The Old Town of Tallinn is one of the best preserved Medieval town centres in Europe today. During the 13th century Reval, as Tallinn was known then, became an important outpost of the Hanseatic League. A significance expressed for all to see in its public architecture today as much as it was during the Middle Ages. Ethan takes us on a tour of some of the historic churches of Tallinn, a tour that tells the story of the history of religion in this region.

An aerial view of the historic centre of Tallinn, Estonia, showing the Medieval castle and many church spires.
Looking over the historic centre of Tallinn, with the castle in the foreground and the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral and other churches behind it.

The small Baltic nation of Estonia has long been one of Europe’s cultural melting pots. The Estonian language is closely related to Finnish, while linguistically German, Swedish, and Russian communities have all left their mark on the Estonian national character. These influences can still be seen in the country’s capital and its many churches.

Although tucked away in a little-known corner of the continent, Estonia played an important role in Europe’s religious history. One of the last parts of Europe to undergo Christianisation, its people remained committed to their pagan, pre-Christian belief system until they were conquered during the Livonian Crusade in the early 13th century. Initially dominated by the Roman Catholicism introduced by German knights of the Teutonic Order, Estonia was later caught up in the Protestant Reformation, which saw Lutheranism imposed on the region. Russian domination from the 18th century onwards brought Eastern Orthodoxy and later Soviet style atheism.

Estonia now is a largely secular nation, with over half the population identifying as non-religious. Nevertheless, it has both a rich Christian heritage and several Christian minorities for whom the country’s historic churches are sacred places. Christians continue to use them for religious services, but they are open and welcoming to visitors of any faith or none. For anyone with an interest in the Middle Ages and/or the history of Christianity, the Estonian capital Tallinn is a must.

Turrets and spires make up the skyline of historic Tallinn, Estonia.

Medieval turret towers and church spires dominate the skyline of the Old Town of Tallinn.

Medieval Tallin UNESCO Site

Although the oldest archaeological evidence of human habitation in the area dates to about 5,000 years ago, the origins of Tallinn as we know it today starts in the 13th century. The port was a strategic point along Scandinavian-Russian trade routes, and so a desirable location for both the Danes and the Teutonic Knights during the Northern or Baltic Crusades.

Towards the end of the 13th century the city, then known as Reval and under Danish rule, became the northernmost member of the Hanseatic League. In the mid 14th century the Danes sold the city to the Teutonic Knights, who constructed the castle still visible today and oversaw the rise of an important mercantile port at the crossroads of trade between Western and Northern Europe and Russia. Until the 16th century Tallinn was a powerful and wealthy outpost of the Hanseatic League.

The wealth of the city was displayed in the opulence of the public buildings such as the city walls with 66 turret towers and churches, as well as the grandeur of the domestic architecture of merchants'houses. Despite the ravages of fire and war over the centuries, much of this Medieval character has survived intact. In Tallinn we have a relatively complete and well-preserved example of an important northern European mercantile port city. And for this reason the historic centre of Tallinn was added to the UNESCO list of World Heritage Sites in 1997. One of the more interesting features of that city and its Hanseatic heritage is the churches.

St Mary’s Cathedral

St Mary’s Cathedral is the oldest surviving church in Estonia. Known as Toomkirik in the Estonian language, it retains an important place in Estonian religious life.

The spire and interior of St Mary's church in Tallinn, Estonia.

The spire of St Mary's church, and the altar within.

The first record of the church dates from 1233, although it was likely built several decades earlier. At first made of wood, in 1240 it was rebuilt in stone. Over the years it has seen many architectural additions. The nave was refashioned in a gothic style during the fifteenth century while a large western tower, topped with a baroque spire, was added in the late eighteenth century.

Although originally under the possession of the Roman Catholic Church, St Mary’s Cathedral changed hands following the turmoil of the Protestant Reformation. It now houses a Lutheran congregation and is under the care of the Estonian Evangelical Lutheran Church.

With white-washed walls and plenty of natural light, the interior of St Mary’s is bright and airy. Many of the interior features, including the pulpit and altar, were produced in the late seventeenth century, after the church was gutted by a fire in 1684. Of particular interest are the elaborately carved coats of arms hanging upon the walls and the tombs of various prominent Tallinn residents.

The church requests that visitors pay a small donation. For an additional €5, visitors can also climb the 69-metre high bell-tower, from which they can experience impressive views across the city.

Church of the Holy Spirit

St Mary’s Cathedral would not remain the only site of Christian worship on Toompea Hill for long. By the fourteenth century, the Church of the Holy Spirit had been established to accompany it. The two churches reflected the rigid class divide that characterised most of medieval Europe. While St Mary’s was reserved largely for the region’s aristocratic elites, the Church of the Holy Spirit was a more popular option with Tallinn’s commoners.

Two views of the spire of the Church of the Holy Spirit in Tallinn, Estonia.

The Church of the Holy Spirit, from the front with the 17th century clock (left, photograph © Rene Seeman/Wikimedia) and the cobbled street running along the side.

Like its predecessor, the Church of the Holy Spirit was once a Roman Catholic site but following the Reformation transferred to Lutheran ownership. In keeping with this Protestant ethos, it witnessed the earliest sermons given in Estonian. It was also the pastor of this church, Johann Koell, who in 1535 published the first known Estonian-language book, his Catechism.

In contrast to the light and airy appeal of St Mary’s Cathedral, the Church of the Holy Spirit has a darkened interior, with little natural light penetrating it. Several internal features date from the late Medieval and early modern periods, including a 15th century altar and 16th century pulpit. On the exterior, look out for the impressive decorated 17th century clock.

A small entry fee of €1.50 is requested. Although photography is permitted, it can be quite challenging because of the low levels of light in the church.

St. Olaf’s Church

St. Olaf’s Church is the largest Medieval structure in Tallinn’s Old Town. It was first recorded in 1267 and in its early decades was popular with Scandinavian merchants and craftsmen living in the city. It was named for the 11th century Norwegian king Olaf II, who was posthumously canonised for his alleged role in the Christianisation of Norway.

The spire of St Olaf's Church in Tallinn, and the interior staircase leading to the top.

The spire of St Olaf's church, and the narrow, spiral stairwell that leads to the viewing platform.

As with St Mary’s and the Church of the Holy Spirit, St Olaf’s was once a Roman Catholic church before being converted to Lutheran usage. In the mid 12th century, it was transferred to the city’s Baptist congregation, for whom it continues to serve today.

The impressive Gothic spire of St Olaf’s Church is one of the defining images of Tallinn. It was completed in the 16th century, at which point it made St Olaf’s one of the tallest buildings in the world. The spire, however, has had a chequered history. It has been repeatedly struck by lightning, resulting in the church being gutted by fire on at least three occasions. During the Soviet period, the KGB used the spire as part of their surveillance operations.

During the summer months visitors can climb the 232 steps to a viewing platform near the top of the spire. The steep and narrow ascent up the tower is exhausting and requires a good level of fitness, but the views from the top are truly awe-inspiring. A small entry fee of €2.00 is charged to climb the tower.

Alexander Nevsky Cathedral

Although Lutheranism dominated Estonia for many centuries, today Eastern Orthodoxy is the country’s largest Christian denomination. This faith is closely linked to the country’s ethnic Russian minority, who make up about a quarter of its population. Estonia was part of the Russian Empire from 1710 to 1920 and, following two decades of independence, was absorbed into the Soviet Union from 1940 to 1991.

The typical onion shaped domes of the Russian Orthodox cathedral in Tallinn.

The characteristic onion-shaped domes of Russian Orthodox architecture on the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral.

The Alexander Nevsky Cathedral is one of the most lavish and grandiose reminders of Estonia’s Imperial Russian past. Built between 1894 and 1900, it was designed in the Russian Revival style that was a particularly popular choice for Orthodox architecture in the late 19th century. The eponymous Alexander Nevsky was a Medieval Russian prince who was canonised by the Eastern Orthodox Church following his military victories.

With its onion domes and ornate mosaics, the exterior is a masterpiece of Russian Revival design. Its eleven church bells can be heard before services and include the largest bell in Tallinn. The interior of the cathedral is a feast for the senses. Elaborate golden decoration covers almost every surface, along with painted icons and elaborate ceremonial regalia. The contrast with Tallinn’s Lutheran churches could hardly be starker.

Entry is free. Unlike the other churches listed here, however, photography is strictly prohibited. Instead, postcards of the interior can be purchased from a small shop selling religious icons and other Orthodox artefacts.

St Peter and St Paul’s Cathedral

Amid the Medieval architecture of the Old Town, the neo-classical façade of St Peter and St Paul’s Cathedral sets it apart. While this church may not be as old as some of its counterparts elsewhere in the city, it has importance as the most senior Roman Catholic church in Tallinn.

Although Roman Catholicism was the first form of Christianity to reach Estonia, the Reformation dealt it a heavy blow and Estonian Catholics faced persecution for many centuries. It only reasserted its presence in the 19th century, a period of greater religious freedom. It was then that the small church existing on the site was deemed inadequate for the size of the congregation and a replacement was commissioned. Construction began in 1832 and the building was consecrated in 1845.

The architect was the Italian Carlo Rossi, best known for his many buildings in the St Petersburg area. Rossi’s design was neo-Gothic, although a neo-Classical façade was added in the 1920s while the interior was simplified to meet changing tastes in the 1930s. The result is the white, bright nave that the visitor finds today.

Visitors enter the cathedral through a pleasant courtyard that sets it back from the hustle and bustle of Tallinn’s streets. Here, there are several benches that offer welcome respite for weary legs. Entry is free. The cathedral holds services for the city’s small Roman Catholic population, including a mass in English.

Other Things to See in Tallinn's Old Town

Although Tallinn is a small city it has a lot to offer visitors with an interest in history. The Old Town has a quaint charm and has retained its Medieval character in a way rarely found elsewhere in Europe - hence the reason why the historic centre was added to the UNESCO list of World Heritage Sites.

So for those wanting to take a weekend break to Tallinn, there are many other fascinating features and attractions of historical interest to visit in the city besides the churches. The most obvious is the Medieval Toompea Castle, which now houses the Estonian parliament. Another striking an unmissable feature are the Medieval walls and turrets, built to guard against potential invaders. At the southern edge of the city is Toompea Hill, a limestone outcrop towering above the city. Folklore has it that this is the burial place of the legendary hero Kalev. These attractions are all within easy walking distance of each other. Although when visiting the Old Town be prepared to spend most of your day on your feet!

For those who prefer their history a little bit more recent, Tallinn also has more recent cultural heritage sites located beyond the Old Town’s walls. These include Czar Peter the Great’s baroque winter palace at Kadriorg and the Soviet brutalist beach-front center at Linnahall.

The Medieval town square in Tallinn, Estonia.

Tallinn's Medieval town square.