History has known it much longer under a different alias. For 700 years, the city was called Reval. When Estonia broke away from the Russian Empire in 1918, the newly independent country christened their capital under a new name: Tallinn.
Presumably, its name derives from the Old Estonian words Taani linna, meaning “Danish fort,” owing to its early days under Danish rule. Today, Tallinn is one of the best-preserved medieval cities in all of Europe, with an urban fabric that reflects the former coexistence of two worlds: Toompea, a heavily fortified limestone hill that was once home to a German-speaking gentry; and a lower town, settled by Hansa merchants and craftsmen.
Raekoja plats, Tallinn’s Town Hall Square, is the focal point of the Old Town today. Most of the buildings here were erected between the 13th and 16th centuries, when Reval was the northernmost member of the Hanseatic League—a mercantile alliance that stretched along the coasts of the Baltic and North Seas. The Germanic influence of the Hansa merchants and Toompea’s nobles permeated not only Tallinn’s architecture, but the local vernacular as well: roughly a quarter of the words in modern Estonian—which is not an Indo-European language but a Uralic one, related to Finnish and Hungarian—are rooted in earlier forms of German. Words like schole (school) became kool, dōm (church) became toom, and place names like Domberg (Cathedral Hill) turned to Toompea.
The façades of Tallinn Old Town are unusually vibrant, embellished in soft pastels and bold patterns. Behind their doors, a plethora of artisan shops and high-quality restaurants provide authentic glimpses into Estonian rural life: sheepskin insoles made on the nearby farms of Harjumaa County; braised elk roast and sweet potatoes from the bucolic island of Saaremaa; and colorful kört, homespun striped skirts from the tiny isle of Kihnu. They invite all who enter for a longer stay and a deeper immersion into this often overlooked corner of Europe.