Old Town Tallinn was once a mighty, fortified down. Over half of its thick medieval walls remain, along with tower structures surrounded by legends about their ability to repel attackers. Inside the historic center, Old Tallinn unfolds into cobbled roads, dramatic architecture, and cozy courtyards. To visit Tallinn is to love Tallinn, and even in the old town, Estonia’s modern edge combines with its antiquated atmosphere, giving it personality and character.
Old Town Tallinn is divided into two sections. The Upper Town, Toompea, contains a castle, the parliament building, the Orthodox cathedral, and palaces. The Lower Town, or All-Linn, is made up of churches, merchant and guild houses, defensive towers, and the town hall. Visitors should see both parts of the former fortified city when they visit Tallinn; the difference in architectural styles is clear, with the Lower Town exhibiting older-style buildings that represent the period of time when Tallinn was a member of the Hanseatic League.
Learn more about Tallinn's must-see sights.
ToompeaToompea, or Cathedral Hill, crowns Tallinn’s old town with a castle, churches, palaces, and government buildings. Many buildings here are newer than in the Lower Town due to a fire that consumed the medieval buildings and necessitated construction in a newer style.
Many tourists are taken with the impressive 19th-century Orthodox Alexander Nevsky Cathedral, which draws attention to itself with its many domes and architectural decorations. However, know that not all locals “own” the cathedral and many feel that it is a symbol of historic Russian domination.
Toompea Castle, with its elements from different historic periods, is also an important part of Toompea. Parts of the castle remain from the medieval period, including the Hermann Tower. Inside the castle is also the parliament building (which faces Alexander Nevsky Cathedral with its pink façade) and the government administration building.
St. Mary’s Cathedral, or the Dome Church, for which Toompea is named, is the oldest surviving building in Toompea and the oldest Lutheran church in Estonia.
Viewing platforms in Toompea offer much-photographed views of the Lower Town and the sea. It is said that in the right atmospheric conditions, Finland can be seen from across the water, but locals will attest that this belief may be exaggerated.
All-LinnThe Lower Town of Tallinn contains buildings older than those in Upper Town, including gates, walls, and towers from medieval times that served to defend the inhabitants of the city. The Lower Town is the site of the Tallinn Christmas market from late November to early January.
Town Hall Square is the heart of the Lower Town. Besides the Town Hall, the square is home to Gothic buildings that house restaurants, shops, and pubs.
The Kiek in de Kök, or Powder Tower, is a site of legend and history. The name literally means, “Peek into the kitchen” because it is said that guards manning the tower could look down the chimneys into the kitchens of the houses in the Old Town. Its four-meter-thick walls are embedded with cannonballs as a reminder of Ivan the Terrible’s failed attempts to fell it.
St. Olaf’s Church is an impressive structure even today, but at the time it was built, was the tallest building in Europe. A legend about its builder makes the church even more compelling: a mysterious stranger promised to build the church for free if the town’s denizens could guess his name before the church was completed; if they failed, they would pay him a large sum of money for his work. Unfortunately for the man, a town spy overheard his wife calming their baby with a promise of their father Olaf’s return. When it was revealed that the townspeople knew Olaf’s name, just as Olaf was putting the finishing touches on the church steeple, he immediately fell to his death.
Exploring Tallinn’s Old Town thoroughly takes more than a couple of days. However, even a short trip whet’s most traveler’s appetites for a lengthier return visit!