The walled and gated medieval city of Tallinn, capital of Estonia, seems to be brimming with towering stone walls, medieval turrets, ancient houses, soaring church spires, and other the wonders within. One such secret gem is St Catherine’s Passage (or Alley or Walk), a narrow, buttressed alley blanketed with smooth cobblestones, tucked away in the city centre. Connecting Vene Street to Müürivahe Street, a place home to an ancient Dominican monastery (which today only remains in fragments of its original sprawling complex), this narrow passage then winds past the titular St Catherine’s Church. This 14th century church is reputed to be the largest medievalchurch in the Baltics, and is known for its remarkable acoustics. St Catherine’s Passage is also home to a number of grand Renaissance and 18th century homes, as well as artesianael workshops and beautiful medieval and gothic architectural works and quirks. Though at the end of the day St Catherine’s Passage is just an alleyway, it is surely one of the most beautiful alleys in all of Europe, and certainly worth a wander.
Pro tip: If you’re looking to do some photography of the old town centre, a morning visit might be best. Also, Estonia has some of the best food of all the Baltics – you’ll eat and drink well here! The Kompressor, home to massive pancakes, is just 5 minutes away. But the city if fulls of wonderful places to eat and drink.
Tallinn is one of Europe’s most impressive medieval walled towns, with over a dozen watch towers, the beautiful Viiru Gate, and over a kilometre of walls still surrounding the exquisitely-preserved medieval houses and cobbled streets. In its height during the 16th century, Tallinn’s wall network was 2.4 km long, up to 16 metres high, and was protected by no less than 43 towers – an impressive and impregnable site to behold! Tallinn’s oldest wall structure is the Margaret Wall, commenced in 1265 on the orders of Margaret Sambiria, Queen of Denmark and reigning fief-holder of Danish Estonia. Her commissioned wall was far smaller than what we see today – just 5 metres tall and 1.5 metres thick (at its thickest part). Over the centuries, the walls of Tallinn have grown upwards and outwards, particularly in the 14th century as the Dark Ages were a time of turbulence. In fact, this medieval wall was actually guarded by a revolving roster of “voluntary” citizens of Tallinn, who were firmly invited to take turns parading the walls. Today, despite past demolitions, there are over 20 defensive towers and about 10 gates comprising of the Walls of Tallinn, nearly all of which are still in great shape, and able to be visited. All of this together is why Tallinn’s walls are a part – in fact, a significant part – of the UNESCO world heritage site that encompasses Medieval Tallinn. Even if you never stepped foot in to the city (which would be a mistake!), Tallinn’s impressive medieval walls would be reason enough to visit this incredible Baltic gem.
Pro tip: There is a small fee to visit the walls. Many of the towers are actually museums dedicated to Tallinn’s history. According to Visit Tallinn, the best places to see Tallinn’s walls from the outside are the Patkuli viewing platform on Toompea and Tornide väljak (Towers’ Square) near the train station.
Cobblestones underfoot reverberate with the echoes of footsteps, the clink of silverware at a local cafe and the laughter of children playing in the narrow alleyways. The perfectly preserved medieval streets and facades of ancient Tallinn directly contrast with the advanced techosphere hidden just beneath the surface of the city nicknamed the ‘Silicon Valley of Europe.’ It has one of the highest ratio of start-ups per population throughout Europe – Skype being the most famous of them all. The capital of Estonia has slowly become recognised as one of the main IT centre of Europe – Tallinn currently provides NATO’s cybersecurity (home to the NATO Cyber Defence Centre of Excellence), it is set to house the headquarters of the European Union’s IT agency, and has been ranked as the most competitive financial hub of Northern Europe. Quite the achievement for this beautifully small and oft forgotten capital tucked into a remote corner of Europe! Tallinn is perhaps the perfect blend of old and new: the medieval streets and architecture of Tallinn, including the Viru Gates in the photo, have merited the city a spot on UNESCO‘s list – and yet, it also catches the eye of many the enterprising digital start-up. The Viru Gate, a barbican within the ancient city walls, was part of Tallinn’s medieval defensive walls that still encircle much of the city. Though partially destroyed to accommodate horse-drawn carriages and trams, the Viru Gate still dispenses Tallinn’s unique flavour in the brisk Baltic air.
Here, one of Tallinn’s many terracotta-topped towers pokes through the mysterious mist. Unlike many other towns and cities across Europe, Tallinn has been able to keep true to its roots. In fact, Tallinn prides itself on the fact that many of the city’s buildings, churches, houses, warehouses, walls, and towers maintain their original forms. Some even date all the way back to the 11th century–impressive! Especially for such a small country under the constant shadow of nearby giants vying for control over its’ strategic position (namely, Russia, Germany, and Sweden). In fact, Estonia wasn’t even a country for much of its recent history, only gaining its independence in 1991 (and briefly just after WWI). Perhaps because of this loss, the Estonians want to make up for lost time and preserve as much of their history as possible. Tallinn has not been “improved” or “modernised” like so many other European capitals; (think anything from London to Berlin to Warsaw to Madrid). Not that there is anything wrong with this, but sometimes, we need that misty, magical, timeless place with tiny, winding cobblestone roads, local taverns and ancient churches that make us feel as if we’ve travelled back to the middle ages.
A Baltic gem. The Baltic Gem. Any interest in seeing what a beautifully preserved medieval city with Hanseatic buildings, all hardly touched by modern times, while still full of life and culture looks like? Go to Tallinn. Capital of a little country hidden away in the north-eastern corner of Europe, Tallinn is a city that doesn’t make many travel itineraries. Its popularity is growing, but at the moment, it is still a quiet city full of beautiful architecture recognised by UNESCO by day—and crazy street parties by night. While living under various foreign influences for large chunks of its’ history, the Estonians have persisted, and eventually received their independence in 1918-20 (which was lost to the Nazis and the Soviets but regained in 1991). Tallinn is a symbol of strength and resistance, a symbol of the Estonians’ reverence to their own history, art, language, and traditions, and a symbol of freedom, of independence, of culture.
The Baltic Sea is a basin of water in the north of Europe. Bordering Denmark, Estonia, Finland, Germany, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Russia and Sweden, it also happens to be one of the finest places to find that curious orange-red, stereotypically Baltic mineral, amber. As the Baltic is almost always too cold to properly enjoy its beaches, one of the nicest ways to see the sea is by way of bike. Historically, the sea has played a major role in commerce, trade and movement of peoples, including containing the main trading routes of the Hanseatic League. It played a major role in other trades too, such as the lumber, flax, hemp and fur industries. Sweden’s silver and iron mining industry and Poland’s salt mines have also profited from the Baltic Sea trade. All in all, if you find yourself in Northern Europe, the Baltic is worth seeing–and hard to miss!
Why don’t people come here? As much as I love places like London and Paris and Madrid, there is more than just these few places in Europe that are breathtaking and spectacular…and Tallinn is certainly wonderful. Europe is a popular honeymoon destination (Paris, London, Madrid, Barcelona, Roma), but places like Tallinn or Prague or Budapest need to be on that list. Tallinn is old – and beautiful, maybe more beautiful than Europe’s ‘traditional’ Aphrodite’s. Several kilometres of city wall remain, grey stone topped with red, turreted roofs. The cobble-stoned streets that overlook the blue Baltic sea makes the city charming, lovable. This is a place one can fall in love. Like these doe-eyed pigeons, this is the kind of place I’d rather spend my honeymoon – quiet, relaxing, beautiful, historic, friendly. The old town is a UNESCO world heritage site. The town square is positively medieval. There is a darkened tavern in the city centre that serves authentic elf soup that patrons drink out of clay pots (no spoons allowed). Estonia has a pulse that you rarely find, and it is easily one of Europe’s best kept secrets.
I have fallen in love with a new European nook–Tallinn, Estonia, a place that most people don’t even know exists. This fog-laden Nevski Cathedral isn’t exactly old, only dating back to about 1894. Built during the Russian occupation of Estonia, it is of course built in the Russian Revival style, giving the city a fairy-tale look (it has been said that it resembles St. Panteleimon’s Cathedral in Kiev. Also as a side-note, I just learned that there used to be an impressive Alexander Nevski Cathedral in my former city of Warsaw, demolished 1920. I lived there 1 year, and this was the first I’ve heard if it! A shame too–it looked beautiful). Not that Tallinn needs too much help at looking beautiful or charming; much of the city walls, towers, and gates have survived the wars, and as a result, the remarkably extensive old town becomes a sea of 800 year-old stone and red-clay roofs lost in the clouds! Tallinn is truly straight out of a book of fairy tales!