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.