In Estonia, modernized Tallinn still savors Old World ambience

The Alexandr Nevsky cathedral, a 19th-century Russian Orthodox church, rises above older buildings in the Upper Town district of Tallinn, Estonia.
The Alexandr Nevsky cathedral, a 19th-century Russian Orthodox church, rises above older buildings in the Upper Town district of Tallinn, Estonia. TNS File

Stepping off the boat in Tallinn, Estonia — a ferry ride from Sweden or Finland or an easy flight from anywhere in Europe — you feel that you’ve traveled farther culturally than you have throughout the rest of Scandinavia. Located about an equal distance from Stockholm and St. Petersburg, Tallinn’s culture is both Nordic and Russian. The country experienced two centuries of Tsarist Russia rule before World War I and 45 years of communist rule after World War II.

Estonia joined the EU in 2004. It was a natural step to many Estonians. With a huge Russian population, Estonia will always face east into the Russian hinterlands, but with its Nordic roots, also west across the Baltic Sea.

Estonians think of themselves as part of the Nordic and European world. Language, history, religion, and twice-hourly ferry departures connect Finns and Estonians. It’s only 50 miles between Helsinki and Tallinn, and an overnight boat ride to Stockholm. All three cities are in EU countries, happy to have close ties and friendly neighbors.

Estonia uses the euro and ATMs are everywhere, including the ferry terminals and airport, and credit cards are widely accepted.

Like Prague and Kraków, Tallinn has modernized at an astounding rate since the fall of the former USSR in 1991, but has kept its Old World ambience.

Among Nordic cities with medieval centers, there’s none nearly as well preserved as Tallinn. Its mostly intact city wall includes 26 watchtowers, each topped by a pointy red roof. Colorfully painted medieval houses share cobbled lanes with blocky, communist-style buildings. While Baroque and choral music ring out in Tallinn’s old Lutheran churches, new shops and hotels are bursting out of old buildings. The city changes so fast, even locals can’t keep up.

Tallinn is affordable on nearly any budget. With so many tourists coming to Tallinn, the Old Town is full of trinkets, but it’s possible to find quality stuff such as knitted sweaters, quilts, and wooden kitchen utensils and trivets. And more shops in Tallinn stay open on Sundays than in Sweden or Finland — the legacy of Soviet atheism.

A marketplace through the centuries, Town Hall Square is the starting point for exploring Tallinn’s Old Town. Once the scene of criminals chained to pillories for public humiliation and knights showing off in chivalrous tournaments, today it’s full of Finns sipping cheap beer, children singing on the bandstand, and clever little bike-taxis zipping through the city. The 15th-century Town Hall dominates the square; climbing the tower earns a commanding view.

The imposing Alexander Nevsky Cathedral, also located in the Old Town, warrants a visit. In 1900, it was built over the grave of a legendary Estonian hero. Step inside for a whiff of Russian Orthodoxy — more than a quarter of all Estonians are ethnic Russians.

A brief walk away is the Danish King’s Garden, an imposing wall that once had 46 towers. In the middle of the garden stands a big round tower nicknamed “Kiek in de Kök” (”Peek in the Kitchen”). It was so tall, “peek” is exactly what the guards could do. Now a museum, it mixes medieval cannons with modern photography exhibits.

Fairly small and modest, Tallinn’s Old Town is a great package of pleasing towers, ramparts, facades, churches, shops, and people-watching. It’s a rewarding detour for those who want to spice their Scandinavian travels with an ex-Soviet twist.

Rick Steves ( writes European travel guidebooks and hosts travel shows on public television and public radio. Email him at