Tallinn and Estonia were never on my radar. To be honest, I never thought about them. Ever.
We were in the midst of planning our trip to Helsinki and I was trying to see if there was anywhere close by that we could tack onto our trip (you know, to up the country number count). I was trying to get a sense of how close Riga was to Helsinki and then BOOM, there was Tallinn.
A bit of research and a couple of hours later and we were booked. Following our New Years trip to Helsinki for the World Junior Hockey Championships, we’d hop on over to take in Tallinn, Estonia.
I didn’t know what to expect from this former-Soviet state but I was completely blown away.
Not your average former-Soviet state: About Estonia
So far in my travels I’ve had the opportunity to visit Belarus, Russia and a couple of other former-Soviet states, and there’s just something about Estonia: it’s not like the rest.
I kind of assumed that it would be but I couldn’t have been more wrong.
Estonia is a country with a long and rich history. I won’t delve too much into the details (that’s what Wikipedia is for), but I will share with you what surprised me the most: how modern it is.
Estonia is a country in the Baltic region of Northern Europe. It’s bordered by the Gulf of Finland to the north, the Baltic Sea to the west, Latvia to the south, and by Lake Peipus and Russia to the east (source). With a population of 1.3 million (approx. 32% of Estonian live in the capital city of Tallinn) it is one of the least-populated countries in Europe.
Unlike other former-Soviet states I’ve visited, Estonia is incredibly modern. According to Wikipedia, it is “a developed country with an advanced, high-income economy and high living standards, Estonia ranks very high in the Human Development Index, and performs favourably in measurements of economic freedom, civil liberties, education, and press freedom (third in the world in 2012). Estonia is often described as one of the most wired countries in Europe.” (source) Fun fact: Skype and TransferWise were created by Estonian developers and are mainly developed in Estonia–who knew!
As mentioned above, Tallinn is the capital and largest city in Estonia–approximately 32% of all Estonians live in Tallinn. The city is located on the northern coast of the country, on the shore of the Gulf of Finland, and dates back to the early-13th century (when it was known as Reval). Over the next seven hundred years, Tallinn (Reval) was conquered many times by various nations (Sweden, Denmark, Finland, Germany, and Russia, to name a few).
Again, I won’t delve too much into the details (Wikipedia!), but let’s jump ahead to more modern times: After World War II started, Estonia acceded to the Soviet Union (USSR) in 1940, and later was occupied by Nazi Germany from 1941 to 1944. After the Nazi retreated in 1944, it was annexed by the USSR. After annexation into the Soviet Union, Tallinn became the capital of the Estonian SSR (source).
Estonia was a Soviet state until August 1991 when an independent democratic Estonian state was established and a period of quick development to a modern European capital ensued; Tallinn would once again became the capital of a de facto independent country.
Since then, Tallinn has grown tremendously. It is ranked as a global city and has been listed among the top 10 digital cities in the world. It is home to software developers responsible for Skype and Transferwise, and is often considered the start-up capital of the world.
Our Time in Tallinn
We arrived in Tallinn via the Viking Line ferry from Helsinki. The trip across the Gulf of Finland was smooth but foggy (unfortunately, you couldn’t see a thing on the journey), and the 2.5 hours flew by thanks to the free on-board wifi. We walked off the boat into a cold, snowy, windy and dark Tallinn: I’ll admit, it was less than inviting.After a 10 minute walk we were at our hotel (keep an eye out for my review of the Metropol Hotel tomorrow). We dropped off our bags and spent a few minutes warming up, and then we were back out on the streets.
Tallinn is a small city and was incredibly easy to navigate on foot. Within minutes we were in the middle of the action: the Old Town of Tallinn to our right and the historic Viru Hotel to our left. Everywhere we turned there was something interesting to look at.
We kept our first night in Tallinn short (thanks to the cold and snow) spending out time taking in the KGB Museum (stay tuned, full review to come), eating a eclectic but delicious meal of goulash, crispy pigs ear and pickles with sour cream and hone, and doing a bit of exploring in the Old Town. Given that it was dark, we decided to save most of our exploring for the next day.
Yes, that second day turned out to be even colder than the first (-20°C), but the sun was shining making it a perfect day for sightseeing (and slipping into pubs and cafes to warm up throughout the day).
We braved the cold and tried to make the most of that day in Tallinn. We took part in the free walking tour which was amazing. Unfortunately we had to leave after the first hour because our feet were just too cold, but I was really enjoying it up until that point.The tour took us throughout the Old Town and provided in-depth detail along with fun anecdotes about the city and its colourful history. If you’re ever in Tallinn, I highly recommend you add it to your list–and if your tour guide is Lena, you’re in for a real treat!
Here are some of my favourite, can’t miss sights in Tallinn:
Old Town of Tallinn
The Old Town of Tallinn is divided into two sections, Toompea (Upper Town) and All-linn (Lower Town) both of which are easily explored on foot. Together they contain most of Tallinn’s most popular attractions, and this is the area of the city where we focused most of our time.
Tallinn is one of the best preserved medieval towns in Europe. It’s quite impressive to wander throughout, walking along streets and amongst buildings that have been standing for hundreds of years.
The winding cobblestone streets and little alleyways gave us the impression that with every step we were going back in time–just with all the modern conveniences we have grown to love and need.
Raekoja plats (Town Hall Square)
Raekoja Plats (or Town Hall Square as it’s known in English) is magical. According to Wikipedia: “There has been a town hall in Tallinn since at least 1322 and a town square next to it ever since then. The hall was rebuilt from 1402 to 1404 into its current form, and a Christmas tree display has been held in the square since 1441, making the Tallinn Christmas tree display over 570 years old.”
We happened upon it our first night in Tallinn and were surprised to see the Christmas market and Christmas tree still up and running–given that it was early-January (before Epiphany) we shouldn’t have been so surprised.
It was beautiful. The darks skies and snow-covered cobblestones reflected the twinkle lights making it seem all the more magical. I felt immediately happy as we wandered throughout.
The town square was full of stalls selling delicious smelling food and drinks, as well as kiosks of locally made sweaters and other knitwear. Honestly, given how cold it was, I’m surprised we didn’t come home with a few new sweaters ourselves.
After meandering through the stalls, we took refuge from the cold in a pub lining the square and spent the rest of the evening people watching in front of a fire (seriously, how much more Northern European can it get?!)
Walls of Tallinn
Tallinn is one of Europe’s famous walled cities, with medieval walls surrounding the historic old town. They were first constructed in 1264 and were less than 5m tall and about 1.5m thick at their base. Since then, the walls have been enlarged and strengthen, and at it’s greatest extant the wall was 2.4km long, 14-16m high and up to 3m thick (source).
Many of the walls and gates are still standing today, and believe me they are impressive. It was hard not to marvel at them and their scale as we wandered throughout the town, following them from spot to spot.
For just a few Euros you can climb and walk along part of the wall, giving you a completely different view of this historic city. We chose not to climb the wall, not because of my well-documented fear of heights, but because it was just too damn cold that day.
St. Nicholas’ Church
St. Nicholas’ Church is a former medieval church located just steps outside of Town Hall Square. Dedicated to Saint Nicholas, the patron of the fishermen and sailors, the church was originally built in the 13th century.
In March 1944, the church was partially destroyed by a Soviet bombing in World War II.The resulting fire turned the church into ruins and destroyed most of its interior.
Reconstruction of the church began in 1953 and was completed in 1981, just in time for another fire to break out in October 1982. The church’s iconic tower was burnt out, the spire was destroyed and the roofs of the nave and chapel were damaged.
A few years later, under the guidance of conservator-restorer Villem Raam, the church was turned into a museum and concert hall containing the collection of medieval art of the Art Museum of Estonia (source).
Alexander Nevsky Cathedral
Alexander Nevsky Cathedral is an orthodox cathedral that sits atop the hill of Toompea. It was built between 1894 and 1900, during the period where the country was part of the Russian Empire, and is built in a typical Russian Revival style (source).
For many Estonians, the church was a symbol of Russian oppression and it was so disliked that the Estonian authorities had scheduled to have it demolished in 1924; however, the decision was never implemented due to a lack of funds.
Neither Dave nor I are religious, but we were so intrigued by the church. This was also the point in our free walking tour that our feet were frozen, so we abandoned the tour and went into the church to look around and warm up.
It was breathtaking. Rich and ornate, the decorations within the church are like nothing I’ve ever seen: gold trimmings, stained glass, and brilliant colours lined every wall. It was a feast for the senses.
Our two days in Tallinn were perfect. Despite unusually cold temperatures and snowy weather, the day we spent exploring was bright and sunny which made wandering throughout the city more pleasant.
For me, Tallinn felt like the little capital that could: from the scenery to the people, I was constantly blown away. Who knew that this Baltic former-Soviet state would be so progressive and welcoming?!
I hope we have the opportunity to explore the city and the country further before our year abroad is up.
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