What to do in Tallinn? Tallinn sightseeing hotspots.
Why Tallinn? Because one third of the population lives here and tourists visiting Estonia for a short period of time mostly visit Tallinn.
Modern Tallinn City has evolved around the Medieval Old Town and is a blend of modern and Soviet style urban apartments blocks and a thriving city centre with a mix of businesses, restaurants, hotels and cafes that you would expect in any European capital.
Tallinn City is distinctly visible from the sea with its new skycrapers forming a pack near Old Town Tallinn. The tallest building in Tallinn is still Oleviste Chruch built in 15th century at 123 metres. The second tallest building is the newly built Swissôtel (Tallinn’s twin towers) at 117 metres. Most buildings in modern Tallinn are 20th or 21st century but, a relatively small number of, 19th century wooden buildings are still standing. (Source: Visitestonia.com)
“The unique value of Tallinn’s Old Town lies first and foremost in the well-preserved completeness of its medieval milieu and structure, which has been lost in most of the capitals of northern Europe. Since 1997, the Old Town of Tallinn has been on UNESCO’s World Heritage list.
Its powerful defensive structures have protected Tallinn from being destryed in wars, and its lack of wooden buildings has protected it from burning down. But it is also crucial that Tallinn hasn’t been massively rebuilt in the interest of dispensing with the old and modernising the town.
Tallinn is one of the best retained medieval European towns, with its web of winding cobblestone streets and properties, from the 11th to 15th centuries, preserved nearly in its entirety. All the most important state and church buildings from the Middle Ages have been preserved in their basic original form, as well as many citizens’ and merchants’ residences, along with barns and warehouses from the medieval period.” (Source: Visitestonia.com)
Here is what Tallinn city government tourism office writes about Medieval Tallinn: Twisting cobblestone lanes and iron street lamps. Gothic spires and medieval markets. Cappuccino and Wi-Fi. This is the city’s famous Old Town. If you are looking for that mix of historic ambience and cutting-edge culture that defines Tallinn, you will find it here.
Built up from the 13th to 16th centuries, when Tallinn – or Reval as it was known then – was a thriving member of the Hanseatic trade league, this enclosed neighbourhood of colourful, gabled houses, half-hidden courtyards and grandiose churches is, quite rightly, the city’s biggest tourist draw. And the fact that it is all neatly packaged within a mostly-intact city wall and dotted with guard towers gives it an extra dose of fairytale charm. The city tourism office brings out some of the Tallinn Old Town sightseeing attractions on its website:
Town Hall Square
The square in front of Tallinn’s Town Hall functioned as a marketplace for centuries, dating back to times even before the Town Hall itself was built. Through the years this served as a place of celebrations as well as executions.
Today the square remains a cultural focal point for the city. In summer, it’s filled with outdoor cafés and is home to countless open-air concerts, handicraft fairs and medieval markets. In winter, an annual Christmas Market enchants the crowds on the square, as does the town’s Christmas tree (a tradition whose roots stretch back to 1441), which stays up for a month or more.
Tallinn Town Hall
Tallinn Town Hall is the only Gothic style town hall left in Northern Europe. The story of the building stretches back to the 13th century. In 1248, the Danish King Erik IV, declared Lübeck city rights for Tallinn. Based on that, the merchants selected a town council to sit in the Town Hall. The building got its current look between 1402-1404. Today the Town Hall fills its historic roll as an administrative building. In the main halls, on the second floor, the city government organises festive receptions and concerts.
Town Hall Pharmacy
Town Hall Pharmacy is one of the oldest pharmacies still functioning in its original spot in all of Europe. The pharmacy, which stands on the corner of the Town Hall Square, was first mentioned in historical documents in 1422, but by some accounts, it may be older still. The town council-governed pharmacy sold many other goods besides medicine.
The Great Guild Hall
The Great Guild Hall was the second largest secular building after the Town Hall in Medieval Tallinn. The Great Guild was an organization uniting the city’s wealthy merchants, and intended for protecting its members’ common interests. Tallinn’s mayor and the city fathers were also chosen from among the members of the Great Guild. Hence, it is no coincidence that the Guild’s coat of arms and the small version of Tallinn city’s coat of arms are identical: a white cross on a red background.
The Great Guild accepted as members only local merchants who owned a house and were married. Foreigners could become members only if they had settled in Tallinn for good, and had married the widow of a member of the Guild.
The building was built in 1407-1417 as a gathering place for the merchants who belonged to the Guild. The building’s size and grandeur is a testimony to the wealth and influence of the guild’s merchants. The guild’s auxiliary rooms were built at the Börs passageway which connects Lai and Pikk streets. The tax chamber and the silver chamber were located in the gate building of Pikk Street. On Lai Street, the “bride’s chamber” and the guild’s servant’s quarters were found. The Börs Passage passes through the gate buildings.
The building now preserves the interior and exterior it had in the 15th century, with minor revisions. The façade of the building has almost entirely preserved its original appearance, graced with the Great Guild’s coat of arms and bronze knockers from 1430 on the door.
Today the Great Guild Hall houses the Estonian History Museum (which is currently under reconstruction, but come back to find the online coupon as it opens for the visitors).
The House of the Brotherhood of Blackheads
The House of the Brotherhood of Blackheads is nearly the only preserved Renaissance building in Tallinn. The Brotherhood of Blackheads emerged in 1399. The Brotherhood united the young, single merchants before they could be accepted into the Great Guild, as well as foreign merchants who were residing in Tallinn for longer periods but not permanently.
The name of the Brotherhood is associated with their patron, the black St. Mauritius, an early Christian martyr who died in Switzerland around 280-300 A.D. His head is the mascot on the Brotherhood’s coat of arms. The Brotherhood was active only in Estonia and Latvia, unknown in the rest of Europe. Members of the Brotherhood left Tallinn in the 1940s.
St. Olav’s Church
St. Olav’S Church was the tallest church in Medieval Europe. The earliest data on St. Olav’s Church come from 1267. Little is known about the building of this Gothic style church and its early years, but there may have been a church on this location as early as the 12th century, alongside the Scandinavian market yard. The church was named after the Norwegian king Olav II Haraldsson, canonised as a saint. St. Olav was considered to be the protector of seafarers.
Around 1500, the building reached a height of 159 meters (now 123,7m), and became the world’s tallest building of the time. The motivation for building such an immensely tall steeple must have been to use it as a maritime signpost, which made the trading city of Tallinn visible from far out at sea. There was also a risk, however: the steeple has been hit by lightning at least eight times, and the whole church has burned down three times. The fire could be seen from Finland, all the way across the Gulf.
An additional intriguing detail about St. Olav’s comes from the Chronicles of Russow. In 1547, a group of acrobats visited Tallinn and tied a rope from the top of St. Olav’s steeple to the city wall. They performed dizzying tightrope tricks, to the delight and dismay of the city folk.
Legend says that once upon a time the nobles of Tallinn decided to build the tallest church in the world, in hopes of luring more merchants to the city. But where to find a master builder capable of carrying out such a task? Suddenly, a large, quiet stranger appeared out of nowhere and promised to build the church, but the payment he asked was more than the city could pay. The man was willing to forego payment, on just one condition – the city people had to guess his name.
The stranger worked fast and talked to no one. The church was nearly finished and the city fathers grew more anxious by the day. Finally, they sent a spy to sniff out the stranger’s name. The spy found the builder’s home, where a woman was singing a lullaby to a child: “Sleep, my baby, sleep, Olev will come home soon, with gold enough to buy the moon.” Now the city people had the man’s name! They called out to the builder, who was attaching a cross on the top of the steeple, “Olev, Olev, the cross is crooked!” Upon hearing this, Olev lost his balance and fell all the way down. Legend tells of a frog and a snake that crawled out of Olev’s mouth as he lay there on the ground. Building the enormous structure had required the help of dark powers. Yet the builder’s name was given to the church, named after St. Olav.
St. Nicholas’s Church Museum
St. Nicholas’s Museum has three of the four most important Medieval works of art in Estonia on display. The impressive 13th-century church houses a concert hall as well as museum dedicated to church art.
German merchants from the island of Gotland built this church to St. Nicholas, the protector of sailors. It was originally built in the early 13th century, when the church was like a fortress.
Over the centuries, the building was improved with additions and renovations. The late Gothic St. Anthony’s chapel, on the southern side of the church, and the Renaissance foyer on the northern side are particularly notable.
St. Nicholas was the only church in Tallinn’s downtown which remained untouched by the destruction of icons brought by the Lutheran Reformation in 1523: the clever head of the congregation poured molten lead into the locks of the church, and the raging hordes could not get in.
The church was seriously damaged, however, in the bombing raids of 1944. After its renovation, the church suffered a fire in 1982, but today it has once again been restored.
The rare main altar in St. Nicholas shows paintings depicting the life of St. Nicholas, and was commissioned from the Lübeck master Herman Rode in 1482.
The late 15th-century Maria altar, which once belonged to Tallinn’s Brotherhood of Blackheads, was commissioned from Bruges. The artist is generally considered to be the anonymous artist responsible for the Lucia legend, though the altar has also been associated with the workshop of Hans Memling, the leading artist in Bruges of that time.
Located in St. Anthony’s chapel is the preserved beginning section of the extensive Dance Macabre, painted by one of the great figures of Northern Europe in the late Middle Ages, Berndt Notke of Lübeck (late 15th century).
Anthony’s 16th-century altar retable have been preserved in the church. In the silver chamber, silverwork from the collections of guilds, the Brotherhood of Blackheads, and churches is on display. Excellent acoustics make the church a favourite concert hall.
Church of Holy Ghost
Church of Holy Ghost is the only sacred building from the 14th century in Tallinn that has preserved its original form. The simple, humble Church of the Holy Ghost was completed in the 1360’s and, but for the exception of the baroque spire, it has retained its original medieval exterior.
The Church of the Holy Ghost holds an important place in Estonian cultural history: the first Estonian sermons were preached here, and the Livonian chronicler Balthasar Russow worked here as a teacher in the late 16th century.
Johann Koell, a pastor at the Church of the Holy Ghost, is considered to be the author of the first Estonian book, a catechism published in 1535.
Tower bell, made in 1433, was the oldest in Estonia but in May 2002 was badly damaged in fire. The painted clock on its facade is the oldest public timekeeper in Tallinn.
The interior is richly decorated, a good example of wooden sculpture from the Gothic era. The altar, commissioned from Berndt Notke in 1483, is one of the four most precious Medieval works of art in Estonia.
The fascinating inner chambers of the Dominican Monastery once included three wings, together called the Claustrum, of which the east wing still remains. It’s made up of a monks’ dormitory, library, refectory, prior’s living quarters and other rooms, all of which provide an interesting peek into the lives of medieval monks.
St. Catherine’s Passage
St. Catherine’s Passage is a landmark combining master craftsmen’s workshops with a medieval atmosphere. St. Catherine’s Passage (Katariina käik) connects Vene and Müürivahe streets. You can see the remaining portions of St. Catherine’s Church in the northern part of the passage. Residential buildings from the 15th to the 17th centuries stand along the sides of the southern section of the Passage.
The Passage was rediscovered and given new life in the summer of 1995, but is still imbued with a medieval milieu. The open studios of artisans are now located here, and visitors can watch artists and craftsmen practise their craft daily.
Hidden in a quiet, Old Town courtyard is this site dedicated to the master craftsmen of old. Here visitors can shop for handicrafts and jewellery, view art exhibitions, and sample the heavenly confections created in the popular Chocolaterie Café. Comfortable accommodation is available in the courtyard’s guesthouse.
Nunna, Sauna and Kuldjala Towers
Medieval forts, which first appeared during the early development of the medieval city in the latter 13th century, surrounded the downtown to create a closed-o. defense zone. Constant additions and improvements meant that, by the 16th century, Tallinn boasted one of the most powerful and strongest defense systems in Northern Europe. The town wall was then 3m thick and 16m high, stretching 4km around the city, and connecting 46 defense towers. Today, 2km of the original wall and 26 of the towers remain intact. These three medieval towers, and the portion of the wall that connects them, are among the few towers open to tourists.
Kiek in de Kök cannon tower
Kiek in de Kök was the most powerful cannon tower in 16th-century Northern Europe. It is written in the chronicles that Kiek in de Kök was once the most powerful tower along the Baltic shores.
The round cannon tower, built in the latter part of the 15th century, had a diameter of 17 meters. Its height is 38 meters and its walls are 4 meters thick. The tower was just high enough that its guards had a view into the kitchens of neighbouring buildings. Of course the view also extended to the enemy’s rear. The tower’s name, “peek in the kitchen”, comes from its height.
The tower was partially destroyed during the Livonian War (1558-1583), but the building itself did not fall. The tower has been rebuilt several times, but up until the 20th century, it was still being used as a gun powder storage and storehouse. Both the exterior and interior of the tower are restored to their 17th century appearance.
Kiek in de Kök, situated on the slope of Toompea Hill, is the most powerful defense tower in the Baltic region. Today the tower holds a permanent exhibit on the emergence of Tallinn, on three floors, tells the story of the birth and development of Tallinn and the most important military events from the 13th to the 18th centuries. The external wall still holds stone and iron cannonballs from Russian tsar Ivan IV.
This museum is also the starting place for visitors who want to tour the tunnels hidden under Toompea.
The “Maiden Tower”
The “Maiden Tower” has been rebuilt several times since its original construction in the 14th century. In the Middle Ages this tower was used as a prison for prostitutes, but today it’s simply a pleasant spot to take in a cup of co.ee or mulled wine while enjoying a grand view of the downtown area.
The Great Coastal Gate
The Great Coastal Gate (Suur Rannavärav) and Fat Margaret’s Tower (Paks Margareeta) were built as a defense on the seaward side of town, but also for impressing visitors coming in from the sea. The Great Coastal Gate, built along with the city wall, is situated on the northern side of the Old Town, near the harbour.
During the reconstruction of the gate in the early 16th century, the cannon tower Fat Margaret was added. The round tower, with 155 loopholes, a diameter of 25 meters, and a height of about 20 meters, was built to protect the harbour. It got its name from the fact that it was indeed the stoutest tower in the city wall. Through history, the cannon tower has also served as a storehouse for gunpowder and weapons, and as a prison.
Fat Margaret’s Tower now houses the Estonian Maritime Museum, with a permanent exhibit on Estonian maritime and fishing history. The viewing platform on the roof affords a lovely view onto the Old Town and the bay.
The two picturesque towers that make up the Viru Gates are all remain of what was once a much larger 14th-century gate system. The Viru Gates are in the eastern section of the city wall. The main tower of the gates was originally built in the years 1345-1355. Today, Viru gate is one of the main entryways in the Town Wall, leading into the Old Town to Viru Street, a main shopping and dining street of the Old Town.
Toompea Castle & Tall Hermann’s Tower
Toompea Castle is one of Estonia’s oldest and grandest architectural groupings. Built in the 13th to the 14th centuries, the castle is situated on the steep limestone coast, 50 meters above sea level. It is one of the most potent symbols of reigning power, conquered over the centuries by various nations. Today, the Estonian Parliament is housed here.
Tall Hermann was built in the southwestern corner of Toompea Fortress at the end of the 14th century. The name of the tower comes from the German phrase “Lange Hermann” meaning “tall soldier” or “chief” and comes from the tales of the adored medieval hero Hermann. This sort of name was usually given to the most powerful towers in a fortress.
The Estonian flag waves at the top of the 48-meter-high tower.
The Cathedral of Saint Mary the Virgin is the main Lutheran church in Estonia and one of three functioning medieval churches. The present appearance of the Cathedral is the result of much rebuilding. The original temporary wooden church is thought to have been built on Toompea Hill in 1219, and was first mentioned in 1233. The stone church was begun ten years later. The spire dates to the baroque period, and several chapels, from even later periods.
Notable items in the church’s interior include numerous gravestones from the 13th to the 18th centuries and numerous nobles’ shield epitaphs from the 17th to the 20th centuries. Among the famous people buried in the church are the well-known captain Pontus de la Gardie and his wife, Sophia Gyllenhelm, daughter of Swedish king Johann III; admiral Samuel Greigh, Catherine the Great’s lover; and the Russian admiral Adam Johann von Krusenstern, who led the expedition around the world.
If you take three steps from the main entrance of the Cathedral toward the southern nave, you will find a large stone slab which reads, “Otto Johann Thuve, landlord of Edise, Vääna and Koonu Ehis grave, 1696 A.D.” The Estonian Thuve was an especially merry and licentious sort, who adored raucous parties with wine, women and song. As he lay dying, however, he was overcome with a sudden sense of contrition. He asked to be buried at the threshold of the Cathedral so that the godfearing people, who kneel to pray upon entering the church, might eventually save his soul from his sinful ways.
The Danish King’s Garden
The Danish King’s Garden next to Toompea hill is the spot where, according to old legend, the Danes first received their national flag. On the brink of losing the battle on June 15, 1219, the flag was handed down to them from the heavens and the battle tide was miraculously turned. Denmark’s victory resulted in over a hundred years of Danish rule in Tallinn and northern Estonia.
The Convent of St. Brigitta
The Convent of St. Brigitta was the largest convent of Old Livonia.
Established by Tallinn’s wealthy merchants in 1407, construction was begun on the convent itself immediately. It is a typical example of late Gothic churches in Tallinn. The church was destroyed in the second half of the 16th century, and today only the western limestone gable, 35 meters high, and side walls remain standing. In the 17th century, a farmers’ cemetery developed in front of the ruins.
The convent was unique in that its constitution allowed male priests to live there and organise everyday religious ceremonies and processions on religious holidays. There are also tales of secret underground passageways between the convent and the city of Tallinn.
Today, the convent is a pleasant spot for relaxation and sightseeing. In addition to the impressive ruins themselves and their surrounding greenery, the site is a venue for open-air concerts and a convent day celebration, where a traditional fair takes place in the convent grounds.
Guided tours are available in several languages.
In 2001, a new limestone convent building was opened, which is home to the nuns of St. Bridget’s from around the world. All the building materials and interior are Estonian except the church bells, which were prepared in Rome.
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