Tallinn has been overrun by the Goths, the Pope’s Knights, the Danes, the Germans, the Russians, and now – the cruise ships.
Weekly, during the summer, ships disgorge thousands of history-hungry passengers onto waiting tour and shuttle buses, a weekly booster shot to the Estonian economy.
For starters, Tallinn’s ancient architecture has the effect of fooling passengers into thinking they have arrived in the Middle Ages.
Our ship approached a cityscape that might have been familiar to those seafarers of long ago: red-tiled rooftops, church spires and the onion domes of Russian Orthodox churches.
We docked within walking distance of the Old Town, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. With its miles of winding cobblestone streets and quaint medieval houses, Tallinn is Northern Europe’s best-preserved Old Town.
A Little History, Please
The settlement of modern day Estonia began around 8500 BC. In 1154, an Arabian geographer marked Tallinn on the world map. The town quickly became an important trade town.
In Hanseatic times, luxury furs, wax and honey from Russia were delivered through Tallinn’s port, while salt from Portugal and woolen fabrics from England and Flanders came through on their eastward route.
My first stop once off the ship and at the entrance to the Old Town, was at a flea market a few yards from the shuttle bus drop off. All the vendors spoke English, and were happy to take whatever currency offered: Euros, U.S. dollars, whatever.
With a handful of sugar-covered almonds in hand, I headed through the stone arch to the old city. First stop was to climb the vertigo-inducing circular stairs at St. Olav’s church. Between 1549 and 1625, St. Olav, at 522 feet, was the world’s tallest building. After a couple of fires it was rebuilt, so the climb today is only 404 feet, well worth the effort for the view. On a good day, you can see Helsinki 50 miles across the sea.
If you want to do a self-guided tour, follow this advice:
From the cruise ship piers, it’s a 45-minute walk to Toompea Hill, where you’ll want to begin your tour on your walk back to the ship.
Toompea Castle proudly sits on the crest of the Upper Old Town, presiding over the city sprawling below. A wooden fortification was originally built on the same hill in the 9th Century, but was toppled by the Danes shortly after 1200. The Danes constructed an impressive stone edifice, much of which still remains today.
For seven centuries foreign rulers governed Tallinn from this spot until Estonia established its first republic and constructed the Riigikogu – the Estonian Parliament – on the same grounds.
Unless your ship has an unusual schedule you’ll miss the raising and lowering of the national flag, measuring a little over six feet by about ten feet, and hoisted at sunrise (but not earlier than 7 a.m.) and lowered at sunset (and not later than 10 p.m.). While it is lowered, the national anthem, “My Fatherland Is Dear To Me” is played.
After enjoying the marvelous view from Toompea HIll, begin your walk down and back to the ship. The upper part and lower part of the Old Town are divided by Niguliste (St. Nicholas) Church, the patron saint of sailors and merchants.
Allow three to four hours to make your way back to the ship, stopping for lunch at Olde Hanse (great mushroom soup) or Peppersack, both medieval restaurants.
In Peppersack, medieval fights with swords entertain. Oops, stop piercing my waiter! No clashes of metal in Olde Hansa, but lots of period songs and dancing.
If you prefer Russian food, head to Town Hall Square which is named (duh) Town Hall Square, and stop in at Troika.
Built in the 1400s, Tallinn’s impressive Town Hall is the world’s best-preserved town hall. Take a look inside at the exhibitions of medieval torture machines. In the square you’ll find knives, spoons, utensils made from juniper, typically used in Estonian homes for ornamental purposes. On the corner of Town Hall Square, Town Hall Pharmacy, which dates back to at least 1422, is the oldest active apothecary in all of Europe.
Find St. Catherine’s Passage for craft workshops in a medieval atmosphere. Also, at Master’s Courtyard visitors can shop for jewelry and handicrafts, view art exhibitions, and sample confections made in the popular Café-Chocolaterie.
For linen tablecloths, wool scarves, and sweaters go to Muurivahe Street. For bakery goods it’s Bun Passage (Saiakang), just off Town Hall Square. Stop in cozy, candle lit, cave like Kehrwieder, for coffee.
Be sure to walk lengthy Pikk St. with its lovely churches, especially the Russian Church.
When you get to Viru Street you’ll be at the shuttle stop for the return bus to your ship. If you have energy left, forget the bus, and take the street named Stout Margaret. This will take you outside the town wall and back to port.
Tallinn is a lovely port to visit. My only disappointment was passing through the Old City wall to reality. McDonalds the conqueror!
Click on the link below for an audio Interview with Hilena, Tallinn Tour Guide.