By Hannah Silverman
Before I went to Tallinn everybody told me it was a fairytale city. The description delighted me but without a claim to the Brothers Grimm, a provincial context or even, I don’t know, a Disneyland, world or universe, I knew this city would have a lot to live up. To me Tallinn wasn’t so much about princes and happy endings as it was about fascist dictators and oppression and it seemed like an easy win for marketers to gloss over its torrid past with a sparkling new identity.
Arriving in Tallinn’s Old Town I was proven wrong pretty quickly. I wasn’t sure if it was the medieval peasants ushering me into their themed restaurants or the Rapunzel-esque towers that circled the city, but I soon released there is no better word to describe Taillinn. In every sense of the word, Tallinn is a fairytale. Here’s why I found it so enchanting.
Wandering along the cobblestone roads of Tallinn’s Old Town, several costumed restauranteurs competed for our attention against Town Cryer-esque peanut sellers and Estonian hymn singers. It was like a movie set, but you knew the sets were authentic, even if the characters were embellished for sales and tourism.
Medieval-style market stalls were scattered across the Old Town Square and the neighbouring streets offering traditional woollen, felt and faux furred headwear, scarves and capes in anticipation of the freezing months ahead. Meanwhile baked Baltic goods were on offer alongside meats and pastries. The promotion of the Estonian heritage was the first clue that the city wanted our attention. One of my favourites was the quirky Olde Hansa Medieval Shoppe below, manned by a lively salesman selling kitsch home wares and Estonian souvenirs based on medieval artefacts.
While there was a sense of the whimsical in the theatrical tourism ventures, stamps of Tallinn’s Russian Soviet history were evident, revealing the dark shadow of the country’s past. With Russian, Danish, Swedish and German influences throughout, it was clear Tallinn is still in search of its identity. But, you can hardly blame the Estonians for this. The country has only been independent for the last 22 years and that is the longest continuous period in its history. In fact, it was only in 2004 that Estonia joined the European Union and became a member of NATO.
St Alexander Nevsky Cathedral is a further nod to the years of Russian control, with a star and crescent featuring atop the gorgeous church. It’s the city’s main Russian Orthodox cathedral and easily the most grand complete with interior mosaic and golden embellishments.
Across the road is a far less cultural looking building, which happens to be the parliament. The relatively new facade fronts what was historically Toompea Castle which used since the 9th century but still features at the rear. I think it’s probably the prettiest parliament in Europe!
One of the most interesting sights in Tallinn is St Olav’s Church and tower, which between 1549 and 1625 was considered the world’s tallest building. It’s a David to the Goliath structure of today’s largest building the Bur Kalifa, but at the time would have been an impressive tower of cultural significance. You can climb the 232 steps to the sensational look out which is well worth the exercise, but bring some walking shoes and a bottle of water if you’re not used to climbing. It’s not an easy feat but you’ll feel like a winner when you get there.
St Mary’s Cathedral is another beautiful church and iconic Tallinn landmark with its weathered jade roof and white washed walls. Around this area feel free wander and lose yourself. No doubt you’ll discover one of several look outs that show off the city walls and towers.
To me, part of the magic of Tallinn is the architectural gems that surprise you around each coroner. Who knows what boutique, cafe or lookout will inspire you beyond its arches. This one captured my imagination, both stylistically and creatively.
It’s hard to miss the 20 remaining towers and 1.85km of walls that still feature prominently as you tour the city. A definite must is to climb inside the City Wall and walk across what was once the medieval defence border. For some loose euro change you get enchanting views of the Old Town and a peep at the much more modern business district on the other side. During the 16th century this was considered one of the most robust of its kind in Northern Europe, but today you’ll simply feel like your wandering on top of the city.
And then there’s the gorgeous towers themselves. Without a doubt, for me, it was the beauty in the princess-style architecture that struck a chord, particularly the magnificent Viru Gates which welcome you to the shopping High Street of Tallinn on one side, and the business district on the other. Although the towers would have been integral in warfare defence, today they are gentle wrapped with vines and you can let your imagination wander…
Well, until the reality slap of a McDonalds comes into view… Rapunzel, would you like fries with that?
While most of Tallinn’s Old Town is easy enough to navigate on foot, Tallinn’s Free Tour offer fun, informative two-hour walks. The guides are well versed in Estonian history and give you insight into hallmarks of the city that you can return to on your own. You’ll find them daily at the Information Centre (just up the road from the Old Square) from 12pm.
Tallinn is well on its way to a happily ever after, but for now it’s just at the beginning of a tourism renaissance.I hope you have the opportunity to explore the Old Town while it remains as untouched as it was when I visited. Who knows, you might even find your prince, or take him with you. If not, enjoy Tallinn for the historic playground that it is.