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
The upper town is known as Toompea, and has long been home to the most important people in Estonia, taking advantage of the exposed part of a limestone cliff that provides a natural defence against invaders.
Everyone from the Danes to the Soviets, and Catholics to Protestants, has left their mark on the hill. They left a legacy of important buildings like the Danish Toompea Castle, the Russian Orthodox Nevsky Cathedral, the Estonian Parliament, and the Lutheran Cathedral of Toomkirik.
Today Toompea provides a concentrated history of Tallinn, with some impressive architecture and amazing views, all crammed into the area the size of which can be crossed and re-crossed in the space of 15 minutes.
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.
When the Soviet Union was in state of dissolution in early 1991, the three Baltic republics had a hard struggle for their independence. After the riots in Riga and Vilnius, both of which were crushed by Soviet forces, the Estonian leadership decided to give Toompea Hill its old function as a fortress back again. All the roads leading up there were blocked by boulders. Thankfully, Estonia escaped the same fate as their Baltic neighbours thanks also to the troops under Dzhokhar Dudayev who refused to fire on the Estonians and criticised the Kremlin instead. Estonia used the days of a failed coup d'état in Moscow and declared independence on August 20th 1991.
One of the boulders used in 1991 was turned into the independence movement in 1993. In the same way the road to independence was blocked for Estonia for many years, this boulder blocked off the possible Soviet threat. I visited this monument each time I've been to Estonia, including also on August 20th 2011 on te 20th anniversary. Three flower bouquets were placed there on that day, one in the colours of the Estonian flags and two more with the National colours of Latvia and Lithuania respectively. Although the three baltic republics are different, they share a lot of history, including their common road to independence. Unforgettable moments include the human chain from Tallinn to Vilnius in 1989 and the so-called „singing revolution“.
The eastern side of Toompea hill, the one which faces the old town, boasts with old aristocratic houses from the late 19th century. Many of them are used by national organisations and embassies, others got back into private property afther the fall of communism and Estonia's independence. One of them is the Hall of Knighthood (Kiriku Plats 1) which served several purposes. It was used by the Teutonic Knights until they lost their privileges in 1920. Afterwards, it became the ministry of foreign affairs, the estonian national library and an art museum. The neorenaissance building from 1848 now houses the academy of art.
Another is Stackelberg's house (Kirkiku 6) from the 17th century which does not look really spectacular on the first sight. Inside however, it has one of the most splendid halls of the city which is usually not open for the public. The house got its name from the wealthy family which moved in in 1811 and altered the house to their taste. A remarkable feature of this house is the fact that it has no real fundament. Its basement is located on top of the bare granite rock of Toompea Hill. Stackelberg's House (or Employer's House) is used by the Central Union of estonian employers. The Stackelberg family also had a larger mansion from 1875 which is just a short walk away at Toompuiestee, close to Pikk Hermann. That house was turned into a hotel where the former stables house the conference rooms now.
On the descent from Toompea into the newer part of the city, you can find some great open spaces and wooded areas where Estonians can be found relaxing on sunny days. In the Hirvepark off Falgi tee, you can find a small statue of Linda, the wife of King Kalev. In Estonian mythology, upon Kalev's death, Linda is believed to have buried him under a large mound of earth-the current site of Toompea Hill.
Although the statue itself is not really that special, this is a great spot to chill out on a bench with a bite to eat and escape the crowds of Toompea only a few hundred metres away. It's a nice quiet spot.
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.