Exploring Tallinn’s Old Town

I have spoken a lot about the ‘Old Town’ of Tallinn in a few posts previously. For a golden-age-syndrome addict like me, walking within this 100 plus hectare space was probably what Owen Wilson’s character must have felt like in Midnight in Paris.

I had landed in Tallinn after an almost 6-hour journey from Berlin, and had five days to explore the place. But no sooner had I checked into my hostel and freshened up than I set out in the chilly Tallinn evening to get a taste of this part of the world. Tallinn had been on my bucket list for quite some years and I wasn’t going to let a bit of flight-weariness stop me from my first outing here.

One of the many erstwhile gates to enter Old Tallinn, still intact

The Old Town came into existence between the 13th and 16th centuries, when Estonia was part of the grand Hanseatic League: “a commercial and defensive confederation of merchant guilds and market towns in Northwestern and Central Europe.” More detailed information here. The architectural elements seen in the Old Town are quite reminiscent of the town centres of other European countries which were part of the guild, such as Belgium, Denmark, the Netherlands and more.

The stone walls of this fortified old town still stand according to the original plans and in many areas you will come across guard towers. According to our guide, the original limestone walls snaking around the old town covered a distance of 4 km which housed eight gates and over 40 towers. To this day, more than half of that structure is intact. I didn’t keep a track on the number of towers – there are many. A quick glance at the map outside the Old Town gate got me excited. So here are some of my favourite spots from the Old Town aka Vana Tallinn.

Town Hall Square aka Raekoja Plats

Old Tallinn Town Hall Square aka Raekoja Plats

As is the case with every old part of town in Northwestern Europe, this is that traditional square which houses the Town Hall. The tall spire of the Town Hall can quite easily be a North Star so to speak, a reference point in case you are lost. With the winding alleys of the Old Town, rest assured, you will get lost.

Restaurants with outdoor seating flood the Town Hall Square

The Town Hall building was quite functional looking, having none of the intricate architectural detail one generally associates with these buildings. The best time to visit this place is late in the night or early in the morning, as the rest of the time it is thronging with people, thanks to the surrounding cafes and souvenir shops. I bumped into a few Indian restaurant managers, who were more than happy to see an Indian face in this part of Europe. Facing the Town Hall building are around five to six buildings in varying pastel shades which are attached to each other. Every one of them has a restaurant establishment on the ground floor. 

Toompea Hill and its many viewing platforms

Back in the day, the Old Town of Tallinn was divided into the lower town (residents: regular folks) and the upper town (residents: royalty and nobility). But, the lower part of the town had houses made from stone whereas the upper part of the town used wood in its construction. As one would expect, that led to a lot of fires. So in terms of age of the buildings, the lower town has buildings from the 13th and 14th centuries, whereas the ones in the upper town due to reconstruction are relatively newer, dating back to 1700s.

The Kohtoutsa Viewing Platform offers sprawling videos of the Old Town

Just beside the Toompea Hill is an imposing neoclassical structure, called the Stenbock House which houses the office of the Prime Minister of Estonia. This place does not have any z-level security that one would normally expect at such places. This was also the case with the Toompea Castle, which is this baroque structure painted in a peachy colour. This structure houses the Estonian Parliament, and I could only see two guards on its gate. This really piqued my interest and I asked my walking tour guide, Helena, about it and this what she had to say:

The true Estonian answer is: Nobody cares. It is the most uneventful country. Nothing happens here:) We have a lot of CCTV cameras here, but nothing really happens here to justify massive security. Even the Presidential Castle just has two guards, and those too are youngsters picked up from the mandatory army program.

Thanks to the height at which this upper part of town is located, it gives one sprawling panoramic views of Tallinn, not just of the light brown roof-topped buildings of the lower town, but also the Baltic Sea in the distance and of course the spires of the churches I shall discuss ahead.

Save the camera honey, enjoy the view

The Kohtoutsa Viewing Platform was the first one I saw and was immediately taken in. The stony railing was glistening thanks to the mild morning showers. Thanks to the proximity to a water body, there are always seagulls around this spot. And they always stand by the railing as you are making photographs of the panoramic view of the city behind them, almost as though they are posing for you. You see five spires – one belonging to the Town Hall and the other four belonging to churches – from the viewing point. It can get a bit crowded during the late mornings and evenings thanks to the small area, but there is another viewing platform called Patkuli, which is at a slightly lower elevation, but a lot more spacious. I came here a couple of evenings, to watch the sun set and just take in a bit of the Vana Tallinn magic.

Patkuli: A more spacious viewing platform where I would rest my weary feet

Kiek in de Kok

Kiek in de Kok: This phallic structure now houses a museum inside

Literally translating to ‘Peep in the Kitchen’, this tower is located as you make your way from the erstwhile lower town to the upper town. It was meant to house artilleries and it reaches a height of around six floors when compared to modern buildings. Thanks to the height of this tower, it allowed anyone inside to literally peep into the kitchens of the houses in the lower town. A closer observation of this structure will reveal as many as nine cannon balls which are still stuck in various parts, remnants of a bombing attack back in the 15th century. It now houses a museum inside it.

Fat Margaret

This tower came up sometime in the 16th century and as the name implies, it has quite a few meters around its waist as compared to the other cylindrical towers. Thanks to its location close to the port, the Fat Margaret also served as a fortification and the first tower and gate for anyone coming from the Baltic Sea.

A gate that lies the closest to the Baltic Sea

It houses a museum inside it as well. It was also used as a storehouse for artilleries, gunpowder and served as a prison at some point in time.

Cathedrals in a land where atheism rules

One of the surprising things I discovered on my walking tour here was that the majority of Estonians are atheist. Over 60 percent of the population does not follow any religion. So it’s surprising to see so many cathedrals in the Old Town and a few outside. You have the St Alexander Nevsky Cathedral, St Olaf’s Church, St Nicholas’ Church, St Mary’s Cathedral and a Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church.

The front facade with the onion domes on top of the St Alexander Nevsky Cathedral

One look at the St Alexander Nevsky Cathedral and you can immediately find similarities with the St Basil’s Cathedral in Red Square, Moscow. The onion-shaped domes of this Orthodox cathedral is a reminder of the Russian rule in this region. St Olaf’s Cathedral has a spire which rises like a sharp needle. It is indeed the highest spot in the Old Town, and at one point in history was the highest building in Europe. Having come up in the 12-14th century, this cathedral was from the era of Norway ruling Estonia. The reason behind having such a tall spire was to be able to see the Finn enemy across the Baltic Sea (you can cross the Baltic Sea from Tallinn to head to Helsinki, Finland). No, you couldn’t see Helsinki from the top of the spire then, and neither can you now. Legend has it that around seven men fell to their death during the construction of the spire as no one thought of adding a lightning conductor atop the spire till quite late. Thanks to its height, St Olaf’s spires were also used as a radio and surveillance tower till 1991 by the Russians.

This church was discovered quite by accident had the most minimal decoration

The church which was quite different from the norm, however, was the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church. It almost seems to be hidden in one of the many stone buildings in the Old Town. Unlike other churches, this one doesn’t have any distinguishing spires. But the simple paintings of the Virgin Mary surrounded by biblical scenes, painted out in a similar style, puts it in a stark contrast to the intricacies seen in a Catholic or Orthodox church. The reason behind ‘three-hands’ is that while the church was undergoing restoration when it burnt in the 1990s, a limestone replica of a hand was discovered. There’s also a letter box with this text, which puts things in context behind the three hands.

“Church to the Blessed Virgin with three hands. She is the protector of the innocent who have been wrongly convicted, deceived and sinned against. You can describe your problem and put a letter into the box. The priest will pray for the settlement your question”

A north European country with over 60 percent of the population being atheist, was another googly for me. As usual, the journalist in me questioned Helena about this and I learned that native Estonians were Pagans and never really followed any religion as such. They did believe in the notion that every living thing has a spirit, but that was about it. The over-600 year occupation of Estonia by the Germans (who brought Christianity), Swedes (who brought Lutheran Christianity), Russians (Orthodox Christianity) and so on were religions brought along by outsiders. The natives practiced their paganism underground and when Estonia finally got independence, takers for organised religion were under a third of the population. But Christmas is celebrated with great pomp, said Helena. “For those three December days, we are quite religious because we get a holiday. Same with Easter. No one would know the significance of it, but everyone embraces the holidays,” she said tongue firmly in cheek.

Danish King’s Garden

With the massive maiden’s tower as its backdrop, the Danish King’s Garden looks a bit underwhelming

The Danish King’s garden is a wide open space in the surroundings of one of the wall and connects the Toompea Hill to the Lower Town. Legend says that this is the space where the Danish Flag came into existence. Back in 1219, this is where the then Danish King Valdemar II camped with his troops before conquering Estonia. It is said that during the battle with Estonians, the Danes got a sign in the form of a red flag with a white cross across it which eventually led them to victory and this flag, called Dannenbrog, became the flag of Denmark. Sounds quite convenient, doesn’t it. 

The three faceless monks who welcome you

The things that grab your attention in this spot in the 21st century though, are these faceless hooded sculptures, which almost look like stationary dementors from Potterverse. Called the three monks, these statues can creep you out around dusk as you make your way from the shortcut which leads from the Lower town to the entrance of the Danish King’s Garden. 

Master’s Courtyard

This was one place I stumbled upon purely by accident. Well, it was a fragrance wafting from this courtyard which made me follow my nose. Sure enough, there was a chocolaterie inside (Pierre’s Cafe and Chocolaterie) this courtyard. It’s otherwise filled with workshops dealing with local arts and crafts. The uneven cobbled streets and the roundish structure of the courtyard made it look like not much had changed in the architecture for centuries. I parked myself in a grandfather chair in the Chocolaterie to enjoy a cup of hot chocolate while watching the people outside.

There are tonnes of other places to see inside the Old Town, but these were the ones that left an impact on me and ones I still recall fondly without having to hunt for the photos.

The best plan when going around the Old Town is to have no plan at all (of course, this is after you have got your bearings). Taking the free guided walk is a good idea to get the lay of the land. Then, you just explore the side alleys at your own leisure.

Sometimes follow senses other than sight, and you shall be duly rewarded.

These seagulls were always ready with a pose
A hipster enjoying a bit of July sunshine
Someone else deep in conversation
Everywhere in the Old Town, you will find these mobile confectionaries which serve sweet almonds.
Sunsets at the Patkuli Viewing Platform were the best

More from the Tallinn trip

Vana Tallinn

Tallinn by the beach on a balmy July afternoon

Doors of Tallinn

Doors of Tallinn

The Old Town of Tallinn has lots to offer — cobbled streets, limestone fortress walls, church steeples, old typography over some medieval looking inn, hand-drawn wooden carriages from which emanate fragrances of sweetened almonds and much more. It is the most well-preserved walled city which has earned the Old Town of Tallinn the tag of a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

I come from Mumbai, which also used to have fortifications. Not one bit of the erstwhile fort wall was left behind when the city authorities, then under British rule, decided to take the fortifications down between 1860-1874 for the city to grow. So I can only imagine that wall around the then H-shaped Bombay island.

Tallinn’s Old Town has a lot of its 13th century walled city plan, still in place. In a way, Tallinn’s Old Town is like a time capsule if you can unsee the touristy mores present all around you. Things can get overwhelming soon. It can then get tricky to focus on any one thing.

Keep your eyes peeled to check out these doors which are full of character in the Old Town of Tallinn

After many hours of walking spread out over three days, one thing started to emerge in the old city to me — the doors of houses and buildings which had retained the aesthetic of the eras gone by.

I forget what this establishment was, but the angled design on the door and the sculpture above it, made this one stand out

I was in Tallinn during the summer of 2017. Considering its geographical location, it’s safe to say that the cold climate dominates the city. The doors, therefore, were made out of wood — most of the ones that piqued my fancy at least.

Doors in Mumbai (back in the day) had a character to them, till everything became a sun mica polished affair with grilles on majority of them, to give an illusion of more space in this city. Doors in my native place and other rural parts of India that I have been to, still retain some character and you can see the wooden texture without much embellishments.

This was the door to a church, but the intricate woodwork deserved a place in this post

In Tallinn’s Old Town, doors to some buildings looked like they were just meant for one thing — arrest your attention. It made me wonder, how many feet must have passed through these doors, from the many centuries past. Oh the stories they could have told, if only they could speak. Most of the doors were closed, hinting at residential properties. Only the souvenir shops had open doors, thereby inviting you to closely observe them.  

This souvenir shop in the Old Town which had a basement shop made use of the door as a hanger on

There was nothing elaborate in terms of design when it came to most of the doors. It went with the philosophy of the more modern architecture I had observed during my week long stay there. While function trumped form for most of the doors, it was the little things that differentiated them from one another.

Doors of some of the residential buildings

An overuse of red with green demarcations on one door to the light brown pastels on the other. From a diamond shaped design on one, to the wooden portion in the top half replaced by glass in some. Floral flourishes on some to others which were intriguing enough to lead you down an underground cellar. Considering most of the structures are made of stone, inside the Old Town, painted in light pastel shades, the only dark colour profiles were seen on the doors of these buildings.

This was an entrance to an underground bar

There is one door in particular that is quite popular in the Old Town. It is the door that leads to the house of Brotherhood of Blackheads  — a brotherhood of unmarried, legally dependent, jobless German youth who could get acceptance to the Great Guild — a collective for artisans and merchants who were operating in Tallinn from the 14th century till around the 1920s.

The door stands out from all the others, and why not? The facade of the door was designed in the 16th century. The last members of the Blackhead brotherhood were around till the 1940s, before being sent away by the Russians. The distinguishing factor of the door on this house is the presence of intricate art work on the top portion of the door, with a wooden bust of their patron, St Maurice. The brotherhood exists in Hamburg, Germany, to this day.

The doors on buildings on the outskirts of the Old Town weren’t as well maintained

There were parts of the city where the doors didn’t seem like they had kept up with their contemporaries. Here, I realised, the crowds were also non-existent, so there was fairly little incentive to ensure the door looked its best. The doors here had the paint peeling off, the inner wooden texture visible and appearing brittle. Basically, a door screaming for a paint and polish job.

I would have loved to talk to the residents living behind those doors. But on my first day in Tallinn, my walking tour guide had informed me that Estonians are generally quite reserved by nature, and will not immediately strike a conversation with random strangers.

I tried my luck with some strangers on the street, but to walk up to a house to speak to the residents was a bridge too far, for an introvert like me.

More from the Tallinn trip

Vana Tallinn

Tallinn by the beach on a balmy July afternoon

Tallinn by the beach on a balmy July afternoon

Taking random paths while travelling is one of my favourite pastimes. In Tallinn, the old city does tend to grow on you after a couple of days. For someone afflicted with the golden-age syndrome, the old city can be overwhelming. Lest you are determined to discover some portal that will take you back a few centuries, like Owen Wilson’s character in Midnight in Paris, I’d say it would be a good idea to get out of the fortified old town of Tallinn.

Estonia is a sparsely populated nation of just 1.3 million inhabitants. Tallinn, its capital city, is where a third of that population lives. And still, there were only pockets of places where I could find a crowd. I can’t put my finger on it, but wherever I went in Tallinn, there was this thought at the back of my mind always: “Tallinn is on the verge of becoming a hotspot, give it five years.” The possibilities for that happening were palpable, outside its main tourist draw.  

The skies were ominous as I decided to park myself by the shore

After exploring the Kalamaja neighbourhood, with its Soviet-era wooden houses, I was longing to check out the sea-facing portion of Tallinn. According to Google Maps, I wasn’t too far from the shore. I followed the Maps, in the direction of the light blue area close to a spot called Kalarand — the Baltic sea. Its first sight just filled me with immense happiness. All the exhaustion from the five hours of walking done before that, kind of evaporated. I always feel at home in any city, which has access to a water body in the form of a lake, river or a sea. It just gives me some much needed extra energy after I am weary from travel. Blame it on growing up in Mumbai, with its access to the sea. I’m at sea when I am in land-locked areas.

A quiet moment with friends. Also a great place to work

The beach or rather the sandy portion of the shore, looked like it hadn’t or wouldn’t in the near future, at least, see any major development. But sitting there on a warm by breezy July afternoon, was probably a good decision after hours of walking in the Old Town. There weren’t many people around. Two grannies, who could be tourists or locals, just sitting together but staring into the horizon. Not speaking a word to each other. Another youngster just parked his bike behind me, and took out his laptop. The calm sea with its waves lapping by the shore gave him the perfect lo-fi ambient sound to focus on his pending work. A father-son duo were sitting on the rocks ahead, with the son trying to play the stone surfing game.

When I parked myself there along with these people, the atmosphere looked dramatic in the sky. I wasn’t carrying any umbrella on me and was afraid that it would pour any moment. But it was a good idea to stay on, as the sun was out soon enough.

Somewhere on the right hand horizon, were a few boats and a cruiseliner

The promenades were not neatly demarcated and there were a lot of pods which had rusted iron bars exposed. The aqua blue of the water was wonderfully complementing the royal blue sky, which was impregnated with clouds. In the far distance, I could make out some boats and a cruiseliner.

As for me, I was reflecting on the time spent during my close to three month fellowship stint in Germany. I felt like writing something, but decided against it. At that moment, I just wanted to be present with nothing to do. In the now. There would be enough opportunities to put pen to paper later. After ages, I had taken a vacation where I had no agenda for the rest of the next couple of days as I had stretched what could easily be done in three days to almost five days.

The skies cleared after a while giving lovely blue hue

After around 30 minutes of just sitting there and doing nothing, other than watching the waves, I continued the onward journey along the shoreline on the left first, and then on to the right. I passed by the Seaplane museum, but I really did not have the mental agility to do a museum tour after that 30 minute break at a random run down beach. If I had a bike, I would have carried on further, but knowing the frequency of the buses here, I did not want to take any chance walking more than I had for the day.

While exploring around the shore, I came across a gate which had a tiny opening. I looked in and saw a glimpse of an abandoned place. It piqued my curiosity and I decided to check out the place later. I never did that, and while writing this blog post when I looked up the map, I realised that I had missed out on seeing an important slice of Estonian history — the Patarei Prison.

No, I don’t regret not seeing it. It was just meant to be a chill day after all.

The glimpse of the abandoned Patarei prison in Tallinn
Father-son duo making the most of the sunny day
On the way back to my hostel, I passed by this remnant of the Tallinn past
Doesn’t look like this shore is getting any love from the Estonian authorities any time soon

More from the Tallinn trip: Vana Tallinn