Old Town Tallinn: Guide for the First-time Visitor

When you travel the Baltic countries, you’ll want to focus on the Baltic capitals, especially if you’re a first-time visitor to the region. And in the Baltic capitals, some of the most attraction-dense areas are the historic centers – Old Town Vilnius, Old Town Riga, and Old Town Tallinn.

If you’re headed to Estonia and excited about Tallinn’s well-preserved medieval center, you may want to begin to plan what to see and do when you get there. Tallinn’s 13th-century layout, along with its defensive structures, museums, beautiful streets, and views means that it’s difficult to get bored no matter how long your stay.

This article details some of the most interesting sights and attractions in Old Town Tallinn and recommends how you can get the most from your visit.

Aerial view of Tallinn Old Town
Photo 250335076 / Estonian © Ingus Kruklitis | Dreamstime.com

Contents

Vanalinn

Vanalinn, or “Old Town” in Estonian, is often separated into two sections. Toompea is Vanalinn’s “upper town” because it is situated on a hill. Toompea Castle is on this hill.

All-linn is Old Town Tallinn’s “lower town,” set a level below Toompea. This is the part of Vanalinn that the city walls and Town Hall are located in.

You might be able to guess now what the “linn” part of words “Tallinn,” “Vanalinn,” and “All-linn” mean. “Linn” means “town” in Estonian. “Vana” is “old.” That’s why Old Town is called Vanalinn!

Toompea

Toompea means “Cathedral Hill.” The cathedral in question is St. Mary’s Cathedral, the so-called Dome Church or Toomkirik in Estonian. St. Mary’s dates to the 13th century and began as a Roman Catholic church but is now an Estonian Lutheran Evangelical church.

However, Toompea might as well be called Castle Hill – it’s where Toompea Castle, the most important castle in Estonia, has stood for centuries. Hills were obvious places for fortification in the Middle Ages – they offered views of the surrounding region and were easy to defend – and so a hillfort was built here before any temporary architecture was constructed.

We can think of Lithuania’s Kernave as a comparison. This early historic Lithuanian capital city was an important site for wooden hillforts. The difference is that Toompea developed into a permanent settlement in Estonia, while in Lithuania, the rulers eventually abandoned Kernave.

Toompea Castle is undoubtedly one of Tallinn Old Town’s most important sights. While it has a tempestuous history and roots in the Teutonic Order of knights, in the 18th century, Toompea was given an update, with palace rooms added for comfort.

Parliament Building

The Parliament (Riigikogu) Building is located in Toompea Castle to serve the newly independent Estonian state – Estonia declared independence in 1918. Visitors can view the Parliament Building of Estonia with a pre-reserved tour.

Tallinn Parliament Building
Photo 250982702 / Estonian © Sergio Delle Vedove | Dreamstime.com

Alexander Nevsky Cathedral

Built in typical Orthodox Church style, Alexander Nevsky Cathedral is a striking addition to Toompea. Unfortunately, it’s also a symbol of oppression. It was built during the Russian Empire and a period when russification policies undermined local culture and established Russian language, culture, and law as dominant. The prominent position of the cathedral sent a strong message to the Estonian population about who was in charge.

While the cathedral was once slated for demolition, it nevertheless survives as a relic of Russian colonial days and an Estonia that was ripe to exercise its desire for self-determination.

Other Sights in Toompea

Toompea is home to other important structures as well as Tallinn’s famous viewing platforms, which are some of the best ways to experience the full impact of Old Town Tallinn’s beauty.

The Neoclassical Stenbock House is the official seat of the Government of Estonia.

The Estonian Knighthood House, which actually refers to German nobles (the ruling class) who were knights, was originally a place where these men met – its current use is for displaying art. It shares the square with the Dome Church.

The Ungern-Sternberg Palace is now the main building of the Estonian Academy of Sciences.

Probably one of the most popular sights on Toompea is its viewing platforms, which overlook the lower parts of Tallinn and offer postcard-perfect snapshots of this historic city. These include the Piiskopi viewing platform at Toom-Kooli 21, the Patkuli viewing platform on Rahukohtu, and the Kohtuotsa viewing platform at Kohtu 12. Each offers a different view, so it’s worth visiting all three.

All-linn

All-linn is the “lower town,” the old city that sprawls underneath Toompea in a network of curving streets lined by historic buildings. Here, the heartbeat of the centuries continues to pulse, and it’s easy to imagine Tallinn as it was in the past, when carriages instead of cars made deliveries and architecture had to protect not only inhabitants from the weather but entire cities from hostile forces.

Tallinn Old Town Square with historic buildings
Photo 251183112 / Estonian © Sergio Delle Vedove | Dreamstime.com

Town Hall Square

The heart of All-linn is the Town Hall. The Gothic-style Town Hall has 700 years of history behind it and sits formidably in Town Hall Square. It’s here that one of Tallinn’s Christmas markets pop up in December and where visitors can get a taste of Christmas in Estonia.

Go up the 115 steps of the tower (ticket required) for more views of the surrounding old town during the summer months. A separate ticket is required to enter and view the exhibits in the Town Hall.

Nearby is the Town Hall Pharmacy, the oldest pharmacy in Europe still in operation in the same location. Go in for some headache medicine or Band-aids, or visit the free museum that showcases implements of the pharmacy practice from days of old.

Surrounding the square are plenty of places to eat, though you may want to dine outside this most touristy area if you aren’t grumpy from hunger yet.

You’ll also be able to follow the streets from Town Hall Square to explore all that Old Town Tallinn has to offer.

Towers and Walls of Tallinn Old Town

One of the most picturesque and remarkable aspects of Tallinn Old Town is its towers and walls, left over from when Tallinn had to protect itself from attack with stone defensive structures. Originally 46 formidable towers were built, starting in the 13th century, and now a full 24 remain, connected in parts by the original wall that linked them.

Red-roofed stone towers of Old Town Tallinn
Photo 250280680 © Sergii Figurnyi | Dreamstime.com

All of the towers are named, but perhaps the most famous is Fat Margret, which guards the Great Coastal Gate. Built in the 16th century, it was meant to help protect the harbor and now is home to the Estonian Maritime Museum.

The second most famous of Tallinn’s towers is the Kiek in de Kok, which means “peep into the kitchen.” The name is derived from the ability the tower’s height and location gave for those inside to see into the residents’ houses. The Kiek in de Kok is now part of the Fortifications Museum, which allows visitors to explore four towers and the city bastion passages.

Other Sights of Old Town Tallinn

The Danish King’s Garden is located near St. Nicholas Church, next to Toompea. It’s named for the Danish king because a 13th-century ruler from Denmark supposedly camped here with his troops before invading Toompea. Legend says that the Danish flag was also willed into existence here, falling from the sky and ushering the Danish troops to victory.

St. Olaf’s Church is known for its tall spire, said to have been the tallest in the world in the 16th and early 17th century, though experts doubt this claim. Its main attraction is the views from the tower (ticket required), which notoriously obligates visitors to climb 200-plus steps to reach the top.

St. Catherine’s Passage is often called one of Old Town Tallinn’s prettiest streets. But besides simply being picturesque, it’s also where you can find the workshops of craftspeople using traditional techniques to produce ceramics, textile art, and accessories. It’s a great place to look for unique gifts and souvenirs and Baltic folk art.

Medieval street of St. Catherine's Passage, Tallinn
Photo 135543635 © Mistervlad | Dreamstime.com

Similar to St. Catherine’s Passage, the Masters’ Courtyard is also home to shops selling arts and crafts surrounded by medieval architecture.

Museums in Tallinn Old Town

Museums are a great way to learn more about Tallinn’s fascinating history – and the old town is packed with them. The Fortifications Museum and the Estonian Maritime Museum have already been mentioned. Other museums offer a treatment of a wide range of subjects, from daily life to photography to health.

Exterior or the Museum of Photography in Tallinn
Photo 250982541 © Sergio Delle Vedove | Dreamstime.com
  • Tallinn City Life Museum: The Tallinn City Life Museum occupies what is thought to be the oldest house in Tallinn – a 14th century structure that, while sturdy, shows its age. Learn about life in Tallinn from medieval times to the 20th century.
  • Niguliste Museum: The 13th-century St. Nicholas Church could also be used as a fortress if needed during a time when attacks and invasions were a real concern to the people of the developing Tallinn, which at that time, was not yet protected by walls. Here, various objects of religious and church art are on display as well as works of silver.
  • The Museum of Photography: Take a journey through 100 years of Estonian photography from 1840 to 1940. Early forms of photography are on display as well as types of cameras.
  • Estonian Health Museum: A surprisingly modern museum situated in medieval buildings, the Estonian Health Museum teaches about anatomy and biological functions.
  • Estonian Museum of Applied Art and Design: A former granary offers a space for showcasing Estonia’s best examples of applied art.
  • Estonian Museum of Natural History: Estonia’s natural habitats and wildlife are one of its most treasured aspects. Learn more about it in this museum, either before or after striking out into the wilderness yourself with a bog tour or a visit to a national park.
  • Russian Museum in Tallinn: Russian life in Estonia and local Russian culture is explored in this small but worthwhile museum.
  • Vabamu Museum of Occupations and Freedom: The Vabamu Museum tells the story of Estonia under occupying forces as well as its achievement of freedom over oppression. It’s a must-visit attraction on your visit to Tallinn.
  • The Estonian History Museum in the Great Guild Hall: If you’d like to know more about Estonian history, pay a visit to the Great Guild Hall. It is housed in an early 15th-century Gothic building that was used by merchants and artisans.
  • KGB Prison Cells: Descend into the basement of a building long associated with Soviet oppression. The cells were used for torture and interrogation from 1940 to 1951.

Things to Do in Old Town Tallinn

You may love sightseeing, but you can enjoy Tallinn’s historic center in other ways. Already mentioned are its viewing platforms and towers as well as some of the most interesting museums. Expand your experience in one of the following ways.

Restaurant terraces near historic buildings
Photo 250220728 © Tanya Keisha | Dreamstime.com

Food and Dining

Foodies won’t mind exploring Old Town Tallinn through their stomachs. Try typical Estonian cuisine, whether modern or medieval. You’ll also have the opportunity to enjoy local beer and spirits while relaxing in the historic atmosphere.

One of the best-known eateries in Old Town Tallinn is Olde Hansa. Olde Hansa takes its name from the Hanseatic League, a trading network of cities that Tallinn belonged to. This festive, albeit touristy, bar and restaurant recreates the 15th century from the food to the drinks to the clothing of the waitstaff.

Nightlife

If you aren’t exhausted from a day of discovery, hang around Old Town Tallinn as its bars and pubs welcome those who can’t fathom calling it a day.

Festivals and Holidays

Major holidays, such as Easter in Estonia, may see some closure of businesses, but also check out the related events calendars, which will reveal a series of concerts and performances that you can enjoy.

Tallinn Old Town Days is a summertime festival dedicated to celebrating the city’s history and culture with markets, demonstrations, concerts, and games.

Tours

Taking a tour of Old Town Tallinn is one of the best ways to enjoy this UNESCO-protected city and get to know its highlights. Tours are especially useful if you’re short on time or just passing through.

You can take a variety of walking tours, experience Old Town Tallinn through a food tour, or learn about the historic center on a medieval tour.

Get Lost

Tallinn’s Old Town is great for getting lost in – discovery on your own by walking Tallinn’s medieval streets will offer plenty of surprises, photo opportunities, and memorable moments.

Medieval street in Tallinn at dusk
Photo 249909618 / Estonian © Roksana Bashyrova | Dreamstime.com

When to Visit Tallinn’s Historic Center

Most visitors enjoy Tallinn in the warm months, when the Estonian summer means long days and mild, sunny weather. A visit during this time of year also makes for an enjoyable discovery of the rest of Estonia – you can find plenty of things to do in Tartu, or other cities in Estonia, the island of Saaremaa, or Lahemaa National Park, for example.

A visit during the shoulder seasons – spring and fall – will mean fewer tourists. The Baltic countries are gorgeous during the fall. However, be prepared for a lasting winter chill in the springtime. The closer to June you decide to travel in the first part of the year, the less chance you’ll have of encountering late drops in temperature or even snow and ice.

Winter is also a lovely time to visit, particularly if you plan to see the Tallinn Christmas market. However, do note that cold weather can make medieval streets slippery with ice. Estonia is also well enough north that you can expect sub-zero temperatures. Be sure to dress for winter in the Baltics if you choose this time to go.

Exploring Old Town Tallinn is certainly one of the best things to do in Tallinn – it may even be the best thing to do in Estonia.

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