Tallinn’s old town is known as one of the prettiest medieval towns in Europe. It is no doubt the prettiest of the Baltics.
The town is made up of 2 parts: the lower town centered on Town Hall Square, and the upper town centered on Toompea castle (now housing the Estonian Parliament). Much of both parts are lined by medieval city walls, in fact Tallinn has some of the most complete city fortifications in Europe (the oldest parts of the wall dating back to the 13th century).
In this post I’ll include a lot of photos along with a description of what you can expect from a visit to Tallinn. At the bottom I give you some practical information (For example: we visited Helsinki on a day trip from Tallinn. Very easy to do).
A quick video showing off some of Tallinn’s highlights
The Lower town was a trading center, part of the Hanseatic league (an organization of market towns that grew from its roots in Northern Germany through the Baltics up to Estonia). It is full of medieval traders’ buildings: built with brick and timber, most are colourfully painted. In the past they were owned by German, Danish and Swedish merchants who hired Estonians to do their menial labour. The streets are cobblestoned and most places you look you’ll see a medieval tower, wall or an alley (that today houses cafés or art studios).
In the center of the lower town is the large Town Hall Square where tournaments would be held and criminals chained. Today the square is full of overpriced restaurants filled with tourists. The most imposing of the buildings in the square is the Town Hall – built in the 13th century, it is the oldest city hall in Northern Europe.
Most people enter the lower town at the Viru gate and go up Viru street to get to Town hall Square. It is a very commercial area catering to tourists: you’ll see a Burger King along with other fast-food restaurants, souvenir stores and you’ll ever see girls wearing hooded masks inviting you to visit Tallinn’s Torture Museum. For those thinking Tallinn might be free from tourism – think again, you’ll see some of the same kitschy gimmicks you’ll run across in Old Town Prague.
BUT…it’s all very pretty.
The Upper town is quite different. The hill (Toompea Hill) is protected on all sides by its geography and fortifications. In its center is Toompea Castle which today houses the Estonian parliament. But what is really telling is that the building is dwarfed by the Cathedral right across from it – the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral. The Cathedral was built in 1900 by the Russians who obviously wanted to send a message to the Estonian authorities (at the time, the building housed the Governorate of Estonia).
Apart from these two buildings on Lossi Square, the Upper town is made up of gardens, a few embassies and a few lookouts where you’ll have views over the Lower town and the port. There are very few places to eat in the Upper town (in fact the only place we saw was a small café next to the Patkuli viewing platform).
A few Practical Tips
- Tallinn is an easy ferry ride to/from Helsinki (Finland). The ferry terminal is a 20-minute walk from the old town. The ferry takes 2 hours to Helsinki…and from there Tram #7 takes you directly into the center of Helsinki. So Tallinn makes a great day trip from Helsinki (or vice versa – we did a day trip of Helsinki from Tallinn).
- We came by Flixbus from Riga (about 4 ½ hours). The bus station is about 25 minutes from the Old Town.
- Tallinn’s airport is about 20 minutes from the old town (a small but very nice airport). We flew Air Baltic direct to Malaga.
- Where to Stay. We stayed at Tallinn City Apartments in the heart of the Old Town (right across from the Tourist Information Center).
- We found food options very expensive and not so great in Tallinn (very touristy). Our best experience was Elevant Resto (Indian food). Instead, we bought groceries at Rimi Express (very close to Town Hall square) and cooked in our apartment.
- Tours. This 2.5 – 3 hr walking tour of Tallinn is recommended.
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