy the view.” is painted on the brick wall. I was personally more swept away by the views from Kohtuotsa since the platform sits directly above the old town rather than off to the side and I therefore received a different perspective of the neighborhood.
After just thirty minutes outside, my face was frozen and my hands were numb. In an effort to warm up, I headed to the closest museum located just down from the hill, Kiek in de Kök. Translated to ‘Look into the Kitchen’ in English, this 38 meter high 15th century cannon tower earned its name from the ability of soldiers to peep inside the windows of the Lower Town homes. The tower now houses a museum related to life during the Medieval era, including the town’s fortifications and weapons. I happened to enter the museum just as a tour of the Bastion Passages was about to begin, so I excitedly tagged along. The tour guide led us through the network of limestone-lined tunnels that run beneath Toompea, providing a view of Tallinn from below. These 17th century military Bastion tunnels were also used in World War II and some tools and equipment remain, such as telephones and gas masks. Inside the tunnel closest to the Freedom Square, the Carved Stone Museum holds over 600 stones and symbols, each telling a piece of the city’s story.
The Lower Town
Having gotten a taste of the Lower Town from above and below, it was time to head inside of the Town Wall to the Town Hall Square. The Gothic Town Hall sits at the heart of Tallinn’s historic center and is surrounded by shops, museums, and restaurants. Of importance is the Raeapteek, the oldest pharmacy in Europe which has been running continuously since it was first mentioned in town records in 1422. Just around the corner, the Tallinn City Museum sits inside a 14th century merchant house and traces the development of the city over time, providing insight into how merchants and artisans lived from the 13th century to present day. It was interesting to see the history of Estonian handicrafts, and just a short walk from the museum, many of the town’s craftsmen can be found selling their creations along the St. Catherine’s Passage and inside the Masters’ Courtyard. From glassware and ceramics to quilts and jewelry, I browsed the workshops for a piece of Estonia to take home.
On the opposite side of the Town Hall, the Niguliste Museum and St. Nicholas’ Church is exactly as it sounds, a museum within a church. Built in the 13th century, the church was originally designed with the intention of doubling as a fortress, but it didn’t survive the 20th century World War II bombs. Along with the restoration process that followed, St. Nicholas’ Church was turned into the Niguliste Museum, displaying a collection of striking altarpieces, religious art, and Medieval burial slabs. Another historic building turned museum is the former Town Council Prison, which now houses the Museum of Photography. Since I have recently taken up photography myself, this museum was of particular interest to me. The arched ceilings and steep staircases add character to the rooms containing antique cameras, old fashioned equipment, and a recreated 20th century darkroom.
My time in Tallinn seemed to fly by and I left feeling like there was so much more I wanted to see, both within the Old Town and outside thereof. Despite the negative double digit temperatures and battling what felt like (and still feels like) a never ending cold, Estonia’s capital was easily my favorite of the three Baltic capitals. Tallinn combines the quaint city feel of Vilnius with the Old Town charm of Riga, and the influence of its Scandinavian neighbors is evident. Perhaps my Norwegian roots make me partially biased to this last point, but the Estonian culture certainly felt the most welcoming to me. Until next time, Tallinn… I will be back.
A special thank you to Visit Tallinn for hosting me in Estonia’s capital. As always, all opinions are my own.