Feeling like a contestant on the Amazing Race having negotiated planes, buses, ferries & taxis in a day of travel I watched the sunset over Helsinki from the deck of a ferry bound for Tallin, Estonia while struggling to stay awake. And when I say a day I’m probably underestimating my total time awake by several hours having been up all day before my evening nonstop transatlantic flight from Edmonton to Amsterdam before landing in Helsinki and transferring to a ferry for the two hour transit to Tallinn. The fatigue however was tempered with much excitement at the seeing the Baltic beauty whose medieval walled Old Town is listed on the UNESCO World Heritage List.
I’d chosen the Tallink-Silja Line’s ship MS Superstar for its convenient departure time relative to my Helsinki arrival and the timing worked well leaving ample time to reserve my roundtrip ticket and find my gate. Helsinki has several ferry departure points which will vary depending upon the line and destination so it’s worth double checking your terminal. Mine sailed from the West Terminal, a slightly less convenient location relative to the city center and in the middle of an industrial port, but arrived in Tallin’s main D terminal which is a comfortable 10 – 15 minute walk from Old Town hotels.
The 2,000 passenger ferry comes complete with a trio of travel classes from the regular Star Class I chose for its relative value to the more exclusive Star Comfort Class with its extra services included to the top of the line business class with private lounge drinks and Wi-Fi. Much like airfares ferry tickets vary depending upon availability and while I might have saved a few Euro buying tickets online well in advance resisted the urge to do so in case my arrival flight into Helsinki was delayed. As it was my walk-up ticket purchased at the terminal ticket counter was EUR64 roundtrip as I opted for an early afternoon return departure as it coincided better with my hotel check out and left some of the morning for some sightseeing even though an earlier sailing would’ve been about EUR20 cheaper. Another reminder should one be needed that time is money.
There are a number of dining and entertainment options available to lowly Star Class passengers and many headed to the restaurants upon boarding but I was intent on touring the ship’s exterior decks and catch the departure from Helsinki and passage through the many islands that shield the city from the open waters of the Gulf of Finland.
Not a soul was to be found lounging in the top deck’s outdoor Sole Bar as it’s open only weather permitting in the warm if brief summer months so after a flurry of photos at disembarkation of a receding Helsinki skyline I wandered the ship pulling my small wheeled carry-on suitcase not realising until almost arrival that there are coin operated lockers to stash your stuff while you roam the ship. After inspecting the almost empty onboard supermarket, perfume shop and trend shop for gadgets and overpriced souvenirs I retired to a table in the terraced Dolce Vita Bar located at the bow of the ship with huge windows to take in the view while sampling the local Karhu beer.
One thing found onboard in almost equal measure to passengers on this sailing are video slot machines which I’d read both Estonians and Finns alike enjoy with a passion. It’s not uncommon for example in Helsinki to find the machines in grocery and convenience stores, local pizza parlours and shopping centers while at the same time only a single official casino, the Grand Casino Helsinki, is permitted to operate. The Finns fanatical fascination with the slot machines does have a long-term if not always an immediate payout as the proceeds are used to fund health and elder care and gambling addiction treatment. For full disclosure I did have a spin on one of the machines and came out a few Euro ahead which was promptly reinvested in another cold Karhu.
The Superstar arrive with no fanfare ferry easing into its assigned slip and I joined the tide of new arrivals navigating the maze of walkways off the vessel eventually finding a terminal exit and pouring myself into a taxi for the short ride to my hotel for two nights, the Park Inn Central Tallinn , a modern business hotel within a 5 – 10 minute walk of Old Town that delivers good value.
After getting what was a surprisingly uninterrupted night’s sleep – a rarity for me when fighting the effects of jetlag – I dove into the buffet breakfast save the undercooked Stalinist grey bacon before setting off from the hotel’s front desk having asked for and been given specific directions to the Old Town only to find as I stepped out onto the sidewalk the historic church steeples looming large straight ahead.
Still being early the town hadn’t come to life which afforded me the opportunity to scan some fast facts from my guidebook before entering its historic gates such as the name used for its first 700 years, Reval, before being replaced with Tallinn upon Estonian independence 1918 – 1920. Tallinn is actually made up of three distinct sections: Toompea or Cathedral Hill, fortified since 1085, traditionally the seat of aristocratic power and home of government today with the Estonian parliament, government administration and embassies; the Old Town running below Toompea to the harbour serving as a major medieval trade center making its merchant class wealthy; the area south of Old Town home to local Estonians. I opted to start my day-long, self guided walking tour at the point of entry for most visitors which is the one nearest the harbour.
Paks Margareta or “Fat Margareeta” tower is a stout 14th century round tower that once guarded the gate closest to the port, the aptly named the Great Coastal Gate, and now houses the Estonian Maritime Museum. Once 45 towers kept watch on the town with 26 remaining until today, a number helped by the good fortune of Tallinn never to have been razed or pillaged in battle as was the fate of other important strategic medieval cities.
Above the gate is a 16th century relief added during the city’s days as an important Hanseatic League trading port.
Pikk Tanav or Long Street runs up from the gate and is the Old Town’s “main street” with merchant buildings lining both sides. The “Three Sisters” is a beautifully preserved example of 15th century building that served as residence, office and warehouse for a wealthy family and that wealth was on display to all with a intricately carved door and stone frame.
The Estonian flag with its horizontal blue, black and white design is in abundance throughout the city but the Russian and Finnish flags are also on display occasionally as well.
Looming over this part of Old Town is the white spire of St. Olav’s Church, named for a Norwegian king and saint dating back to the 12th century.
A Baptist church since 1950 the most memorable features for me are the wooden floorboards and candle-lit chapel that seems frozen in time.
Like a number of the town’s towers you can climb to the top of St. Olav’s spire for a memorable view over Old Town but as it was early and not yet open I resumed my explorations.
Around the corner from St. Olav’s at 59 Pikk Tanav is the former KGB headquarters used until Estonian independence in 1991 with a small plaque in Estonian commemorating the sinister site where citizens were tortured, executed or held for eventual exile to Siberian gulags. The street level windows were bricked in to keep things hidden and have been left that way as a reminder of recent history’s darker days.
The building is not open to the public and after a stint as Estonian ministry offices has more recently been converted into luxury apartments, a transformation that at first seemed a little odd to me but then upon further reflection thought what better way to triumph over totalitarianism than building something new and useful on its failed foundations?
The Old Town is so steeped in history but isn’t a dead quarter with buildings preserved but unused and lifeless but rather very much alive as I was reminded while focusing my camera on the colourful door of the guild hall of the Brotherhood of the Black Heads when it flew open and a lady stepped out onto Pikk.
The door to what is now a concert venue has been in use since 1440 and granted admission into the guild only to single German merchant men who with a little luck and a wife would be invited into the more important Great Guild a little further up the same street.
The Estonian History Museum now occupies the Great Guild and explains both the guild’s important role in the Hanseatic town’s life as well as the basics of the country’s history. I was eager to see more of the interior but not before pausing to admire the massive wooden doors with their matching pair of lion’s head door knockers.
The peak of the buildings exterior is topped with a weather vane and below it the date the building was constructed, 1410.
The main floor displays while worth a look paled in comparison to the original medieval stone pillars and intricately carved capitals that reminded me of Gothic cathedral and cloister design I’d marvelled at seen elsewhere in Europe.
The basement with its low ceilings, massive stone pillars and crypt-like feel has some interactive history exhibits and is worth visiting. There’s a better look inside the museum for those interested in this video.
Facing the Great Guild is Maiasmokk, Tallinn’s oldest café that makes for a sweet pit stop while sightseeing.
The 14th century Church of the Holy Ghost is steps away and is notable for its tall, thin steeple as well as a large clock added some 200 years after its completion.
It’s worth noting that not all the buildings on this street are medieval as a few are more recent and really catch the eye with flowing art nouveau inspired facades.
A short walk down a narrow lane leads to Raekoja Plats or Town Hall Square which has been home since at least 1322 to a Raekoda or town hall with the current 15th century building dominating the wide open space.
Still being early the square’s numerous restaurants hadn’t fully come to life but it’s not hard to imagine it being packed on a warm summer day in the peak tourist season. One of the reasons I wanted to stay a few nights in Tallinn was to avoid the day trip crowds and wander the streets early morning and evening when they were quiet.
Wanting to see the city from above I paid my 5 Euro admission to climb the 115 stone steps to the belfry of the Raekoda tower and took it slow and steady as it’s quite easy to become winded and dizzy with a quick ascent. At the top the staircase it narrows to barely more than shoulder width and squeezing yourself through a tight opening pop out into a small landing of thick wooden beans luckily empty save for another paid of intrepid travellers. At a height of 34 metres above the Old Town on a sunny day you’re rewarded with a memorable view.
The little landing is crowned by a large bell and stealing a glance at my watch noted it was almost noon so pointed to the sign showing a ringing bell to my fellow travellers and readied for the possibility we may get to see and definitely hear it chime. After a spell however it remained silent and climbing down left me wondering if that was for the best as it would’ve been an experience to be that close to a working piece of history. I’d been up a much bigger steeple, Notre Dame in Paris, when its massive bells sprang to life scaring my sisters mightily and almost deafening us all.
One other thought I had on the walk down was how glad I was it was early enough in the day and lower season as a throng of visitors jammed in the cramped space of the landing and on the winding staircase would’ve been much harder to manage and taken some of the fun out of the visit.
A few short blocks from the Town Hall Square is the soaring white tower of St. Nicholas’ Church which began its religious life in the 1300’s as a Catholic church dedicated to the patron saint of merchants and seafarers before undergoing a conversion to a Lutheran house of worship with the arrival of the Reformation in the 16th century.
The area immediately behind St. Nicholas is open and offers good views of the church but only because the medieval buildings which stood on this spot were destroyed in a March 1944 Russian bombing raid and never rebuilt. The church sustained heavy damage and was gutted by fire in the aerial bombardment and sat broken before its restoration a decade later before eventually transitioning to its current role as a branch of the Art Museum of Estonia.
Freedom Square marks the southern end of Tallinn’s Old Town and its focal point is the 23 metre high War of Independence Victory Column commemorating the fight for an independent Estonia between 1918 – 1920.
After a successful struggle and during the nation’s brief time of independence between the two world wars plans were in the works to mark the sacrifice with a permanent memorial but those plans had to be delayed 70 years during the Soviet era until 1991 when Estonia regained its independence and settled on a design and the column was built in 2006. The glass plates that make up the column give off a striking white glow when lit from within after dark.
The occupation of Estonia by the Nazis and Soviets is covered in the excellent Museum of Occupations a few blocks from Freedom Square and it is definitely worth a visit to see reminders of the hardships endured such as a collection of prison doors used to hold dissidents and Soviet propaganda posters.
In an inspired design former Soviet era statues that once extolled the virtue of the state are relegated to the museum’s basement outside the toilets as if reduced to extolling the virtues of washing your hands.
Making the slight uphill trek from the Museum of Occupations brings you to Pikk Hermann or Tall Hermann, a tower at one corner of Toompea Castle which is now the Estonian Parliament. Standing 45 metres high and dating to the 14th century the tower sports a very prominent Estonian flag which is raised every morning to the national anthem and lowered every evening to a popular patriotic song.
The pink Estonian Parliament in Toompea Castle faces Alexander Nevsky Cathedral, a Russian orthodox cathedral built between 1894 and 1900 when Estonia was part of the Russian Empire and meant to serve as a reminder of Russia’s cultural and political might.
I happened to visit during a service and counted myself lucky to see the exquisitely decorated interior in use with orthodox priests waving incense burners and chanting with responses from the standing congregation and heavenly voices from a large choir. As photos aren’t allowed inside the cathedral there’s a 360° view here that shows the ornate interior.
Occupying the higher ground there are many good views over Old Town toward the harbour from Toompea.
I found time in the afternoon for another pit stop, this time a craft beer break at a funky pub I’d passed in Pikk earlier in the day called Hell Hunt (The Gentle Wolf) that bills itself as Estonia’s first pub post-independence in 1993. The interior is comfortably cozy especially with the clear, blue skies of earlier in the day gone replaced with gray skies and a light drizzle but a glance up reveals some curious design quirks with age old, weathered doors and barbed wire lampshades adorning the ceiling.
Winding down my full day sightseeing all around Old Town I turned a corner to encounter a street musician playing a balalaika, a distinctive triangular Russian stringed instrument and it was another reminder how deep the Russian roots in Estonia run.
I exited Old Town after a magical day of sightseeing by way of the Viru Gate with its towers marking one of the main entrances to the historic town. Just outside is the so called Kissing Hill which is a small triangular piece of park that acts as meeting point after dark for amorous couples.
Not wanting the day to end I made a quick detour through the Rotermann Quarter, a former 19th century warehouse district adjacent to Tallinn’s Old Town with it’s buildings renovated and repurposed in a modern rebirth.
Some of the money behind this area’s post-independence renaissance is Western as the street signs directing you to Coca Cola Plaza so subtly hint at.
Lingering over a leisurely late evening meal I counted myself lucky that the weather for most of the day was wonderfully warm and the brilliantly blue sunny sky cloudless until evening making ambling around Old Town an absolute pleasure. The light drizzle that fell early evening couldn’t dampen what had been a special day with so many discoveries and diversions that began with an early morning arrival that made me feel like I had the place to myself and for the most part I did. The Old Town visit was everything I’d hoped it would be and more and eagerly looked forward to my morning exploring other parts of Tallinn before jumping back on my ferry to Helsinki.