Taking on Tallinn, Estonia

A big thanks to Viking Ocean Cruises for inviting us along and providing this adventure through the Viking Homelands! Sweden, Finland, Russia, Estonia, Poland, Germany, Denmark, and Norway. As always, all opinions are our own.

Tallinn, Estonia

A festival in Tallinn, Estonia

While we can’t say that Estonia occupied a spot on our bucket list, we sure are glad that we checked it off anyway.

Starting with a drive through the modern business district of its newly-crowned European capital of Tallinn, we were immediately impressed.

The city has embraced this role and risen to the occasion as the center of one of the continent’s fastest growing economies.

The young country became independent a mere twenty-five years ago, yet it has jumped to the forefront with one of the world’s highest literacy rates and best access to the Internet.

Peter and Catherine’s Crib

The Kadriorg Palace in Tallinn, Estonia

Passing through downtown, we made way to our first stop and stepped back into Estonia’s past as a Russian territory.

Peter the Great liked this spot on the Baltic Sea enough to build a small—by czar standards—palace for his wife, Catherine I, in 1718.

The Kadriorg Palace was used as a summer residence for the royalty, but now it serves as a museum and focal point of the beautiful Kadriorg Park.

How to Sing Yourself to Freedom

The Song Festival Grounds in Tallinn, Estonia
David waits for the show with Gustav Ernesaks, “Father of the Song”

From the palace, a short trip through the woods led to the Song Festival Grounds where every five years a huge singing extravaganza is held with choral groups from across the country.

The tradition of the Estonian Song Festival goes back to 1869, but has played an even more important role in history.

Believe it or not, songs helped to set Estonia free from Soviet control in what became known as the Singing Revolution.

Beginning in the nineteen-eighties, peaceful demonstrations—where thousands of citizens would defiantly sing banned songs—sprang up across the Baltic States.

David waits for the show with Gustav Ernesaks at The Song Festival Grounds in Tallinn, Estonia

After several years of these protests, the USSR gave in and Estonia declared independence on August 20, 1991.

One of the biggest musical gatherings of the movement took place on the Festival Grounds where hundreds of thousands of voices defiantly sang for freedom in an inspiring story of nonviolent rebellion.

The Singing Revolution in Estonia started at the Song Festival grounds

The venue’s fame has also has attracted some of the world’s biggest stars like The Rolling Stones, Tina Turner, and Paul McCartney to perform concerts.

The Domiest Church in Tallinn

Church of St. Alexander Nevsky in Tallinn, Estonia

Leaving the middle aged rockers behind us, we moved on to the Middle Ages and stormed our way through the old city walls.

Beginning at the top, on Toompea, or Dome Hill, we stopped at the Church of St. Alexander Nevsky which put the dome in the name.

While St Alex’s may be the domiest, it is not the oldest church in Tallinn.

St. Mary's Cathedral in Tallinn, Estonia is decorated with family coats of arms

That honor goes to nearby St. Mary’s Cathedral.

Originally built as a Catholic church in 1229, it became Lutheran in 1561 and has been renovated and expanded many times through the centuries.

The old church is often referred to as the “tomb church,” because so many of the early parishioners are buried beneath the floor inside.

St. Mary's Cathedral in Tallinn, Estonia is decorated with family coats of arms

Lutheran churches are normally stark when it comes to decor. The odd St. Mary’s is coated with the entombed families’ coats of arms.

The View from the Top

Tallin, Estonia

Tallinn, Estonia

Viewed from the hill, there are three prominent pinnacles that form the medieval skyline in the town below.

One of those spires doesn’t belong to a church, but rather to the Raekoda, or Town Hall dating all the way back to 1371.

Though it no longer serves as the seat of city, the structure still dominates the main square.

City Hall in Tallinn, Estonia

We headed down to the plaza, which is lined with restaurants, cafes, and bars, and looked for a spot to grab a bite of lunch.

Leave it to Your GypsyNesters to Ferret out the “Weird” Regional Food!

Estonian restaurants are known for offering interesting, perhaps even exotic, game on the menu and were not disappointed.

Tallin, Estonia

Among the many choices of oddities involving animals we have never dreamt of eating, we opted for bear dumplings and smoked beaver.

Neither is a new favorite, but also nowhere near the worst thing we have ever eaten and, on the bright side, we could count them as unexpected checks off the old bucket list.

The bear came wrapped in little ravioli-type dumplings swimming in broth. This helped to cover the strong flavor and kept it from being over bear-ing (ba-dum-CHING).

Bear dumplings in Tallin, Estonia

There were some unknown—albeit delicious—red berries and a dish of sour cream served alongside, which the waiter instructed us to use “as you wish,” so we did, in every possible combination.

Going all in with the condiments seemed to be the best way to take a bit of the growl out of the bear.

Smoked beaver in Tallin, Estonia

The beaver arrived on a wooden board (sans teeth marks as far as we could tell) served with a stout garlic sauce and a hearty black rye bread.

It took several bites of the dam builder to come up with a description, a sort of dense meat yet tender, and very smoky.

Luckily the garlic, which Tallinn is also known for, won the flavor battle hands down.

Here’s to Your (Relative) Health

The old circa 1415 pharmacy in Tallin, Estonia

Tucked away in one corner of the square we found an old pharmacy, the Raeapteek.

No one knows the exact date, but it is thought to have opened in 1415, which makes it one of the oldest continuously running pharmacies in Europe.

It even stayed in business through the communist years, when it was nationalized.

In addition to the modern pharmacy, there is a small museum on the first floor.

Just past the modern medicines we found medieval treatments like scorched hedgehog, mummy fragments, stallion hooves, and unicorn horn powder.

Crazy medicine in the pharmacy in Tallin, Estonia, like scorched hedgehog, mummy fragments, stallion hooves

As time went on, dried deer penis, earthworms in oil, and wood louse infusion came onto the scene and became the medications of choice.

Crazy medicine in the pharmacy in Tallin, Estonia, like dried deer penis, and wood louse infusion

We decided not to ask about remedies for our bear breath or beaver fever.

Headed up again

Ancient tombstones line Katarina Kaik, St. Catherine's Passage in Tallinn, Estonia

Just off the square we duck into the medieval Katarina Käik, St. Catherine’s passage, leading to the ruins of St. Catherine’s Church that give the passage its name.

Along the wall there are several large, ancient tombstones that were moved from inside of the sanctuary.

The city wall in Tallinn, Estonia

The city wall in Tallinn, Estonia

Just as when we visited the amazing old wall around Rothenburg in Germany, of course we had to climb.

For a small fee, we were allowed to ascend the dark, steep, and head-banging steps up to the top for a walk along the ancient rampart.

The steep stairs up the wall tower in Tallinn, Estonia

The steeple of Tallinn, Estonia's St. Olaf's church was once the tallest building in the world

There were also two defensive towers open for even higher climbing and stunning views across both the old and new sections of the city.

It was here that the skull really got to know the stone personally, but it was worth it for the view of St. Olaf’s Church.

Back between 1549 and 1625 it was thought to have been the tallest building in the world, but records were somewhat less than exact back then.

No matter, even after the steeple had to be rebuilt after at least ten lightning strikes it still tops out at over four-hundred feet high.

Blackheads? Heh.

The distinctive door of The Brotherhood of Blackheads in Tallinn, Estonia

The distinctive door of The Brotherhood of Blackheads in Tallinn, Estonia

From the wall, we went in search of the distinctive door of The Brotherhood of Blackheads.

After walking right by it a couple of times because it was open, we figured things out and a guy with a film crew that was using the building let us in for a look around.

Founded as a military organization, the Brotherhood became an association for unmarried merchants and ship owners.

It was a sort of minor league for the Great Guild, where if you did well in business, and got married, you could move up to the big team.

The insignia for the Brotherhood of the Blackheads in Tallinn, Estonia

A Stout Lady Guards the City

The time had come to make our way back to the good ship Viking Star.

Fat Margaret in Tallinn, Estonia

On the way we passed through the walls at the Great Coastal Gate and found it guarded by the whimsically named Fat Margaret fortification.

The five-hundred year old tower was meant to keep invaders at bay, but also to impress any visitors arriving by sea.

Going up the gangplank, we were struck by how our day had been filled with new experiences that we never expected.

Who knew a bucket list could contain all sorts of items we didn’t even know existed?

Tallinn was definitely one of those.

David & Veronica, GypsyNester.com

A big thanks to Viking Ocean Cruises for inviting us along and providing this adventure through the Viking Homelands! Sweden, Finland, Russia, Estonia, Poland, Germany, Denmark, and Norway. As always, all opinions are our own.

YOUR TURN: Were you in the dark about Estonia like us? Is it now on your bucket list? How about those bear dumplings?

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4 thoughts on “Taking on Tallinn, Estonia”

  1. I just arrived in Tallinn and have a plan to study. I found here the most beautiful historical city in the Europe with nice people

  2. Did you know that more than half of Estonia is made up of rural villages, farmland and forests? We went to Tallinn back in March, but only for two days – we would have loved to do the KGB Museum & Tallinn Legends but we just didn’t have enough time. We definitely want to go back & also explore Estonia’s fabulously green countryside!

  3. An absolutely fantastic place to visit for people who love medieval stuff. I love how Tallinn has it’s own unique atmosphere that you can’t find anywhere else. Planning my visit to Tallinn again this summer! Can’t wait.

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