Today I will share with you one of my favourite cities that we visited on our Nordic Adventure. Tallinn wasn’t a place we intended on see, but with it’s close proximity to Helsinki, it wasn’t a difficult journey to make.
Tallinn is the capital and largest city of Estonia. It has one of the best intacted medieval hanseatic old town in the world and retains it old world flair through both its architures, crafts, cuisines and residents. Its medieval roots date before 1219, when it was first mentioned in text. However its been a human settlement for over 5000 years. Today it is under independent Estonia, but it had previously been under the rule of the Danes, Swedish and Russian, who have all left their own mark.
Since we only had the day we couldn’t see everything. The highlights include Sadama district, Old Town, the Town Square, Town Hall Pharmacy, St. Catherine’s Passage,
Danish King’s Garden, Toompea Hill, Freedom Square, Kohtuotsa Viewing Platform, a few interesting old churches, a Medieval feast and Estonian sweet treats. There are plenty of free experiences to be had in Tallinn and it was one of the less expensive destinations so far on this trip. If you have the time and are less incumbered, there are so many museums and shopping centres as well.
Travel from Helsinki to Tallin
So to get to from Helsinki to Tallin, we took the Tallinki Shuttle Star, It left from West Harbour terminal 2 and arrived D-Terminal, Lootsi 13. The entire journey takes 2 hours. I was originally a bit unsure about making this journey, because we would loose 4 hours of our day in travel. However, we were able to board the ship at 7am for a 7:30 departure and arrive by 9:30am. The cost was 36 euro per adult and free for 5 and under, one way. We decided to add the buffet breakfast for an additional 21 euro per adult. However, in hindsight I would of preferred to grab a pastry and coffee from the cafe. I wasn’t that impressed by the buffet. On the plus it was free for O to eat and it did make it easy to let her choose what she wanted. On the Star there are a couple of shops, a few cafes and eateries, and a kids play area. You can book in for the lounge areas but its quite unnecessary as there is plenty of places to sit.
Our ship arrived in the Port of Tallin, which is in Sadama or the harbor district. Since it was early in the morning it wasn’t as bustling as I had heard. But it did have a very nautical vibe near the harbor. If you have the time to explore there is quite a bit to see here. You can do shopping at Nautica Keskus shopping centre, Foorum shopping centre, Sadama Market. There are also more boutiques and shopping malls in this area and neighbouring district of Südalinn, which is adjacent to the Viru Gates. There are also museums, including the Steamship Admiral Museum, Museum of Estonian Architecture, Estonian Jewish Museum and the KGB Museum. There are a couple of art installation. The first we came across was Arrival, which represents the Estonian Republic sending its troops overseas to serve for the past 19 years. The other is the Digital Building Block, by the Architecture Museum of The Rotermann Quarter is also within Sadama, so you can see alot of interesting architecture that influenced by its former industrial roots.
In the heart of Tallin is the Vanalinn, the Old Town of Tallin. This is one of the best preserved medieval cities in Europe and the reason why we travelled all the way to Estonia for the day. The architecture is like something out of a medieval fairytale and so are some locals who are dressed the part.
Tallinn origin city plan is still intact from the 13th-16th centuries. Many of the buildings were home to wealthy merchants from Germany, Denmark and beyond during the Hanseatic period. Today many of the shops and restaurants have a medieval flair, selling traditional Estonia product, arts, crafts and foods, which you may of found back then. The buildings are typically painted in pastel colours and most retain terracotta tile roofs.
The old town is divided between the lower town and upper town (or Toompea), which today is no longer sectioned off by the city gates. We entered via the Viru Gates, which is part of the lower town. These gates give you a idea of what the 14th-century extensive defence system would have looked like. Just before entering the gates there are flower markets on the left, which back onto the Musumägi park. On the left you can find souvenir shops and restaurants. Just inside the gates there are markets selling clothing and wooly accessories along the wall. You can actually climb and walk along the the 3-story Hellemann Tower and Town Wall (for 200m). Its also an inexpensive and child-friendly. We didn’t do it because we didn’t realise we could.
From the Viru gates there is a main pedestrian road (Viru), which takes you nearly all the way to the Town Square. Along the road there are plenty of little boutiques, cafes and as you near the town square there are also many Medieval themed restaurants. One that stood out to us was Olde Hansa, which we did return to later for lunch. Here you will also see many locals dress in Medieval clothing who are selling things on the street or working in these busy restaurants. You can also find the Museum of Medieval Torture Instruments, which we so would have visited if we didn’t have a small child, who would find it scary or worse, boring.
The Town Hall Square (Raekoja plats) is a massive public space, in the centre of Old Town Tallin. It is lined with restaurants and Estonia souvenir, craft and Baltic Amber stores. The space is often used for festival and concerts. One of the most popular events is Tallin Old Town Days, which is an annual five day event, celebrating local cultural heritage.
The most icon building in the square is the Town Hall, which originally built in 1322 and then rebuilt in 1402-04, which is the current form you see today. It is the only surviving Gothic Town Hall in all of Northern Europe. It was used as a seat for local government and is today still used ceremonial and cultural purposes. You can go inside the Town Hall from October to June by appointment, Monday to Friday. During the summer (May- Sept) you can also visit the Tower for only 3 euro adult/1 euro child (included with Tallinn Card). Since its cash only we couldn’t visit the tower. You can see some photos of interior here.
Another significant building in the Town Square is the Town Hall Pharmacy/Raespteek (Raekoja Plats 11). It is the oldest pharmacy in Europe and the oldest continually working apothecary in the world. It is unknown how old it is since it wasn’t mentioned in text until 1422 and it was already up to its third owner. During the plague years it was the only place to seek medical care, when there was no doctors left in town. It was also a place where people met to catch up and the latest news and drink wine together. The pharmacy didn’t just sell medicines, ointments, tinctures and medical teas. They also sold cakes, spices, gun powder, playing cards, paper and ink. Some more peculiar items include burnt bees and hedgehogs, earthworm oil, human fat and blanched dog faeces. From 1582-1911 it has been owned by ten generation of men from the Burchart family. This was followed by the Lehbert and Schneider families between 1911-1940. One of the most significant medicial advances was created by Rudolph Lehbert in 1907. He produced anti-anemia preparation for Ferratol and today known as a pioneer of the Estonian pharmaceutical industry.
Inside the first room of the Pharmacy there is a large counter where you can buy medical items and there are a few item around that room. There is a door way which leads to a second room, which is a mini exhibit. It was quite interesting to see what kind of objects were used in medieval medicine and to see how far we have come. It is free to walk around and have a look. You can also do a guided tour, herb or marzipan workshop. Underneath the building there is an antique store, where I bought some Amber souvenirs.
Another building in the square, near the pharmacy is the Püha Vaimu kogudus
(Püha Vaimu 6). It began operations as a social service welfare building for housing and hospice for the crippled and sick in the 13th century. It later became a retirement home and contained a sauna and other buildings. The hospice was connected to the Holy Spirit Church, which it backs onto, which was a chapel for the City Council. It was converted into a girls school after 1620 and later became the Theological Institute of Estonian Evangelical Lutheran Church. Today there is a shop in the front and the church still holds sermons. It amazing how many lives a little building could of lived.
Just around the corner behind the Town Square we came across the St. Peter and St. Paul’s Cathedral (Tallinna Peeter-Pauli katedraal). This is a Catholic church and it was built in 1920-1924. Previously, this site was home to St. Catherine’s Monastery, which was built in 1841 after the Great Northern War, when relgious freedom was granted back to Estonian. Since it’s of the main road it was a little more quiet and very peaceful.
Our next stop was the St. Catherine’s Passage/Katriina käik, which we found as we passed through a little tunnel where you can also find a nice little European restaurant, Munga Kelder. St Catherine’s Passage is a half-hidden walkway from Vene Street, which pass St. Catherine Church through to Müürivahe street, where you can find the famous knit market.
This passage is special because it was home to St Catherine’s Guild of artisans. Here a collection of craft workshops continue to operate today, selling glassware, hats, ceramics, dolls, jewellery, quilts, hand-painted silk, etc. Another thing that is special about this guild today is that the artisans are all women. This was one of my favourite places in Tallinn. I just loved seeing the handmade crafts and seeing the woman work in their studio.
Something else that was interesting were the 14-15th century tombstones. They were from the Church of St Catherine of Alexandria, which you can see below. The deceased were members of the Magistrate of Tallinn, the Brotherhood of Blackheads and the Great Guilds. When the church was restored in the mid-19th century, the best tombstones were placed on the wall.
As we passed through St Catherine’s Passage, just before the end to Müürivahe street, we came upon the 13th Dominican St. Catherine’s Monastery Claustrum. It was first mentioned in text in 1246 and was specifically built in this spot, to facilitate preaching to large audience and easy access to the fish trading. They actually use to produce four types of beer and were also renowned for their scholarship. During the Reformation in 1524, the monastery was destroyed, so only part of the originally complex remains. These photos are from the entry courtyard and of the first room. I did not venture inside, as again I didn’t have cash. You can do an individual or group tour.
For lunch, I had a few places on my list include Olde Haus (medieval themed), Pannkoogipubi Kompressor (budget cafetaria) or Must Puudel (allergy, vegan, kids menu). However, once we saw the Medieval themed restaruant, Olde Haus, we had to choose this place for our lunch. This restaurant is modelled after the 15th century in terms of decor, music, dress of staff and food. In fact, all of the furniture and glassware have been handmade and the ingredients are local sourced, as they would have been back then. This has to be one of my top restaurant experiences that had on this trip. It really transported us to another time and the food and drink was really splendid. The restaurant also has a medieval shop, selling handmade ceramic bowls, glassware, iron works, alcohol, honey, jams, soaps and candles.
It was hard to choose what to order, I just wanted one of everything. They do offer a 17 course Master Cook’s Feast, but that would have been too much for the three of us. Instead we ordered drinks and a few meals to share. I ordered the Spiced Wine and Marco had the Honey Beer. They were as delicious as they sound and if we weren’t feeling like we were in Medieval Europe, the drinks relaxed our sense enough to transport us there. For lunch we ordered the Earl’s Forest Mushroom Soup, which was so creamy and infused with delicious mushroom magic flavour. I ordered the Wild Boar Plate, which included sauerkraut, onion jam, cooked spelt with saffron, pickle and juniper berries. Marco ordered the Game Sausages made of Bear, Wild Boar and Elk, which came with most of the same condiments and sweet root vegetables. Both of the meats were exceptionally tasty. The sides and condiments were also nice and made the entire dish feel more traditional.
After lunch we wanted to see the upper town of Tallinn. The weather took a turn and it was pouring down rain. We wanted to go to the interactive museum, Tallinn Legends, however there was a wait time and an age limit, which was a shame. So when the rain stopped a little we made our way up. We walked past the 13th century St Nicholas Church, which is the only other Catholic parish in Tallinn. It was one of the wealthiest churches in the town, however was badly damaged during WWII. Today it is also a museum, so it does cost to go inside, which we couldn’t do. So up we continued, through the small pedestrian street, Short leg/Lühike jalg. There is also a passage built between the lower and upper town (Toompea) as a shortcut for pedestrian. It was once governed at the gate, to control the movement of people.
Once we got to the top of Short leg street, we found the Danish King’s Garden. It is both beautiful and a little creepy, with the large hooded statues. It also gives you a great look at the wall that divides the lower and the upper city.
This garden was perhaps named after the King of Denmark, Erik VII Menved, after he gave the orders in 1311 for this area of land to be given to the lower town and for a city wall to be erected to divide between the lower and upper town. It is also legend that this is the exact place that a flag came down from the sky and landed during the Danish invasion. This flag supposably had something to do with King Valdemar II winning the battle and the it became the national flag of Denmark. The three sculptures of the hooded figures are monks who prayed for the Danish King for God’s help during when they were seeming to lose the battle. The waiting monk was Ambrosius, the praying monk Bartholomeus and watching monk was Claudius.
Up past the garden is the upper town, also known as Toompea or Toompea Hill. From up here you get great view of the lower town This exact spot wasn’t the best, but you will see more views as you travel around up here. Just nearby there is a nice view from the Neitsiton Museum (Maiden Tower Museum-Cafe), plus you can pay a small fee to use the toilet. We also came across the beautiful Russian Orthdox church, Alexander Nevsky Cathedral. It is in typical Russian Revival stle and was built between 1894-1900, when Tallinn was part of Russia. It is dedicated to Saint Alexander Nevsky, who was also a Prince. He is remembered for Battle of the Ice on Lake Peipus in Estonia. We weren’t able to take photos of the beautiful interior, but you can see some here.
Next, we headed to the Freedom Square, which is the southern end of Old Town, but is accessible also from Toompea. On the way we passed this Happy Chimney Sweeper statue, which honours the men who use to climb peoples roof tops and bring them luck. Apparently, back in the day it was lucky to touch the buttons of a chimney sweep, which use to be gold. It was also more lucky if you took the button from him, so many of them had buttons missing.
Freedom square is a popular meeting place and also hosts military parades and concerts. It has gone by many names and took this name between 1939-48 and then again 1989. The large cross is the Victory Column and it represents the War of Independence. The buildings in the square and surroundings are functionalist and art deco in style.
St. John’s Church is a Lutheran parish dedicated to Saint John the Evangelist. It was constructed in 1862-67 and is a three-nave church in neo-Gothic Style. The altar painting, Christ on the Cross, by Karl Gottlieb Wenig and the chandeliers are older than the building. It also contains the oldest church bell with an Estonia text in its tower.
In the corner of Freedom Square is the Carved Stone Museum, which is part in the tunnels of the Kiek in de Kök Fortifications Complex. This museum has over 600 decorated fragments that were part of the buildings of the Old Town. This museum can also be entered Neitsiton Museum (Maiden Tower Museum-Cafe). If you plan to go make sure you bring something warm, as its 10-12 degrees all year around. Just behind the square and museum is the Harjumägi/Hill of Harju Gates park. It is on the embankment of the former Inger bastion. This park is significant because its ancient European lindens were planted there in the 1750s, in a crescent formation.
Next walked up to the Toompea Castle. This building complex was built between 1767-1733, on the foundations of 13th-14th century the eastern wing of the fortress. All that remains from its medieval past is the Tall Hermann Tower. The Riigikogu building is located in the central courtyard and was built in 1920-22. It is in expressionist-style, which makes it unique for a parliamentary building. Unfortunately we couldn’t see it from the front or sides of the building. Today the Toompea Castle serves as the seat of Parliament of Estonia. Previously it was the residents of heads of state and working offices of the Government of Estonia. Running along the right side of the building is the lush, green Kuberneri (Governor’s) Garden or Palace Garden. It is connected to a larger park, which continues for quite a distance. We didn’t have the time to walk through it but I’m sure it would be a really nice walk.
A couple of minutes walk away is the Cathedral of St Mary’s the Virgin/Toomkirik, which is also called the Dome Church. It is located in the centre of Toompea hill and is one of the most interesting churches to see. It was originally built in 1233 and rebuilt repeatedly, so it consists of many architectural styles. The vaulted main body is from the 14th century and the Baroque tower was added in the late 1770s. This was the church for the elite German nobles and their funereal coats of arms decorate the walls. They are from the 17th-20th century and their burial stones are from the 13th-18th century. You can also climb 69 metre Baroque tower to see a great view of the city for a small fee.
Next we made our way to the Kohtuotsa viewing platform, which is only another 3 minutes walk. On the way we admired the pastel neoclassical buildings. Each have their own story and many have information plaks outside to give you the history of the building.
The Kohtuotsa Viewing Platform is located on northern side Toompea Hill. It gives you one of the best panoramic views of Tallinn for free. You can see the terra-cotta roofs town, the towering spires and bell towers of the Old Town, the harbor, the Pirita district and the Gulf of Finland. In the summer season there an outdoor cafes and dancing in the evening in the platform space. There is also a famous seagull that hangs out here called Steven. Not sure if he was the friendly seagull O met.
It was starting to get close to the time our boat was boarding, and we had one more stop in Old Town to make. So, we went back through the lower town to the main esplanade, Viru (near Viru Gates), to the cosy cafe. Rukis is a bakery cafe, which serves fresh baked pastries, cakes, breads and also serves coffees and a large breakfast and lunch menu. They offer gluten free, vegetarian, vegan options and many healthy and rich options. The decor is very fancy, yet vintage and homely. It’s the perfect place to take a rest and enjoy coffee and cake.
There was so many cakes to choose from in the front counter. I let Marco choose, so he ordered, Mustika tartalett (blueberry tart), Beseerull mustika-kakao (gluten free chocolate blueberry meringue roll) Brownie (with hazelnuts, pecan and cranberries) and cappuccinos (with soy). They were all so scrumptious! My favourite was the blueberry tart, since its not something I can order often with all that dairy. The coffee was so very good as well.
We only had about an hour to go until boarding, so we spent it shopping. We visited Viru Keskus and Postimaja Keskus which are both shopping centres off the main road, right near the Viru Gates. They were both had a lot of variety of stores and quite a few I hadn’t come across before. Inside Viru Keskus there was also a great book store, Rahva Raamat, where I found a lovely Estonian cookbook.
Travel from Tallin to Helsinki
To get back to Helsinki we took the Tallink Megastar, which left from the same terminal (D) and returned us back to the same harbour in Helsinki. This trip took 2 hours, and was very similar experience to the boat we arrived on. The prices was the same, except we skipped the additional buffet. I think the food options were much better on the Megastar. We ate at the FastLane, which offered a variety of premade open sandwiches, salads, cakes and juices. It also had hot options made to order, including wok dishes. I ordered a curry noodle dish with prawns. It wasn’t the best meal but it not bad. Other than that there are plenty of lounges, a few travellers shops and playground. It’s more than enough to explore for such a short journey.
I hope you enjoyed our trip to Tallin. I really recommend visiting if you have a spare day when visiting southern Finland or Sweden. If you have more time to spend two days that would be ideal. If you want to find out some of the best sites, cafes, restaurants, museums, tours etc, see the Culture Trip posts. Also check out this video by Janek Rubes from The Honest Guide for a great review of the city.