Southern cousin of Finland and the most Nordic of the Baltic States, Estonia occupies a special place in the family of Eastern European countries. This charming destination is the homeland of a Finno-Ugric (not Baltic) people, yet it offers all the amenities of the Baltic to perfection. Its islands, especially Saaremaa and Hiiumaa, are fantastic, rural and wild. The coastal nature is also perfectly preserved in the Lahemaa National Park, with its bays and rocky beaches. And in the south of the country, Lake Peipsi provides a romantic atmosphere for daydreaming and bird watching... Urban tourism enthusiasts will not be outdone either: Tallinn is a beautiful city with one of the largest medieval walled cities in Europe. It is also a very festive city, full of young, original and creative bars and cafés. The inhabitants of this beautiful and pleasant city now have the right to travel free of charge on public transport: this innovation reflects the liberal, egalitarian and progressive image of the country. The other cities of the country are not lacking in charm either, between Tartu, the heart capital of the Estonian nation, and Pärnu, the elegant seaside resort. And those who would like to make a small incursion into the Russian-speaking part of the country, in the footsteps of a USSR still close by, will not be disappointed by Narva, an industrial city that has kept a lot of this (almost) bygone era ...
A young and dynamic capital. The Estonian capital is a leading destination in many ways. First of all, for its old town, which combines charm, animation and rich heritage. Listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, it is one of the largest old fortified cities in Europe - it was the largest in the Middle Ages. It is divided into two distinct areas: the upper town, the former city of the princes, on the hill of Toompea. Calm and discreet, it offers magnificent panoramas in different places. The lower city, around Raekoja Square, is equally beautiful, but full of shops, cafes, restaurants, and at night it becomes one of the most festive places on the continent!
From the 13th to the 20th century, major architectural trends forged its face. As well as the various powers that dominated Tallinn in its history: the Danes (Tallinn means "Danish city" in Estonian), the Germans who inhabited it mostly until the 19th century, the Swedes and the Russians. The whole is a colourful ensemble, with an abundance of cobbled streets and buildings, each one finer and more elegant than the next... A real festival! However, old Tallinn is not a museum. All its establishments have opened in the last 20 years and are run by people in their thirties or forties who, in the Nordic vein, have created original, well-kept, innovative... and pleasant decorations! Tallinn is worth a visit for its shop windows and bars alone.
As for the modern city, with its Soviet face, it contrasts so much with the old town that it offers an equally enriching visit! Tallinn's industrial heritage has been perfectly reconverted and the brick factories are now home to shopping centres, bars, designer shops and various establishments. Don't miss a visit to the hipster district of Kalamaja, which is very popular with young Tallinnese. This is where small, colourful wooden houses and industrial facilities such as the Estonia Piano Factory live side by side. If you add the port, which constantly brings many visitors from neighbouring Finland, who come to party at a lower cost, the green district of Kadriorg, the Baltic beaches of Pirita, numerous museums and a confusing progressiveness, you will have understood that Tallinn is an outstanding city, too little known and which could very well make you succumb to its charms!
History. Although the first written mention of Tallinn dates back only to the 12th century, it is obvious that this ideally situated small port has existed for much longer. It all began in 2500 BC, when the first Finno-Ugric tribes came to settle in the area. Around the 11th century, their descendants built the first wooden fortress on the hill of Toompea. And it was in 1154 that the town was first mentioned by an Arab geographer named Al-Idrisi; it then bears the name Tallinn on the world map as Kalevan.
Danish Tallinn. At the beginning of the 13th century, the first to covet the city were the Danes. Under the leadership of their King Valdemar II and the pretext of Christianization, they occupied the region from 1219. The present name Tallinn dates from this period and literally means "Danish town" in Estonian. In 1227 the first Teutonic Knights took Tallinn from the Danes. The Toompea fortress is rebuilt in stone; merchants and craftsmen settle at the foot of the fortress, forming the lower part of the old town, with the lords residing on the hill.
Tallinn the German. After the Danes ceded it definitively to the Germans in return for money, Tallinn became, until the 16th century, one of the main bases of Hanseatic trade on the route of the Russian trading posts and one of the most prosperous cities in northern Europe. However, its prosperity was on the wane as wars between its powerful neighbours grew. At the beginning of the 16th century, Tallinn suffered Russian assaults by Ivan the Terrible, then became Swedish from 1561 to 1710.
Tallinn the Russian. After a serious plague epidemic that decimated its population, the city finally fell under the rule of Peter the Great's Tsarist Russia, which made it the first commercial port of the empire. But Tallinn remained German at heart despite the centuries and on the documents officializing the Swedish surrender, it is written in plain language that German will remain the official language of commerce and business. Reval, the German name of Tallinn, comes from the word Revala, which in old Estonian means "the fortified city". Another explanation would tend to bring the name of the city closer to the two German words Reh and Fall, the fall of the doe, which in local imagery symbolises the end of the Danish era.
Peter the Great was able to make use of the strategic position of Tallinn, which, despite its provincial appearance, was one of the only ports in the empire to be open in both summer and winter. He undertook the construction of the Kadriorg Palace on the coast, 3 km from the old town. He also ordered the demolition of all the wooden buildings and houses, which were too easily inflammable, in order to ensure the protection of the city, which soon celebrated its 200 years of peace and prosperity. The architectural magic of the old town, which according to Gert Walter gives the Estonian capital its character, probably dates back to this period. The opening of the Tallinn-St. Petersburg railway line in 1870 marked the importance of this small port. The port has of course been enlarged over the centuries to accommodate the ever-increasing volume of goods and ships. But it is the beginning of the 20th century that will bring to the country decisive events for its future history.
Tallinn the Soviet one. Like the other Baltic States, Estonia experienced a national awakening at the end of the 19th century and took advantage of the confusion at the end of the First World War to declare its independence. For more than twenty years, Tallinn will be the capital and the centre of government of a country finally freed from all external tutelage. But in 1939, after the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact signed between the Germans and the Soviets, Estonia and its capital again lost their autonomy to the USSR. In total, during the 20th century, the Germans and the Soviets occupied Estonia in turn seven times, and the country experienced three independences. After the declaration of war between Hitler and Stalin, the city was occupied by the Germans. Bombed by the Russians in 1944, it joined the USSR and became the smallest member of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. Russian emigrants sent by Stalin to work in the processing industries flood into the country; more than 100,000 Estonians are deported to Siberia, others find refuge in the West.
Talinn the Estonian. Empty shops with dull shopfronts gave way to countless shops, bars and restaurants of all kinds in the streets of the old town. Colours, advertisements and renovations have erased the sad decorations of the Soviet period. Young Estonians with mobile phones and trendy clothes are no longer rare, and an atmosphere of intense activity now reigns in the streets. The metamorphosis has taken place at a rapid pace. It is common to say here that in 15 years of independence the country, like its two Baltic neighbours, has gained 50 years of progress and modernisation! In a short space of time, the Estonian capital has taken on the appearance of a major Northern European city. These changes have been favoured by the arrival of investments, especially from Finland. Large German sedans and imposing American all-terrain vehicles are legion in the narrow streets of the capital!
But make no mistake about it. Even though Estonia is considered one of the leading republics of the former Soviet bloc from an economic point of view, and despite the new features of the old city, problems remain, especially for the majority of the population living in the suburbs around the centre of Tallinn. These suburbs, inherited from socialism, are now home to the Russian minority, which is being sidelined by the country's rapid development. Estonia will have to rely on a reconciliation with its history to improve the social climate, which is still very deeply divided in two, between the ethnic Estonians (ultimately few in number) and the other Russians, Belarusians and Ukrainians, born in Estonia but deprived of all civic rights and even in some cases of nationality.
A maritime city. For a newly landed French tourist, Tallinn would immediately appear to be a Saint-Malo on the shores of the Baltic Sea, with its old fortified town overlooking the Gulf of Finland (Helsinki is only 85 km away). Its maritime character gives it an open and airy appearance that distinguishes it significantly from the other two inland Baltic capitals. Its strategic position as a port at the crossroads of trade routes between European cities and Russia has been the reason for the covetousness it has aroused among its neighbours throughout history. The Germans, Swedes and Russians were well aware of the highly strategic nature of the city. Under the Soviet Union, Tallinn, like Rīga, was one of the most economically important cities in Russia.
But unlike Rīga which, at the beginning of the 20th century, had the majority of its walls demolished in favour of a policy of building new residential buildings, Tallinn, which was less wealthy at the time, had to retain its original silhouette. Today it benefits greatly from this with its medieval old town, classified as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, perfectly organised around the fortified hill of Toompea: it is one of the cities in Europe that has best preserved its architectural remains from the 13th to 16th centuries.