Only A Hop, Skip And A Jump Away From Helsinki, The Stunning Medieval Old Town Tallinn Is Worth A Visit.
If you don’t have the time to add Estonia to your itinerary but you’re in the vicinity, I urge you to at least spend one night or even take a day trip. Helsinki is but a stone’s throw away and stunning Old Town Tallinn is so worth the effort. As we were travelling around Europe in the winter, we had hoped to see the snow-capped terracotta coloured roofs of Tallinn. Unfortunately, although at -7 degrees Celsius (19 degrees Fahrenheit), there wasn’t enough precipitation and we didn’t get the white winter we so desperately wanted to experience. Nevertheless, we found Tallinn to be filled with historical charm.
If you are short for time, I do recommend that you just explore the Old City. You won’t have enough time to discover the outskirts albeit a ton of attractions and activities to indulge in. The Old City has so much to offer and is the main attraction of this Estonian capital.
REASON TO VISIT OLD TOWN TALLINN #1
Ferry. We crossed the Baltic Sea from Helsinki to the Southern Coast of the Gulf of Finland to Tallinn. The journey is only 70km or 43 miles and took us about 2.5-3 hours. When I booked the ferry, I had envisaged a passenger ferry with just rows of chairs and a basic transportation mode. I had absolutely no idea I was getting on a 9 level cruise liner housed with sleeping berths, restaurants, shops, pharmacy, and bars. The delight on Hannah’s face was priceless.
If you have never been on a cruise (it’s a very expensive holiday!), this is such a great way to get a taste of it. For a round trip ticket of only about 40 Euro, it was so worth it. On the return leg, it was a lunch time transfer so we booked into the buffet restaurant and ate the entire journey back. This was Hannah’s Estonian highlight! The trip was over before we knew it.
The only disadvantage of getting on this ferry is that it has ignited Hannah’s desire to embark on cruises around the world!
REASON TO VISIT OLD TOWN TALLINN #2
UNESCO Listed. Tallinn’s Old Town, which was built in the 15th-17th century, was inscribed onto UNESCO’s World Heritage List in 1997. For a site to be identified and protected by UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization), it means it is “considered to be of outstanding value to humanity”. UNESCO’s mantra is “heritage is our legacy from the past, what we live with today, and what we pass on to future generations. Our cultural and natural heritage are both irreplaceable sources of life and inspiration.”
As world travelling voyeurs, its pleasing to know that one of Europe’s complete walled cities will be preserved in all its glory. Plagued by external powers of the past from the Danish, German, Polish, Swedish, and of course the Russians, it houses an eclectic and rich, cultural, and historical landscape. It so important that its deep identity is maintained. This of course means that as a traveller, you will continue to be able to enjoy Tallinn for everything it has to offer without succumbing to a flood of tourists and pressures of the modern world.
REASON TO VISIT OLD TOWN TALLINN #3
Picture Perfect. We took an Uber from the port to the Old City. We decided not to waste any time on public transport. As we drove around the perimeter of the Old City, I could feel the anticipation creeping up in me. Tallinn has been on my personal bucket list for a long time. As the driver drove into the Old City and expertly manoeuvred through the narrow cobblestoned lanes, I knew I wasn’t going to be disappointed.
He dropped us as close as he could get to the Old Town Square. We got out, walked up the laneway and all of a sudden, it opened up into the medieval square. And for a moment, I stopped breathing. I know this sounds so cliché and dramatic, but I really did. I just stood there and stared, soaking it all in and delighted that what everyone said about it being the “most stunning old town square in Europe” was true. I loved that travel can still bring me wonder and excitement, like a child seeing Disneyland for the first time.
Stunning, charming, fairy tale, exquisite, historical, medieval are all but some of the repeated adjectives to describe this place. And despite its increase in tourism popularity, we had walked into a square, in the dead of winter, devoid of visitors. It’s like we had the whole place to yourselves, free to photograph it to death.
REASON TO VISIT OLD TOWN TALLINN #4
360-degree view. If you’re looking for a 360-degree view of Tallinn, head over to St. Olav’s Lutheran Church. Controversially claimed as the tallest building in the world in the 16th and 17th century, it’s worth a visit. The church itself is understated but beautiful. For 3 Euro you can climb the narrow and windy 258 stairs to get to the rooftop for unparalleled views. It’s a bit of a hike and coupled with enthusiastic tourist, it can feel a little claustrophobic. The walking platform around the spire is not very wide and if you suffer from vertigo, it may be a scary experience. If you can, go early to avoid the crowds.
REASON TO VISIT OLD TOWN TALLINN #5
Alexander Nevsky Cathedral. Built in the 19th century, Alexander Nevsky Cathedral is a classic onion-domed Russian Orthodox church. It crowns the hill of Toompea and is very much considered to be the tourist symbol of the Old City. The cathedral was due for demolition in 1924 to remove the symbol of Estonian oppression but never came to fruition due to the lack of funds. Whilst it remains a stigma for the locals, it is still part of their history and makes Tallinn the city it is today. It was meticulously restored in 1991.
The cathedral is exquisite and richly decorated. Complete silence and a strict no photography regulation is in place. We have been to many churches and cathedrals in our time but we have never been to a Russian Orthodox church. Hannah thought it was beautiful. I admired its external architecture much more than the inside of the church. Against the back drop of the city, its simply picture perfect.
And as if it wasn’t picturesque enough, the cathedral is located right next to the Estonian parliament or Riigikogu. You couldn’t miss it as the entire building is in pastel pink!
REASON TO VISIT OLD TOWN TALLINN #6
Shopping. I did not go to Old Town Tallinn with any intention to go shopping. I guess I was so excited to experience the Old Town it just wasn’t part of the schedule. We didn’t head to the shopping malls in the city but have heard they are great. Instead we meandered the cobblestone streets and explored some boutiques and outfitters. There were some gorgeous shops ranging from arts and crafts to local designers to eclectic vintage wear. The souvenir shops are although in abundance are not obtrusive and in your face. Local Estonian miniature wooden toys are super cute. I don’t have shops to recommend as I wasn’t really taking note but do make some time to check out the stores. I certainly didn’t walk away unscathed!
And for those of you who are there during the Christmas season, oh that Christmas market in the centre of the square is just stunning. Mind you I would think no trip to any city in Europe during the Christmas season is complete without a stroll through the Christmas markets.
REASON TO VISIT OLD TOWN TALLINN #7
Toompea Hill Lookout. No visit to Tallinn would be complete without the customary visit to the lookout on Toompea Hill. There are quite a few lookout points in Tallinn but we wanted a romantic view of the historic scenes. We actually missed this lookout on our walk and had to go back searching for it after lunch. Climb the stairs near Freedom Square and you’ll find the best viewing location, Kohtoutsa platform. You’ll be greeted by the now recognisable “Times We Had” phrase on an otherwise blank terracotta coloured wall. The view from the platform highlights the quintessential Estonian architecture which can be described as gothic, baroque, and even rococo.
If you’re looking for views of the Baltic Sea, head over to the viewing platforms at Patkuli and Piiskopi.
REASON TO VISIT OLD TOWN TALLINN #8
Nightlife. Tallinn has an exuberant night scene and most of it is mainly concentrated in the Old Town. And I love the idea of entering a bar from medieval cobblestone streets and then finding yourself in one of the coolest bars any European country would be envious of. A juxtaposition of the two worlds makes the experience more fun and exciting.
Apparently Estonians are known to be party animals! Even the New York Times have known to state that Tallinn was one of the best party capitals in world. With the huge range of bars, clubs and lounges you can choose from, there is bound to be a night scene that will suit you. So, if you have the luxury of sneaking out for a cheeky beer whilst the kids are asleep, go for it!
REASON TO VISIT OLD TOWN TALLINN #9
Food. Estonian cuisine traditionally consists of staples such as meat, potatoes and fish in coastal areas. If you’re game you can certainly indulge in jellied meats, freeze dried elk or reindeer and blood sausages!
Much like its architecture, its cuisine has expanded to incorporate a melting pot of other influencing cultures. There are so many restaurants and cafes in Old Town itself of varying budgets and has everything from Russian dumplings to German sausages and pretzels to contemporary Estonian fare. The culinary scene was much more sophisticated than I had expected. We were pleasantly surprised not only the food but also the interior aesthetics.
REASON TO VISIT OLD TOWN TALLINN #10
Historical Buildings. So many buildings of significance, churches, and town halls to visit. Here is a quick list of places you might like to visit.
- Danish King’s Garden – Located on Toompea hill between the city wall and Lower Tallinn. It is a small garden which apparently contains a folklore that that is where the Danish Flag, Dannebrog, was born.
- Raekoda – Known as the oldest surviving Town Hall in Baltic and Scandinavian countries, it is the epi centre of the town square. The Town Hall now also houses the museum.
- Church of Saint Nicholas – this was the first Classicist church building with twin towers to be built in Talliin and contains a wonderful collection of religious art and artifacts
- The Great Guild Hall – The Great Guild hall is considered a typical example of medieval Tallinn architecture and was a guild for merchants and artisans, operating in Tallinn from at least the 14th century. This building now houses the Estonian History Museum.
- St. Mary’s Cathedral. Located in Toompea Hill, this is the oldest church in Tallinn and mainland Estonia. Built in the 13th century and known as the Dome Church, you can also climb the 69m baroque bell tower to find beautiful views.
- Kiek in de Kök – Also meaning “Peep into the Kitchen” is an old Low German nickname for towers, mainly those that formed parts of town fortifications. They gained the name from the ability of tower occupants to see into kitchens of nearby houses. You can also get on a tour of the Bastion Tunnels which starts in the cellars of Kiek in de Kök.
We spent 2 nights and 2 days in Tallinn and we only stayed in Old Town. We wanted to have the luxury of just wandering and not rush our time there. Truth be told that Hannah found the Old Town Tallinn a little scary as it was cold, dark with only a few hours of sunlight, old and brooding. Not quite her cup of tea in general but certainly had pockets of things she enjoyed. Andrew has pretty much seen all of Europe but thought Tallinn was stunning and his favourite part of our trip. For me, a bucket list well met! We would like to go back one day so we can see the rest of the city and even the outer parts of Estonia.
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