Tallinn, Estonia: The Medieval Capital City in 24 Hours

Arriving at Tallinn Harbor, with St. Olaf's church in the background. Photos by Isadora Dunne
Arriving at Tallinn Harbor, with St. Olaf’s church in the background. Photos by Isadora Dunne

By Isadora Dunne

Estonia’s capital city, Tallinn,  is located in the north of the country on the Gulf of Finland, a mere 50 miles south of Helsinki across the water. It is a tradition for Finns to make the trip to Tallinn for its inexpensive prices — on clothing, food, and liquor — as Finland is notoriously pricey.

Since Estonia’s independence from the U.S.S.R. in 1991, transport between Tallinn and Western Europe has become increasingly easy, and with its induction into the European Union in 2004 and a vow to adopt the Euro by 2011, Estonia is looking to attract international tourism.

As I was in Helsinki for a few days, an overnight trip to nearby Tallinn seemed like a no-brainer: a new country, a charming old city, and a hostel price dramatically lower than any I had seen in Helsinki. I decided to do like the Finns do and make a trip across that icy bay.

Enjoying a live pianist aboard the MS Superstar
Enjoying a live pianist aboard the MS Superstar

Getting to Tallinn in Comfort

The best way to get from Helsinki to Tallinn is by ferry, and the Tallink line has introduced a new vessel just for this route: the MS Superstar, built in 2008. The shockingly lime green ship makes the two-hour ride from Helsinki to Tallinn fly by; it is as comfortable as a cruise ship and offers passengers a lounge bar with occasional live music, as well as a business lounge and multiple restaurants and shops.

The Superstar departs from Helsinki’s West Harbor, which is conveniently located near the Kamppi district, just a short walk from the center of the city. I would advise arriving at the terminal at least an hour before departure time — the tables in the ship’s Dolce Vita bar go quickly and gates open 45 minutes before departure.

Service between Helsinki and Tallinn runs year-round, with increased operations during the warmer months. A round trip ticket is valid for any return time one desires, though be forewarned: in order to redeem the return ticket, a wait in line at the ticket counter prior to departure is necessary. Passports are required when purchasing tickets, but are not checked after this point.

An Australian girl who I met in Tallinn gave me another good tip: buy a one-way ticket in Helsinki and wait until the return trip to buy a pass home. She swore it was cheaper, perhaps it has something to do with the Estonian Kroon’s great affordability.

I took the earliest ferry available so as to optimize my time in Estonia. I spent my time on the MS Superstar in the Dolce Vita lounge area, watching the gray horizon bob up and down through the enormous window panes that cover the bow of the ship. Being in conversation with good company, the two-hour ride seemed much shorter.

What was Once the Tallest Building in the World

Looking at Tallinn from a dock in its harbor, one sight dominates the skyline: St. Olaf’s church, with a spire that reaches higher than any other building in the Old Town of Tallinn. As the harbor is little more than a half a mile from the Old Town, my companions and I start walking towards the spire. It was time to explore.

Raeapteek, one of the oldest continuously running pharmacies in Europe.
Raeapteek, one of the oldest continuously running pharmacies in Europe.

St. Olaf’s church was first built during the 12th century as a landmark for trade ships coming in to dock in Tallinn, and between 1549 and 1625 it was the tallest building in the world. Its spire has been struck by lightning eight times, and the structure has burned to the ground three times during its history.

It seemed that a view from the top would be a perfect way to start our day in Tallinn, but unfortunately, we discovered that the building is closed during the cold season, from December to the end of March. The church is open for visitors from April to November, from 10 AM to 6 PM.

Nonetheless, St. Olaf’s was a great starting out point for the day. From there we wandered the cobblestone streets of the Old City, passing an array of pastel colored buildings as we navigated ourselves towards the Raekoja plats — the Town Hall square.

An Unexpected Trip to the Apothecary

A view of the Town Hall square from inside the old pharmacy
A view of the Town Hall square from inside the old pharmacy

Though the Old City of Tallinn was attacked and pillaged many times during its existence, including extensive air raids by the Soviets during World War II, the town is one of the best-preserved towns in Europe. After decades behind the Iron Curtain, the place was named a UNESCO World Cultural Heritage site in 1997.

Walking through it, I felt like I had stepped back in time. Its winding streets are entirely cobblestone; no asphalt in sight. They are lined with charming old buildings, and very few cars enter the area. Most visitors explore the city on foot, and bicycles tours are popular during the summer months.

As in many old European cities, the center of the Old City of Tallinn is the Town Hall square, a vast open space adjacent to the Town Hall that is lined with cafés, shops, restaurants, and one of the oldest continuously running pharmacies in Europe.

The Raeapteek — or in English, Town Hall Pharmacy — has been doing business in the same storefront since the early 15th century, and though historians are unsure of its opening date, the earliest records show that the store was already on its third owner by 1422.

This was something I simply couldn’t miss. The Raeapteek is easily located in Town Hall square, as it is marked by a symbol: a cup with a snake wrapped around its stem. Entrance is of course free; the place still functions as a business.

Roasted almond vendors draw crouds looking for a warm snack
Roasted almond vendors draw crowds looking for a warm snack

Wandering through the small shop and adjacent museum room, staring at jars of ancient decaying remedies — including parched bees and sun-bleached dog feces — I couldn’t help but imagine myself as some medieval villager, visiting the Raeapteek to find a cure for an ill relative. It wasn’t hard to picture, I thought as I gazed at the Town Hall building through grates in the window.

[A brief history of the Raeapteek is available on the restaurant Balthasar’s website. The business is located on the second floor of the pharmacy building.]

Roasted Nuts and Wild Boar

Upon exiting the Raepteek and crossing the large Town Hall square, I found myself thoroughly seduced by a smell that was wafting towards me: roasted almonds, sold in paper cups from small wooden wagons bearing the name Olde Hansa.

The stands are run by women in old-fashioned costumes, and as it turns out, they are affiliates of the Olde Hansa restaurant, a medieval-themed restaurant nearby that promises customers an authentic banquet experience straight out of the Middle Ages, complete with lute players and wench waitresses.

My companions and I decided to skip this tourist trap, but the smell of the roasted nuts had made us hungry, so we wandered up the increasingly steep streets towards the looming onion domes of the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral and found Vanaema Juures, a truly authentic Estonian restaurant. It is easily located by the sculpture that hangs above its doorway depicting an egg in a frying pan.

Lunch at Vanaema Juures, an authentic Estonian restaurant
Lunch at Vanaema Juures, an authentic Estonian restaurant

Literally translated, Vanaema Juures means Grandma’s Place, and the simple, cozy interior and traditionally cooked local dishes prove the place to be aptly named.

Not wanting to miss anything, the three of us ordered a few appetizers and two large entrees to share. First came the vegetable puree soup with chopped hazelnut and bread crumbs — a surprising but genius combination — next was the pickled herring with apple salad and the mushroom salad with cucumber.

I chose the wild boar roast with red wine sauce, potatoes and beets, which was perfectly cooked and tasted incredibly rich. We also ordered the mushroom and potato dumplings which were a great complement to the succulent boar; they were fluffy and crispy, and not too heavy.

While at lunch I also tried a local drink called keefir, which consists of sour milk. It’s slightly bubbly like yogurt but tastes more like liquefied sour cream. As a lover of all things dairy, I really enjoyed the drink and ordered it whenever I could. It was a great compliment to a hearty meal, and is also popular in Finland, though the Finns refer to it as piima.

Alexander Nevsky Cathedral, with its onion domes, is a reminder of a once-occupied Tallin
Alexander Nevsky Cathedral, with its onion domes, is a reminder of a once-occupied Tallinn

St. Catherine’s Passage

After lunch we wandered around the upper part of the Old City, called Toompea. What was once a separate town inhabited by Roman Catholic bishops and Lutheran superintendents of Estonia is now home to the Russian Orthodox Alexander Nevsky Cathedral, an impressive sight sitting at the top of a steep hill.

If the cathedral’s onion dome design seems slightly out of place it’s because the structure was built in the late 19th century during the time when Estonia was part of the Russian Empire. Many locals harbor ill feelings towards this symbol of Russian dominance in the area, but the cathedral is beautiful and definitely worth a visit.

After thoroughly exhausting ourselves we traipsed back down towards the square in search of St. Catherine’s Passage, a small walkway connecting two main streets that is known to be one of the most picturesque areas of Tallinn.

By the time we had found it, the gray late-March sky had opened and the rain had started. We darted into a few of the small souvenir shops in St. Catherine’s and ultimately decided to abandon the passage for a cup of hot cocoa.

A couple hurries down St. Catherine's Passage, one of the most picturesque place in Tallinn
A couple hurries down St. Catherine’s Passage, one of the most picturesque places in Tallinn

Just as we left, a young couple strolled by, holding an umbrella under the stone arches overhead. As I turned to snap a photo, two men nearby did just the same, and even without beautiful sky behind it, the passage looked just as quaint as promised.

Truly Hot Chocolate

We backtracked to the Town Hall square, and discovered a delightful in-ground café called Kehrwieder, right next to the Raeapteek pharmacy.

It had a décor unlike any I had seen before — though similar to that of the Vanaema Juures restaurant. It felt like a cave, with sloped plastered ceilings, stone walls and candle-lit wooden tables. During the summer months, the café offers outdoor seating, right on the Town Hall square.

My mother, who has a propensity for sniffing out the richest chocolate drink in any city she’s visiting, ordered the house hot chocolate. It was as thick as pudding and had to be consumed with a spoon, pausing every few bites for a sip of water.

My sister and I were content with our café mochas, and the three of us savored our time in this warm atmosphere, especially as we watched the rain come down outside.

Breakfast at the OldHouse
Breakfast at the OldHouse

Where to Stay

We stayed at OldHouse, which is a simple, charming place that offers hostel rooms, apartments, and a guesthouse, all for exceedingly low prices.

It is exquisitely located in the Old City, just a few streets down from St. Olaf’s church. It is a fifteen-minute walk from the harbor, and in close proximity to Town Hall square.

Rooms are modest but tidy, and private hostel rooms for up to four occupants are available, with a shared bathroom nearby and free internet access.

A satisfying self-serve breakfast is available in the kitchen every morning for a nominal charge. Dining out can be expensive even in Tallinn, so I wholeheartedly recommend paying the few extra Kroons.


Isadora Dunne

Isadora Dunne studied abroad on the Semester at Sea Spring 2008 Voyage. She travels as much as her waitress tips allow and is a former editorial assistant at GoNomad.com.

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