Tallinn, Estonia by Foot and Bus on a City Sightseeing Tour

April 4, 2013 by

Europe, Shore Excursions, Walking Tours

Like most tourists who visit Estonia, I arrived via the two-hour boat from Helsinki, located just 85kms across the Bay of Finland. In fact, the two port cities are so close that many Estonians work in Helsinki and many Finns come to Tallinn for cheaper shopping (50% of Tallinn’s 8 million port arrivals come from Helsinki). I only had a day and a half in the capital city, and since it was the end of December and the streets were filled with snow, a combination bus and walking tour of Tallinn seemed like the perfect way to make the most of my time and stay relatively warm while checking out the city’s major sights.

Tallinn's Old Town and port from the van

Tallinn’s Old Town and port from the van

I met the guide at a small van parked in front of the Sokos Hotel Virus, an easy walk from the center of Old Town. The hotel was built in 1965 and was the first (and biggest) skyscraper in the country. As we left the hotel to begin the one-hour bus portion of the tour, our guide explained that the hotel was located in the “new town” area; the Old Town and its narrow cobblestone streets is just part of the city of Tallinn. The Old Town was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in the 1970s.

Old Town Tallinn

Old Town Tallinn

As we wound our way through the new town into the Kadriorg area, we learned more about Tallinn’s history and its role in Estonia. Of the 1.3 million people who live in Estonia, 400,000 live in Tallinn, which is the capital and largest city in the country. The next largest city has only a quarter of the population of Tallinn, the population of which is bolstered by the presence of several universities, which also give the town a young feel despite its long history. That history is fascinating, and over the course of the next hour we’d learn much more about it as we traveled through the Kadriorg area, which was built in the 18th century by Peter the Great, the ruler of Russia.

A quiet street in Tallinn

A quiet street in Tallinn

Estonia has a long history with Russia, even though it was first conquered by the Danish, then the Swedish, and then the Russians, before earning its first period of independence in 1918. The Soviets took over again in 1940 but lost control of the country to Germany from 1941 to 1944. In 1944 nearly 50% of the homes in Tallinn were destroyed by the Germans as they lost control of the city to Russians, who ruled again until 1991. Luckily, there was very little damage in Old Town itself so it still feels very well-preserved.

Evidence of the Russian occupations is everywhere in Tallinn. In Kadriorg Park, we saw the summer palace of Catherine the Great, which now houses the KUMU art museum, a kids park and several gardens.  The park also contains Peter the Great’s cottage, now a foreign art museum, and hosts summer concerts and winter cross-country skiing.  The Russians were so interested in Estonia because they saw it as a window to Europe from Russia. Peter the Great particularly wanted control of the country to help build Russia as a shipping and navy empire.

From the park, our driver took us passed several monuments, to the Pirata area, where the sailing events for the Moscow Olympics took place. In winter,  people ice fish on the partially frozen Tallinn Bay. As we learned, it’s the only bay that doesn’t fully freeze; others in the area do and are used as ice roads to connect the mainland to the islands. In fact, of Tallinn’s six official ice roads, one is the longest in the world at 26kms.

As we headed back towards Old Town, we took a quick stop at the Song Festival Grounds. In winter, the hill leading down the to large amphitheatre is used for skiing, but in summer the grounds are used to host concerts and the Estonian Song Festival, which is held every five years in July. The grounds have been hosting music festivals since 1869 and the stage can hold up to 30,000 singers at once.

The grounds played a huge part in the Estonian independence movement. When it was forbidden to talk about the 1st Estonian independence period or play the national anthem the traditional songs remained something that was truly Estonian. During Estonia’s peaceful “singing revolution” more than 300,000 people gathered here to give speeches and sing songs about their desired independence from Russia. It’s even said that Estonians “sang their country free” because they sang so loud it was heard in Moscow.

At the top of Toompea Hill

At the top of Toompea Hill

The last portion of our van tour took us to the top of Toompea Hill. Tallinn’s Old Town was once surrounded by a 2.8km wall dotted with cannon towers. The nobility lived at the top of Toompea Hill and merchants and craftsmen lived at the bottom. Today, 20 cannon towers and 2kms of the original wall remain. The first castle to be built on top of the hill, however, does not. It was built by the Danes but when they left in the 14th century, the Germans who came next demolished it and built their own. When the Russians came, they built Alexandra Nevsky cathedral – a Russian Orthodox church – to be taller than the pink Toompea  Palance to show Russia’s power in Estonia.  From the church, we left our driver and van and made our way around Old Town on foot.

The Tallinn Christmas market

The Tallinn Christmas market

We stopped for a beautiful view over the city’s rooftops and then made our way to the lower town. As our guide explained, the city is “limping” because to get from the top of the hill to the bottom there are two routes – a long leg and a short leg.  We took the short leg and finished our tour in the town square, which during holiday season hosts a festive Christmas market.

The view over Tallinn

The view over Tallinn

In just two and a half hours, we learned so much about the history and culture of Tallinn, and we saw more than we possibly could have covered on our own. On a short trip to Tallinn, there’s no better way to get to the know this medieval city, and once armed with local tips for getting around, we had the rest of the day to explore on our own.

– Katie Hammel

Planning a trip? Browse Estonia tours and things to do or book a shore excursion walking tour of Tallinn 

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