This Estonian capital is a true pearl in the Baltic Sea and it deserves to be explored in all its glory. Many are aware of Tallinn’s Soviet past, but few know that this historical area has medieval roots that are still visible in many areas of the city.
Walking through the Old Town is just like stepping into a time machine and finding yourself in the middle of medieval Tallinn, thanks to the numerous artisan shops, churches and original stone buildings that have yet to be touched by the hands of time.
Tallinn has a lot to offer history buffs and those nostalgic for times gone by, but it’s also a great destination for nature lovers! In fact, just a few kilometres from the city is a nature reserve home to some fascinating flora and fauna.
Below is a list of places we recommend visiting on your trip through the history, culture, traditions and nature of this magnificent Eastern European city.
Tallinn Old Town
Let’s start our journey in the heart of Tallinn, or the Old Town, to be precise. It may seem hard to believe, but Tallinn’s historic centre has been around since the Middle Ages. In fact, the spectacular buildings, piazza and hidden courtyards you’ll find here are not excellent reconstructions, but original structures built from stone and sporting colourful, pitched roofs. It’s perhaps hardly surprising to hear that Tallinn’s Old Town is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Tallinn’s Old Town looks like something out of a storybook, and the air breathed in this picturesque place is equally magical and ancient, thanks to craft shops selling artisan products, a piazza hosting a lively market, old warehouses turned art galleries and pleasant outdoor cafes where you can enjoy a cup of tea while admiring the hustle and bustle of daily life in the Estonian capital.
There are lots of things to see in Tallinn’s Old Town, including the old pharmacy, town hall and adjacent town square, which often hosts parties and events. Keep reading to find out more about these wonderful places!
You can’t talk about Tallinn’s Old Town without mentioning its town hall! This particular municipal building is an iconic symbol of the Estonian capital and a great feat of architecture.
The town hall was built between 1402 and 1404 and retains all of its original features (except for its spire, which was destroyed in World War Two). As such, it’s the only town hall in the whole of Europe to boast a Gothic-Baltic style.
Ever heard of Old Thomas? He’s the city guard of Tallinn and sits proudly on a weathervane atop the town hall’s spire. According to legend, Thomas was a young farmer who won a spring tournament hosted by German-Baltic noble families. He was the only one who was able to hit a wooden parrot sat on top of a pole with his crossbow. However, because of his lowly social class, he wasn’t awarded the prize, but was instead made city guard of Tallinn for the rest of his life.
When he died at a very old age, the local children he used to donate sweets to kept asking what had happened to him. And so, the local townspeople decided to erect a weathervane on the town hall’s spire in his honour. Th children were told that Old Thomas was sat up on the highest point of the town hall and was making sure they weren’t being naughty. The building’s façade also features two other important characters: two dragon-shaped statues carved by the artist Daniel Pöppel.
On the other side of the square to Tallinn town hall is Raeapteek – the city’s municipal pharmacy. It is perhaps the oldest operating pharmacy in Europe (records state that it was already being managed by its third owner back in 1422). When entering the shop, not only can you buy all the usual remedies, you can also explore a piece of history. A back room features a small display of medicines and pharmaceutical equipment dating back to the seventeenth to the twentieth centuries.
It is also the oldest commercial establishment in Tallinn and its history is closely tied to the Buchard family. In fact, ten generations of the Buchard family kept the Raeapteek pharmacy going for more than 300 years, between 1582 and 1911.
A particularly prominent member of the family was Johann Burchart V, who was ‘lucky’ enough to launch his career in 1710, right when the Black Plague touched down in Tallinn. What’s more, when Tallinn was invaded by the Russians during the Great Northern War, Johann was one of the first to supply medicines to the Russian army, becoming their official doctor in 1716. In fact, the Buchard family became so well known that Johann Burchard VI was called to Peter the Great’s bedside in St. Petersburg in 1725.
In the Middle Ages, of course, the drugs and remedies sold by Raeapteek were decidedly different from what we’re used to today. It wasn’t all that surprising to find ‘mummy juice’ (a powder made from mummy remains), burnt bees, powdered bat, snakeskin potions and powdered animal horn for ailments that were more difficult to cure, as well as jams, cookies, sweets, marzipan and alcohol.
The pharmacy also sold chancellery and other everyday objects such as gunpowder, whale fat, wax, candles and lamps, and it was also the first business to sell tobacco!
Raekoja Square is the lively square home to both the town hall and pharmacy.
Raekoja Square hosts city events and is an animated meeting place full of bars and restaurants. This is often where concerts and musical events take place, as well as the city market and folkloristic Old Town Days medieval market. The square also hosts Jöuluturg – a beautiful Christmas market and perhaps one of the best in Europe thanks to its unique atmosphere, local specialties and craft stalls. At Christmastime, the Raekoja is decorated with a huge tree, and tradition has it that Tallinn started the Christmas tree ‘competition’ between town squares all over Europe.
In the centre of the square is a round stone with a compass rose, marking the point from which you can spot all five city spiers.
Kadriorg Palace is a symbol of Russia’s supremacy over Estonia after the Great Northern War. In fact, it was built for Catherine I and designed by the Venetian architect Nicola Michetti. Before Estonian independence in 1918, it was called Catherinethal, which means ‘Catherine’s valley.’
For her part, Catherine never showed any particular interest in the estate, and as such, Kadriorg Palace fell into disuse. But the great hall still features the Empress’ initials and the refined stuccos she once requested.
Today, Kadriorg Palace is home to the Estonian Art Museum’s international art collection. While outside in the surrounding parkland designed by gardener Ilya Surmin, you can visit the modern, futuristic building housing the KUMU Museum. The KUMU’s permanent collection includes Estonian art from the eighteenth century onwards, such as works completed during the Soviet period and non-conformist art.
Alexander Nevsky Cathedral
When it comes to Russian power in Estonia, the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral on Toompea Hill is certainly one of the most imposing buildings in the city. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the inhabitants of Tallinn have little love for this particular building and have repeatedly asked for it to be torn down.
In actual fact, it is a very beautiful orthodox cathedral evidently based on old Moscow churches. It features five onion domes, while its pastel interiors are adorned with mosaics and a large collection of religious icons.
The cathedral’s bell towers are equipped with eleven bells from St. Petersburg, the largest of which weighs fifteen tonnes.
The Alexander Nevsky Cathedral is still open to this day, and its bells often ring to call the faithful to mass.
Also on Toompea Hill is Toompea Cathedral, a Lutheran cathedral that shares the hill with the Orthodox Christian church. It features a much simpler facade, which is completely white and home to one black bell tower with pitched roofs. It was initially made entirely of wood.
Inside the cathedral is an imposing, romantic-style organ, which built in 1878, before being rebuilt in 1914 and again in 1998.
The cathedral is also home to several tombs dating from the thirteenth to eighteenth centuries, including stone sarcophaguses, tombs bearing the coats of arms of ancient German Baltic families and much, much more.
Kõrvemaa Nature Reserve
Kõrvemaa Nature Reserve has a beautiful past. It is located approximately fifty kilometres east of Tallinn, and used by the army as a military training area during the Soviet era. It was, in fact, the largest military range in Estonia.
Once full independence was achieved in 1991, Estonia found itself with an immense area of land that wasn’t suitable for growing crops. The soil was far too low in nutrients, and the whole area was dominated by woodland and swamps.
Finally, after discovering that rare and endangered species were living in the area, the decision was made to turn it into a nature reserve. In Kõrvemaa Nature Reserve, you can now spot brown bears, grey wolves and Eurasian lynxes, along with protected species of bird, such as black storks and even a golden eagle or two!
Given that Kõrvemaa Nature Reserve was a military area that wasn’t open to the public for a long time, one of the best things to do when visiting Tallinn is to visit the reserve as part of a guided tour.
The Kõnnu Marshes are one of the main attractions in Kõrvemaa Nature Reserve. The swamps alternate with dense vegetation, such as pine trees, and the water, plants and peat bogs come together to create a very interesting and decidedly unusual setting.
The more adventurous among you can even wade through the marshes – armed with a pair of suitable shoes for walking on soft, slippery ground –- to reach a Soviet watchtower and admire the surrounding area from above. A truly unique experience!
Although the Kõnnu Marshes are one of the main attractions in Kõrvemaa Nature Reserve, coming in at a close second are definitely the Järvi Lakes. These particular lakes charm visitors thanks to their sense of calm and touch of pleasant melancholy.
The natural Järvi Lakes are surrounded by greenery in a truly spectacular setting. And reaching their shores is not as difficult as crossing the marshes (thanks to the many wooden walkways) and is definitely a rewarding experience.
The Järvi Lakes are also an ideal place for a picnic. Pikkjärv Lake is surrounded by five hectares of mixed pine and spruce forest, while its northeastern shores are sandy and suitable for swimming – you can even camp nearby!
After venturing into the great outdoors, we’re back in Tallinn’s picturesque Old Town, where we recommend exploring the streets of Vene and the Pikk Tanav to learn more about this city’s intriguing history.
Vene was once inhabited by Russian merchants and is now one of the best streets in Tallinn to admire typical medieval architecture in all its splendour. And perhaps the pinnacle of all this is St. Catherine’s Passage, a cobbled street featuring original buttresses that support fifteenth-century buildings.
While Vene was once commanded by Russian merchants, it’s now dotted with artisan workshops selling glass, ceramic, jewellery and textiles made using traditional methods.
Vene is also home to the civic Linnamuuseum, which is a great place to learn more about the history of Tallinn’s typical artisan traditions.
Pikk Tanav is the longest street in the city. It crosses through the Old Town and reaches up to Toompea Hill. It is an old, charming street, home to several important monuments, such as the Guild houses, which represented workers from various professions until the beginning of the twentieth century.
Speaking of guilds, at number 17 Pikk Tanav you’ll find the Great Guild or Major Guild. This guild was the most important of them all – as you might have guessed from its name – because it brought together some of the city’s most important merchants.
The Great Guild house was built in 1410, and is a typical example of Hanseatic architecture. Once upon a time, some of the most important agreements of the Middle Ages were made inside. Today, however, it houses the Ajaloomuuseum of Estonian history and culture.
Just in front of the Great Guild is the Church of the Holy Spirit, the first Lutheran church in the country to give sermons in the Estonian language.
The Church of the Holy Spirit features an octagonal tower, large Gothic windows, and a finely carved and painted clock dating back to the end of the seventeenth century. It was built by Christian Ackermann.
Inside the church, is a wonderful carved, red and gold altar by Bernt Notke, which depicts the descent of the Holy Ghost on the twelve apostles during Pentecost.
Nun’s Tower and Kuldjala Tower
The Old Town is home to several watchtowers lining the city walls. We recommend visiting the Nun’s Tower in particular, which is a perfectly preserved structure at the end of the Patkul staircase. Kuldjala Tower, on the other hand, is an excellent example of medieval defensive architecture dating back to the fourteenth century.
You can also climb Kuldjala Tower for a great view of the Old Town from an ancient medieval lookout.
St. Nicholas’ Church
St. Nicholas’ Church is located in the Old Town and pays tribute to one of the most ancient and fascinating saints, St. Nicholas of Bari, the patron saint of sailors. In fact, this is one of the oldest churches in Estonia.
Built from limestone, it is no longer a place of worship, but is no less interesting for it. It houses a must-visit museum of sacred art, full of pieces that made their mark on the history of religion and art. Among them is the fifteenth-century altarpiece depicting the life of St. Nicholas and the heroic story of St. George and the dragon. The church is also home to a seven-metre tall fragment of Bernt Notke’s masterpiece entitled Dance Macabre (the original was thirty metres tall.) This famous fresco portrays a series of skeletons dancing with the Pope, emperor, king and a noblewoman to bagpipe music, thus representing the well-known memento mori.
Tallinn’s Medieval Castle dominates the city from atop Toompea hill. It was originally built from wood, and supposedly gave the Estonian capital its name. Legend has it that it was occupied by the Danes in 1219 after they defeated the Estonians in the Battle of Lyndanisse (near the castle). At that point, the Danes decided to rename the whole area with the Latin phrase Castrum Danorum, or ‘the Danish castle,’ which then became Taani (n) linna in Estonian, or simply ‘Tallinn’ as we know it today
The castle has mostly been rebuilt and now houses the Estonian Parliament.
Explore Tallinn with Costa Cruises
Set off on a trip to Tallinn with Costa Cruises, where you can explore the incredible history and museums about pre- and post-Soviet life. Let yourself be enchanted by its ancient atmosphere, the charm of its perfectly preserved old town dating back to the Middle Ages, the unspoiled nature reserves housing protected species just a few kilometres from the capital and much, much more.