Tallinn: Northern European Jewel
Tallinn, the capital of Estonia and a Northern European jewel on the coast of the Baltic Sea, is an attractive tourist destination with an enchanting medieval UNESCO-protected old town and its storybook limestone towers topped with red roofs, its winding cobbled streets, ornate doorways, and pastel-colored merchant houses.
It is a vibrant and thriving city that offers plentiful attractions, luxury boutique hotels and foodie delights. If you have not added Tallinn to your travel wish list, this article and photos will surely have you packing your bags in no time.
THE SPECTACULAR MEDIEVAL OLD TOWN
Tallinn Old Town consists of the lower town and the upper town. The two towns were once separated by gates, almost like two different cities. Nowadays, the combination of the upper town on the high limestone hill and the lower town at its foot form an expressive skyline that is visible from a great distance both from land and sea.
MEDIEVAL TOWN WALL
The first reports of the building of the fortifications around the city date from 1265. Originally the almost 4 km-long limestone wall came with 8 gates and 46 towers and was surrounded by a moat. With half of its original city wall and 20 defensive towers wall still standing, Tallinn boasts one of Europe’s best preserved medieval fortifications and in fact, a large part of what gives Old Town its fairytale charm is the system of walls and towers that surrounds it.
Some of the towers are open to the public, offering a chance to climb up, visit a museum inside and enjoy a picturesque view of the red-tiled roofs of Old Town.
TOWN HALL SQUARE
Tallinn was founded in 1248, but the earliest human settlements date back 5,000 years, making it one of the oldest capital cities of Northern Europe. The colorful gabled houses, half-hidden courtyards and churches of the old town date back to the 13th - 16th centuries.
Probably the biggest tourist attraction is the Town Hall Square with its gothic town hall completed in 1404 and elaborate merchant houses, surrounded by outdoor cafés.
On Town Hall Square you will also find the Europe’s oldest continuously-operating pharmacy, open since 1422. In medieval times, patients could buy exotic tinctures and treat their ailing health with mummy juice, burnt hedgehogs’ powder, bat powder, rabbit ears, earthworms in oil, snakeskin potion, and rhino horn powder.
MEDIEVAL RESIDENCES AND CHURCHES
There are dozens of buildings that are worthy of a shapshot or two, but among the most striking of these are the famous Three Sisters, a trio of beautifully restored houses dating from the 15th century.
Katariina käik, St. Catherine's Passage, is the vaulted alleyway lined with workshops in the small, 15th- to 17th-century rooms and set up in an open-studio fashion so visitors can watch the artists at work, be it glass-blowing, weaving or pottery making.
Estonia’s well-kept secrets are its artisan workshops and boutiques scattered around medieval alleyways, the weekend markets, and the quirky creative villages. What’s so special about Estonian design is its resourcefulness, the combination of traditional patterns and contemporary trends from glass and ceramics, textile and fashion, wood and furniture, jewelry and handicraft. Most visitors go home with hand-knitted woolen socks, playful mittens, carved wooden mugs, felt hats, and juniper coasters.
HANDMADE CHOCOLATES AND MARZIPAN
Maiasmokk, Tallinn’s oldest café, still retains its amazing, pre-war interior and offers a variety of tempting cakes and pastries, as well as fresh coffee and other treats. This old charmer certainly lives up to its name, Estonian for 'sweet tooth'. Check out the adjacent Marzipan Room with its display of artistic marzipan creations. Or, try some delightful handmade chocolate at one of the many chocolateries.
WORLD CLASS MUSIC SCENE
Music can be found all year round and everywhere in Tallinn. If you are lucky to be visiting when there is a concert by the Emmy-award winning Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir or by the most played live composer of the world, Arvo Pärt, do not think twice - you are in for a treat. The concert venues are spectacular from medieval churches to quirky old factories.
FUN AND EDUCATIONAL MUSEUMS
HIPSTER KALAMAJA AND ELEGANT KADRIORG
Tallinn has many faces. Just outside the Old Town, behind the rail tracks, are the free spirited and quirky Telliskivi and Kalamaja, and only 10-minute tram ride away, the more elegant and poetic Kadriorg.
Telliskivi Creative City, in an industrial area just outside the Old Town, has gone through a trendy revival and has become an über-hip magnet for all creative enterprises. Here, you will find art exhibits, street festivals, off-beat and pop-up restaurants, funky design shops.
In Kadriorg is only a 10-minute tram-ride away from the Old Town and here you will find elegant wooden architecture, cute cafes and a sophisticated art scene. The streets of this upscale residential district are lined with ornate wooden mansions and this is where the KUMU Art Museum and Kadriorg Palace are located.
Kadriorg Palace, a baroque palace built for Catherine I of Russia by Peter the Great houses an extensive art museum displaying pieces from the 16th to 20th centuries. The palace is located in a popular park with flower beds surrounding the Swan Pond and the promenade leading to the president's palace.
NEW NORDIC FOOD SCENE
Tallinn boasts an absolutely top-class restaurant scene. A new generation of Estonian chefs is feeding a culinary revolution by mixing Scandinavian-style cooking with traditional flavors and creating innovative dishes that burst with flavor. Pioneered by René Redzepi in Copenhagen, the Estonian new Nordic cuisine comes with a local twist and the ingredients range from spruce shots, wild garlic, sea buckthorn berries, herbs and grasses to wild boar and herring. The interior design of the restaurants is often as impressive as the food.