Tallinn , the capital of Estonia, lies on the southern coast of the Gulf of Finland, only 70 km (43 mi) south of Helsinki. At the historical and medieval heart of the city is the hill of Toompea, covered in cobbled streets and filled with medieval houses and alleyways. The lower town spreads out from the foot of the hill, still protected by the remnants of a city wall. Around the city wall is a series of well-maintained green parks, great for strolling.
The city’s old town has been astonishingly well preserved and was inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List in 1997, it is now in better shape than ever, with the bigger roads converted into fashionable shopping streets reminiscent of Zürich or Geneva. Especially in summer, the Old Town is packed with tourists, with the traditional daytrippers from Helsinki increasingly supplemented by other Europeans taking advantage of cheap flights.
Places to visit in Tallin Old Town
The Old City – Tallin Old Town
Medieval Old Town. Excellently preserved, built in the 15-17th centuries. This compact area is best explored on foot. Call a tour guide for 56 Euros for 2 hours for two. It will give you a lot of stories that you won’t have been aware of. It’s worth the money.
Viru Gate, (Entrance to Viru Street). This section of town is known as All-Linn or “Lower Town”, as it’s where the merchants and artisans of old Tallinn lived. Today, Viru is still Tallinn’s trendiest shopping street and the entire All-Linn is the busiest (and most touristy) bit of Tallinn.
Raekoja Plats (Town Hall Square). The square in the heart of the Old City, ringed with cafes and restaurants. Houses a cute Christmas market in late November and December.
Raekoda (Town Hall). Built in 1371, this heavy stone structure dominates the square. It now houses the Tallinn City Museum.
Toompea Hill. According to myth, the hill was built on top of the grave of legendary Estonian king Kalev, but more historically, it’s solid limestone and the site of the Danish castle that founded the city in 1219. Toompea was the home of the Danish aristocracy and relations between the toffs and the plebs were often inflamed, which is why it’s surrounded by thick walls and there’s a gate tower (1380) guarding the entrance. Check out the viewpoints, some of which give great views over the city. There’s also a cluster of amber (merevaik) shops around here (no Estonian origin but popular among cruise tourists).
Alexander Nevsky Cathedral. a classic onion-domed 19th-century Russian Orthodox church that has become a touristy symbol of the city, to the annoyance of some who regard it as a symbol of oppression. It was almost demolished in 1924 during Estonia’s first brief spell of independence, but the Soviets left it to moulder and it has been restored to its former glory.
Riigikogu. Estonia’s Parliament, pretty in pink.
St Mary’s Cathedral – Toomkirik. The oldest church in Tallinn, originally built as a Catholic church in 1229 but renovated and expanded many times since then, becoming a Lutheran church in 1561.
Museum of Occupations, Toompea str. 8, corner of Toompea St. and Kaarli Blvd, . Describes the life conditions under Soviet and Nazi regimes.
City Wall. A section of the City Wall can be climbed from the corner of Suur-Kloostri and Väike-Kloostri, with entry into three towers possible. Quite frankly, the views from up on Toompea are better, and the spiral staircases are steep and somewhat claustrophobic. Admission: €3.
Ex-KGB Headquarters, Pikk 61. Now the Interior Ministry and not generally open to the public, this is where the KGB detained and tortured suspected dissidents. A Soviet-era joke says that this was the tallest building in Estonia: even from the basement, you could see Siberia. Interrogations were indeed conducted in the basement and you can see even today how the windows were crudely bricked up with concrete to mute the sound.
Outside the Old City – Tallin Old Town
Kadriorg Palace, Weizenbergi 37. An imperial Russian summer residence built by Italian architect Niccolo Michetti for Tsar Peter the Great in 1718. It is situated in a 90 ha (222 acre) park in the eastern part of the city. The Tsar himself, a classic and mysterious Russian soul, preferred to stay in a modest house nearby. This event signified the beginning of Tallinn’s fame as a summer resort for noble and rich Russians for most of the 18th and 19th centuries. Currently, the palace is housing some paint collections and other art. A portion of the complex is now occupied by the Office of the President and not available to the public.
Kadriorg. A beautiful and rich seaside resort district with mostly wooden buildings from the 18th to 20th centuries, as well as 20th century Art Deco and Functionalist structures. It also includes the baroque pearl of Estonia, the Kadriorg Palace and Garden.
Kalamaja District, (north west from Old City). The oldest suburb of Tallinn, dating back to the 14th century. It was probably inhabited by fishermen (Kalamaja means “Fish house”) and mostly houses workers. The current wooden buildings are from the 19th century.
Rottermann District. An industrial district between the City and the Tallinn Port. The buildings are from the 19th and 20th century, with motifs of Art Nouveau and Historicism. New and stylish apartment buildings with shopping centre have now been built there widely regarded as architectural masterpiece in Tallinn.
Tallinn Linnahall, Mere pst. 20 (stop: Linnahall Bus 3 or #90K (Airport bus) to stop 7 and then a 5-minute walk to the Linda line terminal past the Domina Inn Ilmarine hotel), . A fine example of Soviet Brutalist architecture designed by Raine Karp and Riina Altmäe and built for the 22nd Moscow Summer Olympic Games in 1980 for sailing events held in Tallinn. Scale the exterior of this crumbling monumental eulogy to mass culture and marvel at the fact that beneath its crumbling exterior lies a 5,000 seat amphitheatre (that held a concert as recently as 2008) and a 3,000-seat ice rink. Currently closed to the public as negotiations regarding its redevelopment continue – maybe a last chance to see part of Tallinn’s overlooked architectural heritage in its current form. Linda line run their catamaran service to Helsinki from offices adjacent to/underneath the helipad.
National Library of Estonia (Eesti Rahvusraamatukogu), Tõnismägi 2, ☎ +372 630 7611. Completed in the early 90s, the exterior of this building looks like a Freemasons building and the interior is like a neo-futuristic dungeon. Free.
Holy Birgitta Monastery, (Pirita beach area, 5km from the city center). A monastery of Scandinavian female saints, as well as a landmark of 16th century catacombs and ruins. It includes a guest house operated by the nuns.
Metsakalmistu Cemetary, Pirita (stop: Metsakalmistu, Bus no 34A or 38). Tallinn’s most famous cemetary, housing Estonia’s presidents Konstantin Päts and Lennart Meri, as well chess player Paul Keres. If you’re not there to see the graves of Estonian celebrities, it’s a peaceful experience to just stroll among the trees.
Song Festival Grounds, (stops: Oru, Lasnamägi, or Lauluväljak),. A huge Modernist structure where the All Estonian Song Festival, which is held every five years, features 34,000 singers and dancers in addition to a massive audience.
Pirita District. Includes forest parks, Botanic Gardens and Metsakalmistu (the last resting place of well-known Estonians). A few kilometers east of the city center along the seaside road.
Tallinn Botanical Gardens, (Bus no: 34A or 38 stop: Kloostrimetsa). The Tallinn Botanic Garden is in the eastern outskirts of Tallinn, 10 km from the city centre and 3 km from the Pirita Sailing and Recreation Centre.It is a must see destination for nature and plant lovers. The “greenhouse” located near the ticket office houses variety of plants, flowers, trees, cactus family and lot more. Spring temperature is maintained always inside the greenhouse, even during winter season. The outdoor garden is vast and has varied flower collections. €5.
Culture Kilometre, (Starts next to Tallinn harbour behind the Statoil gas station). A 2.2 km route built on an old railroad. The walk-way passes by some interesting destinations including Katel (Tallinn Cultural Hub), Fish market (Kalaturg), the historic Patarei Prison, the Seaplane Harbour (Lennusadam) and ends at the end of Kalamaja park on Tööstuse street. Free.
Pae Park, (Take the no. 68 bus towards Priisle, get off at the KUMU bus stop, then walk 300m). An old quarry in Tallinn’s biggest sleeping district which has been turned into a lovely park. You can also see a lighthouse in the middle of the city. Free