Talking Travel Destination Worldview Elle Andra-Warner Tallin Estonia

The Town Hall is the only intact Gothic town hall in Northern Europe, dating back to the 14th century. It is also one of the famed symbols of Tallinn; and one of the iconic symbols we Estonian child refugees had imbedded in our souls.
(Photo: Kaido Haagen)


Stepping Back to Medieval Times in Tallinn, Estonia
by Elle Andra-Warner

Estonia — my ancestral homeland — is a jewel of the Baltic. With its medieval architecture, castles, old lighthouses, miles of white sand beaches, cultural landmarks, museums, and great shopping, Estonia has emerged as an exciting new European destination and a traveller’s treasure land.


With the three-metre-thick, 16-metre high, and four-kilometre long city wall, Tallinn boasted one of the most powerful defense systems in Northern Europe in the 16th century. (Photo: Toomas Volmer.)

St. Olaf's Church, the Great Coastal Gate, and Fat Margaret's Tower have been landmarks for seafarers for ages. Until the late 1800s, St. Olaf's Church was the tallest building ever built in the world. (Photo: Tavi Grepp)

St. Birgitta's Convent Ruins are those of Old Livonia's largest convent dating back to the beginning of the 15th century. (Photo: Kaido Haagen)

A thatched roof building at the Rocca de Mare open air museum

For More Information on Tallinn

The City of Tallinn

Discover Tallinn

The Estonian Open-air Museum (This facility is in a very beautiful forested area and has displays of traditional Estonian life.)

The House of the Black Heads

Visit Estonia

A Personal Note

As a person of Estonian heritage, I give lectures on Estonia, its history and people. When I first visited Estonia — barely three weeks after its re-independence in 1991 — I was entranced by the medieval part of Tallinn. I've been to other medieval cities in Europe, but my homeland's medieval buildings and streets were by far, the best I had ever seen.

Talking about our ancestral homeland is often a very emotional experience for those of us who grew up in a dual Canadian-Estonian culture (English school during the week, Estonian school Saturday, Estonian church Sunday ). Many of us were Estonian “child refugees.” We were children who had come to Canada with our immigrant parents. Some of us, like myself, were actually born in post- Second World War Estonian displaced persons camps in Europe. When we visited Estonia for the first time after 1991, we were really afraid. What if we felt our Estonian heritage so strongly, that we didn't want to leave Estonia? Were we Estonians living in Canada, or Canadians with an Estonian heritage? We had grown up with the “impossible dream” that Estonia would one day be free. And when it did happen, many of us were faced with an identity crisis. There had been almost a messianic element to our being brought up in the Estonia culture in Canada. Excellence, particularly in academics, sports, and music was demanded of us — just because we were Estonian).

(Readers may also be interested in know ing that the current President of Estonia is a former journalist, Thomas Ilves. Although he was born in Stockholm, Sweden, the son of Estonian refugee parents, he was raised in the United States and has a psychology degree from Columbia University.)


No matter where you start your visit to Estonia, at some point you will end up in Tallinn, Estonia’s capital city. With a population today of around 400,000, the city dates back to 1154 and owes its name to the Danes.

It seems that after 1219, when the Danes took control of the city, the townsfolk began calling it “Taani Linn” which meant “Danish City” in Estonian. Foreign intrusions riddle my homeland’s past, with the last happening during the Second World War when Russians invaded Estonia twice and then occupied it from 1944 to 1991. (My parents, who did not know each other at the time, fled to Canada from Estonia in 1944.)

If medieval times interest you, Tallinn is one of Europe’s best preserved medieval cities. Circling the Old Tallinn area is a 2.35 km stone wall built in the 14th century. And of the original 27 stone towers, 17 survive. And some, like Kiek in de Kok (Peek in the Kitchen) and Paks Margarete (Fat Margarete), now house museums and cafés.

Old Town’s winding cobblestone streets all lead to the busy bustling Town Hall Square (Raekoja plats). You can feel the medieval history here as you relax at one of the many sidewalk cafés in the square, munch on some good Estonian food, and perhaps chug down an Estonian Saku beer.

Dominating the square is the late Gothic two-storey Town Hall (Raekodu) built in the 1200s. Check out its quirky weathervane, a funny-man-with-moustache named Old Thomas (Vana Toomas). On the opposite side of the square is the Town Council Pharmacy (the famous Raeapleek). It first opened its doors in 1422 and is still in business today. And it was in Town Hall Square that the world’s first Christmas tree was put up in 1441. (However, neighbouring Latvia makes a similar claim.)

A short walk from the square are some gems of medieval churches. The 13th century Holy Ghost Church (Puhavaimu Kirik) houses remarkable art treasures, including a 1483 folding cupboard altar, a 1513 Wrangel coat-of-arms, and a medieval clock.

Nearby is St. Mary’s Church (Toomkirik), dating back to 1233. It has a large collection of wooden carved coats-of-arms, some dating back to the 17th century. And then there’s St. Olaf’s Church (Oleviste Kirik) first built in 1267. For a time, was the tallest building in Europe.

Guilds played key roles in medieval Tallinn. For a fascinating glimpse of those times, drop in at the ornate guild hall, the House of the Black Heads (Mustapeade Maja) at 26 Pikk Street. Established around 1400, membership in the Brotherhood of the Black Heads was open to unmarried male merchants, shipowners, and the “intelligentsia.” Members met almost every night to drink, socialize and “rest from honest labour” — but first many took in a bowling game in the house alley. (The outline of the bowling alley is still visible in the walls.)

Why was it called the Black Heads? Well, for some unknown reason, the guild’s patron saint was the black martyr Saint Mauritius, warrior-commander of the Roman Theban Legion.

Like to shop? The sweater stalls lining Tallinn’s stone walls have some of the world’s best bargains for pure wool sweaters (with traditional Estonian folk patterns) and knitted items, beautifully designed and handcrafted. Absolutely a shopper’s delight. Other favourite souvenirs of Estonia include: carved wooden beer mugs; original art such as graphic prints; handmade jewellery; colourful glassware or fine ceramics; Soviet-era trinkets sold in antique shops;
dark, bittersweet Estonian chocolate and other local sweets produced by the Kalev confectionery; and hand-painted marzipan.

As a relatively new destination on the European map — Visit Estonia is branding the country as “A cool country with a warm heart” — Tallinn and Estonia are receiving more attention from travellers. Tallinn's wealth of Medieval sites and its contemporary appeal make it a popular new destination not only for tour groups but for independent travellers as well. Tallinn and Estonia are experiencing a new liberation.

What You Should Know About Estonia

  • Situated on the Baltic Sea, Estonia is central to most important travel and tourism destinations in Northern Europe. It is just 40 miles south of Helsinki, Finland and a short flight to Stockholm, Copenhagen, Riga, Moscow, St. Petersburg, or Vilnius.
  • It has been a member of the European Union and NATO since 1994.
  • Estonia is known for its prehistory and archeology, in particular the Pulli Settlement.
  • Known for its agriculture throughout history, Estonia also was on the “outer edges” of cultural influence by the Roman Empire.
  • Given its geographical situation, it is not surprising that Estonia was occupied and ruled at various times by different nations and groups, and was at one time handed over to Russia when the Great Swedish Empire declined.
  • A nationalist movement that began in the 19th century led to a significant sense of cultural identity on the part of Estonians, especially in terms of language, literature, theater and professional music. This occurred despite a period of russification in the 1890s.
  • Estonia declared itself an independent republic in 1918 and this autonomous statehood lasted for 22 years. However, in 1940 Estonia was occupied by Russia and formally annexed to it when it was caught in the middle of the secret pact between what was then the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany. It was subsequently occupied by the Third Reich during the Second World War between 1941 and 1944. The reoccupation (by Soviet forces) of Estonia in 1944 was another blow to Estonians, many of whom then immigrated to nearby countries or to North America.
  • During the Soviet period, Estonia was heavily militarized because of its strategic location and close proximity to capitalist countries such as Sweden and Finland. For Estonia, The Soviet era ended on August 21, 1991 with what is known as the Singing Revolution. As the Soviet empire was coming apart, Estonians would gather nightly in mass demonstrations during which they sang national Estonian songs and hymns, which had been forbidden under the Soviet régime.
  • Estonia is now a constitutional democracy, has a president, prime minister (appointed by the president), and a unicameral parliament.
  • You may be surprised to know that Estonia feels the effects of the Gulf Current, and thus is in the middle of the maritime and continental climate zones. This makes it more temperate despite its northern latitude.
  • As a Baltic state, Estonia is now at the heart of a renewed Northern Europe and has one of the strongest economies of new members in the European Union.