Tallinn Travel Guide
Introduction to Tallinn
While Estonia as a nation has been profoundly unlucky over the past century, as it was sandwiched between two totalitarian forces in Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia, its capital city has been much more fortunate in one specific sense: the virgin state of its Old Town.
Through medieval, Renaissance and modern times, it has dodged being crushed under the wagon wheel of warfare, even during the Second World War, when much of the rest of Europe was razed to ashes by repeated carpet bombing campaigns.
While the 20th century was not kind to Tallinn’s citizens, the 21st century has given them a chance to show off their home’s beauty to the world, all while enjoying freedoms long denied to their predecessors.
Cultural Experiences in Tallinn
Unlike much of Europe during the Second World War, Tallinn’s Old Town managed to escape being razed to the ground by bombing raids, making it a solid first destination for those visiting the capital of Estonia. Paired together with the dedication of locals to keep its Hanseatic architecture in prime condition (some structures date back as far as the 11th century), and you’ve got a local treasure that will have you exploring it for days on end.
Whether you choose to people watch over coffee at Town Hall Square, check out the world’s oldest continually operating pharmacy, or walk along the city walls that have protected this city from invaders for countless generations, you won’t be short on things to do during your time here.
Of all the structures within Tallinn’s Old Town, perhaps none stand out more than the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral, a Russian-style Eastern Orthodox Church that was built during the late 19th century when Estonia was part of the Russian Empire. Residents regarded it as a symbol of imperial oppression and sought to demolish it after Estonia declared its independence from Russia after the First World War.
They lacked the funds to do so though, and despite being ignored by Soviet authorities after the USSR occupied Estonia after the Second World War, the structure stood tall through the years until the modern era, when Estonia once again became a sovereign nation.
Restoration efforts were made in the 1990’s, bringing this cathedral back to its former glory. The interior’s rich decorations include altars dedicated to noblemen and saints in the Orthodox church, and bells that weigh upward of 16 tons.
Being caught in the middle between Nazi Germany and the Stalin-led Soviet Union meant that much of the 20th century was a miserable time for Estonians. These tough times are well documented in the Museum of Occupations, located on Toompea Hill within the Old Town district in a modern structure that opened in 2003.
From the horrors of the Gestapo during the Nazi occupation, to life in a country where mundane things like rock music were banned by Soviet authorities, the exhibits of this museum do an excellent job of transporting you to a time and place where freedom was a concept that one could only find as a word in a dictionary (that is, if the authorities hadn’t found and destroyed it first).
Other Attractions in Tallinn
Those that enjoy elaborate gardens and decadent surroundings will enjoy spending time in Kadriorg Palace, a summer home built for Queen Catherine I by Peter the Great during the days of the Russian Empire. While it served as a residence back in those days, today it is the home of Estonia’s national art museum, and the grounds outside are decorated with various flora and swan ponds, making for a pleasant stroll after admiring the art within the palace interior.
Want to learn about Estonia’s seafaring heritage? The unusually named but modern museum Seaplane Harbour is the best place to do just that. Located in a hangar on Tallinn’s harbour that used to house seaplanes (no originals exist today, sadly), its top attraction is an antique submarine that was first put into service in 1936, but wooden ships from the 16th century and icebreakers from the early 20th century are also on idsplay, making it a worthy highlight for those that have seawater in their veins.
Finally, those looking for an iconic shot of Tallinn can get it from the top of Toompea Hill, which is located in the middle of the Old Town. A small limestone plateau that stands as much as 30 metres above the coastal lowlands surrounding it, its modest elevation nonetheless is enough to allow photographers to capture some excellent pictures of this photogenic city in the Baltics.