From historic military stronghold to the seat of Estonia’s parliament
Although the rulers of Estonia have changed during the past 800 years, their locus of power has remained the same. Toompea Castle, built on the limestone Toompea Hill that forms part of Tallinn’s Old Town district, is a must-visit for anyone who wants to learn more about the country’s history and experience architecture that spans multiple eras.
Visitors today will walk across a site that retains the same layout at the castle’s first iteration, constructed by the German Knights of the Sword during the 13th century before being modified by successive rulers that include the Danes, Swedes and Russians. Transport from the city centre costs as little as €4 (A$7) for a short taxi ride, but most people prefer to arrive on foot. If you’re planning to visit in the morning, the nearby streets are home to numerous cafes that offer sweet treats or lights meals for breakfast and dinner. Take your pick from Mediterranean cuisine on the terrace at Restoran Casa Alta, something more Germanic at the cosy Schnitzelhaus or the tucked away Bogapott, with its adjoining art shop and ceramics studio, to name just three options.
From a distance, the castle’s most striking features are its four towers, the tallest of them the 46m high Pikk Hermann, built in stages between the 14th and 16th centuries and now proudly flying the Estonian flag after having flown those of occupying forces in the past. The other three towers – Landskrone, Pilsticker and Stür den Kerli – bear the marks of military strongholds, containing multiple storeys and shooting chambers. The latter also features an 11m deep basement, another defence mechanism.
Once on site, what catches the eye is the striking pink façade of Riigikogu, the Estonian parliament building. Built on the foundations of a medieval church that burned down in 1917, it forms the entrance to the site and embraces expressionism with its colour scheme and motifs of isometric designs that pattern many of its interiors.
Other government buildings within Toompea Castle date back as far as the 18th century. A mix of classical and baroque architecture, they were commissioned as part of major modifications by Russian Empress Catherine II. Journeying further back into the castle’s history, Renaissance architecture is also well represented, with the White Hall restored as part of renovations that finished in 2000 preserving detailed ceilings adorned by chandeliers. Its light, airy space brings together a mix of the old and the new, symbolising a new era of Estonian independence that began in 1991 but that is keen to preserve its past. Never more so is this evident than in the Parliamentary Assembly Hall, a chamber that pops with the blue, black and white colours of the Estonian flag and observable from its public gallery.
Many tourists are happy to admire its edifice and enjoy the view, but free tours of Toompea Castle are also available in English, Russian and Estonian. Visitors must book ahead but are rewarded with a 45-minute journey around the site and through Estonia’s history.