Tallinn, Estonia–Much More than a Port Stop

Tallinn is a major port in Northern Europe
View over roofs of Tallinn toward port

The main cities of Eastern Europe all have old town sections, and in many respects, these old towns feel much the same.

Tallinn, the capital of the tiny Baltic country, Estonia, is no different. It has its own “Old Town.” But Tallinn has a much different feel to it than the others. Most Americans have never heard of Tallinn unless they take a cruise in Northern Europe. Many cruises stop in Tallinn, a major port on the Baltic Sea.

With a population of about 450,000, when several cruise ships dock at the same time, each disgorging thousands of passengers for a day stop, Tallinn suddenly gets super crowded. But ship passengers create great demand for good restaurants and shopping, and Tallinn delivers. Amber jewelry is a favorite to shop for in Tallinn.

In 2018, Estonia had a big celebration for its 100-year anniversary of freedom from Czarist Russia in 1918. But this ignores actual fact in which Stalinist Russia took control of the country before World War II only to be kicked out by the Nazis. Two days after the Nazis retreated, the Russians rolled back in and controlled the country for about 60 years. In 1989, Tallinn residents formed a human chain to demand freedom from Russia, which chain stretched more than 400 miles from Tallinn to Vilnius in neighboring Lithuania. Russia realized it had lost the hearts of the people, and Estonia regained true independence from Russia.

The history of Estonia is much older than that of its Baltic neighbors, dating back 10,000 years. Its Old Town dates from the 11th century, having been controlled by Dutch, German, Polish and Swedish outsiders at differing times in the past. Having witnessed the atrocities these conquerors inevitably imposed, the Estonians roll with the punches and today is a very open society. In 1922, the country declared all groups free to worship and believe as they please.

For example, before World War II there were about 4,000 Jews in Tallinn. They were not required to live in separate areas or ghettos. One thousand fled during the war. Jews were not subject to murder in Estonia as they were in other nearby countries during the war. Today, there are still about 3,000 Jews and one synagogue in Tallinn.

The City of Tallinn itself is very walk able. With few tall buildings, the city still reeks of having once been a communist satellite state. But for such a small country, Tallinn is modernizing at a rapid pace.

Old Town in Tallinn is very large, including an “upper town” on a hill and a “lower town” where all the restaurants are. Tallinn’s Old Town may be the best-preserved old town in the world, justifying its place as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. You can easily get lost in the narrow and winding streets of Old Town and getting a local guide to explain where to go is suggested, lest you miss some things to see in Old Town. One of these hidden gems is Katariina Kaik, a difficult to find alley of great interest, including ancient tombstones from the Church of St. Catherine of Alexandria in Tallinn. In fact, walk down alleys off the main streets in Tallinn to make great tourist discoveries.

Mosaic murals on cathedral are marvelous
Alexander Nevsky Cathedral

Tallinn is less expensive than the other major cities of Europe. Old Town is dotted with outdoor café-style restaurants. The ones where the main tourist traffic is tend to overcharge. You can do better by going down a less busy street where dining outside is likely to be less boisterous than on a main plaza. For example, skip the nearby plaza and head down Vene Street for a peaceful meal at any number of great restaurants on the street. To save more money, skip Old Town altogether and dine downtown, a few blocks away, where you are more likely to rub elbows with locals and still get a tasty meal.

In the market for a low-cost vacation and to take in some of the oldest ruins in Europe? Seriously consider a visit to Tallinn.

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