Europe is teeming with beautiful cities. Paris, Venice, Budapest, Prague, and Bruges routinely make the top 10 lists of Europe’s prettiest places, and for good reason. I’ve traveled to them all and can confirm they are exceedingly lovely. But Tallinn, Estonia is often glaringly absent from these lists and, after my recent visit, I can’t for the life of me understand why. It has one of the best preserved medieval old towns I’ve ever seen!
Nestled amid rolling hills next to the Baltic Sea, Tallinn is about as picturesque as it gets. The Old Town is spread across two levels, with the older section, Toompea, rising over 20 meters above the Lower Town. But what really sets Tallinn apart from its European sisters is its old city walls. Modern artillery made such fortifications obsolete and many cities tore theirs down to make way for roads and apartment buildings. But not Tallinn. The post-WWII Soviet factories and worker housing were simply built on the outskirts of the Old Town and the suburbs grew up from there. The result is a historic center so well-preserved it has been granted UNESCO World Heritage Status.
Tallinn was first incorporated by Denmark in the early 13th century, though the area was settled as early as 1050 AD. Estonia joined the Hanseatic League in the 14th century and Tallinn became a trading port for furs, leather, salt, honey and wine. Fun Fact: Did you know that Tallinn was called by its German name, Reval, until 1918? The Lower Town grew as German merchants immigrated and established churches and guilds. Many of these buildings still stand, and the layout of the streets remains virtually unchanged. If it weren’t for all the camera-wielding tourists, you’d swear you’d traveled back in time!
One of the oldest buildings in Tallinn is the Town Hall, which was completed in 1404 though is perhaps more notable for its unusual minaret-shaped spire. You will be rewarded for climbing the 115 incredibly steep steps inside the narrow tower with breathtaking 360-degree views of the city. It’s also worth walking around inside Town Hall, which houses the oldest wood carvings in Estonia.
For even better views at a fraction of the climb, be sure to visit Tallinn’s Town Wall Walkway. We entered through an art gallery/shop on Gumnaasiumi street and strolled along the wooden passageway between three watchtowers. I found the best viewpoint to be a window on the top floor of the central tower.
Tallinn’s lovely skyline is punctuated by church spires and the distinctive onion domes of St. Alexander Nevsky Cathedral. The Russian Orthodox cathedral was completed in 1900, when Estonia was a part of the Russian Empire. Like many places of worship, it fell into ruin during the Soviet occupation, but has been beautifully restored. The gleaming white exterior provides a stark contrast to the ornate gold and blue interior, which was positively swarming with tourists. That didn’t make it any less stunning, though.
Much less crowded, but just as interesting, is the nearby Dome Church. Don’t be fooled by its plain appearance – inside it’s a showstopper! The 15th century walls are hung with the elaborately carved coats-of-arms of Estonia’s nobility, many of whom are buried in the church.
Another medieval house of worship that’s worth a peek is the Church of the Holy Spirit, which is located just off Town Hall Square. It is notable for its beautiful woodcarvings and pulpit, an elaborate 15th century altarpiece and the oldest clock in Tallinn, which adorns the church’s Gothic facade.
Of all Tallinn’s sanctuaries, St. Olaf’s Church provides the most sweeping panoramas. Just be prepared to climb the 258 steps required to reach the viewing platform. Following a tip from Andrea of Rear View Mirror, we hiked to the top first thing in the morning to take advantage of the best light. An added benefit was that we had it nearly to ourselves, which made walking around the narrow wooden planks a little easier. On our way down, we passed several dozen people and were very thankful to have gone up when we did!
Once you’ve had your fill of churches, take a seat at one of the restaurant patios lining Town Hall Square and order a glass of wine. Sure, it gets chilly in the evening, but there are heat lamps and fur blankets to keep you warm.
For a more intimate nightcap, head to Gloria’s Wine Cellar, underneath part of the old city walls. We were led through the impressive shop and an underground maze of alcoves to a darkly-lit room with burgundy velvet seating and a roaring fire. The walls were lined with wine bottles and hung with witty paintings of Mona Lisa and Napoleon holding wine glasses. It’s the kind of place where you’ll want to linger over bottle of Bordeaux long into the night.
Is Tallinn, Estonia a place you’d like to visit? Do you think it should be counted among Europe’s prettiest cities?