My summer this year consisted of traveling to a few countries in the North of Europe, and Estonia was one of them. In Estonia, I visited Tallinn, the capital of the country. And am I glad I did that?
Tallinn is situated in the northern part of the country on the shore of the Gulf of Finland of the Baltic Sea and is one of the best-preserved medieval cities in Europe.
It is a lively but peaceful city with beautiful sights -churches, streetscapes, merchant houses, delightful food and a vibrant culture.
There are so many things that one can do in Tallinn, and that is why it is one of the most popular destinations in Europe. Despite being so popular, it has managed to preserve its charm and medieval spirit.
I could only spend a day there, which I felt was less. You need at least three days to see the whole place.
For my husband and I, it was a day trip from Helsinki. We took a ferry back and forth, and it took us two hours both ways. The journey was pleasant and comfortable, with scenic views to give company.
We reached, and I took in a deep breath. The city looked beautiful though it was pretty windy and cold. Mind you; I was there end of April.
Since time was short, we had decided to visit only the old town, a UNESCO world heritage site. But if you have the time visiting the entire city would be an excellent idea for it is a heady mix of the old and the new.
So from the ferry terminal, we began our walk towards the old town, soaking up the vibe of the city along the way. The old town is surrounded by these medieval defensive walls, and you enter the town through one of the many entry points. These walls are almost 800 years old, and that is one of the reasons why the old town was named a UNESCO site in 1997.
The locals maintain the walls, which is an excellent way of getting the people to care for their city.
As we entered the town, it was as though we had been transported to the times gone by. The beautiful old buildings, the colours on them, cobbled streets and the surrounding walls were a sight to behold….. and when you looked up, the skyline was dotted with castle towers and old church spires, giving it a very fairytale kind of a vibe. It was amazing to see how the old churches, buildings and fortifications have been carefully preserved. Built in the Gothic style, the buildings looked well cared for.
Our guide pointed out many interesting things as we walked through the town. One of the things that she brought to our notice was how in some instances, during restoration, the restorers had made sure to mark the places where the original doors and windows had existed. Though they had to be covered now, the restorers felt people needed to know where they existed—a great way to preserve history.
The guide also regaled us with stories and incidents, which were a great way to understand the town’s social fabric.
We learned that the town has two parts; the upper and the lower. The upper part was for the rich and the well-heeled, while the lower was for the local commoners. At one point, the two towns were separated by gates but not any longer; a pointer towards how the divide between the haves and have nots has always existed.
The lower town has various attractions, including the Town Hall Square, The city walls and their towers and various other interesting structures.
The Three Sisters
I observed that the townspeople in those days placed a lot of emphasis on women and their safety and security. The guide showed us a building with three houses built by a father for his three daughters who had not been able to get married. Since he was concerned about their future, he got the building made so that the three could live close to each other. And very aptly, he named the building “The Three Sisters.”
And then, wonders of wonders, she showed us another building named ‘The Three Brothers’!! Probably by another doting father. My take-home from this was the importance accorded to relationships by the people of the town. Another testimony was the ‘Father and Son’ building on Kuninga street.
The Flower Market
We were walking along, trying to absorb everything she told us. And then I saw an incredible sight!! It was something that has remained with me. As we were walking, I just happened to turn and saw what seemed to be like a flower market. There was no way I could resist taking a look. So all future sightseeing plans were put on hold, and I almost ran to take a look. And what a look it turned out to be.. on both sides of the street, flower vendors were selling the most exotic and beautiful flowers. The fragrance was intoxicating, and flowers seemed to be in the air. The colours, the types, and the presentation had me spellbound. But not spellbound enough to not click pictures. What’s more, the vendors were friendly, smiling away as I clicked away.
But then, I was summoned back as we were running late.
Among the many interesting sights that we saw was the ‘Cat’s Well’, which was once one of the primary sources of water for the people of the city.
But according to legend, some locals started believing that an evil spirit lived in the well, and the only way to get rid of it was by making regular animal sacrifices. And the main victims of this were the stray cats which were rounded up and tossed into the well. This became so common that the well was named “Cat’s Well’.
We got a glimpse of the Town Square which we decided to visit later to have our lunch there. And then we headed towards the Upper Town.
Raamatukoi (The Book Moth)
But before that, I had to make my pit stop. I had to visit a bookshop, and our guide guided me to this lovely independent bookstore called Raamatukoi, which means The Book Moth.
Raamatukoi is a book lover’s paradise with an extensive collection of new, second-hand, and antiquarian books. They had books in Estonian and many other languages like English, Russian, German and Finnish. Along with books, they also sell different kinds of vintage and collectable items like old maps, postcards, pins, badges and other historical souvenirs.
Upper Town (Toompea Hill)
Then we moved to the upper part of the town called Toompea Hill or Cathedral Hill, which is the seat of the government. There are two narrow streets – the Long Leg ( used by horses in days gone by) and the Short Leg ( an alley with stairs for people that connect the two parts of the town). We went up the stairs admiring the beauty and the fairytale-like ambience of the place. With the trees and the greens around, the climb up was a delightful experience.
We saw some interesting buildings like the Toompea Castle, Alexander Nevsky Cathedral and St Nicolas church. The ambience inside the cathedrals was calm and serene.
We also got a look at the Prime Minister’s house, which had no guards or security around it. The Prime minister, a woman we were told, feels free to step in and mingle with the people.
The Viewing Platform
And then, we went to a viewing platform to see the entire city from that height. That, believe me, was a breathtaking experience. The terrace area offered stunning views of the whole city. Along with the hustle and bustle of the town below, one could also see the Gulf Of Finland as the backdrop. One could see the signature red roofs and the high-rises of the newest part of the city.
Next to the platform was this pastel pink wall which said ‘The times we had”. That pretty much summed up our experience of being in Tallinn.
We also got a peek into the Prime Minister’s private terrace.
And then, from there, we turned to go back to the lower town. Our stomachs were growling by then, so our guide took us to the lively Town Square. The Town Square is the heart of the city and a centre for colourful historic buildings, the town hall and some lovely restaurants and cafes. The oldest working pharmacy in Europe, dating back to 1422, can also be found here.
The sun was shining, and though it was windy, the day was beautiful. There were several options for sitting outside in the sun for lunch. We chose one of them and spent a long, relaxed afternoon starting with wine and beer, followed by a delectable salmon dish and linguine with seafood.
Now we were ready for dessert. And on our guide’s recommendation, we decided to go to Maiasmokk, one of the most beautiful and historic cafes I have ever visited. Maiasmokk is the oldest operational café in Estonia. Its history goes back to 1806. The café also has a museum which takes one through the history and uses of marzipan. The interior of the café has remained unchanged for almost 100 years now.
It offers a delectable variety of fresh pastries, pies and cakes, along with delicious handmade candies. We took our pick with some excellent hot coffee.
And then, much to my dismay, it was time to head back. But before that, there was one last thing to do. Our guide had mentioned that right outside the bookstore that I had visited, there was a statue of Jaan Kross, a celebrated Estonian writer unveiled in 2022.
And I, the picture queen, had to take a picture standing next to it.
That done, we headed back to the ferry terminal to start our journey back to Helsinki.
It had been a day well-spent, but we were craving for more. I wish I could have spent more time in the beautiful city, but maybe another time.