Tallinn's old town can be divided into the upper town on Toompea Hill with its castle, Russian church and viewing platforms; plus the lower town with its city walls, town hall, churches, towers and squares.
The Kohtuotsa and Patkuli viewing platforms are on the edge of Toompea Hill from these you get great views across the red tiled roofs, church spires and towers of the lower old town.
On the edge of Toompea Hill is a pretty garden known as the Danish King's Garden. A legend says that the Danes were losing a battle here in July 1219, when a red flag with a white cross fell from the sky and landed on this spot. The battle turned in their favour and the flag was adopted as their national flag. Their victory in this battle led to a reign by the Danish King in Tallinn and Northern Estonia that lasted over one hundred years.
No signs of that battle today, but there are memories of a more recent struggle. From the park beyond the garden you can look down on Freedom Square, formerly (under the Soviets) Victory Square. It acquired its new name following Estonian liberation and a monument was built to the earlier War of Independence, that of 1918 – 1920. You get good views of this from the garden, alongside the spire of St. John's Church.
As for the more recent struggle, that is commemorated here too, with a memorial to the Baltic Way, also known as the Baltic Chain, when roughly two million people joined hands to form a human chain stretching over 600 kilometres (370 miles) across the three Baltic states, then republics of the Soviet Union. This peaceful protest against the Soviet occupation drew the attention of the world to the desire in these states for independence. The memorial set into the ground here was a gift in 2013 from the Vilnius city government Lithuania to the people of Tallinnn, and a similar one was also presented to Riga.
There are good views from here of the nearby Orthodox Cathedral, the spire of the Niguliste Church in the old town below and various other Tallinn landmarks. There are sculptures, fountains and water features, and a café with outdoor seating. A peaceful place to spend some time while exploring the sights of Toompea.
Next tip: Toompea Castle
When I think of a castle I tend to think of something ancient, stony and perhaps crumbling. Tallinn’s Toompea Castle is none of these things, or not at least on the side it presents most readily to view in Castle Square, Lossi plats. This is a sugar pink 18th century Baroque structure, but behind it lies a more substantial stronghold.
There has been a castle on this site since the early 13th century, when the Danes won the Battle of Lyndanisse (“helped” by the fall of a flag from heaven – see previous tip) and established their rule in this region. The castle was further developed by the Order of the Brethren of the Sword, a crusading order of warrior monks, and the Teutonic Order that succeeded them. The towers, and some of the walls, of their castle still remains, and it was on these foundations that the later 18th century additions were built, including that eye-catching facade. Behind it you can still see some of those towers, including the best known, Pikk Hermann (meaning Tall Hermann) which you can see just peeking over the facade in my fourth photo. The national flag flies daily from the top of the tower as a symbol of Estonia's independence.
Today Toompea Castle is home to the Riigikogu, Estonia’s parliament, which sits in a chamber built for that purpose in the early 20th century, following the footprint of the former monastery that formed part of the castle and which had been burned down in the revolution of February 1918. You can if you wish (and understand enough Estonian to be able to follow) observe parliament in session from a public gallery. It is also possible to tour the building (advance booking essential) and these tours are offered in Estonian, English and Russian – see the Visit Riigikogu section of the website for full information. I didn’t do a tour so can’t comment, but the emphasis seems to be on the workings of parliament rather than the history of the castle.
The website (linked below) also has an aerial photo of the castle that gives some sense of what lies behind the facade it presents to the world, and a link to a video tour (liable to make you giddy – the cameraman’s style is to stand on one spot and spin!), as well as a very extensive history of the building.
Next tip: the nearby Orthodox Cathedral
The prominent outcrop of Toompea Hill makes for great views and in several places flat paved areas with low parapets create the perfect spot for this. But it took me a while to discover just how perfect. After my first visit to Toompea Hill I wrote the following:
“Despite the gloomy weather I decided to check out one of several viewing platforms in the Upper Town. Many other people had the same idea - this is clearly a popular spot and I had to wait for my turn at the parapet to take my photos. The views are certainly good, even on a dull day, but I had expected a larger area with maybe seating and/or a café (as in similar parts of Lisbon) so I was a little disappointed. Nevertheless this is worth visiting for the view which gives you a good sense of the relationship between old Tallinn and its more modern periphery.”
You can sense my disappointment! But fortunately I returned, on two more occasions, and was able to realise that I had been unlucky in several ways on this first visit – with the weather, with the crowds and even with the lack of a café! When I came back a few days later on a much brighter day it was to find Kohtuotsa, the spot I had been in just a few days previously, a bit less busy and the views much more accessible. This is the best place for an overall panorama of old town I think. You can see the distinctive spire of the Town Hall towards the right side of the view, tall St Olaf’s on the left and between them, almost in front of you, the elegant one belonging to the Holy Spirit Church. In front of that, just below your perch, is the gateway at the foot of Pikk jalg, through which you probably passed on your way up to this spot. And on the horizon to the left is the harbour, almost certainly with a few ferries or cruise ships moored there.
You can also see some of the towers and ancient walls of Tallinn from Kohtuotsa. But to get the best view of these head further around the hill, in an anticlockwise direction, to Patkuli. From here you can see the towers more clearly and get a better view of the harbour beyond. And here too is the café I craved for on my first visit, albeit set too far back from the parapet to enjoy any views from its tables – get your coffee to go! This is perhaps also the best spot for sunset views.
For a different viewing platform experience, retrace your steps almost back to Toompea Castle. Tucked away to the side of it, off Toom Kooli, is a quiet courtyard and a parapet with a view west towards modern Tallinn. Not so quaint and scenic, but worth a quick look nevertheless.
Next tip: those sunset views
Definitely worth a look on a sunny day is Toompea, the hill to the southwest of the Old Town. Stroll up the hill, past the Russian cathedral, and on to Toompea Castle, home of the Riigikogu, or Estonian Parliament. Enjoy the architecture and the various scenic viewpoints along the edges of the hill. The castle itself can be toured free of charge (see the website for details), but it was a nice day (plus it was a Sunday morning when I visited), so I stayed outside and enjoyed the views.
Toompea Castle is a medieval castle and is now the seat of Estonian parliament. Every invader to Estonia had used the castle as its base. The castle has been destroyed by different invaders but the original castle the Tall Pikk Hermann Tower still standing and today proudly flies the Estonian flag. The baroque architecture pink color building is not the original castle, and it was built by Catherine the Great of Russia.
Toompea is a steep hill at the top of the old city. The Danes built Toompea Castle here in 1219, but nothing remains of it today. The Knights of the Sword rebuilt it in the 13th century and some of their towers remain - especially Pikk Hermann (Tall Herman).
We did not get a photo of Tall Herman, but when you climb the hill, you start seeing the buildings of the current Toompea Castle with the current Parliament Building of the Republic of Estonia - the Riigikogu when you are at Alexander Nevsky Cathedral which is opposite it.
The castle complex is made up of several parts: the west wall and the Tall Hermann tower belong to the medieval fortress of the Order of the Brothers of the Sword, the Government Administration building represents the Czarist era and is classic in style, and the building of the Riigikogu, in the castle courtyard, was built in the beginning of the 1920s.
You can get to Toompea Hill from 2 rather funny-named streets, Long Leg & Short Leg street. The slanting road of Long Leg was suffiently wide & paved with cobblestones, it was used mainly for horses with carts. Short Leg was built in the 13th century, because of the steep gradient, this street is suitable only for pedestratrians and is now covered with stone stairs. For the safety of the people living there then, gate & gate towers were built on both streets.
Toompea is connected with the lower town throught these 2 streets. On the map, the 2 streets (or 2 legs) are of apparent distinct length, hence, Tallinn was jokingly called the "limping town".
Toompea Castle sits 50 metres above sea level on top of Toompea Hill in the Upper Town of the Old Town. Nothing exists of the original Danish castle built in 1219, but three of the corner towers of the later castle, built between 1227 and 1229 by the Knights of the Sword, still stand today. The most impressive of these towers is Pikk Hermann which is topped by the Estonian National Flag.
The castle itself still retains an important function in modern Estonia as it is the seat of the Riigikogu - Estonia's Parliament.
From the front of the building, the castle looks more like a stately masion than a castle, due to the pink baroque facade, which was built in the 18th century, during refurbishment work during the time of Catherine the Great.
From the otherside, which you can view from the beautiful gardens laid out on the west side of Toompea Hill, you can see the more stereotypically 'castle' look of the building!
You can visit the interior of the castle but through appointment only.
The other 'half' of the Old Town of Tallinn is Toompea or the Upper Town, which sits on a hill overlooking the Lower Town.
Toompea was the traditional seat of power for Medieval Tallinn and still contains Estonia's Parliament Buildings.
As well as the interesting sights around Toompea, such as The Russian Orthodox Church, Parliament Buildings, Parts of the town wall and towers, Kiek-in-de-Kok Tower, Toomkirk and the Castle to name just a few, the Upper Town also offers spectacular views out over the Lower Town and further on into New Tallinn. There are several great vantage points to take in the views.
The Upper Town, like the Lower Town, also offers a maze of old cobblestone streets and lanes which are great to expore on foot. Many of the majestic buildings on Toompea are embassies of different nations.
The following tips give more detail on individual sights in the Upper Old Town
From Toompea Hill you can see the castle and the magnificent Alexander Nevsky Cathedral. And you can also access some of the best views not only of the Old Town but also of the New City of Tallinn and the Harbour.
The castle of Toompea is both old and new. One side of it with Tall Herman tower is medieval and another side is more new - even from beginning of XX century. Construction of medieval brick castle started in 1219, when Tallinn was conquered by Danes. Much later, in 1767-1773, when Estonia's territory was ruled by Tsarist Russia, the Estonian government administration building was added to Toompea. In 1922 on some parts of demolished Toompea castle Parliament building was constructed - now it was at independent Estonia times.
At the moment Toompea castle is the seat of the Parliament of the Republic of Estonia. I think it is not possible to go inside as to museum.
Toompea hill is the birthplace of Tallinn. The oldest fortress stood on this hill and gradually the old town and the city grew around it. The Toompea and the old town have only a couple of open passages, and otherwise they are separated by walls. In fact, the place has been a separate town with its own administration and special rights. Toompea was joined with Tallinn ("lower town") in 1878.
Nowadays, Toompea is the home of Estonian parliament and government. The hill is not very large, so it can be explored by feet in a couple of hours. There are magnificent views over the city from several viewpoints. There are two churches, one Lutheran and one Orthodox that are both worth of visit.
The “short way” to access Toompea hill is more like a sequence of stairs. They start close to Niguliste church. Like Pikk Jalg, also this one has a beautiful medieval gatehouse. But this one is said to be haunted, people say that a crucified monk or a black dog with burning eyes have appeared there. You see, almost every old building in Tallinn has its own legend.
Pikk Jalg is the “long way” to access Toompea hill. This street starts down in the lower old town at Pikk Jalg gatehouse and ends close to the Alexander Nevsky cathedral. Although it is the only road connecting Toompea Hill with the rest of the old town, cars are seen quite seldom here. However, many tourists use it on the way to the sights of Toompea. The beautiful gate house was finished in 1380.