Tallinn Old Town - History and Facts | History Hit

Tallinn Old Town

Tallinn Old Town is a beautiful legacy of the rich medieval history of Estonia.

Teet Ottin

04 Jan 2023
Image Credit: Diego Grandi / Shutterstock.com

About Tallinn Old Town

The medieval old town of Tallinn is Estonia‘s greatest historical landmark, drawing millions of tourists each year to the small Northern European country. It was recognised as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1997.

History of Tallinn Old Town

The Northern Crusades of the 13th century brought the Baltic territories closer to Europe than ever before. The Christianisation process and influx of German and Scandinavian landowners made the Estonian lands a truly interconnected part of the continent. Tallinn was greatly impacted by that change. Prior to the Danish conquest of the region, there seemed to have been a castle or small settlement where Toompea hill stands today. Henry of Livonia, a chronicler who followed the Teutonic crusaders to the Baltic shores, called the town Lindanisa, while the Icelandic Njáls saga mentioned a place named Rafala.

Following the crusades and the start of the Danish period, the first stone fortifications were built, with Tallinn growing to be the most important city of the Finnish Gulf. Called Reval by its German population, the name Tallinn came from Estonian and originally meant ‘Danish castle’. In 1285, the city became the northernmost member of the Hanseatic League, growing rich thanks to the trade routes between the rest of Europe to the west and Novgorod and Muscovy in the east. Almost 60 years later, the Northern Estonian territories were sold to the Teutonic Knights, with Tallinn becoming part of their realm.

The early modern period would see great change, with Lutheranism taking hold and the Livonian War (1558 – 1583) ravaging the countryside. In 1561 Tallinn, while facing the threat of Muscovite forces, decided to become a dominion of Sweden. Sometimes referred to as ‘the good old Swedish times’, the period under Stockholm would last for almost 140 years.

The Great Northern War (1700 – 1721) saw Russia take permanent control over the Baltic lands for the first time, while giving a great deal of autonomy to the Baltic German nobility and cities. Tallinn grew further in importance in the late 19th century, becoming a great industrial and shipping hub. This period also saw the city expand far beyond the medieval city walls.

Tallinn Old Town today

The Old Town is one of the best preserved medieval cities in Europe, with many of the buildings and fortifications surviving from the high medieval era. The Tallinn city walls are especially impressive, with 26 watchtowers looking down on the surroundings. Walking on the narrow cobblestone streets can make you feel as if you were in a fairytale, with one church after another breaking up the skyline.

One of the most impressive sights is St. Olaf’s Church, which is the tallest religious building in Northern Europe, towering at almost 400 feet (roughly 120 metres) into the sky. The old Rathaus should also not be forgotten, especially during December, when the annual Tallinn Christmas market is being held in the eponymous square next door.

On Toompea hill one can find the Estonian parliament and the Pikk Herman tower, which has become a symbol of the country’s independence. Close by there are two viewing platforms which provide stunning views over most of the medieval old town.

Getting to Tallinn Old Town

Located in the heart of the city, the Old Town can be accessed through multiple medieval gates on all directions. Tallinn has great public transport, making it incredibly easy to reach the Old Town from the ferry terminal, train station, airport and main bus station. The best way to experience the Old Town is by strolling through the historic streets by foot.