One of the most beautiful and impressive medieval cities in Europe, the city of Tallinn is an absolute delight for any traveller. Walking through the cobblestone streets of its Old Town will transport you back in time, while visiting the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral will make you discover the Russian past of a the city that, surprisingly, has become a reference for digital innovation.
During my visit to Finland, I decided to visit Tallinn in a one day trip from Helsinki. Whether you’re also going to Tallinn for a day or maybe you have decided to dedicate some additional time to this fascinating city, discover in this article how to make the most out of your visit to the capital of Estonia!
How to get to Tallinn from Helsinki
If you’re visiting Helsinki and want to make a quick trip to Tallinn, catching the ferry is by far the most convenient option. You can reach the Estonian capital in about 1h45m, with a ferry leaving at least every hour from Helsinki Katajanokka port and heading back to the city until late in the evening.
You can certainly visit all the main highlights of Tallinn in a one day trip, but if you have more time, this fascinating town is well worth a couple of days. Unfortunately, I was limited in time, so I caught one of the first ferries at 8am and headed back to Helsinki at 8:15pm. This gave about 10h to explore Tallinn, which is a very decent amount of time.
If you’re sleeping in Tallinn and want to visit Helsinki in a day trip, the inverse route works perfectly fine as well. If you decide to go with this option, don’t forget to check out my post on the very best of Helsinki.
There are a few different companies that do this route. I used directferries.com to compare all the different options and schedules, and I decided to book with Viking Line due to the reasonable price and the good schedules. Their ferry was quite comfortable and overall had a very good experience with them.
The first evidence of what we know today as Tallinn originates in the 9th century, when the first fortress was built on Toompea Hill. Ruled by the Danish in the 13th century for over a hundred years, the city reached its peak during the Middle Ages, between the 14th and 16th century. It was during this time that the Old City was built until it was occupied by the Russian Empire during the Northern War of 1710.
After the 1917 Russian Revolution, Estonia declared its independence as a republic for a brief period until the country was occupied by Nazi Germany. In spite of the war, and contrary to many other Eastern-European capitals, most of the buildings of the Old Town were left intact. Thanks to this, Tallinn is still today one of the best preserved medieval cities that can be found in Europe.
After the Second World War, Tallinn was occupied by the Soviets until 1988, when the country finally issued its declaration of independence from the Soviet Unit. After its adherence to the European Union in 2004, Tallinn has become a reference in the digital world, being the birthplace of major companies, including Skype or TransferWise.
To start exploring this fascinating city, I walked from the port for about 15 minutes and entered the Old Town from the Great Coastal Gate. This used to be the main gate of Tallinn, which served as the route to go from the port to the market square. At the top of the gate stands out the impressive carving of Tallinn’s coat of arms.
The gate dates from the 14th century and originally, it was a rectangular tower of six stories that could be closed with a portcullis.
After multiple reconstructions between the 16th and 17th century, which included the construction of a barbican and an additional gate, today it houses the Estonian Maritime Museum.
As soon as I stepped into the Old Town, I was surprised by the incredible state of conservation of all buildings. It was early in the morning, with most of the streets still deserted, so it truly felt like going back in time to the Middle Ages.
Next to the entrance gate, I came across the Three Sisters, a medieval group of buildings that represent the late gothic architecture at its finest.
If Tallinn is already fascinating from the ground, the view from above is even more so. One of the best panoramic views of the city can be found in St Olaf’s Church, climbing the 124m high tower.
This Roman-catholic church is the biggest medieval building in the city, dating back from the 12th century and dedicated to King Olaf II of Norway. I didn’t find the interior particularly impressive, but the views from the top were definitely worth it.
Right after leaving St. Olaf’s Church, a torrential rain started pouring down. Luckily for me it didn’t last for too long and was able to get shelter under the constructions in the Tower’s Square.
The square takes its name from the multiple wall towers next to it. The area used to belong to a female nunnery until the embankments were built and a moat was dug during the 17th century. By the middle of the 19th century, the fortifications no longer had any military use.
South of Tower’s Square I reached the Great Guild, the official building of an organisation of merchants that dealt with international trade.
Built in the 15th century, the main facade is decorated with blind arches and a portal. The front door knockers are lean heads with a text that says “God bless everyone who is in this house and who will come here”.
It constitutes one of the best examples of medieval architecture in Tallinn.
One of the big highlights of Tallinn its the Town Hall Square, a beautiful ensemble that has served as the market space from the 13th century.
Filled with outdoor cafes and centre of the multiple medieval festivals that take place in Tallinn, it is one of the liveliest areas of the city. During my visit, I had the chance to enjoy a beautiful display of folkloric Estonian music and dance.
At one of the sides of the square is the Town Hall of Tallinn, the only surviving Gothic Hall in Northern Europe. It was already mentioned in 1322, when Tallinn a prosperous city. The arcade, the towers and the impressive halls in the upper floor were built during that time.
The Town Hall was the seat of the local government for centuries and is still used for ceremonial and culture events.
A very peculiar visit in the Town Hall Square is the Pharmacy, one of the oldest continually working apothecary’s in the world, dating from 1422.
The current building has developed from three previous Gothic buildings that were added together, being a weighing house on the left, the original apothecary in the centre and the house of the Priest of the Church of the Holy Spirit on the right hand side.
The interior contains a collection of original artefacts that are particularly curious and give an overview of how the pharmaceutical science has evolved during the centuries.
Leaving the Town Hall Square behind and almost hidden in the medieval streets Catherine’s alley. Its name comes from St. Catherine’s church, built on the side of the alley over 700 years ago.
If you’re looking to enjoy the medieval atmosphere of Tallinn, this is the right place. Not only the architecture is gorgeous, but the multiple workshops crating ceramics, class and paintings make this alley a magical place.
After having visited the lower part of the city, I headed to the Toompea hill. Togo from the lower to the upper part of the city, I crossed the Long Leg Gate, located at the lower part of a road made in the hillside and built to connect the Toompea Hill and the harbour.
The gate used to be controlled from the lower part of the town and replaced a wooden gate in the 14th century. After losing its military function, it was used for multiple purposes, including the accommodation of soldiers. For the last few hundred years, it has housed artists’ flats and studios.
Crowning Toompea hill is Alexander Nevsky Cathedral. It was built in a typical Russian style at the very end of the 19th century, when Estonia was still part of the Russian Empire.
The cathedral is richly decorated and its five onion domes can be seen from pretty much everywhere in Tallinn.
After the restoration of Estonian independence in the 90s, it was seen as a symbol of Russian oppression and there were plans to demolish the building, but they were never implemented.
A few meters behind the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral, you can’t miss the Toompea viewpoint.
Offering great views of the lower part of the Old Town and St. Olaf’s Church, it is one of the most famous postcards of the Estonian capital.
After having explored the upper part of the old town, I started my descent, stopping at the Danish King’s Garden. This area was given to the lower town by King Erik VII of Denmark, who constructed the city wall and made the garden the border between downtown and Toompea hill.
The Short Leg Gate Tower that I had visited just before, which is located right next to the Danish King’s Garden, used to keep the lower town separate from Toompea Hill and according to the legend, it also stopped the ghost from accessing the hill.
In fact, this area is one of the most haunted places in Tallinn, where many people having reported sightings of ghosts. One of the statues that can be found in the garden represent the figure of an infamous executed black monk that is thought to roam the gardens at night.
Slightly outside of the Old Town, the Monument to War of Independence commemorates the victory in the Estonian War of Independence that took place between 1918 and 1920.
During this war, Estonia had to fight not only against Soviet Russia, but also against the German brigades attacking the Baltic.
The war ended on February 2nd, 1920 with the signing of the Tartu Peace Treaty.
The time to catch my ferry back to Helsinki was approaching, so I started heading back to the port and left Tallinn behind through the Viru Gate.
These two towers are part of Tallinn’s defense system, built in the 14th century. Nowadays, Viru Street is one of the busiest pedestrian streets in the Old Town, with many shops and restaurants frequented by locals and tourists alike.
I left Tallinn completely in love with it; it’s architecture and colourful buildings, the atmosphere, the beautiful cobblestone streets… everything! It became one of my favourite cities in Europe as soon as I stepped in it.
I certainly can’t wait to go back to Estonia and visit more of this unknown but captivating country!
All opinions are my own.
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