Updated: Jun 9, 2019
Pulled back eight hundred years into Estonia's past, Wanderous Affair's photographer Kourtnie Forbes shares her eventful day discovering the medieval town of Tallinn. This is a city with seemingly endless historical gems to unearth.
I want to begin by stating that by no means, am I a lover of cold weather. As you can imagine, this can be quite inconvenient when, like me, you live somewhere like Toronto, Canada. I actively avoid all outdoor activities as soon as I can see my breath on the air; whether it’s scenic walks in the woods, or the ever-popular Toronto Christmas Market, I forgo these experiences to avoid facing any and all temperatures dipping below 0°C (32°F).
This winter however, in the midst of the cold, I had the opportunity to go on what I have come to call a Nordic Adventure. My friend Emily, and the editor-in-chief of the publication you’re reading, invited me to come with her to the beautiful Finnish city of Helsinki (read about her take of Helsinki by clicking here). Considering we had just under a week to explore a completely foreign country, my habitual winter routine of staying inside, hidden away from the cold, would not cut it. There were so many things to see and do, it made sense to bundle up and tough it out. Of course, when the opportunity arose to spend a full day of our trip in Tallinn, Estonia, we jumped at the chance to visit.
Reaching Tallinn is incredibly easy from Helsinki, as is returning at the end of the day. The ferry across the Baltic Sea is run by Tallink, taking approximately two hours to complete the crossing. The Star is one of the fleet’s incredible ships that make trips between Helsinki to Tallinn up to fourteen times daily; this was the shuttle we took that particular morning. These massive ferries carry all kinds of passengers, from transport trucks and cars, to tourists and business people alike. We took the earliest ship out of Helsinki, departing the West Harbour at 7.30am to capitalize on our day in Estonia. Returning home, we boarded their newest shuttle, the Megastar. The frequent departures of these two shuttles enabled us to capitalize on a full day in Tallinn.
In both directions, we made our passage in the Business Lounge, which touted amazing views of our sea voyage and had an astonishing buffet. I can truly say that our easy access to coffee and an array of appealing foods made my trip go much more smoothly. Other options on board the Tallink shuttles include Star Class and Comfort Class, both of which have comfortable seating areas and access to shops and food onboard.
After disembarking from the Star in Tallinn’s D-terminal, we made our trek towards Old Town, which we flagged as a must-see area. In our short fifteen-minute walk to the middle of Old Town, we passed a bustling urban city by foot. Various shopping centres, hotels, and restaurants are mere steps away from the ship’s docking area. While walking through this busy metropolitan centre, it’s easy to see how many international start-ups, such as Skype, originated out of Tallinn. However, if wandering around the city is not your cup of tea, getting a twenty-four-hour Tallinn Card PLUS will give you other day trip options. On top of offering free or discounted access to many of the city’s attractions, museums, and restaurants, it also gives cardholders unlimited access to Tallinn’s transit system — this also includes the city’s Hop-On Hop-Off red tour buses!
While we pondered the similarities between our home city of Toronto with Tallinn, we came upon the gateway signifying that we had reached the edge of Old Town. The extremely picturesque Viru Gate is a pair of towers that have been standing since the fourteenth century; these are the remains of what was once a medieval defence, consisting of a series of interconnected walls surrounding the medieval city. All over Old Town, you can find pieces of this wall system: from Nun’s Tower to Kiek in de Kök, all of these turrets and wall segments had their own defensive purposes and advantages during the time they were built. Viru Gate was the portal which, upon walking through, took us back in time. The snow-covered cobblestone streets, the pastel coloured buildings, and smatterings of medieval architecture both enchanted and entranced me. So much so, that I ecstatically forgot the cold.
Despite visiting Tallinn in January, a lot of the Christmas décor was still lining the cobblestone streets, such as the massive Christmas tree that we saw in Town Square in the heart of Old Tallinn. Although several workers were in the process of dismantling the décor, imagining how gorgeous it would be in its full glory was effortless. The local tourism office shared that their Christmas Market has been voted the best in Europe, drawing locals and tourists alike during Christmastime; the whole city is shrouded in the warmth of romance during this time. After hearing this, Christmas season in this square seems like it would be something straight off a postcard, and I hope that one day I’m able to experience that magic firsthand.
Old Town Tallinn is immensely walkable, with many museums and historical buildings to stop into to warm up, if you plan on going in the winter. Right off the edge of the square is an unassuming building with a little plaque reading: Raeapteek AD 1492 (though we later found out that the first mention of the building was in town records in 1422). Once we saw the open sign on the door, we decided to go in and check out what the inside of a fifteenth-century building was like. Within, we discovered that this small and unassuming building was not only one of the oldest continuously running pharmacies in Europe, but a museum dedicated to the history of the building and pharmacy itself. At the counter, you could find all the same modern medicines we have available in today’s pharmacies, but the surroundings consisted of old ledgers and tincture bottles. In a room off to the side exists the dedicated museum portion. Here, you could see a visual history of medicine through the ages. Capped bottles with pills still inside, old microscopes, measuring scales, and many photos and depictions of Raeapteek itself were on display here.
We trickled back out and began walking away from the Town Square, wandering through the cobblestone streets with our large paper map opened in our gloved hands. It is in this way that we stumbled upon the Tallinn City Museum. The museum was lodged within a fourteenth-century merchant’s house and offered a comprehensive history of the city of Tallinn, with various tangible artifacts and pieces of history. Open to the public, the cellars contain ceramics, porcelain, and metal, as well as the original water well used within the home. The Tallinn City Museum was an excellent place to give us an understanding of the history behind the culture that we were experiencing.
After tearing ourselves away from this little treasure trove of Estonian history, we found ourselves quite hungry from our journey. The trendy little restaurants that were scattered all over Old Town made it very clear that the food experience here would be just as immersive as the historical aspects. We had difficulty deciding between two restaurants; the first was Scheeli Restoran, an Art Nouveau-styled gem from the 1920s, whose menu consisted of classic dishes inspired by traditional cooking. At this point, we had wandered closer to our second option, a restaurant that stood out to us as the obvious choice to continue the medieval theme of our day trip.
On the other side of town square, there is a large, rustic house built in 1475 called Olde Hansa. This stunning piece of architecture houses a fifteenth-century themed restaurant; everything is inspired by this time period and is incredibly well-executed. The delicious food options are based on medieval cooking, the waitstaff is dressed in period-accurate costume, and the walls are painted with beautiful depictions similar to what one might have seen on the originals. There is only one authentic fifteenth-century painting existing in the building, and if you turn your eyes up to the rafters in the rear dining area, adjacent to the gift shop, you’ll likely see it.
After lunch, we made it out to a couple more museums. Estonia’s history has involved many wars and occupations, but none so chilling as the KGB (short for Komitet Gosudarstvennoy Bezopasnosti, or ‘Committee for State Security’ in English, which was the main security agency for the Soviet Union from 1954 until its collapse in 1991). We felt that this was an important museum to visit, with it playing such a crucial role in the city’s history. Old Town Tallinn has opened one of the vestiges of this horror to the public, by creating a museum out of the KGB’s headquarters and prison cells. Here, you can learn about the history of Soviet oppression and suffering in Estonia. While the building was only used as a prison from 1941 to 1950, the memory of what happened there should not be forgotten; wandering through the barren cells as you make your way toward the furthermost cell for solitary confinement, one can feel the ghosts of the trauma that occurred within its walls.
We only spent a short time within the KGB prison cells and yet we exited the building with a heaviness in our chests; thus, we decided to walk about the streets of Old Tallinn until we felt the desire to explore something a little further. Along our walk, we passed Hellemann Tower adjacent to a segment of the remaining town wall, several treasure troves of antique stores, the NUKU Puppet Museum (which was closed), and eventually we arrived at Kiek in de Kök Fortification Museum.
Though interconnected via underground passages in what is now the museum, we unfortunately arrived too late in the day to explore all of the defence towers. With our Tallinn Card PLUS, we were given immediate access into the mightiest artillery tower in the Baltics, 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 can see a breath-taking view of the cityscape.
Without a doubt, spending a wintery day meandering about Tallinn has opened my eyes to get outside in the cold. Picturesque walks through a UNESCO World Heritage Site probably would have changed the mind of even the strictest of ‘winterphobes’. The charming buildings and surplus of history that I would have otherwise missed hiding from cold weather gave me a new outlook on winter outdoor experiences. Who knows, after an incredible experience like this, I may just make the Toronto Christmas Market this year!
* This article was featured in Wanderous Affair: Volume 2, Issue 1