A “Rough” Guide to Tallinn

Paul Sullivan eschews Tallinn’s “chocolate box” center and explores its rougher, but arguably more fascinating outskirts…

Much has been made of Estonia’s speedy and successful transition from oppressed Soviet satellite to free-thinking member of the European Union.

But while its capital does carry a modern, progressive air – lots of pleasant cafes and restaurants, free wifi everywhere, friendly people – the scars of its Soviet (and prior) past are not only clearly visible but give the city an appealingly gritty edge.

In most contemporary travel reports, these industrialised and Soviet aspects of the city are airbrushed out in favour of the thoroughly restored Old Town. Search Google for images of Estonia’s capital and you’ll mostly find pretty pictures of the central skylines pierced with soaring church spires, wide angle views of cobbled lanes and the unarguably impressive displays of medieval towers.

But the city’s less polished past is everywhere you look. Former industrial areas like the Rotermann Quarter have been successfully transformed into upmarket offices and luxury apartments; the harbour still hosts the former Tallinn Electricity Plant (whose vertiginous chimney dominates the view) and the concrete Linnahall concert hall and sports venue (previously known as V. I. Lenin Palace of Culture and Sport), which was built for the 1980 Moscow Olympics; and ringing the city center are plenty more nods to Soviet architecture in the shape of more abandoned buildings and communist tower-blocks, not least in the Russian enclave of Lasnamäe.

Things get rougher – and even more fascinating – the further out of the city you go. The trendy North-Western district of Kalamaja, formerly a fishing village, is a muddle of pre-Soviet wooden houses and abandoned factories. Imagine if Stalin had run Reykjavik for a few decades and you’ll get the overall aesthetic.

Telliskivi, the mini-district between the central railway station (itself an interesting time-warp) and Kopli freight train depot, has become a self-appointed Creative City, hosting hip cafes like F-Hoone and other arts and cultural centers.

Locals told me that around 15 years ago, Kalamaja was quite dangerous – “Tallinn’s Bronx” as someone put it, without any apparent trace of irony. It’s true that drunks and homeless folk still mingle with the young creatives and elderly residents today, though it’s further north in the suburb of Kopli that you’ll find a much less gentrified state of affairs.

Here, the meld of post-war estates and 19th century wooden houses are even more dilapidated. Groups of drunks gather at bus stops (another local told me that vodka abuse still kills the majority of Estonian men off before they hit 60), and though I wouldn’t say it felt dangerous, some of the stares definitely made me feel uncomfortable. Yet right at the northern tip, the shanty-towns and concrete communities suddenly give way to splendorous views of the coastline that reach right across to the central harbour.

The images below reflect my 10km urban hike from the centre to the very tip of the north-west, and my quest to capture the less polished – but no less charming – aspects of a city that’s mostly still very much in flux…

A stereotypical view from above Tallinn’s main centre, with its restored houses, churches and towers
A less conventional view across the Eastern part of the city. At the top of the skyscraper hotel Viru is the KGB Museum, where spies secretly monitored guests for decades.
Alcohol and cigarette shop just outside the main city gates (Viru Towers).
A local bar just outside the city center.
Sexy bus stop just outside the city center.
Mural in central residential estate.
An as-yet-unrefurbished building in the Rotermann Quarter.
Entrance to the main train station.
Waste recycling around the back of the train station’s warehouse and market area.
Estonian buns. And some baked goods.
Homeless guy near the main train station.
On the border of Telliskivi and Kalamaja.
Door to a venue in Telliskivi.
F Hoone, part of the revitalised Telliskivi Creative City area.
One of the buildings at the entrance to the Kalamaja district.
Backyard of a factory in Kalamaja.
A Kalamaja resident outside his home.
Wooden house in Kalamaja.
Most of the harbour around Kalamaja consists of abandoned military buildings, such as this former prison, though it’s in the midst of becoming a Cultural Mile as entertainment and art institutions start moving in.
A snowy, muddy view across to Kalamaja harbour.
Abandoned industrial structure en route to Kopli.
A residential balcony en route to Kopli.
Kopli residential area 1
Kopli residential area 2
Kopli residential area 3
An abandoned water tower in Kopli, previously used for steam trains passing through.
View from northern Kopli across to the main harbour.
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  1. notmsparker says:

    Love it. The pictures, the text and the city. The Baltic Republics are truly fascinating but sadly their Former-USSR status still prevents many people from doing it. Another place I can recommend is Odessa in the Ukraine – it´s like entering a time-machine set to the 18th/19th century and the 1970s.

  2. Paul Sullivan says:

    Thanks @ notmsparker – for sure another trip to the Baltics is on the agenda. And Odessa certainly sounds fascinating. I like the overall “vibe” of the former East right now, since it has escaped the grip of Soviet communism but hasn’t been completely homogenised by Western capitalism. This ‘transitional’ or ‘limbo’ state makes so many places there v fascinating.

  3. Mike Gale says:

    The Baltics are looking very appealing now to me, great pictures! I can also fully recommend Odessa, I’d love to go back, the crumbling grandeur, the Soviet Seventies seaside and great weather in summer.

  4. Irina says:

    Nice pictures of my hometown but why would you call and old man that is sitting on a bench a homeless. He does not look like a homeless man! Poor guy:)

  5. Paul Sullivan says:

    Hi Irina. My guess was the guy was homeless. I sat next to him and asked to take his photo, and also offered to buy him a coffee or sandwich from the nearby kiosk but he was utterly incoherent. If he does have a home, he wouldn’t have been able to find it/access it, at least that morning. And yes, poor guy. Very sad but also important to show visitors to Tallinn (and every city in the world) a range of impressions of the city.

  6. noone says:

    wow you got some pretty pictures, the art one was really cool , when did you visit tallinn ? , kopli seems like a dangerous place but it actually isn’t that dangerous 🙂 , i live near the area 1, but anyways, Good Job.

  7. Paul Sullivan says:

    Hi – thanks for the comment. I was in Tallinn last weekend – ostensibly for the Tallinn Music Week conference but I did a LOT of walking and shooting. I live in Berlin so Tallinn was very fascinating for me, and no Kopli felt okay. A little out of the way and quiet, but the people I spoke to were very pleasant (one spoke excellent English!), and the landscapes in the north are lovely. You have a great town.

  8. Finn says:

    “free-thinking member of the European Union.” Joke?

  9. Paul Sullivan says:

    No, why?

  10. Tsikibriki says:

    Hi Paul,
    I have lived in Kalamaja most of my life. It is a fascinating part of Tallinn. As you correctly noted, Kopli and to a lesser extent Kalamaja, were (and some believe still are) pretty dangerous areas even for locals. I disagree, but I am also not objective. Kopli peninsula is perhaps the last excellent real estate grab available, it is close to the center, near the sea and not overpopulated. In 10-20 years I expect the property value to skyrocket. Right now however…well, the pictures say it all.
    About the homeless dude…I’m afraid you are right and Irina is wrong. I know most of these guys, their faces. He is homeless and it is sad. However neither the government nor other people can help individuals who dont want to be helped.

  11. Paul Sullivan says:

    Thank you for the clarification. Just to add that homelessness is endemic in almost every city in the world, so the image is in no way a judgement call on Tallinn or Estonia. My mission as a travel photographer is to try and present a more “realistic” view of places since so much gets filtered out via the marketing departments of tourist boards and glossy magazines etc. (whom I also work for sometimes, admittedly). But anyway it is always sad to try and engage with individuals whose lives seem beyond repair. They tend to become invisible to many residents after a while (this applies to myself here in Berlin too), which is another reason I sometimes try and put them back in the “spotlight”. And for sure it will interesting to see what happens to Kopli over the next decade or two. I am quite sure your predictions are correct, which is also a good reason to try and capture a bit of it as it is now…

  12. Juhan says:

    When I leave Estonia and visit some city (London, Berlin, Brussel, etc) in the west, I am able find similar sights (abandoned houses, poverty, bums, etc). To call them scars of Soviet Union is very narrow minded. You can find shit everywhere.

  13. andrus says:

    Quite good shots. I can say because I´m running Patarei prison. I myself am just now in Moldova but I red suggestions about Odessa. I can confirme what gus says because its my favorite city in Eastern Europe

  14. Paul Sullivan says:

    On the contrary, I think it’s pretty narrow minded to assume several decades of frequently violent Soviet oppression didn’t leave any scars on Tallinn’s people and infrastructure. I didn’t mean to say all of these things have been exclusively caused by that era, but I think that should be obvious to any reasonably intelligent person.

  15. local says:

    Nice pictures!

    A minor nitpick: Linnahall certainly is not “a stadium”.
    The used to be an ice skating rink and a concert hall though.

  16. Paul Sullivan says:

    Ah, sorry thanks, will amend.

  17. From Estonia says:

    Someone said Estonia escaped Communism, but is not homogenized to Western Capitalism. It certainly has! I’d say it’s more like Western Socialism this country is not homogenized to. If you could enter Berlin, London or Paris one hundred years ago, you’d find similar poor areas in the suburbs. Taxpayers’ money is not used there (as is the case in Western Europe last three to five decades), and that’s why they remain such. And I also think Western Socialist countries will soon return to the old ways, as declining economy simply could not support lavish spending any more.

  18. damon says:

    Superb. Scars do stay. It’s much easier to cut than recover. I had a girlfriend there back in mid 90-s and though the place has been transformed a lot (last visit in 2011), the core remains an interesting post-Soviet mix.

  19. Paul Sullivan says:

    Hi Fred. I certainly hope Europe will slip back to a more socialist agenda, but the way things are looking in the UK and other countries, it seems governments are more intent on widening the gap between rich and poor and pushing the same old (obviously unsustainable) late-capitalist sentiments. And just to clarify, my intention was not to show that Tallinn is “poor” but to provide a counter-balance to all the nice “eye-candy” of the Old Town, which dominates most travel/media reports of Tallinn. You don’t have to go back a hundred years ago to find similar places in Berlin, London or Paris — you can find them very easily now.

  20. Maria says:

    Maybe you heard the story already about the “art needs artists” mural… Some years ago, there was no big parking area in front of the building. That territory belongs to Estonian Academy of Arts and few years ago they demolished their building to build a new and modern one. All was okay until a women from a house next to it didn’t agree with the detail planning (the new building was too high for her: the duration of the direct sunlight per day would have been shortened). Thats why Estonian Academy of Arts didn’t get the permission from the city in time to have the European Union endowment. So right now they don’t have almost anything. They have multiple little buildings separated to each other and have little to cope with.

  21. Sven says:

    Great photos! I hope you had a nice visit ^^

  22. Paul Sullivan says:

    Hi Maria, someone did mention this on Facebook – seems like a typical urban “problem”, but hopefully the EAA will be able to set up somewhere else?

  23. Paul Sullivan says:

    Thank you – and yes, it was very inspiring. I’m looking forward to returning in the summer to explore more of the country / Baltic coast.

  24. Hi Paul!

    Awesome photos! Even though i’ve always wondered, what our country could be like, if it would have been independent throughout the Cold War period, i’m still really fascinated of our soviet architecture. It is dirty, gritty and has to be improved within a couple of decades, but there is really something special about it. Next time you’ll visit Tallinn, be sure to take a stroll through Lasnamäe (and maybe Maardu).

  25. A local says:

    Great pictures, really. I was hoping someone would show the world what Tallinn really is. You could have published some pictures of the roads here – they are horrible, if not in the most horrible state in whole Europe.

    I might as well as keep an eye on your blog, as I really liked the pictures.

    Good luck with your future trips!

  26. Paul Sullivan says:

    Thanks Antti. I live in Berlin, whose Eastern side has a similar history – and similar scars. Many of them have been “cleaned up”, but a lot hasn’t and they definitely create a special atmosphere. Lasnamäe was on my list but in the end I chose Kopli to explore because I wasn’t sure how much I would be able to access the community in the former area. It felt more closed off somehow, with the big blocks and main roads, but I would like to get out there. I don’t know Maardu, but will make a note of checking it out when I’m there next, thank you.

  27. Paul Sullivan says:

    Thanks for the comment. I did notice the roads actually – and someone told me that they are quite famous in Tartu? 🙂

  28. A local says:

    As far as I know, the roads in Tartu are in okay-ish state, so I’m not really sure what are they famous for.

  29. Erki says:

    Hey Paul,

    Bin Este und hab deinen Artikkel gelesen, und denke das Du das Richtige machst, es ist ein grosses Problem bei den neuen EU Mitglieder, das wir eine guten Eintrug vermitteln, aber wenn man den Durchschnitt ansiecht, ist es alles andere als Schön, Modern usw
    Aber wir sind auf dem Richtigen Weg!

    Sonst ist Estland aber sehr schön, wenn man ausserhalb Tallins geht 🙂

    Grüsse aus Tallinn

  30. a bloke says:

    Good photos! As an estonian It wouldn’t be easy to take such photos from the same perspective as you did. Fresh neutral approach I’d say. But still looked from here from Oz the life looks pretty sad and depressive but that is the idea I suppose..That’s what you came to look for right-the soviet legacy. Estonians are pretty much ashamed of it and they’re not trying to sell it in any ways.

  31. Paul Sullivan says:

    I meant that Tallinn’s roads are famous in Tartu. One Tartu guy told me they have a (friendly) saying about Tallinn that mentions its bad roads…?

  32. Paul Sullivan says:

    Danke Erki – ich habe Tallinn auch sehr schoen gefundet. Aber mann kann natuerlich diese andere “sussigkeit” Bilder uberalle auf die Internet finden 🙂

  33. Paul Sullivan says:

    Thanks…well I didn’t want it to give a negative impression, more just balance out the usual “eye candy” material one ordinarily finds about Tallinn with some insights into other parts of the city. I didn’t go looking for the Soviet legacy, I just thought it was very dominant and this surprised me because all I’d really seen via the net and guidebooks were these photos of the Old Town etc. As mentioned, I found the roughness often very charming and more “real” somehow, and I have a feeling many locals feel the same way – especially those who have been priced out of the Old Town by tourism. I didn’t post all the more ‘beautiful’ photos I took (aside from the first one) because these can be found everywhere about Tallinn and I wanted to show something different. In any case, I think all these elements work together in tandem to create a very interesting place indeed and one I felt very drawn to. The people, as an aside, were especially great (mostly).

  34. A local says:

    @12:41 pm

    Oh, yeah, the roads of Tallinn are in the news every day, so they are indeed popular!

  35. Estländer says:

    If you want to capture some more of the soviet-era russian-style nostalgic grotesque, try Maardu and Kallavere (ask locals for the abandoned chemical factory there) – also Narva, Sompa, Ida Viru in general.

    A huge stalinist-era nostalgia boost awaits in Sillamäe (Ida-Viru). Oh, and don’t miss the “pentagon” in Paldiski, where they kept the russian nuclear subs and where the Scouts currently reside.

    Anyway, thank you for the attention, and pictures. Keep shooting, any publicity is good publicity I suppose. Keeps us on the radar, anyway, so to speak, even if estonians generally try to ignore those places 🙂

  36. Localstudent says:

    Just want to add that on the picture ”Art needs artists” is kinda protest statement of art students , cause on that area was the main bulding of the Estonian Academy of arts and now it’s a parking area untill they build a new house what was promised allready a long time ago.

  37. Kaarel says:

    Hello Paul,

    It might be also interesting for you to visit rural areas of Estonia as well. There you could see lots of contrast. For example abandoned soviet time kolkhoz/sovkhoz building complex incl. barns and residential houses. Even nowadays they are slowly demolished there are plenty of left. Also villages with pre-Soviet time farms which are abandoned as people are moving to live in the cities. Anyway, if you are interested and visiting Estonia again – I can give you free tour in western part of Estonia and show places you might like 🙂 though eastern part could be even more interesting…

  38. Paul Sullivan says:

    Thanks @ Estländer

  39. Paul Sullivan says:

    Thanks Kaarel. I would definitely like to explore more outside Tallinn when I return. I’ll be sure to look you up. And if you ever want to explore Berlin I’d be happy to extend the same offer…

  40. another local says:

    Actually Paldiski’s “pentagon” building was demolished in 2007. However, despite the fact that it now looks more like some average tiny Estonian town (not taking into account the naval port), there is still some mystery left there. It basically was a closed town in Soviet era, only military staff were allowed there. I agree with one of the comment above about Eastern Estonia (Narva, Sillamäe etc). Also Maardu/Kallavere and southern Männiku, Sõjamäe (next to the airport – a new business centre called Ülemiste City is under construction there, but there were some of the largest factories in Soviet times, new and shiny meets old and gritty)

    Too bad you didn’t go to Paljassaare peninsula which is north of Kopli (you made a photograph of it – it’s the last one on this page). It hosts an abandoned Soviet military camp, mostly in ruins. Nowadays it’s one of the favourite spots for ornitologists.

  41. Paul Sullivan says:

    Next time 🙂

  42. another local says:

    PS for some reason Telliskivi reminds me of Berghain.

  43. Paul Sullivan says:

    Yes! That’s exactly what I meant by it being reminiscent of “East Berlin”. We ran a really great essay on Berghain a while back. You can read it here, amazing place. http://www.slowtravelberlin.com/2010/12/13/berghain-panorama-bar/

  44. another local says:

    Nice essay man! I was there in February, made it only to Cantina though, because it was Tuesday. Real pity you weren’t here circa 2000-2001 when there were HUGE raves in Kalinin factory (the biggest building between railway station and Telliskivi), some 4000-5000 people going mad without shirts at -20C to the beats of techno and d&b, a sight and feeling not to be forgotten 🙂

    Oh, and if you have spare time next time you visit, you might like Astangu. Abandoned Czar- and Soviet-time concrete bunkers behind the residential area, to be precise.

  45. tallinner says:

    Thanks for the great article! The darker, more industrial side of Tallinn certainly has its appeal and finally there are local people who have the financial stability to take the time and appreciate this (e.g. the Telliskivi and Rotermann Quarter) but for most locals these surroundings are either eyesores or just a part of their everyday life. East Berlin may have a vibe of cool industrial depression, but here people actually are depressed on an industrial scale. Or so I seem to observe. Though, yes, it’s improving and has been for 20+ years. I would certainly go to Lasnamäe as well – you will feel isolation while being surrounded by 100 000 people. The endless wind and grey, grey, grey with little to no vegetation renders this a truly dystopic place.

  46. Dave says:

    Patarei prison is fantastically creepy – it’s definitely worth a visit!

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