Tallinn: the medieval marvel of the north

Mark Taylor is a British expat who now lives in Estonia. We asked him to give us an insider’s view of the beautiful city of Tallinn.

There is a reason that the entire old town of Tallinn is recognised by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site: it’s jam-packed full of history that has been impeccably preserved. Being the son of an archaeologist, it’s probably one of the main reasons I made Tallinn my home eight years ago.

It’s hard to compress so much history into so few words, while also giving you a guide to the best places to see. So here’s a little taster of some of the most important places in the city’s history.

Wherever you stand in Tallinn you will be able to see Toompea. The hill lies at the heart of the city and can be seen for miles around. It’s why the Danes built a castle there in 1219 and why the Houses of Parliament are there today.

However, the origins of the hill date back much further than even the bronze-age artefacts that have been found there. Estonian folklore tells that the hill was created by the mythical Linda piling rocks on to the grave of her husband Kalev.

St Olaf’s Church
With the Danes and the subsequent arrival of the Teutonic knights, Christianity arrived in the city and hence St Olaf’s church was built. As the city grew in prosperity and power from its membership of the Hanseatic League, so did the church.

Between 1549 and 1625 it is believed to have been the tallest building in the world at around 124m (407 feet). It has the best views of the city too, and at only around £2 to go up, it’s somewhere I always take visitors.

Kadriorg Park
After some 500 years of Danish, Swedish and Teutonic Knight rule, 1710 saw the arrival of the Russian empire under Peter the Great. To mark his victory he built a grand palace with grounds. Those grounds now make up the beautifully kept Kadriorg park, which is just a ten minute tram ride from the city centre.

As well as the palace you will also find the national art museum KUMU and the residence of the President of Estonia in the park.

There is a reason Estonians are referred to as the singing nation, and it’s not their successes at Eurovision! Lauluvaljak, which simply translates into English as “Song grounds” played host in 1988 to the singing revolution, where more than 300,000 people gathered to sing patriotic songs.

The unique thing about the song grounds is the stage, which can hold up to 15,000 singers, a Guinness World Record.

When to visit
When having friends and family come to stay, I almost always recommend they visit in June, July or August (unless they like snow!). This is when the weather is at its most settled and pleasant, with average daily temperatures around 20C (68F).

It very rarely goes above 30C (86F) too, meaning that it never gets unbearably hot. The long summer nights are another great plus, including one month around the summer equinox when it never truly gets dark.

It’s Estonia’s 100th birthday
This year Estonia will celebrate 100 years since it first gained independence from the rule of various other countries. Therefore there are many events taking place in Tallinn throughout the year to mark the centenary.

[Editor’s note: from my own visit to Tallinn, the Museum of Occupations, detailing Soviet and Nazi influence, including huge communist statues, was a very powerful exhibition, not to be missed.]

To learn more about events happening in Tallinn when you visit, see the Visit Tallinnwebsite.