Tallinn's strategic location on the Gulf of Finland has made it an important trading center since at least the 13th century. In 1285, the city, known by its German name "Reval", became part of the Hanseatic League, a trading and military alliance of German cities in northern Europe. Over succeeding centuries, Tallinn (and northern Estonia) came under German, Danish, Swedish and Russian domination.
Sweden controlled the city politically from 1561 to 1710, though much of the economic and cultural activity was dominated by German nobility and merchants. After the Great Northern War (1700-1721), Sweden lost Tallinn and northern Estonia to Russia, which controlled the region until the early 20th century. From 1920 until the outbreak of World War II, Tallinn (and Estonia) enjoyed a brief period of independence, before falling first to Nazi Germany, then to the Soviet Union. Finally, on August 20, 1991, Estonia declared independence from the Soviet Union. In 2004, the country joined the European Union and the NATO alliance.
Estonia's various historic influences are evident today in Tallinn's finely-restored Old Town area, where one finds medieval walls and defensive towers, Lutheran and Russian Orthodox churches, and Gothic, Renaissance and Baroque styles of architecture. The centerpiece of Old Town is Town Hall (1371-1404), said to be the only surviving Gothic town hall in northern Europe. The most visible landmark on the skyline of old Tallinn is St. Olaf's Church (Oleviste kirik), first built in the 13th century. Although the church was dedicated to King Olaf II of Norway, legend also links it to another Olaf, the church's architect. It is said that the architect fell to his death from the church's 120 meter spire and once he hit the ground, a snake and a toad crawled from his mouth. During the 16th century, the church spire was raised to a height of 159 meters (522 feet), making it then the tallest building in the world until razed by a lightening strike in 1625 (it was later rebuilt to a lower height).
Since independence in 1991, areas of Tallinn outside of Old Town have experienced a building boom. During my May 2006 visit, the skyline was filled with recently completed modern towers and construction cranes building new ones. Just outside the center of town is Kadriorg, a neighborhood of tree lined streets and stately homes. The area includes 18th century palace of Peter the Great (which is now a museum of foreign art) and the brand new (opened in February 2006) Art Museum of Estonia (Eesti Kunstimuuseum, or KUMU). For a closer look at this wonderful museum, see the pop-up slide show below.
The photos above offer some highlights of Tallinn. For more detail about Old Town, Tallinn's churches and KUMU, check out the slide shows below (which will run in a separate pop-up window).
Tallinn's Historic Old Town Area: The Old Town area of Tallinn is a UNESCO World Heritage site that is an interesting collage of Gothic and other influences, plus a lively area of cafés, restaurants and shops. (20 Photos) [Preview This Slide Show]
Churches of Tallinn: A closer look at some of Tallinn's well-known churches, including the Russian Orthodox Alexander Nevsky Cathedral, St. Olaf's Church and the Dome Church (Toomkirik). (17 Photos) [Preview This Slide Show]
Art Museum of Estonia (KUMU): The Art Museum of Estonia (KUMU) was designed by Finnish architect Pekka Vapaavuori and opened to the public in February 2006. The building itself is worth the short trip from the center of Tallinn to the leafy neighborhood of Kadriorg. And then, of course, there is the wonderful art housed in Vapaavuori's inventive structure. KUMU has an eclectic mix of traditional and modern Estonian art, plus some examples of the "Socialist Realist" school that hail from the country's days as part of the Soviet Union. (12 Photos) [Preview This Slide Show]