Tallinn Old Town
Soviet rule was a sort of blessing in disguise for Tallinn’s old city. Yes, there was the small matter of the Soviet air force bombing and strafing Tallinn on one day in 1944—an attack which flattened 11 percent of the old quarter (See remnants of the attack on Harju street). And during Soviet rule there was gross neglect of historic structures. On the other hand, economic stagnation then meant development was kept to a minimum. So, unlike Helsinki—scarred by decades of development projects—Tallinn’s old city has remained much the same. In ways, it’s changed more in the past five years than it did in the previous 100. It now has many things city merchants in days of yore certainly did not: like a McDonald’s. Other changes, like cheesy neon signs and a few new modern buildings, must have some Tallinn founding fathers spinning in their graves. But, all in all, the old city has kept its charm. Some better-known sights:
The Upper Old City—or Toompea Hill (I-1)—is the oldest part of Tallinn, inhabited since pre-history. Throughout the Middle Ages and into the 19th century it was the main residence of the aristocracy and clergy, who were immune from the dictates of Tallinn city law. In addition to having Tallinn’s oldest buildings, it has good viewing platforms; the best one is at the end of Kohtu street (I-2). Toompea Castle (I-1) is one of Estonia’s most treasured landmarks, built by Danes and Germans after they defeated the Estonians in the early 1200s. The nation’s oldest church—Toomkirik (Dome Church)—is also on Toompea (I-1); built in 1223, it’s a burial site of German and Swedish noblemen. Aleksandr Nevsky Cathedral (I-1) is an Orthodox church built in 1900; some say the Czar purposely built the church on the grave of epic Estonian hero Kalev and regard the cathedral as a symbol of efforts to russify Estonia.
The defensive wall ringing the old city is the town’s most striking feature. While Riga and Vilnius’s walls were destroyed, 80 percent of the original 2.35-kilometer-long wall around Tallinn in the 1500s is still intact today; out of 27 towers, 18 have survived assorted sieges and bombardments. The wall served the city well in the days of the crossbow, but became obsolete as firepower increased in the 1600s. One watch tower is Neitsitorn (Virgin’s Tower); in medieval times it was a prison for prostitutes (I-1); it’s now a café.
Town Hall Square (I-2) is the hub of the Lower Old City. It was a gathering place for traders even in pre-history and has been a city focal point for 800 years. It was also the place for public executions; on one day in 1806, 72 people were executed following a peasant revolt. The Town Hall, built in the 1200s, was the seat of the Town Council, a sovereign power within the city walls. Except for the spire (which you can climb), the building’s changed little in 500 years. The weather vane on the spire has become a Tallinn mascot; this figure of a 16th century guard is named Old Toomas in honor of an actual guard much loved by children in the city. In the northeast corner of the square is one of the longest continuously-functioning drug stores in the world, the Town Council Pharmacy, or Raeapteek; it first opened its doors in 1422, 70 years before Columbus discovered America. It once sold powder made—allegedly—from unicorn horns and a range of herbs. On the square, look for the L-shaped stones where a priest was beheaded in 1694. He axed a waitress to death after she served him an omelette he didn’t like. Said one account: “She served him an omelette as hard as a shoe.” The old city jail is also on the square, at Raekoja plats 4/6; it’s now a gallery.
To the west is the Oleviste Church (St. Olaf’s) (H-3), built in the 1200s and rebuilt in the 1400s. An architect named Olaf fell to his death from atop the tower; legend has it that when his body hit the ground, a snake and toad crawled out of his mouth. Until 1991, the KGB used Oleviste’s spire as a radio tower. At the end of the street is Fat Margaret (Paks Margareeta) (G-3)—the city’s quirkiest-looking guard tower. Built in the 1500s, it derived its name from a stocky cannon in the tower—but could have just as well got the name from the beefy look of the tower itself; from 1830-1917 it was a prison. At Pikk 71 are the Three Sisters—three almost identical medieval houses. At Pikk 61 is the ex-KGB headquarters; now the Interior Ministry, it had cells where prisoners were caged prior to deportation. One Soviet-era joke was that this was the world’s tallest building because, from the cellar, you could see Siberia.
Another watchtower is the 15th century Kiek in de Kök, or Peep into the Kitchen, on Harjumägi, off Vabaduse Square (J-1). Watchmen were able to see into kitchens from atop the tower—hence its name. On the front of the tower are Russian cannon balls that supposedly became stuck when the Swedish-ruled city was being bombarded during the Livonian War, 1558-1583. Nearby, at Rüütli 16/18 (J-2), is the house where Tallinn’s town executioner lived. It’s now a fish restaurant, Mőőkkala. In the Middle Ages, the executioner was responsible for meting out punishments, from beheadings to various tortures. He was shunned by residents and coming into contact with him was thought to bring bad luck. Neither he nor his wife were allowed to attend church, and his children couldn’t go to school. An inscription on the executioner’s sword read: “God’s mercy and faith are renewed every morning. Raising this sword, I help the sinner find eternal rest.”
Parliament: The parliament, or Riigikogu, is in Toompea Castle (I-1); the main hall is in a lovely Expressionist style. Tours Mon., Wed., Thu. and Fri., 10:00 -16:00. Call in advance, tel. 631-6357.
Linda Monument: A pre-war sculpture that later became a memorial to victims of Stalinist terror. Located off Falgi (J-1), it depicts Estonian epic figure Linda mourning her husband Kalev’s death. In Soviet times, some brought flowers here in memory of those deported or killed—a gesture which could land you in prison. There’s now a plaque by the statue reading, “To remember the ones taken away.”
Russian Embassy: Once a hot-bed of KGB activity, Russia’s embassy—at Pikk 19 (H-2)—is now a more traditional foreign representation. Its Pikk balcony is infamous: in 1940, Stalin’s henchman Andrei Zhdanov stood here overseeing a staged demonstration by Communists calling for Estonia to be “accepted” into the USSR; within days, its forcible annexation was complete.
Rataskaevu street: (I-2 ) A 700-year-old street, one of Tallinn’s oldest. There’s a well here where a goblin was thought to live. Tallinners once threw cats down the well to appease the demon. According to legend, the devil celebrated his wedding in Rataskaevu 18; the clinking of goblets can still supposedly be heard at midnight.
Dance of Death: A painting by Berndt Notke (1440-1509) in the St. Nicholas Church (I-2)—a museum of medieval art. The painting testifies to a death obsession in Medieval times.
Dominican Monastery: A 13th century monastery, Vene 16 (I-3). During the Reformation, it was plundered and made an armory. In 1531, a vengeful monk burned it down. See the nearby Katariina Passage.
Pikk Jalg Gate Tower: (I-2) A 14th century tower, once the only entrance to Toompea—the domain of nobility.
Pühavaimu Church: (I-2) The Holy Ghost Church is one of Tallinn’s oldest—first mentioned in 1316; 500-year-old street clock.
The Estonia Monument: A memorial to ferry Estonia; 850 people died when the ship went down en route to Stockholm in 1994. On the edge of the old city (G-3).
Outside the Old City
Museum of Occupations: This moving museum devoted to the Nazi- and Soviet-occupations periods is located at Toompea 8 (J-1); it’s open every day except Monday, from 11:00-18:00. Read details about the museum in this CITY PAPER articel, The Gift.
Pirita: (A-6). This eastern Tallinn district boasts a sandy beach, a yachting center built for the 1980 Moscow Olympics, thick forests and several good restaurants. The ruins of the 15th century Pirita convent are also worth a visit. To get to Pirita, take bus #34 or #38 from the main post office. The whole area is also good for jogging, bicycling or cross-country skiing.
Also in Pirita, see the Lembit submarine, located in the Pirita harbor, tel. 6398-024. The sub was made for independent Estonia in 1936, but was seized by the occupying Soviets in 1940. During World War II, it was used to attack German supply ships en route to Sweden.
Monument Sovietsky: It’s big, it’s ugly and it’s incomprehensible. That qualifies it right off the bat as a Soviet war memorial. The seaside Maarjamäe memorial (B-5) is one of several still-existing monuments to the so-called liberation of Estonia by the Red Army in 1944. The other prominent Soviet-era monument is a bronze Soviet soldier on Tőnismägi (C-2). Estonians hemmed and hawed about what to do with it and many wanted it torn down. But in deference to many resident Russians who revere it, officials decided to let it be. The best (and/or most horrific) example of Stalinist architecture is the wedding-cake-style building at Tartu 24 (C-4).
Kadriorg: (B-5) An estate park built at the behest of Peter the Great. Today, it’s a posh residential area. Dotted with ponds and woodland, it is a favorite strolling ground for Tallinners. Czarina Catherine’s Baroque palace is also here; it recently completed years of renovations and has been dramatically restored to its former glory. The Estonian president’s palace is right behind it. Behind the presidential palace is the Peter the Great Home Museum, at Mäekalda 2, exhibiting some of the Czar’s personal effects. Just north of the park is the Russalka Memorial, commemorating 170 Russian sailors who died when their ship sank in a storm in 1893. To get to Kadriorg, take tram #1 or #3 to the end of the line.
Open Air Museum: In Rocca-al-Mare; tel. 654-9100. Take bus #21 from the train station or #45 from the central post office. Open May-September 10-18/20 and November -April 10-17. A park-sized exhibit of rural life in the 1800s. Thatched farmhouses and inns have been reconstructed. A must for tourists! www.evm.ee
Nőmme: A delightful Tallinn suburb developed before the war, just south of the city center. Nőmme is tree-lined and quaint—a good place for lazy-day walks. The place has changed little since the ’30s. For something different, drive to the Soviet-built Lasnamäe suburb. Some have described the sensation of arriving in Lasnamäe as landing on the moon. Once touted as a workers’ paradise by Communist leaders, Lasnamäe has become synonymous with the most depressing forms of suburban life.
Tallinn Zoo: Paldiski mnt. 145, tel. 694-3300. Same buses as to the Open Air Museum above. Open:09-19; in winter 09-15. The zoo has over 3000 animals, many from regions of the ex-USSR. Large animals in small enclosures are a downer. www.tallinnzoo.ee
Botanical Garden: The Botaanikaaed, at Kloostrimetsa 52, to the east of Pirita; tel. 606-2666. Open:11-16; Mon. closed. This is a huge, immaculately kept park with virtually every type of plant, bush, flower and tree found in Estonia—and some. You need to buy a ticket, about two dollars. But having to pay means any hell-raising riffraff stays away; it’s quiet, litter-free, and the grass is neatly trimmed. It’s one of the best places in Tallinn for a Sunday stroll or for a picnic. There’s also a large greenhouse. The park is closed in the winter months. www.tba.ee
A good place to get detailed lists of guided tours is at the Tourist Info Center at Kullassepa 4/Niguliste 2 (I-2), tel. 645-7777; www.tallinn.ee. A number of the better tours start right by their office—in front of the Town Hall. Many Tallinn based travel-companies offer extended tours of the old city and beyond, including Reisiekspert, Roosikrantsi 17 (C-3), tel. 610-8600. They have three tours daily at regular times.
Beaches: Estonia has scores of lovely beaches. Among the better ones: Kakumäe, Vääna-Jőesuu and Lohusalu to the west of Tallinn, and Pirita and Rohuneeme just to the east of Tallinn. Further afield, the Pärnu beach may be the best in Estonia; Haapsalu’s Africa Beach is also making a comeback. There are also good beaches in Lahemaa National Park: at Kaberneeme and at Vősu.
Tartu: Estonia’s second city and the main university town; see the CITY PAPER Tartu section, here.
Narva: A city of 80,000, in the northeast, was fought over for centuries by kings and crusaders. Before 1944, it was a vibrant and beautiful town with a gorgeous old quarter. That was before Russians and Germans blasted the town to smithereens in the waning days of World War II. Virtually everything in Narva was reduced to rubble. For many Estonians, Narva is a bitter reminder of the destruction of the war and Soviet rule. Today, with its gray, semi-industrial feel, there’s little hint of Narva’s past glory. With Soviet resettlement policies, Estonians were not allowed to return to Narva after the war, to be replaced by mostly Russians from Russia proper. There has been little reform in Narva, so a trip could be a form of shock tourism. Aside from that, the main view of Narva is the striking 13th century Narva Castle, which sits on the edge of Narva river looking at Russia. The Town Hall, built during the Swedish days, is one of the few bits to survive the wartime bombings. Tourism info is at Puškini 13, tel. 356-0184; e-mail, firstname.lastname@example.org. The nearby resort of Narva-Jőesuu is also making a comeback as a destination for holidaymakers.
On the way to Narva is Kohtla-Järve, a gray, depressing town that’s the center of Estonia’s oil shale industry. Some call the shale, used to power the nation’s electric plants, ‘Estonian gold’. You can see the by-products of it piled on mountain-sized mounds.
Between Kohtla-Järve and Narva is Sillamäe (pop. 20,000), once a top-secret Soviet nuclear and rare-earth metals processing town. There is a man-made lake on the edge of town which was a dumping ground for the processing plant; some joke that it contains every element in the periodic table. Another Soviet legacy. This mostly Russian town has a distinctly Soviet feel, with some bewildering but extremely interesting—one might even say attractive—examples of Stalinist architecture.
Paldiski: This coastal town, 50 km west of Tallinn, was originally founded by Peter the Great. Until 1991, Paldiski (pop. 4000) was a secret Soviet submarine base and strictly off-limits. It bears ugly but interesting scars from its military days.
Otepää: This quiet Estonian town (pop. 2,500) comes alive in snowy months of the year—when it becomes the country’s No. 1 winter playground. It has some of the highest hills in Estonia—which isn’t necessarily saying that much—and so desperate winter sports enthusiasts in Estonia flock here. There are a few small— very small—down-hill slopes; but Otepää is mostly renowned for its cross-country skiing. Next to the town is Pühajärv (Holy Lake), a pristine, picture-perfect lake once blessed by the Dalai Lama. Find more tourist info in the town hall at Lipuväljak 13, tel. 766-1200, or email@example.com.
Pärnu: In Estonia, Pärnu is synonymous with summertime fun—but it makes a nice getaway anytime of year. The biggest selling point of this coastal city (pop. 52,000) is its wonderful beach. It is also known for its mud baths and neatly-groomed parks. There are many hotels to choose from; a major treat is Scandic Hotel Rannahotell, an upscale, 1930s-style hotel right on the beach; Rannapuiestee 5, tel. 443-2950. Hotel Pärnu is now a good Best Western; it’s at Rüütli 44, tel. 443-8950. Another hotel is the Maritime, at Seedri 4; tel. 447-8910. Pärnu also has a great cultural house—the Chaplin Center—in the old Communist headquarters; Esplanaadi 10. Tourist info is at Munga 2, tel. 447-3000; e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.
Haapsalu: Haapsalu (pop.14,000) has a distinctive turn-of-the-century feel. It is also celebrated for its fine beach and mud baths, once frequented by the Russian royal family. A star attraction is the 13th century castle—seat of a medieval bishopric. Haapsalu’s tourist info is at Posti 37, tel. 473-3248; e-mail email@example.com.
The Islands: Estonia’s islands are laid back and unspoiled. The main town on the largest island, Saaremaa, is Kuressaare (pop. 16,000); it is home to one of the only fully-preserved medieval castles in the Baltics. In Kuressaare the tourist info is at Tallinna 2, tel. 453-3120; e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org . The main town on the second largest island, Hiiumaa, is Kärdla (pop. 4,000). To many, Hiiumaa is paradise itself. Tourist info is at 462-2232; e-mail email@example.com.
Kuremäe: This eastern Estonian town is home to the Pühtitsa Convent, the only Orthodox nunnery in the region. Some 80 Orthodox nuns reside here along Lake Peipsi and keep a strictly disciplined life. The five-domed Cathedral of the Assumption is the main attraction.
Many Estonians will tell you they’d rather sit under a tree in an empty forest than do almost anything. To an Estonian, this is as near to heaven as you get. Hence the abundance of national parks:
Lahemaa National Park is 50 km east of Tallinn on the St. Petersburg road, with 1,000 sq. km. of bays, peninsulas and forests. There are manors at Palmse, Sagadi, Vihula and Kolga. Part of the Kolga manor is a lovely hotel run by a descendant of German barons; the perfect getaway.
Wildlife: While bad for humans, Soviet rule wasn’t all bad for other creatures. The Soviet military presence meant large tracts of land were off limits. Consequently, much of the country reverted to forest; today, 40 percent of the country is forested. Estonia has some 800 brown bears, thousands of moose, boar, lynx, fox, otter, deer and gray wolves. There’s a fledgling ecotourism industry; try the ecotourism page at www.ecotourism.ee
Fishing in Estonia, like elsewhere, is a matter of lie-telling, with the occasional grain of truth. Unlike in other regions, however, it is almost forbiddingly difficult to take part in the sport here without a good local connection. Ice-, spinning, net-, canepole fishing and even electric shock wire (the latter is illegal) are all used to catch a variety of fresh and saltwater species in the country. But newcomers will find themselves with an empty creel if they don’t put in some advanced research.
Licenses cost 120 EEK (approximately 8 EUR) are sold through bank transfer only. If you don’t have a local bank account, you can go to a local bank and make the transfer. Your receipt serves as your license. You can probably put the transfer information in English, but don’t bet on an inspector understanding it. Transfer information:
To: Keskonnaministeerium (Ministry of Environment)
Care of: Yhispank
Acct. No. 10002019877005
Memo: 2004.a. kalastuskaart
Licenses are from the date purchased until the end of the same calendar year.
Before heading out, you should familiarize yourself with the seasonal regulations; many rivers are closed during the salmon and trout spawn, for example. Checks by river bailiffs are rare. But if you are caught fishing illegally, fines can run into the hundreds of dollars.
The fishing laws are long and complicated and fill a book the size of a novella. It is only available in Estonian. Call the Board of Fisheries, tel. 6419-006, for further details about fishing rules and licenses. Perhaps if there are enough phone calls, they will be motivated to simplify the laws and/or publish them in English.
What to Catch: Northern Pike are plentiful in rivers, lakes and the brackish Baltic. Trout and grayling are found in many rivers and springs. Carp and bream are found almost everywhere. Certain times of the year, you even have a shot at salmon (special license required). Catching eel by net is also popular.
Where to fish: If you’re based in Tallinn and don’t have time for excursions further afield, Lahemaa National Park (50 km east of Tallinn) is your best bet. Boat rentals are available in several of the small Lahemaa port cities, like Vősu and Loksa); when weather conditions are poor, you’re not permitted to head out. Canoe rental is becoming more and more popular, but can be on the expensive side-around 50 dollars for the day.
If you venture into mid- or southern Estonia, you’ll need a special license to fish many of the rivers there. This license is obtained through county governments and impossible to get on weekends. Plan your trip in advance.
While common in the West, fishing guide services are virtually unheard of here. An option is to try and charm one of those old hands at the Fishing Club to join your fishing party-and save you from embarrassment.
For fly fishermen, www.flyfishing.ee provides excellent information in English. There is even a message board with English-language pages.
The Rocca al Mare Tivoli at Paldiski 100. Another sure bet is the Tallinn Zoo. The Puppet Theater at Lai 1 (H-2) has performances for children, though rarely in English; tel. 667-9555 or info in English at tel. 667-9552; www.nukuteater.ee. There’s horseback riding at the Niitvälja riding club, a 25-minute drive southwest of Tallinn; Niitvälja, Keila forest, tel. 50-16-336. Also try the Tallinn Riding Center, Paldiski 135; tel. 656-3759. The FK Keskus on Paldiski 229 has motorized Hobby Carting for kids over age 5, tel. 659-2197; they also have Lasertag. Ice skating starts in mid-July in the Tallinn Linnahall (F-4) Mere pst. 20, tel. 641-2266. Also see EXERCISE.