Tallinn has always been the most important city and capital of Estonia, and recently was recognized by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site. This historic designation is always a very special honor, but in the case of Tallinn it's even more incredible because of what the UNESCO had to say about this town: "Tallinn is the best-preserved medieval town in northern Europe. (Tallinn is) a unique example of the coexistence of a seat of feudal landlords and a Hanseatic center in the shelter of a common system of walls and fortifications; an ensemble of mostly authentic buildings constituting an urban structure formed in the 13th and 14th centuries; a radial steel network, town wall, monastic ensembles and a characteristic skyline visible from a great distance on the sea…The Castle and the Hanseatic town of Tallinn were, in the 13th through 16th centuries, among the remotest and most powerful outposts of civilization in the northeastern part Europe. It is a well-preserved ensemble in the chain of trading towns on the Baltic seacoast."
UNESCO goes on to explain that, while there are other important medieval towns in the Baltic area, such as Riga and Visby, those are not as well preserved as Tallinn. Perhaps it was some sort of a quirk of history. At any rate Tallinn is standing today as a great example of medieval architecture and medieval life.
One of the reasons is that Tallinn's Old Town was projected from modernization because it was occupied and controlled by the Soviets for much of the 20th century. Russian communism never really did much damage here. They didn't have much money to knock down old buildings and put up new ones, and so because of that Tallinn was just left alone, perhaps even neglected, but fortunately for us and for the people of Estonia, it survived as a great symbol of their national pride.
Tallinn is not a highly touristic town. Similar places come to mind, which are generally more crowded and expensive, such as Prague, also a beautiful medieval town but more “discovered.” Tallinn is further away from the normal track of mass tourism. After all, we are at the northern fringe of Europe. Estonia is not right next to any other major tourist countries. It's up in the Baltics by Lithuania, Latvia, and across the Baltic Sea from Finland, which is where we came from to enjoy this visit. So Tallinn is a relatively untouched gem and very much worth visiting.
We will discover Tallinn on a private walking tour, so come along as we explore these wonderful streets of the old city. Most of the buildings date back to the 13th century 14th and 15th centuries and some a bit later, to the Renaissance and the Baroque. It can get busy but it's not too crowded – Tallinn hasn't quite been discovered yet by the hordes of tourists.
As you walk along and look down side lanes, you occasionally see parts of the medieval wall – another reminder of the antiquity of this town we are walking through.
Tallinn is really quite easy to see in a day because it is not all that large: the historic town center is about one square-mile, containing approximately 500 building complexes. All of the old buildings are very well preserved, and many of the streets are for pedestrians. There are signs to help you find your directions should you momentarily get lost, and there's a helpful Tourist Information office in the center with brochures and maps.
After the ten-minute walk from the dock we enter through a quiet back gate in the fortification wall that encircles the Old Town. As we stroll we notice the little side streets lined with old buildings, which transport us back in time many centuries. We can have a look inside the great Guildhall, a small, free museum that was once the merchant headquarters for the entire region.
Tallinn is divided into a lower town and the upper town, and we shall explore both in our visit. It certainly helps to have a local guide explaining the history to us while we are looking at the buildings, so that we can really understand these marvelous sites in this unique place. The upper part was primarily for the nobles, the upper class who ran the society. It was like a large castle: there was a wall around the upper section creating in effect, a separate town altogether. A focal point up there is Castle Square: the Estonian parliament is behind the beautiful pink Palace on one side of the square, and on the other side there is a large Orthodox Church in the Russian style, reminding us of the Soviet influence over this place.
We reach a spectacular viewpoint from which we see the red tile roofs and encircling wall with it tall towers. There are 26 medieval towers still standing along the wall, which is very well preserved and still standing for nearly its entire length. This wall is a remarkable example of medieval preservation, which you can climb up and walk along during your free time in the afternoon.
Our walk in the upper town will bring us by various noble structures that had been palaces. Of course there is a variety of architecture, but you don't find new buildings anywhere in the old town. Those medieval merchants of the lower town didn't have it so bad at all. The town was a beautifully functioning medieval city, providing a safe and comfortable place to live.
The Danish King's Garden marks the boundary of the upper town, or the Castle, and the lower town. You can clearly see how this was a divided community, separated by class and location, with the aristocrats living up above and the merchants living down below. After walking back downhill to the lower town using the helpful staircase, we'll continue together another couple blocks to the Old Town Square, centerpiece of the old town. Then there will be a few hours of free time for shopping, lunch and individual exploration.
It is often a challenge in our travels to purchase something locally made, let alone handmade, but here you will find authentic crafts in abundance. One street along the inner side of the wall, has a series of outdoor stalls with beautiful collections of handmade sweaters, all made in Estonia.
St. Catherine's passage is another one of those perfect medieval spots, yet kind of hidden away as a small pedestrian alley between a couple of other lanes. You might miss it altogether if you didn't have your guide or some kind of helpful instruction. The workshops in this passage are fun: they've got pottery, glass, textiles, woodworking, with a whole variety of things for sale, and you can purchase them directly from the craftsmen who made them. This passage is a classic example of the medieval alley, with stone support beams and arches holding up buildings and protecting them, keeping them standing for all these centuries.
It seems like all roads lead back to the main town square, where we might get lucky with an outdoor craft fair that happens pretty often in the summertime. It's just perfect moment to be traveling. We can have a nice meal around the corner in Olde Hansa, a famous restaurant offering an outdoor terrace or dark, medieval interior and delicious food at a reasonable price, with friendly service.
Traveling in the month of July we can expect the temperatures to be in the upper 70s lower 80s, providing comfortable conditions. There is usually a beautiful blue sky with white fluffy clouds and little chance of rain. Estonia is quite far north, so it doesn't usually get hot in July. Of course it would be a lot colder in the wintertime, so you probably don't want to come at that time a year but spring, summer and fall are all wonderful.
Estonia is a really modern society despite the medieval appearance of Tallinn's Old Town, so don't let the buildings and costumes fool you. These are modern European peoples, very technologically advanced. For example, they've got some of the highest rate of Internet connections and broadband speeds, and a couple of Estonian inventors created Skype software for making free long-distance, computer phone calls. Many other technological innovations have come out of Estonia, in part due to their very high level of education, and strong economy. There is a modern city, with high-rises and shopping malls adjacent to the Old Town, but we can skip that.
They've always been traders – it's appropriate that the town square is often filled with outdoor merchants. This is been going on for more than 700 years in Tallinn – after all it was founded as a merchant town as part of the on the Hanseatic League, which was that northern European medieval alliance of German and Scandinavian merchant centers training with the rest of Europe, bringing goods north and being the middleman, always taking a cut of the profits – still happening today. It's really one of the prettiest town squares that you'll ever see.
After you've seen the main sites -- the beautiful town square, the upper town with the old Castle and the various churches -- it's nice to just simply take a walk off the beaten track down some of the little side streets and narrow lanes. Such byways might not be in your tourist guidebook as important visitor attractions, but it's all part of the ambience of this remarkable medieval town. Wandering through the little back lanes, getting away from whatever tourists are in the main square, is always satisfying. You can enjoy the quietude and the beauty of these authentic buildings all by yourself.
As you come back towards the main town area you are reminded that this is a major tourist center as well. It is very popular with visitors and can get quite crowded, especially when you get to the main entrance of the town.. Originally we entered through one of the back gates, which was a very nice first impression, with quiet, peaceful lanes. But we shall exit through the main front gate and main street, which can get quite crowded. It's a big funnel of people all passing through the same gate with lots of shops, busy pubs and restaurants all along the wide entrance street.
We take a final look around as we bid our farewell – it's time to walk ten minutes back to the dock, reclaim our luggage, and board the overnight boat to Stockholm.