(pop. 420,000) is the capital
, 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
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
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
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
(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
the edge of the beautifully restored Raekoja plats
(Town Hall Square).
For heavy-duty shopping the Kaubamaja
stores are nearby, and there are plenty of decent faux-medieval
restaurants and pubs, not to mention hypermodern trendy bars and cafes,
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 club
s and brothel
s 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
The center of Tallinn and the distance to and from the ferry terminals
are easily (and best) covered on foot. A network of somewhat
s and trolley bus
es 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-
(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
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