Situated on the Gulf of Finland on Estonia’s northern coast, Tallinn is the country capital and the chief port.
Tallinn was first mentioned in 1154 by the Arabian geographer al-Idrisi, who referred to the city as ‘Kaleweny’, although a settlement had been there for over a millennium. Under King Valdemar II, the Danes conquered the city in 1219. Valdemar built a fortress on the Toompea hill, which dominates the city and overlooks the harbour. The settlement around the foot of the hill created the Lower Town. The name Tallinn evolved from the Estonian for ‘Danish fortification’. The city joined the Hanseatic League in 1285 and trade prospered. Over time the Lower Town expanded to the harbour while the Toompea fortification was encompassed by a wall. The harbour attracted Russian, Scandinavian and German merchants. Following a deal between the Danish occupiers and German crusaders, Teutonic knights acquired Tallinn in 1346, changing its name to Reval.
During the sixteenth century, Tallinn, along with other Baltic regions, fell victim to hostilities as neighbouring powers fought for control. Ivan the Terrible besieged Livonia in the mid-sixteenth century leading to the demise of the Teutonic Knights. During the ensuing Livonian War (1558–83), Sweden repelled the Russians and took control of Tallinn, occupying it for a century and a half. Eventually, in 1721 Russia’s Peter the Great forced the Swedes out of Tallinn to begin a long Russian occupation.
The city’s importance and prosperity was increased after a rail link to St Petersburg was opened in 1870 and Tallinn served the Russian empire as a major ice free port. The emancipation of the serfs the following year swelled the city’s ethnic Estonian population, many of whom worked in the shipyards.
Russian rule ended in 1918, and the renamed Tallinn became the capital of independent Estonia. But the country’s independence was shortlived and in 1940 Stalin’s army occupied the city after which many Estonians were deported to Siberia. Between 1941–44 German troops captured the city. Few parts of Tallinn survived World War II unscathed, with Soviet bombing inflicting the most damage. The city once again found itself under Soviet control and more deportations ensued. The population was replaced by Russian migrants. Finally, in 1991 Tallinn once again became the capital of independent Estonia.
Aside from the port’s commercial activity, Tallinn has engineering and shipbuilding industries as well as cement, paper and textile production. Educational institutions include a technical university and a science academy. Tallinn has an international airport 2.5 km from the city centre and is 90 min from Helsinki by hydrofoil. Other ferries go to Stockholm. Rail services connect the city to other Baltic capitals.
Places of Interest
Although a largely modern city, much of Tallinn’s medieval aspect survives in Vanalinn, the old town, and some of the city walls remain. A UNESCO heritage site since 1997, Vanalinn contains the Gothic town hall, built in the late fourteenth century, and the thirteenth century Holy Spirit Church.
Constructed in the early eighteenth century, Kadriog Palace was designed by Italian architect Niccolo Michetti for Peter I. Built in Baroque style on the city’s original Danish fort, Toompea Castle now houses Estonia’s riigikogu, or parliament. Museums include the Estonian Art Museum (KUMU) and a foreign art museum housed in the Kadriog Palace.