One of the most popular ports of call on many a Baltics cruise, Estonia’s capital is a medieval marvel and one of the region’s most culturally rewarding cities, thanks largely to its celebrated Old Town. That’s not to say it isn’t in touch with the modern age and indeed, it’s ranked as one of the world’s top 10 digital cities, enjoying a superb internet infrastructure and it was voted European Capital of Culture for 2011.
The area on which Tallinn now stands was settled long before the city was established and archaeologists have found evidence of human inhabitants dating back around 5000 years. Tallinn’s famous limestone hill, Toompea, is a natural strategic look-out and indeed, a fortress was built on it in 1050. During the time of the Crusades, it came under Danish rule in 1219, when it was still going by its former name of Reval, though they later sold it to the Teutonic Knights in 1346 who made the most of its strategic locale, fortifying it with walls and a total of 66 defence towers. The Protestant Reformation saw it converted to Lutheranism and in 1561, it came under Swedish control. In 1710, it integrated into the Russian Empire, though still maintained some of its independence from Imperial Russia. In 1918, though, the independence of the Estonian Republic was fully acknowledged by Russia following the signing of the Tartu Peace Treaty and Tallinn became its capital. It was occupied by the Nazis during the Second World War and because of this, bombed heavily by Russian forces, though much of its famous Old Town survived intact and can be explored today.
As you may have guessed, the Old Town is Tallinn’s biggest tourist draw and a guided tour of it will likely form a big part of your day in the city. This medieval architectural delight is a designated UNESCO World Heritage Site and a journey through its cobbled streets reveals many of the city’s most popular attractions. The Town Hall Square is home to Tallinn’s famous market, which dates back to the 11th century is home to a number of key buildings, including, as you’ve probably guessed, the town hall, which houses a fascinating museum. There’s a pharmacy which has been administering to Tallinn’s inhabitants’ ailments since 1422, as well as an impressive choice of restaurants and eateries. In short, it’s the place to hang out to soak up the medieval atmosphere which the city’s famous for.
Be sure to head to the aforementioned Toompea Hill during your stay, too. The 170-foot limestone hill dates back to the 10th century as a stronghold in the city and became home to both the Big and Small fortresses. It’s a great place to explore and also to get a good view of the city. Alexander Nevsky Cathedral is another must-see; a distinctive, onion-domed Russian Orthodox church which it’s free to explore.
One of the most popular cultural attractions outside of the Old Town, though still in walking distance of it, is the Kumu Art Museum. It’s quite new and one of the largest museums in the Baltic states, offering a fascinating mix of both classic and contemporary art. Its eye-catching exterior’s pretty impressive, too. Where would a city visit be without a viewpoint? Another more modern attraction is Tallinn TV Tower, which was recently renovated and despite the impressive views you can enjoy from the top, there’s also an informative 3D film and café.
There’s perhaps more natural attractions on show in and around Tallinn than you may expect, so if you’re a fan of the outdoors, there’s plenty to keep you occupied during your visit. Kadriorg Park offers almost 250 acres of gardens, lakes and walking areas and is popular with tourists and locals alike. It’s the perfect place to get away from the admittedly sometimes crowded Old Town and is but a tram ride away. All plant-lovers meanwhile should head to the Botanical Garden, which offers an impressive collection of perennials, annuals, roses and an Arboretum. Jurioo Park is an interesting outdoor place to visit, which came into fruition with the planting of oaks shortly after Estonia’s independence. As a result of its creation during such a turbulent time, the parK also features a number of monuments honouring fallen during the St George’s Day Uprising, the Estonian War of Independence and the Second World War.
By Simon Brotherton