Spend a day in a true medieval milieu and you will soon understand, why so many have described Tallinn Old Town as mystic, addictive and mesmerizing . Unlike other capital cities in Europe, Tallinn has managed to preserve the completeness and structure of its medieval and Hanseatic origin. Most of the cobblestone streets and properties, important state and church buildings, citizens’ and merchant’s residences, barns and warehouses dating back as far as to 11th century, are preserved in their original form.
Powerful defensive structures have protected Tallinn from being destroyed in wars, and its lack of wooden buildings has kept the fire damages low. But it is also crucial that Tallinn has not been massively rebuilt or ‘improved’ in the interest of dispensing with the old and modernising the town. 1997, Tallinn Old Town became a UNESCO World Cultural Heritage site and is often referred to as the “medieval pearl of Europe”.
Whether you have only few hours for a quick walk or few days for a thorough exploration, there is plenty to see and do. Everything is easily accessible on foot, though you might like to try the tour-train Vana Toomas or a bike-taxi Velotakso, both offering a fun ride for children as well as adults.
One of the places you won’t be able to miss is the Town Hall Square – Raekoja plats. Even after 7 centuries, it still remains as the social heart of the city: during summer, it hosts several outdoor cafes, concerts and fairs and in December is transformed into a charming Christmas Market.
Town Hall on Raekoja square, the only intact Gothic town hall in Northern Europe, now operates as a museum and concert hall. On top of the Town Hall tower, you will see a beloved guard of Tallinn Old Town – Vana Toomas. The oldest continuously working pharmacy in Europe, tiny Raeapteek, is located right across the square. According to a legend, it is a birthplace for favourite treat marzipan. Raekoja square is famous for another historic fact: this is where the first ever Christmas tree stood already in 1441.
For a true medieval feel, follow the route of old city walls and 26 watch towers. Should you have only few moments to spare, stop by the narrow Müürivahe street (near Viru gates) where the ancient wall is preserved in its original form. You’ll know the place by sales desks of beautiful wool handicraft, where you can buy unique souvenirs for your family and friends at home.
Also among the must-see-sights in Tallinn Old Town are our churches – although not grand enough to compete with world’s famous cathedrals, they provide a much more intimate and quiet, inward looking experience.
On 15th and 16th century, St. Olaf’s Church (Oleviste) with it’s 159m high tower was the highest building in the world. These days, St Olaf’s Church continues as an active Baptist church and its viewing platform offers a panoramic view over the city. On the ground floor, take a note of the stone wall-carvings depicting the legend of the church builders peculiar death – making him as immortal as the church itself.
St. Nicholas’ Church (Niguliste), near Raekoja square, is dedicated to fisherman and sailors. Originally built on 13th century, it suffered greatly in Soviet bombing and after restoration is in use as an art museum and concert hall. Most famous of its artworks is a painting by Bernt Notke: “Dance Macabre” (Dance of Death), with an estimated value over billion dollars.
Walk up the hill to Toompea and you will be greeted by the biggest Orthodox church in Tallinn, Aleksand Nevsky Cathedral with its golden onion roof-tops and luxurious interiors. These days, it is not obligatory for women to cover their hair when entering the church, but it is a kind and respective gesture.
Upper Town Toompeawas and is the centre of government of Estonia – Toompea castle is the house of parliament and Stenbock house, where prime minister’s office is located, is only a minute’s walk away. Be sure to admire the spectacular views over medieval red rooftops, beautiful coastline and modern city centre at one of the free, public viewing platforms in Toompea: Patkuli and Kohtuotsa.
Whether you have only few hours to spare or few days to walk around: Tallinn's Old Town is beautiful and enchanting during all seasons. Be sure to enjoy the outdoor cafés during summer and cosy fire and luxurious gourmet experiences in winter, indulge in local chocolateries and don't forget to take your camera!