Tallinn

Tallinn is Estonia‘s capital and largest city. On the shore of the Gulf of Finland, it is a city of over 400,000 inhabitants. It is home to a third of the country’s population, and is also the capital of Harju County in Northern Estonia.

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Tallinn has been and continues to be an important port of the Baltic Sea, with the busy passenger section of the port reaching the foothill of the picturesque medieval Old Town, which has been astonishingly well preserved and was inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List in 1997. In a striking contrast, the immediate outskirts thereof are filled with a cluster of modern office towers, with intermittent architectural monuments to the Soviet era. Further out, you will find a bewildering variety of historic and modern neighbourhoods, religious, civic, industrial and maritime heritage. This all provides for the city seeing very sizeable tourist traffic given its size, which in turn means the infrastructure is robust and extensive.

Tallinn skyline in a painting from 1816

Tallinn is a historic city dating back to medieval times. The first fortress on Toompea was built in 1050 and Tallinn was first recorded on a world map in 1154. In 1219, the city was conquered by Valdemar II of Denmark, but it was soon sold to the Hanseatic League in 1285. The city, known as Reval at the time, prospered as a trading town in the 14th century, and much of Tallinn’s historic centre was built at this time.

Tallinn then became a pawn in the geopolitical games of its big neighbours, passing into Swedish hands in 1561 and then to the Russian Empire under Peter the Great in 1710. By World War I and the ensuing brief Estonian independence (starting 1918) Tallinn’s population had reached 150,000.

Estonia was occupied by the Soviet Union in 1940, conquered by Nazi Germany (1941–44), and then retaken by the Soviets. In World War II, the city was quite extensively bombed by the Soviets, although luckily the medieval town remains. The Soviet Union undertook a program of massive Slavic migration, and just over 40% of Tallinn’s current inhabitants are Slavic (compared to an average of 28% for the entire country). On 20 August 1991, Estonia declared independence and Tallinn became its capital once again.

View from the Old Town towards the modern skyline of Tallinn

Today Tallinn is a bustling, gleaming city of more than 400,000 inhabitants. However, among the tall glassy buildings and corporate headquarters, Tallinn retains an inner charm seldom found elsewhere. Estonia considers itself a Northern European/Nordic country, with very close ethnic, linguistic and cultural ties to Finland, and visiting Tallinn you will find a mix of at least three architectures in this very visual city—old Europe (the city walls with rustic buildings and charming living areas with well-preserved and colourful wooden houses of bourgeois taste of 1920s), Soviet brutalist (concrete apartment blocks), and modern Europe (including McDonald’s next to the city walls!)

Tourism is important for Tallinn and this is especially visible in the old town where almost every door leads into a souvenir shop, restaurant or bar. Unsurprisingly the majority of visitors are day trippers from Finland. The neighbours from across the bay usually know their way around without a map and have already seen the sights of Tallinn a couple of times. They come to enjoy low prices on practically all goods and services from restaurant meals to fuel and even plastic surgeries, not to forget as much alcohol as the customs regulations allow you to bring into Finland!

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