Text: Claire Lessiau & Marcella van Alphen
Photographs: Marcella van Alphen
The picturesque capital of Estonia, Tallinn, is the ideal location for an interesting and relaxing city trip. Off the beaten path, discover it through our 12 fun and interesting facts and let them be an inspiration for your next trip!
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1. You can become an e-resident!
Tallinn is a very innovative city housing the greatest number of start-ups per capita in Europe. You can even become an e-resident! Gone are the days of bureaucracy and piles of paperwork. Estonia is the first place in the world where you can register your company and go 100% digital when running your business! Practical during Covid times, even though it is kind of sad to not travel to this gem of a city!
The European start-up capital is not about to slow down: check out fact #12!
2. Tallinn has its own song festival… and it is big!
To Estonians, the song and dance festivals are the embodiment of their national identity that had been quite shaken by many periods of occupation. Its tradition in Tallinn dates back to 1869. The popular festival kept growing with the Estonian national awakening despite the fact that during the Soviet Occupation propaganda songs were forced into the repertoire.
The trendy festival is a true celebration with over a thousand choirs taking the stage resulting in about 35,000 participating musicians and singers performing for an even larger audience. This explains where the Baltic enthusiasm for the kitsch European song festival – the Eurovision – comes from!
3. Tallinn’s old town is a UNESCO World Heritage site.
Built on a large limestone hill, one of the only ones in the otherwise flat country, the Old Town of Tallinn is lined with cobblestone streets, narrow alleyways, ruins of its medieval city walls, secret underground tunnels, picturesque churches and merchants’ houses with richly adorned façades. The commanding fortress towers the intact thirteenth-century city plan – a rarity. The well-preserved and photogenic Old Town of Tallinn has made way for a vibrant nightlife, well-curated museums, cosy restaurants and amazing spas (see fact #4): the perfect cocktail for a fantastic city trip!
4. Tallinn has a deeply rooted sauna & spa culture.
While Finland often comes to mind when thinking about sauna culture, the Estonian capital is not in rest. The Russian Tsar used to frequent the Tallin-based Georg Witte’s bathing establishment and set the trend for many to follow. Even the Soviet regime used to send its overworked miners and workers to spa towns around Estonia for them to recover.
When Estonia’s northern neighbour tends to keep things traditional and purely sauna-related with their Finnish löyly saunas, Estonians love to pamper, upgrading the experience to a spa.
A visit to a local spa is rejuvenating! Even better, the Kalev Spa bordering the Old Town hosts the only 50-meter-long Olympic pool of the country turning its stylish spa into a real water park. Enjoy the sensory experiences, various saunas, massages, beauty treatments and simply relax after a day exploring Tallinn!
5. Tallinn was built in the 13th century by crusading German knights and has seen its fair share of battles…
The origin of lovely Tallinn dates back to the thirteenth century. A castle was built by the German knights of the Teutonic Order who were to bring Christianity to the northern pagans. The city was then divided into the upper town around today’s Toompea Castle and the lower town, home to the Hanseatic League.
Tallinn has seen many battles: conquered by the Danes, retaken by the Germans and developed into a wealthy Hanseatic trade centre, won over by the Swedes, occupied by the Russians, taken briefly by the Nazis, conquered again by the Soviets, today the Estonian flag proudly waves in the wind marking the independence of the small Baltic state since 1991.
6. Marzipan was invented in the 1422 (!) Town Hall Pharmacy.
Estonians may exaggerate a little, calling it world’s oldest running pharmacy (Santa Maria de Novella in Florence actually deserves the credit, beating Tallinn’s town hall pharmacy by 201 years!). Despite this, the Town Hall Pharmacy of Tallinn is worth the visit: while Santa Maria de Novella was famous for perfumes, this apothecary was renowned for its marzipan. It was amongst the most famous sweets in Northern Europe and Tallinn’s Town Hall Pharmacy was the first place to sell it, listing it as a medicinal product to cure the pain of lost love. Other medieval popular medicines included snakeskin potion, mummy juice, powdered unicorn horn and Claret, a Rhine wine mixed with six different spices and brown sugar.
Today, the sweet almond-based candy, made according to the century-old recipe is still a very sought-after product in the Estonian capital, as well as the Claret wine.
7. Tallinn has a whole underground system of secret passageways!
Designed by the Swedish engineer Erik Dahlbergh in the seventeenth century to defend the city against artillery fire, the large bastions of Tallinn and surrounding earthwork fortifications have served for multiple purposes over the years. Initially, a storage for weapons and ammunitions, the underground passageways then served as a prison and later became a bomb shelter where Tallinners were seeking protection from the Soviet bombings over the Nazi-occupied Tallinn. After WWII, the multi-kilometre-long underground passages served as shelters in case of a nuclear attack on the Soviet city. Later during the Soviet repression, the bastions became a stronghold of the punk culture, influenced by the decadent West on this side of the Iron Curtain. Following the independence of Estonia, homeless people hid in these bastions that have now been turned into an original and engaging museum.
8. Where the Devil got married – amongst many other occult phenomena…
Centuries ago, on a cold winter’s night, a ruined hotel owner in Rataskaevu Street decided to take his own life… As he was about to, a loud knock on the door interrupted him. A man entered and asked the poor owner if it was possible to rent one of the rooms on the top floor until dawn to have a party. He would be paid handsomely on the condition that no-one eavesdropped on the banquet… The landlord agreed.
Later that evening, guests flooded into the hotel. The music and singing resonated, shaking the foundations of the building itself, and intrigued the hotel owner peered through the keyhole… He witnessed the Devil’s Wedding.
The next morning, the landlord found a goat-skin bag full of gold. When he grabbed it, the bag turned into horse dung and he fell dead to the floor!
Maybe it is this legend that started the reputation of Tallinn as the capital of occult of Northern Europe. In 1930’s Tallinn, the study of paranormal phenomena was very popular. The Psychic Research Society was focused exclusively on psychic phenomena, magnetism, telepathy, clairvoyance… Many of its 1,000 members were engineers, doctors, composers and military officers. One of its researches was about the ghost monk of the Gate Tower. Seen by many, and responsible for various paranormal phenomena in surrounding buildings, it was concluded that the tower was haunted by a phantom monk who used to be an executioner’s henchman who professed the vows and lost his peace of mind by committing crimes as a monk. The 2011 faceless statues by Paul Mand standing in the Danish King Garden donated by an Estonian businessman recall this story.
9. The Russian Orthodox Church is still standing because of a lack of money!
The majestic Alexander Nevsky Cathedral was built in 1900 during the Russification period, and named after the Russian hero who defeated the Teutonic Knights in the thirteenth century. Located right across the Estonian Parliament housed in the Tompeea Castle, this was a statement from the Russians to show how they had taken over the country.
During the first independence of Estonia (1918-1944), Estonians wanted to rid the city of all the Russian symbols but they did not have enough money to destroy the Russian Orthodox Church. By the time of the second independence, Estonians had accepted the Russian part of their cultural heritage.
Today, with more than 25 percent of the Estonian population speaking exclusively Russian, this church is very active. If you want to visit it, remember that women should cover their hair in a Russian Orthodox Church.
10. Soviet capitalism gave birth to Estonia’s (& USSR’s) favourite liqueur, Vana Tallinn.
During the 1960’s, the economical Soviet system shifted towards a more capitalistic approach in order to generate some profits. With foreign drinks out of reach, the local Liviko distillery looked for a new taste that everyone would love: rum, chocolate, vanilla, cardamon, cinnamon, coriander and citruses are part of the well-guarded secret recipe of the spicy Vana Tallinn liqueur. The success was immediate, and it fast became the best present to bring to Leningrad or Moscow back then. Today, the “Old Tallinn” liqueur is also used in deserts and ice cream, even if it is best drunk straight up in a long shot glass.
Terviseks – cheers!
11. The only surviving medieval Dance of Death painted on canvas in the world.
The wealthy Hanseatic merchants funded the Saint Nicholas’ Church in Old Tallinn. Today, it houses the excellent Niguliste Museum, the Art Museum of Estonia that focuses on medieval times.
The marvellous Danse Macabre by Bernt Notke (1440-1509) is the best known and most valuable medieval artwork in Estonia, and the only surviving medieval Dance of Death painted on canvas in the world.
One of the best-known artists in Northern Europe, many altarpieces, religious wooden sculptures and paintings were produced in Notke’s workshop in Lübeck. Of his original Dance of Death, only a 7.5-meter fragment containing 13 figures has been preserved showcasing the Pope with his papal tiara, the empress and emperor with his sword and orb, the cardinal and the king. It is assumed that the overall fifteenth-century artwork measured about 30 meters!
Despite the gloomy graphics, the message of the masterpiece is rather optimistic, reminding us of our temporary nature, and making us all equal in the face of death.
12. Soon, the longest tunnel in the world will link Tallinn to Helsinki.
The Finnish Angry Birds entrepreneur Peter Vesterbacka has been spearheading the project, and talks to reach a 15-billion-euro agreement with a Chinese company to build the tunnel as well as artificial archipelagos on the Baltic Sea to create a conurbation between both cities have been underway. Providing much more affordable housing than in the Silicon Valley, Vesterbacka aims at attracting more talents from all over the world to this bold tech start-up hub.
- Vana Tallinn is not the only noteworthy local drink you will need to taste during your trip. Make sure to reach out to Dimitri Saley for an interesting and delicious liqueur & liquor tasting in town.
- To get the most of Tallinn, consider the Tallinn city card.
- Tallinn is a compact, cute and very rich city that deserves at least three days to be appreciated fully. To explore Tallinn, stay at the comfortable 4-star Kalev Spa Hotel, at the edge of the old town, and enjoy its excellent saunas, fitness centre and Olympic pool – the only one in Estonia. Make sure to ask for a room with a view: clearly the best in town!
- Check out this interactive map for the specific details to help you plan your trip and more articles and photos (zoom out) about the area (short tutorial)!