While visiting Helsinki, Wanderous Affair's editor-in-chief, Emily Fata, took a day trip across the Gulf of Finland to spend a day in Tallinn, Estonia. This Medieval paradise quickly became a favourite city thanks to its rich culture, stunning architecture, and vibrant history.
During my time in Helsinki with #MyHelsinkiResidence, I was given the incredible opportunity to take a day trip to Estonia's capital, Tallinn. Nestled in the heart of this seaside city is a town of medieval origin, perfectly preserved against the sleek, streamlined appearance of the modern age; once you move beneath the ancient Viru Gate — standing proudly since the fourteenth century — you take a step back in time.
Wandering through Tallinn's streets make one feel as if they are moving through a fairytale, causing tears to spring to your eyes (no, I'm not exaggerating!) as you stare heavenward at the comfortingly colourful façades peering down at you. The visual stimulus leaves you unsure where to start. Excitement fills your stomach with butterflies, thanks to the knowledge that regardless of what you decide to do first, you are in for a thrilling adventure. With a map and Tallinn Card Plus in hand, we began our eventful day.
But let's backtrack for a moment, starting with how my friend and I first arrived in this snowy medieval town...
Star Shuttle (to Tallinn)
Reaching Tallinn from Helsinki that morning was super easy, as was returning at the end of the day (more on that later, though). Day cruises on Tallink's shuttles across the Baltic Sea take approximately two hours from your departure city to the destination.
On our way to Tallinn, we boarded the lovely Star shuttle, one of the fleet’s incredible ships; these impressively large ferries not only carry an array of passengers from across the globe (tourists and businesspeople alike), all looking to make their way between the two sister cities, but they also transport trucks and cars.
We took the earliest ship out of Helsinki, departing the West Harbour at 7.30am in order to capitalize on our day in Estonia. Because of the hour at which we left, we were able to watch the sunrise over the Gulf of Finland, reflecting brilliant pinks and yellows across the rippling waves, while enjoying our breakfast buffet in the Business Class lounge. With an amazing Fazer hot cocoa in hand and an array of cheeses; breads; and several mini pancakes on my plate, I was in absolute bliss!
(Also, I have to mention that despite being a little nervous on ships at times, the smooth ride for the entire two-hour trip made me completely forget that I was being carried across the Baltic Sea by boat!)
Town Hall Square
Town Hall Square (or Raekoja Plats, in Estonian) has been the picturesque hub of the city for the past eight hundred years. Though the Town Hall itself is quite a sight to behold, the square is also surrounded by the most beautiful medieval merchant homes, small shops, and the Town Hall Pharmacy (see below). Historically, this was a central point serving as both a market and meeting place, as well as the site of at least one execution (which supposedly, was the result of a dispute over a bad omelette — imagine that!). At the very centre of the square is a round stone marked with a compass rose; standing on this spot and peering around, one can see all five of Old Town's spires.
Though it is undoubtedly a dream to visit in the summer, thanks to open-air concerts, cafés, and bistro tables set out about the cobblestone courtyard, the wintertime is equally romantic. Each winter, it's home to the town's large Christmas tree, a tradition dating back to 1441, in addition to their Christmas Market (voted the best in Europe, I may add). Though we caught the Christmas tree literally as it was being taken down, it was easy to see the magic and splendour that it brought to this alluring town square.
Town Hall Pharmacy
We happened upon the Town Hall Pharmacy (or Raeapteek) by accident. I was drawn to its entrance, tucked away in a narrow and enclosed hallway leading in from Town Square, thanks to a large sign advertising an antique store. Once I walked through the archway in search of these treasures from the past, I discovered that the shop in question was closed; however, this was when we noticed Raeapteek's front door.
Upon setting foot inside of the old pharmacy, the very first thing I noticed were the stunning medieval rafters (see photo, above right). This astonishing building is one of the oldest continually operating pharmacies in Europe, first mentioned in town records in 1422 (when an apothecary named of Nyclawes was summoned to a session of the town's rulers). In addition to selling modern medicines, one can also purchase a small array of souvenirs and mementos from the past.
Once you've taken in the beauty of the entryway, be sure you explore the back room, where you can find a small exhibit containing medicines and pharmaceutical stocks from the seventeenth to twentieth centuries. Well-known herbs (see photo, above left) and their histories are displayed here, a plethora of information ready for the inquisitive passerby.
Tallinn City Museum
The Tallinn City Museum (or Tallinna Linnamuuseum, in Estonian) at Vene 17 was once the residence of a wealthy medieval merchant, but now serves as a permanent exhibition covering the history of the town from pre-history up to the 1990s. If you have a Tallinn Card you're able to tour this museum free of charge!
We began by admiring the house's cellar, wandering through rows of neatly placed display cases boasting beautiful examples of the town's ceramics, porcelain, and metal throughout the ages (see one example in photo above, on right). While exploring the depths of the merchant's house, you can also see the remnant's of the home's original well, though it is completely dried up now. Along a nearby wall, a small case containing items found within the well during its excavation can be perused. It's incredible to think of what was going on in the house when these bits of metal, fabric, and other small materials fell down into the water!
Upstairs, once you climb the stunning wooden stairwell, you'll find several rooms containing different themed antiquities. The furthermost rooms from the top landing is based upon the Brotherhood of Blackheads in Tallinn. The Brotherhood most likely acquired their name from their patron saint, St. Maurice, who is depicted on their emblem. In addition to a scale model of the house itself, you will find incredibly well-preserved pieces of medieval furniture, suits of armour, as well as large paintings of various Swedish monarchs of the time. Here, you can also see the top of the original stone staircase leading up from the museum's reception desk, which the family would have used while the museum was functioning as the original home.
An adjacent room contains authentic pieces of clothing, including shoes and buckles that people once wore. I find the ability to stare at something so old face-to-face (or face-to-sole?) so fascinating; one cannot help but imagine what the original wearer looked like, what his or her life was like, or even what they were doing on the very last time that they wore that item of clothing.
This captivating room leads into another, focused on Tallinn's sea life. Because the town is located right on the Baltic Sea, it understandably has a long history as a vital port in Europe, both for importing and exporting. You can find authentic medieval anchors, pulleys, and beams, among other things. There certainly is no shortage of artefacts to discover!
On the uppermost floor that we had access to (the fourth floor was closed in preparation of an upcoming exhibit), we concluded our visit at the City Museum. Upon first entering, you can find a well-lit dress-up booth with various vintage accessories that one could put on before taking photos. To the back is a room containing a 3D scale model of Tallinn, circa 1825, as well as various facts about the city during this period of time.
After a busy morning of touring Old Town, we decided it was time to refuel our bodies. With the house being constructed circa 1475 for a wealthy local merchant, this stood out as a must-have dining experience. For anyone who knows me, I have a longstanding infatuation with this period in time, and will do anything to immerse myself a little bit further within it (minus the fear-inducing torture devices and lack of women's rights, of course).
In addition to a delicious range of foods to order, the interior of this warm abode is absolutely magical to experience firsthand. It took a split second of being within its walls to realize that a trip to Tallinn truly is not complete without a dining experience at Olde Hansa!
You can read about my full experience at the restaurant by clicking here.
KGB Prison Cells
One of the most chilling prisons I have visited (right up there with Auschwitz and Terezín's POW cells), Tallinn's KGB Prison Cells are not for the faint of heart. The moment you descend into the subterranean level of Pagari 1's residential buildings, you feel a sense of dread wash over you. Heaviness rests on your chest as you show the museum's sole attendant your Tallinn Card and begin the self-guided tour through the small cellar space.
Along the first hallway are individual prison cells, each causing an influx of goosebumps up your arms as you walk beneath the threshold into the space innocent lives were once held captive and tortured by the Komitet Gosudarstvennoy Bezopasnosti ('Committee for State Security', in English). As we made our way through each cell, reading the different inscriptions and small displays hung up in each, we came across a room dedicated to Freedom.
What does "freedom" mean, really? At different ages, in different nations, and under different circumstances, the definition of this word may take on different connotations. Being in the midst of a place so horrendous even in the recent past, I realized what "freedom" meant to me, right then and there: "Being able to vote, go to university, speak my mind, and enter/exit my country as I please" (see photo, above right).
This clarity remained at the forefront of my mind as we finished up the remaining bit of the museum, ending with a tight dead-end hallway with the history of Russian torment in the Ukraine and a solitary confinement cell that felt so dark, I nearly threw up.
This, in essence, was the reign of the KGB in Tallinn, Estonia.
Hellemann Tower and Town Wall
We intended to make a longer stop out of Hellemann Tower, but it was unfortunately closed to the public by the time we reached it that evening. Had we actually arrived on time, we could have used our Tallinn Card to climb up the fourteenth century tower, to walk across this 200-metre stretch of Town Wall; at the top, one finds beautiful views of Tallinn's medieval defences, including the three-storey tower, standing adjacent to Müürivahe Street next to Old Town's knit market. After your walk around the top of the town walls, you can descend the stairs and walk to this building (once a prison and a weapons store), also dating back to the fourteenth century, to view the art gallery currently housed within it.
Even with the inability to do all of these things, we walked around the perimeter of the walls and towers for several minutes, admiring the architecture that withstood the test of time, capturing some photos of it along the way.
Kiek in de Kök Fortification Museum
Eventually, we arrived at Kiek in de Kök Fortification Museum. Though several defence towers are interconnected via underground passages in what is now the museum, we unfortunately arrived too late in the day to explore them all.
With our Tallinn Card Plus, we were given immediate access into the mightiest artillery tower in the Baltics, which was originally built in the 1470s. Here, you can find prime examples of medieval firepower, displays explaining how the city’s walls and towers were built and developed through the centuries, and an exhibit detailing crime and punishment in medieval Tallinn. When you make it up to the sixth floor, visitors are able to see a breath-taking view of the cityscape. This place is definitely a must-see!
Megastar Shuttle (back to Helsinki)
We arrived back to the D-terminal in Tallinn early, defrosting from the chilly winds encountered during our walk over along the waterfront. Because we were one of the very first passengers to board, we took the time to explore the beautiful new ship prior to finding our spot in the business lounge for departure. I was able to see the additional comfortable seating areas, à la carte café, and gift shops (I can spot adorable Moomin paraphernalia a mile away).
Between the daily departures from Helsinki to Tallinn, and the return trips from Tallinn to Helsinki, Tallink shuttles run up to twelve times each day! That means that there's a whole day's worth of opportunities for you to come and explore this breath-taking Medieval city.
While heading back to Helsinki on our two-hour journey of smooth sailing, we enjoyed a buffet dinner (complete with an amazing salad bar!) and glass of Finnish Long Drink while watching the last moments of sunset over the Baltic Sea. It was the perfect end to the perfect day.
After spending one day in Tallinn, it's safe to say that my heart aches to go back. Though we certainly packed a whole lot of excitement into our eight(ish) hours in the city, I know that I will be making my return one day soon, to unearth even more of the old city's magnificence. For someone nearby (i.e., staying in Helsinki) with just a day to spare, I would highly recommend hopping aboard one of Tallink's shuttles and making a thrilling afternoon out of visiting Estonia.
You'll thank me for it!