Kalamaja: An Estonian neighbourhood by the sea

Tallinn can easily get sidelined as a destination that is only known for its Old Town. Yes, the Old Town is the piece de la resistance of the Estonian capital. But there are other aspects to this city, which also deserve mentioning.

After exploring the Old Town to my heart’s content for two days, and just to get a break from all that old-world charm (yes, I am a golden-age syndrome addict), I decided to venture out into the nearby localities. The first stop: Kalamaja neighbourhood.

Kalamaja is an old part of Tallinn – although not as old as the fortified Old Town. A former Soviet Armed Forces base, the district is now renowned for its unique wooden houses. These structures date back to hundreds of years and one glance at these houses’ aged exteriors will tell you that they have seen many many monsoons.

Kalamaja is filled with such houses which have aged gracefully

Kalamaja translates to ‘fish harbour’ and considering its proximity to the Baltic Sea it is not hard to imagine how important a role fishing must have played in this locality. Around 1870s, the neighbourhood also started housing a lot of Soviet factories, thereby bringing with it a working class vibe to the place. Back then, Kalamaja was connected to St Petersburg, in Moscow, by a railroad.

Details on a typical house in Kalamaja

As it is with places having this sort of historical background, Kalamaja was left to itself after the Soviets factories went kaputt and workers started leaving the place. The supposed ruin has now become desirable. Kalamaja today is the bohemian capital of Tallinn, attracting the creative types. I didn’t visit all the many art galleries and museums here, but spent most of my time just wandering through the quiet lanes. The idea wasn’t to tick off places to see here, but just to amble away time and get a feel of the place. Besides, the whole neighbourhood in itself is an art gallery: Wooden houses with interesting architecture paying homage to an era gone by; fresh coats of hues of red, green, yellow painted on some houses, depicting the pride the residents living inside must be feeling and some stone structures punctuating the row of wooden houses.

Thanks to its proximity to the Baltic Sea, the Kalamaja neighbourhood was always prone to attacks by invaders before the Soviets settled here. That’s the reason most of the houses here were made out of wood. In case the city anticipated an attack, the houses would be burnt down before people moved to the fortified Old Town. The current structures, therefore, aren’t older than a 100-150 years.

Quiet streets, almost empty looking houses – made me wonder if anyone really lived here?

Most of the buildings I saw were two-three storey structures covered with wooden planks on all sides and having a defined structure with few variations.

During my flanerie, I didn’t see a single soul hanging by the window. It made me wonder, if anyone resided in these houses or of they were abandoned? Especially, because it was a warm July afternoon. It was quiet, except for the howling sound of the breeze. After a point, I even stopped photographing the buildings as I realised, I wasn’t doing any justice to the photographs, thanks to the constraints of space and the not-so-wide angle lens on my smartphone camera.  

Easily one the coolest looking house on the street. Even the car to the left looked from another era

A little reading on the neighbourhood after a few days of leaving Tallinn, gave me the cliched answers. About how it’s now undergoing a revival as it has been discovered by artists. The restaurants in this neighbourhood are still relatively affordable than the ones at the Old Town square. But as a side-effect of not researching the place beforehand, I missed out on possibly exploring the abandoned Patarei Prison, which was right by the sea, and a glimpse of which I saw while hanging around at the shore.

Well, I guess one can’t always plan enough.

Most houses have a standard design with a stony base

Thankfully, I didn’t spot any massive construction or renovation projects happening on my walk in this district. The spectre of gentrification wasn’t that explicit here. Having said that, the district has reinvented itself with concepts such as the Telliskivi Creative City that has revamped the abandoned warehouses in the area to house over 200 indie businesses. I did not visit these areas, as I was not really going by the map.

But I wonder, how long the status quo would remain.

Every once in a while, you do come across stone houses
If not for that car, I’d have thought I have travelled back in time
Keep aside a couple of hours to really see this neighbourhood

More from the Tallinn trip

Vana Tallinn

Tallinn by the beach on a balmy July afternoon

Doors of Tallinn