Tallinn (pop. 420,000) is the capital of Estonia and, after Copenhagen, my favorite city in northern Europe.


There are quite a few north European capitals that have been around for a very long time, but Tallinn is the only one that retains a medieval city center to this day. The first fortress was built on Toompea (the hill at the center of the city) in 1050. In 1219, the city was conquered by Valdemar II of Denmark, but it was soon sold to the Hanseatic League in 1285. The city -- known as Revel at the time -- prospered as a trading town in the 14th century, and much of Tallinn's historic center was built at this time.

Tallinn then became a pawn in the geopolitical games of its big neighbors, passing into Swedish hands in 1561 and then to Russia under Peter the Great in 1710. By World War I and the ensuing brief Estonian independence Tallinn's population had reached 150,000.

During World War II, much of Tallinn was bombed (although the historical center was largely spared) and Estonia was eventually annexed by the Soviet Union in 1940, only to be conquered by Nazi Germany (1941-44) and then retaken by the Soviets. The Soviet Union undertook a program of Russification, and just over 40% of Tallinn's current inhabitants are Russian (compared to an average of 28% for the entire country). On August 20, 1991, Estonia declared independence and Tallinn became its capital once again.


Tallinn lies at the bottom of a bay on the southern coast of the Gulf of Finland, only 70 kilometers south of Helsinki. At the historical heart of the city is the hill of Toompea, covered in cobbled streets and filled with medieval houses and alleyways. The lower town spreads out from the foot of the hill, still protected by the remnants of a city wall. Around the city wall is a series of well-maintained green parks, great for strolling.

While the old town has been astonishingly well preserved and is now in better shape than ever, with the bigger roads converted into fashionable shopping streets reminescent of Zürich or Geneva, the new town sprawling all around is largely built in typical concrete Soviet style. The new center of town is Vabaduse väljäk (Freedom Square) at the edge of the old town, and nearby is giant matchbox of Hotel Viru, the former Intourist flagship, notorious den of Cold War intrigue (every room was tapped and monitored by the KGB!) and Tallinn's tallest building. The ferry terminals are a kilometer or so to the north of the center, while the train station is to the west.

Sights and Things to Do

There are few sights to speak of in Tallinn, except perhaps the 13th-century Toomkirik (Dome Church) atop Toompea; the thing to do is to stroll around the old streets at random, peeking into boutiques and galleries, perhaps stopping to sip a Saku beer at the edge of the beautifully restored Raekoja plats (Town Hall Square). For heavy-duty shopping the Kaubamaja and Stockmann department stores are nearby, and there are plenty of decent faux-medieval restaurants and pubs, not to mention hypermodern trendy bars and cafes, competing for your tourist dollar. Tallinn's nightlife is extensive enough to be notorious; Vibe's techno parties kick the ass of anything found across the puddle in Finland, Dekoltee remains the swankiest nightclub in the Baltics and there are plenty of strip clubs and brothels to support a thriving sex tourism industry. In these shadier activities Mafia presence remains heavy, but much less visible and violent than it used to be; overall, Tallinn is a safe town if you don't go out of your way to court trouble. (Alas, all too many drunk Finns do.)

Tallinn is very much a tourist town and costs vary quite a bit depending on where you are; at their worst prices can be as high as in Finland, but if you find your way to the places where the locals go things can still be very cheap. Food (both in shops and eating out), in particular, remains a bargain. Nearly all Estonians speak one or more of English, Finnish and Russian, so communication is rarely a problem; a few words of Estonian will often improve the level of service remarkably though.

Getting Around

The center of Tallinn and the distance to and from the ferry terminals are easily (and best) covered on foot. A network of somewhat decrepit trams and trolley buses covers the new town, and there is an abundance of (relatively) cheap taxis.

Getting There and Away

The way to get to Tallinn is by ferry, either from almost- adjacent Helsinki (1.5 hours by hydrofoil, 3 hours by car ferry) or overnight from Stockholm. Both routes are heavily competed -- there were, at last check, no less than 7 companies plying between Helsinki and Tallinn -- and largely subsidized by tax-free shopping, resulting in ridiculously low fares especially for cruises; €10 per head including a cabin is typical.

By plane or helicopter the crossing from Helsinki takes only around 15 minutes, but the price is also orders of magnitude higher. Tallinn is also connected to Latvia, Lithuania and Russia by rail and the Via Baltica highway all the way to Poland.


Lonely Planet Scandinavia & the Baltics

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