Tallinn is small enough to be mostly explored on foot. Both the old town and modern city centre are only about half a mile from the harbour. The Old Town is split into two parts: the small Upper Town on the city’s central hill, Toompea. And, the much larger Lower Town which spreads out from Toompea’s eastern side.
If you want to travel on bus, tram or trolleybus you can either buy a ticket from the various kiosks or from one of the drivers – although this is often a more expensive way of doing it. If you buy a ticket from a kiosk it’s also important to remember to stamp the ticket yourself on one of the machines found on the vehicles. If you are over 65, however, and have suitable ID you can travel for free; irrespective of your country of origin!
Alternatively if you want a quirky and environmentally-friendly form of transport you could always opt for a Velotaxi (trendy-looking bicycle taxis). You’ll find them dotted about the harbour and city centre.
The currency in Tallinn is the Estonian Kroon, often abbreviated to the EEK. It’s the only legal tender here and the Euro is not accepted.
As far as the language is concerned, Estonian is the most widely spoken, closely followed by Russian; although you’ll find most young locals speak excellent English.
If you want some useful words/phrases here are a few to get you by. Most Estonian words are pronounced with the stress on the first syllable.
Hello – Tere (TEHR-reh)
Goodbye – Nagemist (NAH-ge-mist)
Yes – Jah (YAH)
No – Ei ( AY)
Thank you – Tanan (TA-nahn)
Please – Palun (PAH-loon)
Sorry – Vabandust (VAH-bhan-doost)
How much? – Kui palju? (KOO-ee PAHL-yoo?)
Help! – Aidake! (Ol-da-keh!)
Do you speak English? – Kas te raagite inglise keelt? (KAHS the RAA gee-the EENG-leelseh KEHLT?)
If you want to hit the shops try the Old Town for a variety of arts and crafts, and the modern city centre for the department stores. The two biggest shopping complexes are Viru Centre (Viru valjak 4/6) and De La Gardie ( Viru 13/15), both of which are located just outside the eastern wall of Lower Town. Tallin’s markets are also worth a look at, particularly the open-air knitwear market on Muurivahe (Southern Old Town). Hand-knitted items are very popular souvenirs in Tallinn, as is chocolate from the resident confectioner, Kalev, and bottles of sweet-tasting Vanna Tallinn (Old Tallinn) liqueur.
Incidentally, when looking for places of interest it’s worth noting that Estonian addresses list the street name before the house or building number.
And if you are looking for a loo, the signs on the doors are a little different! Doors with a triangle or the letter ‘N’ indicate the room is for women, whereas an upside-down triangle or the letter ‘M’ denotes a men’s room. N stands for Naine (Woman) and M for Mees (Men).
The rules of tipping are much the same as home. It’s not obligatory but if you want to leave something, standard practise is to leave a tip of between 5 and 10%
Tallinn has two emergency numbers and both are free to call from any phone.
Police: 110; Ambulance and Fire services: 112
Time zone here is GMT + 2.
Not a lot is known of Tallinn’s early history. In 1154 what is now Tallinn was first marked on a map by an Arab cartographer; however the first reliable account of Tallinn’s history comes from The Chronicle of Latvian Henrik. The Chronicle describes the Danish fleet, led by King Valdemar II, landing on June 1219. The Danes defeated the Estonians in the Battle of Lyndanisse and quickly snapped up Tallinn as their own and built a large fortress on Toompea Hill. The name ‘Tallinn’ is actually derived from the Estonian words ‘taani linnus,’ meaning ‘Danish castle although this name wasn’t used until Estonia became independent in 1918-1920. After the Danish conquest in 1219 the town became known in the German, Swedish and Danish languages as Reva.
In the middle of the 14th century, due to a lack of cashflow, the King of Denmark decided to sell his holdings in northern Estonia to the German Roman Catholic Order, the Teutonic Knights. Tallinn benefited from its strategic position as a major crossroads for trade between Western and Northern Europe and Russia and by the end of the Middle Ages, residency for native Estonians had become very difficult due to a high residency fee – many Estonians were forced out of the centre.
Shortly afterwards Estonia soon became a major battleground, as Russia, Sweden, Poland and Denmark fought it out in the Baltic Sea during the Linovian War (1558 – 1583). Fearing Russian troops, Tallinn surrendered to the seemingly more amiable Swedish crown in 1561, and remained under Swedish rule for the next 150 years, despite two Russian sieges.
In the 15th century, a plague decimated the town and the Great Fire of 1684 destroyed almost every building on Toompea – only Dome Church and a nearby small stone house were spared any damage. This led to a new period of building in the Old Town, since when very little of the atmosphere, aesthetic and character have changed. The 19th century brought industrialization to Tallinn and the port continued to play an important role, but the pressures of Russification were mounting by the end of the century.
On 24 February 1918, the Independence Manifesto was proclaimed in Tallinn, followed by Imperial German occupation and a war of independence with Russia. On 2 February 1920, the Tartu Peace Treaty was signed with Soviet Russia, wherein Russia acknowledged the independence of the Estonian Republic. Tallinn became the capital of an independent Estonia. After World War II started, Estonia was occupied by the Soviet Union (USSR) in 1940, and later occupied by Nazi Germany from 1941–44. After Nazi retreat in 1944, it was occupied by the USSR again. After annexation into the Soviet Union, Tallinn became the capital of the Estonian SSR
The Soviet Union eventually fell, an independent democratic Estonian state was re-established (August 20, 1991) and Tallinn quickly became a modern European capital. In 1997, UNESCO awarded the Old Town a World Heritage Site, and in 2004 Estonia joined the EU .
Tallinn also has numerous literary connections and was the birthplace and home of Jaan Kross, Estonia’s most famous writer. Kross was nominated for the Nobel Prize for literature several times and wrote a series of historical novels with a political bent. Two former writers’ residences have also been turned into museums: the A.H.Tammsaare museum and the Eduard Vilde Museum. Tammsarre is considered to be the greatest Estonian writer of the 20th century and his major work ‘Truth and Justice’ is so well known that it’s earned the nickname ‘ The Estonian Novel’. Vilde on the other hand wrote the first novels to be published in Estonia and is still highly-regarded today.
Things you may not know about Tallinn include:- the computer programme Skype – that enables people to make phone calls over the internet – was developed in Tallinn in 2004. Tallinn’s Town Hall Square is said to be the site of the first-ever decorated Christmas tree in 1441. Tallinn hosted the yachting and sailing events for the 1980 Olympic Games, and, the KGB used to use the spire of St.Olav’s Church as a radio tower.
Politically Estonia is a democratic country with the Prime Minister being the the head of government, and of a multi-party system. Legislative power is vested in the parliament. Executive power is exercised by the Government which is led by the Prime Minister. The Judiciary is independent of the executive and the legislature.
The Medieval Old Town is probably the city’s biggest tourist draw. This enclosed neighbourhood of colourful, gabled houses, half-hidden courtyards and grandiose churches, mixes gothic churches with the cappuccino culture. The square in front of Tallinn’s Town Hall, known as ‘Raekoja Plats’, is filled with outdoor cafés and is home to countless open-air concerts, handicraft fairs and the annual Christmas Market.
On the north eastern corner of the square you’ll find Raekoja Plats 11, the Raeapteek. It’s the oldest functioning pharmacy in the world! It’s been in business since 1422 and run by the Burcharts family since 1583, who passed it onto ten generations until 1911. Historically you could also buy tobacco, spices, silk and alcoholic drinks here and today you can still see an exhibition of common remedies used between the 17th and 20th centuries.
The Town Hall itself is the only Gothic style town hall left in Northern Europe.
In the vaults of the Citizen’s Hall you can see valuable works of art that reflect the wealth of the Hanseatic era. Rarest of all are the medieval benches.
St. Olav’s Church, also in the Old Town, was the tallest church in Medieval Europe. Little is known about its history but we do know the church was named after the Norwegian king, Olav II Haraldsson, canonised as a saint. St. Olav was considered to be the protector of seafarers. In around 1500, the building reached a height of 159 meters and became the world’s tallest building at that time. The motivation for building such a tall steeple was probably to use it as a maritime signpost, with Tallinn being visible from far out at sea. Despite its stature the church is not what you would consider lucky – the steeple has been hit by lightning at least eight times and the whole church has burned down three times.
Looming over Tallinn’s Old Town is Toompea Hill itself. There are two viewing platforms on Toompea from where you get the best views across the lower town. Visiting them is a definite must! Neither of them is hard to find, you’ve only got to walk along Kohtu or Rahukohtu street until they end. One of them provides you with a magnificent view over parts of the lower town and the Baltic Sea. The other provides you with views over the complete lower town and parts of Tallinn’s modern business areas.
Nothing remains of the original 1219 Danish castle except for three corner towers. The best of the three is the 14th century Pikk Hermann (Tall Hermann). The name comes from the German phrase “Lange Hermann” meaning “tall soldier”.
There are at least three ‘must sees’ in Tallinn – The Alexander Nevsky Cathedral, The KUMU and the Kadriorg Palace.
The Alexander Nevsky Cathedral is perched on top of Toompea Hill and is without doubt Tallinn’s most opulent Orthodox church. It was built in 1900 when Estonia was part of the tsarist Russian empire and was supposed to symbolise the empire’s dominance. It was designed by the respected St. Petersberg architect, Mikhail Preobrazhenski and the countless mosaics and icons are well worth a visit.
The church’s towers also hold Tallinn’s most powerful church bells including the largest in Tallinn, weighing 15 tonnes. You can hear the entire ensemble playing before each service.
Tallinn is packed full of museums ranging from history and art, to museums specializing in old-fashioned dolls, antique cameras, musical instruments and even sea mines. If you’re a true museum buff, you should consider buying a Tallinn Card, which will give you free entrance to most of the city’s museums, although it’s worth noting that many of the museums are closed on Mondays and/or Tuesdays.
Tallinn is home to over 25 art galleries but if you only visit one it should be the KUMU, Estonia’s national gallery. It has the largest archive of national art in the Baltic and was crowned European Museum of the Year in 2008. The glass exterior makes the building look very contemporary and indeed there are plenty of contemporary pieces inside but there are also many classical Estonioan works dating back to the 18th century
Just up the road is the Kadriorg Palace, which houses Estonia’s foreign art collection including paintings by 16th-18th century Dutch, German, Italian and Russian masters. Although you don’t have to be an art-lover to appreciate the magnificence of the Kadriorg Palace! Built by Peter the Great for his wife, Catherine I, in 1718, it’s a stunning example of grand Baroque architecture. Designed by Italian architect Niccolo Michetti, the palace and surrounding manicured gardens are an example of Tsarist extravagance with photo opportunities on every corner. Whilst you are here, don’t miss the decadent, two-storey main hall, with its elaborately painted ceiling and stucco work, or the room used as an office by Estonia’s head of state before the nearby Presidential Palace was built.