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Cities in the Spotlight: Tallinn, Estonia

Updated: Mar 11

Today we will be heading to another country in Europe. Before researching for this post, I didn't know much about Tallinn, or even Estonia. Enjoy!


Tallinn City Information

Tallinn is the capital and most populous city of Estonia. Situated on a bay in northern Estonia, on the shore of the Gulf of Finland of the Baltic Sea, Tallinn has a population of about 454,000 (as of 2023) and administratively lies in the Harju maakond (county). Tallinn is the main financial, industrial, and cultural centre of Estonia. It is located 187 km (116 mi) northwest of the country's second-largest city, Tartu, however only 80 km (50 mi) south of Helsinki, Finland, also 320 km (200 mi) west of Saint Petersburg, Russia, 300 km (190 mi) north of Riga, Latvia, and 380 km (240 mi) east of Stockholm, Sweden. From the 13th century until the first half of the 20th century, Tallinn was known in most of the world by variants of its other historical name Reval. Tallinn received Lübeck city rights in 1248, however, the earliest evidence of human population in the area dates back nearly 5,000 years. The medieval indigenous population of what is now Tallinn and northern Estonia was one of the last "pagan" civilizations in Europe to adopt Christianity following the Papal-sanctioned Livonian Crusade in the 13th century. The first recorded claim over the place was laid by Denmark after a successful raid in 1219 led by King Valdemar II, followed by a period of alternating Scandinavian and Teutonic rulers. Due to the strategic location by the sea, its medieval port became a significant trade hub, especially in the 14–16th centuries, when Tallinn grew in importance as the northernmost member city of the Hanseatic League. Tallinn Old Town is one of the best-preserved medieval cities in Europe and is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.


Tallinn Historical Significance

The first archaeological traces of a small hunter-fisherman community's presence in what is now Tallinn's city centre are about 5,000 years old. The comb ceramic pottery found on the site dates to about 3000 BCE and corded ware pottery around 2500 BCE. Around 1050 AD, a fortress was built in what is now central Tallinn, on the hill of Toompea. As an important port on a major trade route between Novgorod and western Europe, it became a target for the expansion of the Teutonic Knights and the Kingdom of Denmark during the period of Northern Crusades in the beginning of the 13th century when Christianity was forcibly imposed on the local population. Danish rule of Tallinn and northern Estonia started in 1219. In 1285, Tallinn, then known more widely as Reval, became the northernmost member of the Hanseatic League – a mercantile and military alliance of German-dominated cities in Northern Europe. The king of Denmark sold Reval along with other land possessions in northern Estonia to the Teutonic Knights in 1346. Reval was arguably the most significant medieval port in the Gulf of Finland, the second-most important port being Turku. Reval enjoyed a strategic position at the crossroads of trade between the rest of Western Europe and Novgorod and Muscovy in the East. The city, with a population of about 8,000, was very well fortified with city walls and 66 defense towers.

A weather vane, the figure of an old warrior called Old Thomas, was put on top of the spire of the Tallinn Town Hall in 1530. Old Thomas later became a popular symbol of the city. In the early years of the Protestant Reformation, the city converted to Lutheranism. In 1561, Reval (Tallinn) became a dominion of Sweden. During the 1700–1721 Great Northern War, plague-stricken Tallinn along with Swedish Estonia and Livonia capitulated to Tsardom of Russia (Muscovy) in 1710, but the local self-government institutions (Magistracy of Reval and Estonian Knighthood) retained their cultural and economical autonomy within Imperial Russia as the Governorate of Estonia. The Magistracy of Reval was abolished in 1889. The 19th century brought industrialization of the city and the port kept its importance. On 24 February 1918, the Estonian Declaration of Independence was proclaimed in Tallinn. It was followed by Imperial German occupation until the end of World War I in November 1918, after which Tallinn became the capital of independent Estonia. During World War II, Estonia was first occupied by the Soviet army and annexed into the USSR in the summer of 1940, then occupied by Nazi Germany from 1941 to 1944. During the German occupation, Tallinn suffered from many instances of aerial bombing by the Soviet air force. During the most destructive Soviet bombing raid on 9–10 March 1944, over a thousand incendiary bombs were dropped on the town, causing widespread fires, killing 757 people, and leaving over 20,000 residents of Tallinn without shelter. After the German retreat in September 1944, the city was occupied again by the Soviet Union.

During the 1980 Summer Olympics, the sailing (then known as yachting) events were held at Pirita, northeast of central Tallinn. Many buildings, such as the Tallinn TV Tower, the "Olümpia" hotel, the new Main Post Office building, and the Regatta Centre, were built for the Olympics. In 1991, the independent democratic Estonian nation was restored and a period of quick development as a modern European capital ensued. Tallinn became the capital of a de facto-independent country once again on 20 August 1991. The Old Town became a World Heritage Site in 1997, and the city hosted the 2002 Eurovision Song Contest. Tallinn was the 2011 European Capital of Culture and is the 2023 European Green Capital Award. The city has pledged to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 40% by 2030 and takes pride in its biodiversity and high air quality. But critics say that the award was received on false promises since it won the title with its "15-minute city" concept, according to which key facilities and services should be accessible within a 15-minute walk or bike ride but the concept was left out of the green capital program and other parts of the 12 million euro program amount to a collection of temporary and one-off projects without any structural and lasting changes.


Travel to Tallinn

*Taken from Lonely Planet*

No longer the plaything of greater powers – Danish, Swedish, Polish, German and Soviet – Tallinn is now a proud European capital with an allure all of its own. It's lively yet peaceful, absurdly photogenic and bursting with wonderful sights – ancient churches, medieval streetscapes and noble merchants' houses. Throw in delightful food and vibrant modern culture and it's no wonder Tallinn seems in danger of being loved to death, especially after a few cruise ships dock. But it's one of those blessed places that seems to cope with all the attention.


Must See Sites

Niguliste Museum; Dating from the 13th century, the imposing St Nicholas' Church (Niguliste kirik) was badly damaged by Soviet bombers in 1944 and a fire in the 1980s, but today stands restored to its Gothic glory. Although deconsecrated, it's a strikingly apt site for the Art Museum of Estonia to display some of its treasures of sacral art – the late-medieval altarpieces, paintings and sculptures you'll see are drawn from all over Estonia, but much of it originally belonged right here, in St Nicholas'. The most famous work on display is Berndt Notke’s 15th-century masterpiece Dance Macabre. The gist of this eerie skeletal conga line is that whether you’re a king, a pope or a young slacker, we’re all dancing with death. A free audio guide in Estonian, English, Russian, German and Low-German is available for the text written on the painting. Other artefacts include painted altarpieces (including the church's own extraordinary cabinet-style altarpiece by Herman Rode from Lübeck, dating from 1481), carved tombstones and a chamber overflowing with ecclesiastical silverware.

Estonian Open-Air Museum; This sprawling ethnographic and architectural complex comprises 80 historic Estonian buildings, plucked from across the country and resurrected in sections representing the different regions of Estonia. In summer the time-warping effect is highlighted by staff in period costume performing traditional activities among the wooden farmhouses and windmills. Different activities and demonstrations (weaving, blacksmithing and the like) are scheduled and an old wooden tavern, Kolu Kõrts, serves traditional Estonian cuisine.

Kumu; This futuristic, Finnish-designed, seven-storey building is a spectacular structure of limestone, glass and copper that integrates intelligently into the 18th-century landscape. Kumu (the name is short for kunstimuuseum, or art museum) contains the country's largest repository of Estonian art as well as 11 or 12 temporary exhibits per year. The permanent exhibition covers 18th-century classics of Estonian art to venerable, intricately painted altarpieces and the work of contemporary Estonian artists such as Adamson-Eric.

Tallinn Town Hall; Completed in 1404, this is the only surviving Gothic town hall in northern Europe. Inside, you can visit the Trade Hall (whose visitor book drips with royal signatures), the Council Chamber (featuring Estonia’s oldest woodcarvings, dating from 1374), the vaulted Citizens’ Hall, a yellow-and-black-tiled councillor’s office and a small kitchen. The steeply sloped attic has displays on the building and its restoration. Details such as brightly painted columns and intricately carved wooden friezes give some sense of the original splendour.

Great Guild Hall; The Great Guild Hall (1410) is a wonderfully complete testament to the power of Tallinn's medieval trade guilds. Now a branch of the Estonian History Museum, its showpiece exhibition is 'Spirit of Survival: 11,000 Years of Estonian History', illustrating the history and psyche of Estonia through interactive and unusual displays. There's also the old excise chamber, with numismatic relics stretching back to Viking times; the basement, exploring the history of the Guild itself; and sections on Estonian music, language and geography.

Kadriorg Art Museum; Kadriorg Palace, a baroque beauty built by Peter the Great between 1718 and 1736, houses a branch of the Art Museum of Estonia devoted to Dutch, German and Italian paintings from the 16th to the 18th centuries, and Russian works from the 18th to early 20th centuries (check out the decorative porcelain with communist imagery upstairs). The pink palace is exactly as frilly and fabulous as it ought to be, and there’s a handsome French-style formal garden at the rear.

Kadriorg Park; About 2km east of Old Town, this beautiful park’s ample acreage is Tallinn’s favourite patch of green. Together with the baroque Kadriorg Palace, its 70 hectares were commissioned by the Russian Tsar Peter the Great for his wife Catherine I soon after his conquest of Estonia (Kadriorg means 'Catherine’s Valley' in Estonian). Nowadays the oak, lilac and horse-chestnut trees give shade to strollers and picnickers, the formal pond and gardens provide a genteel backdrop for romantic promenades and wedding photos, and the children’s playground is a favourite free-for-all for the city’s youngsters. Stop by the park's information centre, housed in a pretty 18th-century cottage near the main entrance, to see a scale model of the palace and its grounds.

Seaplane Harbour; When this cavernous, triple-domed building was completed in 1917, its reinforced-concrete shell-frame construction was unique in the world. Resembling a classic Bond-villain lair, the vast space was completely restored and opened to the public in 2012 as a museum celebrating Estonia's rich seafaring heritage. Highlights include exploring the cramped corridors of a 1930s naval submarine, an elegant collection of ice-yachts, hanging from the ceiling as though in flight, and the many interactive exhibits to try your hand at.

Town Hall Square; In Tallinn all roads lead to Raekoja plats, the city's pulsing heart since markets began setting up here in the 11th century. One side is dominated by the Gothic town hall, while the rest is ringed by pretty pastel-coloured buildings dating from the 15th to 17th centuries. Whether bathed in sunlight or sprinkled with snow, it's always a photogenic spot.


Must Try Food & Drink

Vana Tallinn; Translated from Estonian as old Tallinn, Vana Tallinn is an Estonian rum-based liqueur that was created by Ilse Maar. Although the recipe is kept secret, some of the flavorings include citrus oils, cinnamon, and vanilla. Classic version is produced in three varieties, which differ in alcohol content, the lightest (white label) with 40% ABV and the strongest (black label) having 50% ABV. The first version of Vana Tallinn (red label) that was created in 1962 has 45% alcohol by volume. Apart from the standard versions, the brand also produces a variety of flavored cream-based liqueurs, as well as several special edition drinks. It is recommended to serve Vana Tallinn on the rocks or as an accompaniment to coffee, but the liqueur also incorporates well into cocktails and long drinks. The drink is produced by an Estonian company Liviko.

Kohuke; Curd snack is a dairy confectionery that is prepared with sweetened and pressed curd cheese, mostly tvorog. It is usually covered in a chocolate coating and comes in various flavors such as vanilla, chocolate, or caramel, and it's often dotted with fruits, coconut flakes, poppy seeds, or chocolate bits. Even though it can be prepared at home, the cold, refrigerated curd snacks are usually factory-produced and available throughout the Baltic region.

Pirukas; Pirukas is a typical Estonian snack consisting of dough pockets filled with a variety of ingredients. It can be classified into three categories: küpsetatud (small, baked), praetud (small, fried), and plaadipirukad (large, baked). The dough can be made with a crumbly, flaky puff pastry, or with regular bread dough. The fillings range from meat, ham, and cabbage to rice, mushrooms, and carrots. Small pirukas can be filled with a variety of different ingredients, but the large ones are filled exclusively with cabbage, meat, and carrots.

Kama; This Estonian and Finnish classic is prepared with a combination of roasted and finely milled flour types, usually oat, rye, barley, and pea flour. The mixture is then blended with dairy products such as buttermilk, kefir, or sour milk in order to create a creamy dish similar to porridge, or a thinner variation that is usually enjoyed as a drink. Kama is usually served as a nutritious breakfast or a healthy dessert that is often sweetened and complemented by fruits. Because the production of kama flour is labor-extensive and time-consuming, today it is mainly factory-produced and sold packed in boxes.

Kohupiimakreem; Kohupiimakreem is an Estonian dessert consisting of a delicious cream made from curd cheese which is combined with vanilla, sugar, and whipped cream. This dessert is always served cold, and it is recommended to top it with raisins or fresh berries for maximum enjoyment. Although it's often made at home, this dessert is also sold commercially in small plastic containers.

Kiluvõileib; This traditional Estonian open-faced sandwich consists of a slice of rye bread that is topped with a marinated sprat fillet. The bread is often buttered, or coated with munavoi—the coarse egg and butter spread—while the fillets are occasionally complemented by poached or hard-boiled eggs, green onions, and fresh herbs. This nutritious sandwich is commonly found at local restaurants and is often served on festive occasions.

Leivasupp; Thick, creamy, and sweet bread soup called leivasupp is a traditional Estonian dish that is usually made with soaked and mashed bread, raisins, fruit juice, cinnamon, and sugar. It is typically prepared with a traditional, dense rye bread, and is often complemented by milk, cream, fresh fruit, and nuts. This bread soup can be served warm or chilled, and it is usually enjoyed as a dessert or a light afternoon snack, but it is also a popular school lunch in the country.

Mulgipuder; Mulgipuder is a rustic Estonian porridge consisting of mashed barley and potatoes. It often incorporates bacon and sautéed onions and is usually served as the main course, accompanied by sour cream and rye bread, or as a side dish complementing various roasted meat dishes. Traditionally associated with Southern Estonia, this comfort food staple is nowadays enjoyed throughout the country as a typical home-cooked meal and a common restaurant dish.

Sõir; Sõir is a soft Estonian caraway-flavored cheese made with whole milk, cottage cheese, butter, eggs, salt, and caraway seeds. It is typically served on bread or crackers, either for breakfast or as a snack. When paired with boiled potatoes, sõir is usually served for lunch or dinner. Traditionally, this cheese is consumed around the Midsummer's Eve bonfire, known as jaanituli.

Baltic Porter; This beer style evolved from the British porter, and it was partially influenced by imperial stouts. The beers that fall under this category will typically have high alcohol content, usually between 5.5 and 9.5% ABV, while their color ranges from mahogany red to dark brown. They are full-bodied and smooth brews with typical malt flavors that are usually complemented by aromas of toast, caramel, licorice, dried fruit, chocolate, and coffee. Baltic porter first appeared when stronger and hoppier versions of British porter were sent to Russia. The shipments first reached Baltic, Scandinavian, and Northern European ports, including those in Finland, Poland, Sweden, Denmark, Lithuania, Estonia, and Latvia. Home breweries soon started to produce their versions using lager yeasts and regional ingredients, eventually creating a style that comes in many local expressions. Baltic porters are an excellent match to hearty dishes, especially roasted or grilled meat, and stews. They can also go well with chocolate or nut desserts and cheese.


Tallinn starts at 12:41.


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