Tallinn

Being the capital of Estonia, Tallinn is a remarkably well-preserved medieval city, complete with ancient city walls made from limestone, a picturesque town hall, and brightly coloured buildings lining cobble streets. It’s lively yet peaceful, absurdly photogenic and bursting with wonderful sights. Throw in delightful food and vibrant modern culture and it’s no wonder Tallinn seems to enchant its visitors and coax them into revisiting its charming alleyways.

 

Located about an equal distance from Stockholm and St. Petersburg, Tallinn’s culture is both Nordic and Russian influenced, and a visit here is a fun peek into a proudly unique and resilient nation.

While both Estonia and neighboring Finland gained independence from Sweden and Russia after World War I — and Estonians were at least as affluent and as advanced as the Finns — Estonia could not preserve its independence from Soviet expansion during World War II. As a result, the nation sank into a nearly 50-year period of communist stagnation.

But the nation’s post-communist chapter has been a success story, and since 1991 its capital city has westernized at an astounding rate, all while holding tight to its Old World charm.

Tallinn’s mostly intact city wall includes 26 watchtowers, each topped by a pointy red roof. Baroque and choral music ring out from its old Lutheran churches. Below the steeples and towers, the Old Town is crammed with inviting shops and restaurants. Meanwhile, the outlying districts are perfect architectural experimentation.

The Town Hall Square, the focal point of the Old Town, has been a marketplace through the centuries, and still flaunts a cancan of fine old buildings. Once, it held criminals chained to pillories for public humiliation and knights showing off in chivalrous tournaments; today it’s full of Scandinavians and Russians savoring good food, children singing on the bandstand, and cruise-ship groups following the numbered paddles carried high by their well-scrubbed local guides.

The 15th-century town hall dominating the square is now home to the Tallinn City Museum, which provides a fascinating introduction to Tallinn’s glory days as a stronghold of the maritime world. And climbing the town hall’s tower earns a breathtaking view.

Uphill from Town Hall Square lies Toompea — the lower town’s old rival, and long the seat of the government ruling Estonia. Climbing the stairs from the lower Old Town, you’ll notice that the architecture tells a story. For instance, the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral was built by Russians in 1900. It faces the pink palace known as Toompea Castle, which now houses the Estonian Parliament. 

Efficient day-trippers can see all this with time to enjoy a nice lunch in the Old Town, and spend the afternoon either browsing its shops, or heading to one of the city’s worthwhile outlying sights: an ambitious nautical-aviation-military museum called Seaplane Harbor, the Rotermann Quarter for its cutting-edge architecture, the Estonian Open-Air Museum for folk culture, or Kumu Art Museum for Estonian art and a walk in nearby Kadriorg Park.

Those who spend the night, however, are rewarded with the opton of touring the Old Town early or late, when it’s much less crowded. Mid-day is a perfect time to explore some of the sights and more colorful slices of life outside the Old Town walls.

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