- By Allison Quinn
- Sep. 23 2012 22:08
Main industries: engineering, metalworking, electronics manufacturing, machine building, metal processing, textiles, services
Mayor: Edgar Savisaar (Center Party)
Founded: The city first appeared on a map in 1154; it was taken over by the Danes and given the name that it still carries today in 1219 (Reval in Danish or Tallinn in Estonian).
Interesting fact No. 1: Tallinn was named a European Capital of Culture in 2011.
Interesting fact No. 2: Tallinn's Old Town is included on UNESCO's list of World Heritage Sites.
Interesting fact No. 3: Tallinn is the oldest capital city in northern Europe.
Interesting fact No. 4: The city was known as Reval from the 13th century until the 1920s.
Sister cities: Vilnius, Lithuania; Stockholm, Sweden; Dartford, England; Portland, Oregon, United States; Ghent, Belgium; Riga, Latvia.
Helpful contacts: Evelin Tsirk, general manager of the Tallinn City Tourist Office & Convention Bureau (+372-640-441).
TALLINN, Estonia — "I don't know a word of it. I don't see the point of learning it. It's a horrible language, so ugly-sounding. I don't see how the Estonians can take themselves seriously speaking it."
It's 5 a.m. on the train from Moscow to Tallinn, capital of the Baltic nation Estonia, and a rather tipsy Russian passenger named Kirill has veered off into politically incorrect territory.
"So how could you have lived in the city your entire life and not speak a word of Estonian? What about school?" his neighbor asks.
"What about it? I went to a Russian school."
With Russians making up a quarter of the former Soviet republic's population of 1.35 million, Estonia has 43 Russian-speaking schools, where the entire curriculum is taught exclusively in Russian.
But the number of Russian-speaking schools is declining. In February last year, the government ruled that 60 percent of subjects in upper grades must be taught in Estonian. The language issue, however, is but one source of friction between the nation's two main ethnic groups.
Ericsson (9 Järvevana Tee; +372-650-0900;
Ensto (3/5 Taevakivi; +372-635-0231;
Five years ago, when the government finalized plans to relocate the then-centrally located Bronze Soldier of Tallinn, a World War II memorial unveiled in 1947, riots broke out in the capital. Two nights of violence and looting left one ethnic Russian dead and more than a hundred arrested.
Dedicated to the "liberators of Tallinn," the statue of a Red Army solider stands stoic, head down, his helmet in his hand. The monument is a source of communal pride for the local Russian population, who believe that the Red Army rescued the Estonians from the Nazis, but Estonian nationalists see the relic as a symbol of Soviet repression — of one brutal occupation being replaced with another.
NATO Cooperative Cyber Defense Center of Excellence
Skype. Not only was Skype software developed by Estonians, but Tallinn also boasts Skype HQ, the largest of all Skype offices, with 400 employees.
After the first night of rioting, considered the worst in Estonian history since the Soviet reoccupation in 1944, the government hastily moved the statue to a cemetery three kilometers outside the city center.
Shortly after the incident, a poll conducted in Russia by the independent Levada Center showed that 60 percent of Russians considered Estonia an "enemy." Protesters rallied outside the Estonian Embassy in Moscow and the Estonian Consulate in St. Petersburg.
A new phrase to describe Estonia took the Russian Internet by storm, "eSStonia," a reference to the belief among many Russians living in Estonia that Estonians actually collaborated with Nazi forces during World War II.
In 2002, a statue was erected in the nearby town of Parnu honoring Estonians who fought the Red Army in World War II. It caused such an uproar in the international community, with some reports even describing it as a Nazi monument, that it was taken down before it was ever even officially unveiled.
But despite spats between the nation's two major ethnicities, Estonia is a prosperous nation, with the highest per capita gross domestic product of any Baltic state. On the World Bank's index on ease of doing business, Estonia consistently ranks in the top 20.
Just looking at Tallinn today, you might never suspect that the city has had a rather tumultuous past since its 11th-century inception. But if the medieval wall encompassing Tallinn's Old Town could talk, it would have some mind-blowing tales to tell.
From the construction of the first fortress on the city's hill of Toompea in 1050 to the Northern Crusades, Christianization and Danish rule in the 13th century, to the arrival of the Hanseatic League in 1285, the Teutonic Knights in 1346, then Swedish rule, then Russian, a brief period of independence in the 1920s and alternating domination by the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany, this city has seen it all. It's been pillaged, razed, bombed, conquered and sold.
Q: Has it been easy for you as a foreigner to start your own business in Tallinn? Has the city of Tallinn done anything in particular to make it easier for foreign business owners?
A: The system here is not very well set-up for non-Estonian/non-Russian speaking people. Gathering the correct information, going through all the necessary processes and filling out all the required forms does require quite a bit of time, research and going from building to building, being told you are in the wrong place.
Q: What advice do you have for people considering starting a business in Tallinn?
A: Talk to other non-Estonians who have been through the whole process so you can find out all the details and requirements that no one tells you about. There are so many expat business owners in this city; there are plenty of people to ask. But just as with anywhere else, it does take a lot of time and patience to get things done here, though it's well worth it.
Q: What is a must-see for tourists who only have a few hours to spend in the city?
A: It's best just to stick to the Old Town: St. Olaf's Church, where you can climb to the top of the spire to get breathtaking views over Tallinn. St. Catherine's Passage, which is just a little alleyway, but has great little art studios. And then Bastion Passage, 17th- and 18th-century tunnels underneath the city of Tallinn.
— Allison Quinn
But you wouldn't know that by looking at the city's residents, some of the friendliest and most open people in Europe, nor by walking through the city's beautiful and bustling Old Town, which, seen in an aerial view, is actually heart-shaped.
Upon entering Tallinn's Old Town for the first time, you might momentarily forget what century it was or even think you had wound up in another dimension entirely: On one corner, milk maids stand on an ancient cobblestone path alongside a wooden cart offering roasted nuts. On another corner, boisterous Western tourists fall out of a sports bar. Behind it all, as one giant surreal backdrop, there are fast-food eateries and an overabundance of bright signs offering free Wi-Fi. Oh, and a group of Hare Krishna's playing the tambourine and strolling down the street chanting.
It is precisely this eclectic, almost disorienting blend of the old and the new, of various cultures and attitudes that somehow never seem to clash, that makes this city so remarkable. Tallinn's history of repeatedly being occupied by various cultures has played a part in transforming it into the multifaceted gem that it is today.
But any visitor should take note: The mark left on the city by the Germans, Danes and Swedes has been much more well-preserved and is widely displayed with pride, while that left by the Soviet Union tends to be brushed under the rug. The Soviet occupation is still fresh in the minds of Tallinn residents. So think twice about asking a local for directions in Russian, even if he or she doesn't speak English.
Tallinn was first recorded on a map in 1154, although documents show that the first fortress was built on Toompea in 1050, and there is reason to believe that the city functioned as a marketplace well before 1154. In 1219, the Danes took over the country and imposed Christianity on the population.
This is the period that likely gave Tallinn its name: The word "Tallinn" in Estonian closely resembles "Danish Castle." In 1285, the city became a member of the Hanseatic League, a German mercantile and military alliance of cities in Northern Europe. This helped rocket Tallinn to fame as a successful marketplace and port city.
German traders remained dominant in the city even when the Danes sold Tallinn to the Teutonic Knights in 1346, and later, with the onset of the Protestant Reformation, the German influence became even more distinct and Lutheranism spread among Tallinn's residents. But the city never seemed to stop changing hands, and in 1561, it became a dominion of the Swedish Empire.
The city fought its first battle against Peter the Great's army in the Great Northern War of 1710, but it never stood a chance: The population had been cut from 10,000 to just 2,000 after plague struck the city. So with that, Sweden was forced to surrender Estonia to imperial Russia. In the 19th century, the city was swept up by industrialization and Russification and remained a significant regional port.
In February 1918, Tallinn proclaimed its independence from Russia with the Independence Manifesto, but that didn't last long: The city was occupied by Germany and then fought a war of independence against Russia shortly after, finally winning independence in 1920 with the signing of the Tartu Peace Treaty.
But after two decades of independence, the country was tossed around like a rag doll once again, this time with the Soviet occupation in 1940, then that of Nazi Germany, from 1941 to 1944. Tallinn was greatly damaged in the Soviet air raid of 1944 and wound up back in the hands of the Soviet Union after the Nazis retreated in 1944.
Many Estonians resisted Soviet rule. Mounting attacks from the nation's densely forested countryside, The Forest Brotherhood waged a decade-long battle against Russian forces until they were granted amnesty by the Soviet government after Josef Stalin's death in 1953.
Estonia gained its independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, with absolutely no violence or bloodshed, in what was dubbed the Singing Revolution, since Estonians used only their voices to bring about change.
In 1972, Lennart Meri, the eventual first post-Soviet president of Estonia, said of Tallinn: "We remain, we with our thousand-year-old town, its legends, secrets, subterranean passages, walled-up windows, enchanted doors. So pause for a while before them, feel their surfaces that the centuries have polished smooth.
"Perhaps they have something to tell you. Perhaps you will be able to hear the distant clatter of hooves at midnight, the clash of swords, the stifled sighs, the grim song of troops on the march. Then hold your breath and listen, for these stones speak of our distant childhood."
What to do if you have two hours
Q: What significant changes have taken place in Tallinn over the last decade?
A: The number of foreign tourists staying in Tallinn has doubled over the past 10 years, reaching 1.5 million by 2011.
The tourism infrastructure has improved: There's a new wing in Tallinn Airport and a new quay for cruise ships in Tallinn Harbor. There are new attractions as well: the renovated Great Gild House, a defensive tunnel system built in the 1600s, has opened, etc. Tallinn's population has also increased, whereas most Estonian cities face a decline.
Tallinn is also thoroughly restructuring its public transportation services. All modes of municipal transport (bus, tram, trolleybus) have been merged into one company fully owned by the city. As of Jan. 1, 2013, public transportation in Tallinn will be free for its residents, a unique solution not only in Europe. Public transportation will be given a strong preference by using special lanes, traffic lights, etc. A new e-card system for public transportation is being introduced.
Q: What sets Tallinn apart from other EU cities?
A: Ever since the days of Viking traders, Tallinn has been a meeting point of various cultures and nations. Tallinn is an amazing blend of old and new. The city never fails to amaze visitors with its historical charm. On the other hand, Tallinn is also widely recognized as one of the world's most technology-oriented cities, offering a range of cutting-edge solutions from e-government to mobile parking.
Q: What attracts tourists to Tallinn?
A: Tallinn attracts tourists first of all because of its best preserved medieval Old Town. Tallinn's Old Town, included on UNESCO's World Heritage List, is unique for its well-preserved medieval milieu and structure.
On the other hand, threaded throughout this same Old Town and its environs are cutting-edge restaurants, cafes and clubs that give Tallinn its energy and buzz.
Tallinn's city center is very compact. One can easily walk from one end to the other and see different sides of the city. Tallinn comprises one of the best living museums of its kind, as the 700 years of Tallinn's architectural history give a lively overview of various styles and architectural directions. There is certainly plenty to do, but anyone coming to Tallinn should know that Tallinn is also a great place to do very little: Take a quiet stroll through a park, relax in a health spa and simply enjoy the seaside atmosphere.
— Allison Quinn
If you're just passing through the city, perhaps killing time until your ferry to Helsinki arrives, there are plenty of options. Fortunately for all visitors, Tallinn is a small enough city that you can get to just about any destination on foot.
If you arrive by train, it's only a 10-minute walk down Nunne Street to get to the historic downtown, where most of the must-see sites are located. The airport is only five kilometers from the historic downtown. You can take a taxi or Bus No. 2 or No. 90K.
Once in Old Town, take a stroll down Viru, by far the liveliest street, dotted with various tourist stands and bike tour services. Take your pick from any of these if you'd like an insider's guide to Tallinn. Or if you're feeling adventurous, be sure to stop at Raekoja Plats, the town square that now hosts the City Museum.
The square is the perfect place for people-watching, and it's big enough that it doesn't get too crowded even during the summer tourist season. The square's perimeter consists almost entirely of small cafes, bars and restaurants, giving you the perfect chance to sit down and rest while also getting a good feel for the city's atmosphere. In the summer months, you will also find arts and crafts fairs held in this square quite frequently.
Any visit to Tallinn would be incomplete without a trip to the top of St. Olaf's Church, where you will be rewarded with a stunning aerial view of the city. From 1549 to 1625, St. Olaf's was the tallest building in the world. Though it suffered damage in various fires and wars throughout the centuries, it has since been rebuilt. Its current height is 123 meters.
Standing on top of the church, you will get the perfect view of the city's impressive blend of the new and old: The old-fashioned red roofs of houses on the horizon meet with modern, angular skyscrapers and the fortress walls dotted with apartment blocks built in the Soviet brutalist style of architecture, as well as buildings representing "new Europe," modern developments with stylish, sleek architecture.
St. Catherine's Passage (Katarina Käik in Estonian) is another must-see. A small passageway that connects Vene and Müürivahe streets, it is one of the most photographed sites in the city. And when you get to see it for yourself, you'll understand why: This narrow, cobblestone path with its stone walls is lined with an array of little art studios and workshops, all of which offer their own unique souvenirs, and many of which offer you the chance to watch the artists at work.
For those who crave a more historic tour of the city, there are a few spots that are more conducive to quiet contemplation than people-watching, shopping or socializing. One of those spots is at 59 Pikk Street, the former KGB headquarters. The building is not, as some would believe, gloomy and intimidating at first glance. It's the small, subtle details of the building that make it chilling: the bricked-up basement windows, parts of the wall where extra plaster has been added to make it thicker — presumably to make the building more soundproof.
During the Soviet occupation, the KGB basically controlled the entire northern part of the city. All interrogations were carried out in this building. Today, any visitors not brushed up on the place's history would probably not suspect that anything particularly notable happened in the building. Unless, of course, they can read Estonian: There is a solemn plaque on the front of the building that reads, "This building housed the organ of repression of the Soviet occupational power. Here began the road to suffering for thousands of Estonians."
It is also worth noting that during the Soviet occupation, the spire of the Estonians' beloved St. Olaf's Church was used by the KGB to transmit radio signals.
The Hotel Viru (4 Viru Väljak; +372-680-9300;
Legend has it that all of the rooms in the hotel were bugged in Soviet times, since all foreign visitors were generally assumed by the KGB to be spies. Today, the 23rd floor has been turned into a museum that allows guests to get a sense for the spy mania and paranoia of Soviet times. Tours of the museum are provided in four languages: Russian, English, Finnish and Estonian.
What to do if you have two days
There are plenty of activities to choose from if you have a few days to spend in the city. If the weather is nice, your best bet is renting a bike and taking a bike tour of the city, either independently or with a hired guide. City Bike (33 Uus Street; +372-511-1819;
For any serious history buffs or those fascinated by Tallinn's history who are not afraid to delve into even the most depressing times, the Museum of Occupations (8 Toompea; +372-668-0250;
A visit to the Patarei Prison (6-124 Kihnu; +372-504-6536;
Various events are held at the prison throughout the year, including New Year's celebrations. Tours start at 6 euros per person and are offered in English, Russian and Finnish. The former prison also offers rooms to rent for any guests hoping to host a rather macabre party. And for the more adventurous visitor or anyone with a dark enough sense of humor, there's also a real "prisoner experience": For 40 euros, you can go through every procedure that prisoners went through, including getting fingerprinted and photographed and being served a last meal complete with a small schnapps. Hopefully you won't actually be shot.
What to do with the kids
The Tallinn Zoo (150 Ehitajate Tee; + 372-694-3300;
Tallinn offers an abundance of bars and lively nightclubs, more often than not filled with tourists and backpackers. Hollywood (8 Vana-Posti; +372-627-4770;
Club Prive (6 Harju; +372-631-0545;
Where to eat
Vanaema Juures (10/12 Rataskaevu; +372-626-9080;
For a more expensive and showier meal, visit Olde Hansa (1 Vana Turg; +372-627-9020;
Where to stay
The city offers an extensive network of budget hostels for both foreign visitors and Estonians alike. If you're looking for a cozy and peaceful hostel devoid of any loud and obnoxious parties, try Flying Kiwi Backpackers (1 Nunne Street; +372-5821-3292;
If you're looking for something a bit more upscale and private, go with Merchants House Hotel (4/6 Dunkri; +372-6977-500;
There are a number of city legends and myths that really seem to capture local imaginations. It's well worth it to inquire about one of these many myths and hear it straight from an Estonian. And they really seem to enjoy talking about such legends as well.
Ask about the house at 16 Rataskaevu, and you're bound to be treated to some spine-tingling ghost stories. For centuries, there have been rumors of strange happenings in the house: wild yet invisible parties, unexplainable noises and thundering footsteps. Legend insists that this house once inadvertently hosted the devil's wedding. The story goes that the desperate, down-on-his-luck landlord of this building was approached by a mysterious stranger just as he was about to commit suicide.
The stranger offered the poor landlord a colossal sum of money in return for the right to celebrate a wedding on the premises. The only condition was that no one could eavesdrop or attempt to discover what was taking place behind the closed doors, otherwise that person would die. The landlord agreed, the wedding ceremony was held with great pomp and circumstance — and loud festivities — and at exactly 1 a.m. the entire place fell deathly silent and all the guests vanished into thin air. The next day, the butler dropped dead after confessing that he'd eavesdropped on the party. The landlord was so traumatized by this that he had the room in which the party took place boarded up to hide the fact that the room existed.
Or ask about the legend of the Old Man of Ülemiste Lake, or more precisely, what will happen if the Old Man is told that the city is now complete. If, by some twisted chance of fate, an old man appears and asks you whether Tallinn is complete, say no — always say no.