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Things to Do in Tallinn

Separated from Helsinki by only a thin strip of Baltic Sea, Tallinn stands proudly on the south coast of the Gulf of Finland. As the capital of Estonia, it plays a major role as a political and economic power that has been the breeding ground for countless startups, giving it the nickname "The Silicon Valley of Europe." However, the historic past of the city is a major draw: Founded in 1248, Tallinn Old Town is a UNESCO-listed wonder, surrounded by a sprawling Soviet new town. Walking tours take visitors around the stunning medieval buildings, such as Toompea Castle and Alexander Nevsky Cathedral; through Kadriorg Park; and to the imperial Russian palace at its heart. Enjoy an evening by walking on the cobbled streets and joining a beer tasting in Olde Hansa for a taste of the Hanseatic times, a flavor of old Estonia. The Pirita district's botanic gardens, marina, and beach are also worthy of attention, as well as the Pirita Convent ruins. Those going further than just a shore excursion can go 31 miles (50 kilometers) east to Lahemaa National Park, a fascinating mix of forest and swamp. Only a four-hour drive away, the Latvian capital of Riga also awaits with its mass of fine Art Nouveau buildings.
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Tallinn Old Town (Vanalinn)
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Guidebook descriptions of Tallinn’s Old Town (Vanalinn) often use the phrase ‘chocolate box’ or ‘jewel box’ because the area is a delight that is filled with treasures.
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Alexander Nevsky Cathedral
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The Russian Orthodox Alexander Nevsky Cathedral is situated on the hill of Toompea, opposite the Estonian parliament buildings and Toompea Castle. The cathedral is as popular with visiting tourists as it is with people of Orthodox faith. It is dedicated to the Russian hero St. Alexander Nevsky, Prince of Novgorod, who saw off German invaders at the 13th-century Battle of the Ice at Lake Peipus.

The cathedral, which is Tallinn’s largest, was built in a classical Russian Revival style by Mikhail Preobrazhensky between 1894 and 1900 – a period when Estonia was part of the tsarist Russian Empire – and strategically placed on the former site of a statue of Martin Luther. As a result, the cathedral is the subject of controversy with some Estonian nationalists calling for its destruction. The cathedral features the onion domes, typical of Russian Orthodox churches, and the interior is filled with mosaics, icons, paintings and ornate gold leaf decorations.

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Tallinn Song Festival Grounds (Lauluvӓljak)
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The Tallinn Song Festival Grounds (Lauluvӓljak) was the site of one of the most stirring events in Estonian history. Here, in September of 1988, 300,000 people (more than a quarter of the country’s population) filled the grounds for the Song of Estonia festival. Together they sang patriotic hymns and demanded independence in what later became known as the Singing Revolution. Two years later, half a million people came to the festival grounds for the Estonian Song Festival, which was the last major event before Estonia finally gained its independence.

The open-air amphitheater has an official capacity of around 100,000 and hosts the Estonian Song Festival every five years in July, as well as regular rock concerts. The festival was established in 1869, along with the Estonian National Awakening, a period when the country was still under the rule of the Russian Empire. The festival is one of the world’s largest amateur choral events.

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Tallinn Town Hall (Tallinna Raekoda)
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Built between 1402 and 1404, Tallinn's Gothic Tallinn Town Hall (Tallinna Raekoda) building is the only Gothic town hall building in northern Europe that remains intact, sitting as the centerpiece of Tallinn's main square. The structure was originally a meeting place for rulers, though today it is mostly used for hosting visiting presidents or kings, as well as for concerts.
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Toompea Castle (Toompea Loss)
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Toompea Castle, situated on a crest on the edge of the Old Town, was built in 1219 by Danish invaders on the site of an ancient wooden fortress, dating from sometime in the ninth century. The castle served as a seat of succession of foreign powers for seven centuries and since 1922 have housed the Riigikogu, Estonia’s parliament.
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Kadriorg Palace
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In 1718, Peter the Great, the Russian tsar at the time, ordered a palace to be built in the then-newly designed Kadriorg Park. The palace, designed by Italian architect Niccolo Michetti, was originally built to be the summer home for Peter I, Catherine I and their family. The baroque palace is surrounded by manicured gardens, houses a branch of the Art Museum of Estonia called the Kadriorg Art Museum and today serves as the presidential palace. The museum has hundreds of 16th- to 20th-century paintings by Western and Russian artists on display.

Several interesting side buildings surround the palace, including a restored kitchen building that is now the Mikkel Museum. Peter the Great's cottage is also on the property and is now a museum where visitors can see some of his belongings and what the rooms might have looked like at the time. The palace governor’s house is now home to the Kastellaanimaja Gallery and the Eduard Vilde House Museum.

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Pirita
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Pirita is a section of Tallinn located just a few miles west of Old Town and city center. Dating back to at least the 15th century when a convent was founded here, the area hugs the coastline, where many people enjoy spending time on the beaches. Pirita Beach is the largest and most popular stretch of sand, running for 1.25 miles (2 kilometers) and including a good view of Old Town and the ships in the Gulf of Finland. There are ball courts, playgrounds, lockers, chaise lounges and water sport equipment rentals here, and during summer, up to 30,000 people visit the beach each day.
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Dome Church
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The Dome Church (Toomkirik), also known as the Cathedral of St. Mary the Virgin, sits on Toompea Hill, to which it lent its name. Despite the name, the church does not feature a dome: the name is in fact a corruption of the Estonian word toom, which means cathedral.
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Kadriorg Park
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Kadriorg Park is a 173-acre area that was built in 1718 under the orders of Russian tsar Peter I, with additional sections having been designed and created over the past few centuries. Within the park you will find Kadriorg Palace, which was originally built as a summer home for the tsar and his family and now serves as the presidential palace and a branch of the Art Museum of Estonia. While the palace was being built, Peter I, also known as Peter the Great, lived in a cottage on the property, which is now a museum. The rooms are furnished with items from that era, and some of his personal belongings are on display as well.

The area near the flower beds surrounding Swan Pond, as well as the promenade leading from the pond to the palace, are popular routes for a stroll through the park. There is also a newly added Japanese garden designed with plants that were chosen to fit with Estonia's colder climate.

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More Things to Do in Tallinn

Tallinn City Wall

Tallinn City Wall

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A defensive wall around the city of Tallinn was first constructed in 1265 and was around 15-feet high, five-feet thick and a mile and a half long. The walls were enlarged and strengthened in the 14th century when citizens were required to perform guard duty in defense against invasion.
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Freedom Square (Vabaduse väljak)

Freedom Square (Vabaduse väljak)

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Freedom Square (or Vabaduse valjak in Estonian) is at the southern end of Tallinn's Old Town. Throughout history, the square has been called the Straw Market, Peter's Square and Victory Square. Construction and redesigns of the historic area began in 2008, and a year later on Victory Day (June 23) the new Freedom Square was opened. As part of the new features, the Victory Column monument was unveiled as a memorial to the 1918-1920 War of Independence.

Today the square is lined with benches, cafes and two art galleries. It's a popular gathering place and is also a good place to see evidence of the city's 1930s-era building boom. You'll see art-deco and functionalist buildings on two sides of the square. Tallinn's older history can be seen here as well. There is a glass panel in the street on the northwest corner where you can look down and see the foundation and stairs of the Harju Gate tower that stood here in Medieval times.

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Tallinn Legends

Tallinn Legends

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Tallinn Botanic Gardens (Tallinna Botaanikaaed)

Tallinn Botanic Gardens (Tallinna Botaanikaaed)

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The Tallinn Botanic Gardens (Tallinna Botaanikaaed) lie a little over six miles outside of Tallinn’s city center in the quiet and picturesque valley of River Pirita. The gardens cover an area of 123 hectares that face the river and are surrounded by lush woodland.

The gardens boast 8,000 species of plants throughout a series of large modern greenhouses along a 2.5-mile (4-kilometer) trail. You will find displays of tropical, subtropical and desert plants, from Estonia and abroad, in specialized exhibits that change almost every month. One of the highlights is the rose garden, although you should visit in late spring or summer to see it at its best.

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KGB Museum

KGB Museum

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Historians visiting Tallinn have several opportunities to catch a glimpse into Estonia’s communist past. The former KGB headquarters on Pikk Street have welcomed visitors for several years now, and the KGB Museum, on the top floor of the Hotel Viru on Viru Valjak, opened early in 2011. The museum, which can only hold 25 people at a time, occupies a hotel room that began to be used by the KGB in the 1970s and had been closed and untouched ever since the Iron Curtain fell. The museum preserves the room exactly how it was left when the organization fled at the end of the Cold War. The equipment used to spy on people remains in place, and informative displays offer insight into Estonia’s time under Soviet rule. You can only visit the museum if accompanied by a local guide. Tours run roughly every hour throughout the week; they should be booked in advance (through the hotel’s website), and cost around seven Euros – guests staying at Hotel Viru are offered a discounted rate.

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Olde Hansa

Olde Hansa

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Tallinn Cruise Port (Tallinna Sadam)

Tallinn Cruise Port (Tallinna Sadam)

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A European Capital of Culture in 2011, Tallinn is increasingly a destination of choice for short weekend getaways or day trips from Helsinki, just a 90-minute ferry ride across the Baltic Sea. The Port of Tallinn is a busy one, welcoming over 300 cruise calls per season, as well as regular ferries from Helsinki, Stockholm and St. Petersburg. With an Old Town dating back over 600 years, Tallinn’s medieval charm is undeniable.

Lucky for you, you’re almost there. Whether you are visiting as part of your Baltic cruise or by ferry, you likely will arrive at one of the passenger terminals in the Old City Harbor, just 1 kilometer from Tallinn’s Great Coast Gate – the medieval entrance to the Old Town area. If you aren’t up for walking, Bus No. 2 departs regularly from Passenger Terminals A and D from 7am until midnight. Taxis are also readily available, as are velo-taxis in the summer months.

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Lahemaa National Park (Lahemaa Rahvuspark)

Lahemaa National Park (Lahemaa Rahvuspark)

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Estonia’s biggest national park covers 72,500 hectares of wetlands, pine forests and seashore on the Baltic Sea. The crenellated coastline wends its way around horseshoe-shaped bays and finger-like peninsulas, while inland forest, lakes, waterfalls and peat bogs are interspersed with tracts of rocky soil scattered with erratic boulders dumped at the end of the last Ice Age.

Much of Lahemaa has been protected from development as it was classed as military land during Russian occupation of Estonia; there are abandoned Soviet submarine stations still to be seen across the park, slowly falling into dilapidation. Today tourism is king and accommodation in the park varies from campsites to historic manor houses found along the 40 km (25 miles) of cycling and hiking trails. Thanks to the lack of development in the area, Lahemaa is home to many species of birds and several mammals very rarely seen in Europe.

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