In 1997 UNESCO added the historic centre of Tallinn to its World Heritage Site list. Visiting today it is easy to see why: this well-preserved Old Town is one of Europe’s most charming
Despite constantly being favourably compared to Prague, Tallinn is a city that, if they’re honest, many people still struggle to place on a map. Those who have visited might argue, like me, that its relative isolation - tucked right up at the northeastern extremity of Europe, on the shores of the Baltic Sea – simply makes the Estonian capital more appealing. Tallinn does boasts a chocolate-box-pretty Old Town that is like a mini-Prague in many ways, but the big difference is that it is comparatively untrammelled by tourists.
Its compact size is all part of the charm, as this means its main attractions are within easy walking distance of one another. Half the fun is just ambling around Vanalinn (Tallinn’s Old Town) drifting back through its layers of history. Here Russian orthodox churches and Dominican monasteries vie for space on winding cobbled streets with medieval meeting halls and ostentatious merchant houses.
The best place to get a feel for Tallinn’s Old Town is from Toompea Hill. This castle district offers lofty views over Vanalinn’s terracotta rooftops and myriad spires, as well out to the bustling port and Baltic Sea beyond. While Toompea’s viewpoints are the undoubted highlight up here, the hill is also home to one of Tallinn’s most iconic sights, the voluminous Alexander Nevsky Cathedral. Completed at the beginning of the 20th century and literally unmissable, this orthodox church boasts the city’s largest cupola and biggest bell - it weighs a staggering 15 tonnes.
Toompea may be the place where Tallinn was founded, but Old Town Square is definitely the city’s beating heart. An expansive plaza, complete with cobbles and flanked by medieval buildings, it is quite simply stunning. You may pay for the privilege, but the tables that spill outside from the myriad bars, cafes and restaurants during the warmer months are prime people-watching spots.
It is here that you will find the gothic town hall and one of Europe’s oldest pharmacies. The former boasts Tallinn’s tallest spire; at the top, the character on the weather vane is Old Thomas, one of the symbols of the city. The pharmacists at the Raeapteek (Town Hall Pharmacy) may be dishing out modern medicine, but the building itself has changed little since the early 15th century. If you want to sample a remedy of old, then have a shot of the spiced claret wine, which at one time was heralded as an indigestion cure, as well as (somewhat optimistically) a treatment for the plague.
Once completely protected by dense walls, Tallinn’s Old Town still boasts a collection of impressive fortifications – including 26 towers and two kilometres of wall (not all of which is accessible to the public). Back on Toompea, the 15th-century cannon tower cum military museum, Kiek in de Kok, is a highlight. If you want to walk on the Old City walls, then head to the Nunnatorn tower, from where you can also walk along to the Saunatorn and Kuldjalatorn towers.
For me, Tallinn’s Old Town is more about atmosphere than sightseeing or shopping, with one of the greatest pleasures simply sitting back and enjoying a coffee in one of the pavement cafes that dot Vanalinn, as daily life bustles all around. In winter the action moves indoors, with cosy pubs and elegant cafes coming into their own. Whatever time of year you visit, spending time in one of Europe’s finest Old Towns, as recognised by UNESCO, is a sublime experience. An experience that ranks as highly as anything that Prague, or anywhere else for that matter, has to offer.
Where to stay
Schlössle Hotel: this boutique hotel is Tallinn’s best address, combining old world luxury with modern facilities. Unlike many hotel restaurants, its Stenhus restaurant really is superb, offering Estonian and international food cooked to perfection.