Small, but promising, the Estonian capital has in recent years been getting a lot of traction as both a prominent hub for startups and tourism. Especially after its long and arduous history being ruled by various powers like Sweden and Russia, Tallinn today is a growing city that still retains much of its historic charm, as evidently seen in its well-preserved Old Town.
Estonia is somewhat of a unique case in terms of its status and position in northern Europe. For instance, it’s not considered a Scandinavian country, but rather a “Baltic” one, with the likes of its neighbors, Latvia and Lithuania. However, due to its strategic position along the Baltic coast, it also has strong ties to its Nordic neighbors, including Sweden and Finland. And especially with Soviet rule in the 20th century, the country also has links with Russia (although many are adamant about distancing themselves from this association). Small as it may be, Estonia is politically-complex, to say the least.
When my family and I visited Tallinn in 2012, it hadn’t been a huge, popular tourist spot as it is today. Even though there were a good handful of tourists I saw during my visit, I can imagine that it’s more crowded these days with more people in town. According to the tourism reports on Visit Tallinn, the number of visitors had more than doubled between 2012 and 2018, from barely 2 million to nearly 4.7 million tourists. It’s an incredible growth for the Estonian economy, and it’s great that more people are becoming more interested in smaller countries in Europe.
We spent a half-day in town taking a walking tour with a local, a middle-aged woman who still remembers her younger years spent under Russian occupation. Aside from showing us monuments, she wasn’t shy in expressing her dislike for Russians at any opportunity she could. It was rather surprising, as I wasn’t accustomed to guides having strong opinions while on the job: I also got a similar sentiment from my tour guides in Georgia, many who do not like Russians, either. Visiting formerly-occupied Soviet countries is definitely a different sense of traveling, as it is very-focused on the harsh and sad history under Russian rule.
Our visit of Tallinn began with a coach ride to Toompea (“tom-pay,” rhymes with “Pompeii”), considered the “Upper Town.” It houses the Toompea Castle, a 9th-century stronghold that houses the Parliament of Estonia today. The hill certainly has an air of royalty to it, as it was once the place for nobles and the rich. We strolled its grounds, checking out the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral, which absolutely towers upon the hill: constructed in the late 19th century, it was built in the Russian Orthodox style, as evident in its distinctive onion-shaped domes. We also stopped by an amber store, as Estonia (as part of the Baltic region) specializes in amber.
Once we had seen the highlights of Toompea, we trickled down to the Lower Town (All-linn) on-foot to continue sightseeing. Whereas the Upper Town was historically-set for nobles, the Lower Town was for civilians, as seen through its well-preserved, medieval Town Hall Square (Raekoja plats). Our group stopped at a small cafe for a coffee break with Danish pastries– as I’m not a huge coffee drinker, I settled for a hot chocolate.
Following the coffee break, we were given some free time to wander the square. My family and I came across some open-air shops that sold linen and wool-made clothing, e.g. hats, scarves, sweaters. Our guide had recommended such items to purchase, as they’re locally-made, along with amber. We ended up buying a few, including a colorfully-patterned hat that also doubled as a scarf!
Our group reconvened, and we headed to the Three Sisters, a set of three, narrow buildings that date all the way back to the 14th century and serve as hotels today. Story has it that they belonged to a merchant with three daughters, and he spent his earnings to build the houses, one for each daughter. Unfortunately, his fortune decreased over time, which resulted in each consecutive house being less in stature. That’s to say that the eldest daughter had the “best, widest” house while the youngest was stuck with the narrowest one! I found the story very amusing, as well as a cautionary tale about financial investments. PS There’s the “Three Brothers” equivalent located in Riga, Latvia!
Fat Margaret was our final stop for the day, situated just outside of the Old Town. Standing at 82 meters (270 feet) tall, this thick and formidable tower was built in the 14th century to withstand any foreign invasion. It houses a maritime museum today, and we climbed the four flights of stairs to the top of the tower for views of the city, before descending to visit each floor of the museum and learn a bit about Estonia’s maritime history.
Our visit of Tallinn concluded there, and we returned to our ship for the day. While it may have been merely four, five hours in town, I was pleasantly-surprised by how much I enjoyed my time there. The city was small, but charming, and I really liked the quaint architecture in the Old Town. Should one decide to visit the Baltic States, a pop-over to Tallinn is worth a go!
More adventures soon!