Built in 1900, when Estonia was part of the tsarist Russian empire, the cathedral was originally intended as a symbol of the empire’s dominance – both religious and political – over this increasingly unruly Baltic territory.
The cathedral was dedicated to the Prince of Novgorod, Alexander Yaroslavich Nevsky, who led the famous Battle of the Ice at Lake Peipsi in 1242, which halted the German crusaders’ eastward advance. It was deliberately placed in this prominent location right in front of Toompea Castle, on the same spot where a statue of Martin Luther had previously stood.
Now with the controversy long since faded, what’s left is simply an architectural masterpiece. Designed by respected St. Petersburg architect Mikhail Preobrazhenski, the church is richly decorated in a mixed historicist style. The interior, filled with mosaics and icons, is well worth a visit.
The church’s towers hold Tallinn’s most powerful church bell ensemble, consisting of 11 bells, including the largest in Tallinn, weighing 15 tonnes. You can hear the entire ensemble playing before each service.
Established sometime before 1233 and repeatedly rebuilt since, the church displays a mix of architectural styles. Its vaulted main body dates to the 14th century, while its baroque tower was an addition from the late 1770s.
Historically this was the church of Estonia’s elite German nobles, a fact that becomes clear once you step through the doors. The interior is filled with elaborate funereal coats of arms from the 17th to the 20th centuries as well as burial stones from the 13th to the 18th centuries. Among the notables buried here are Pontus de la Gardie, who commanded Swedish forces during the Great Northern War, Adam Johann von Krusenstern, the Baltic-German admiral who led Russia’s first expedition around the world, and Scottish-born Admiral Samuel Greig of Fife, rumoured to be Catherine the Great’s lover.
Just inside the main entrance you’ll find a large stone slab which reads, "Otto Johann Thuve, landlord of Edise, Vääna and Koonu Ehis grave, 1696 A.D." Thuve, now sometimes referred to as ’Tallinn’s Don Juan’, was an incurable drinker and womaniser. As he lay dying, however, he asked to be buried here at the threshold of the church so that god fearing people, as they kneel to pray upon entering, might eventually save his soul from his sinful ways.
Once upon a time, from 1549 to 1625 to be exact, this 13th-century church was the tallest building in the world. But its gigantic, 159-metre spire, which was probably meant to act as a signpost for approaching ships, also turned out to be a very effective lightning rod. Throughout the church’s history its steeple has been hit repeatedly by lightning, completely burning down the structure three times.
Nowadays its smaller, 124-metre steeple still dwarfs most of Tallinn’s buildings and remains an important symbol of the town. From April to October, visitors can make the vigorous climb to the top of the stone portion of the tower for magnificent and dizzying views of Old Town, Toompea hill and the port.
The church itself dates back to at least 1267 when it is thought to have served a group of Scandinavian merchants who settled in the area. Various legends insist the church got its name from either the giant or the mysterious stranger who built it, however it was in fact dedicated to King Olaf II of Norway.
Its current shape and size were set in the 16th century. Inside are high, vaulted naves and a historicist interior design that dates to after the 1830 fire.
Founded by German merchant/settlers from the island of Gotland sometime around 1230, the sturdy church was designed to double as a fortress in the days before the town wall was built. The building survived the reformationist looting of 1523, but wasn’t so lucky in the 20th Century when it was destroyed by World War II bombs.
Since its restoration in the 1980s St. Nicholas’ has functioned as a museum specializing in works of religious art, most famously Bernt Notke’s beautiful but spooky painting Danse Macabre (Dance with Death). Exquisite altarpieces, baroque chandeliers and medieval burial slabs are also on display, while the Silver Chamber is home to stunning works by members of town’s craft guilds.
The building’s acoustics also make it a prime concert venue, with organ or choir performances held here most weekends.
The church’s history, however, goes back much further. As far back as the 12th century, a marketplace for Russian merchants operated here in the Sulevimäe and Vene St. area of Tallinn. In 1442, when the town wall was being rebuilt, the church that stood at the centre of that market was replaced by a new one at Vene. 24, where the present building now stands.
Drop inside to get a glimpse of the church’s treasured iconostasis. Here you’ll also find booklets about the church, postcards, souvenirs, and religious literature on sale.
The Orthodox congregation that maintains the church belongs to the Moscow patriarchate.
The elaborate painted clock on its façade is Tallinn’s oldest public timepiece, dating to the late 17th century. But don’t miss the carved wood interior which includes such treasures as a unique 15th century altar by the famous Lübeck artist Bernt Notke, and one of the oldest pulpits in Estonia, dating to 1597.
The church was originally founded as part of the neighbouring Holy Spirit Almshouse, which tended to the town’s sick and elderly. Throughout Medieval times it remained the primary church of the common folk. After the Reformation, it was here that the first sermons were ever given in the Estonian language (as opposed to German), and a catechism published in 1535 by the church’s pastor Johann Koell is thought to be the first book in Estonian.
It was built from 1862 to 1882 as a long overdue replacement for the original Kaarli Church, itself founded in 1670 on the order of Sweden’s King Charles XI. Like many wooden structures located outside the city wall, the first Kaarli Church burned down during the Great Northern War in the early 1700s.
Architect Otto Pius Hippius from St. Petersburg built the present limestone church using a special arch technique that gave it have a vast, open interior. With its wonderful acoustics and seating capacity of 1,500, the church is often used as a venue for choral concerts.
The Kaarli Church is home to the first Estonian fresco, “Come to Me,” painted in 1879 by famed Tallinn artist Johann Köler. It also boasts the country’s largest church organ, installed in 1924.
Since the coastline was considerably closer to the city in those days, the church was built practically on the edge of the water, and its foundation required some landfill. According to legend, rubble from shipwrecks was used for this purpose.
The building was seriously damaged during the Soviet period, when it was turned into a sports hall. During this time it also lost its bell tower and onion dome. Fortunately the church was restored after Estonia regained independence, and since 2001, an Estonian Orthodox congregation has once again been active here.
The idea for St. John’s first came about in the mid-19th century when the city’s growing population of ethnic Estonians made the Holy Spirit Church too small for its congregation. A new church, which at the pastor’s suggestion was named for St. John the Evangelist, was founded.
Construction lasted from 1862 to 1867, and was carried out under the supervision of the church’s designer, Tallinn-born architect Christoph August Gabler. Building on this spot was no easy task. The area here outside the old city wall had earlier been the site of the town moat, so the land was too soft to hold up the structure’s foundation. The solution was to ram dozens of thick oak trunks into the ground for extra support.
By the 1930s, a new crop of art deco and functionalist buildings had appeared around Freedom Square, leaving the church’s neo-Gothic appearance dramatically out of step with its surroundings. However, the city’s plans to pull down the church and reconstruct the square were never realised due to the war and subsequent occupation of Estonia. Likewise, avant-guard architects had similar ideas in the 1950s, but fortunately, these were never followed through.
The location had originally been an almshouse for the city’s poor, but in 1733 the tsarist government gave it to the Swedish congregation, which been left without its own church since the Great Northern War. During Soviet times the building was converted into a sports hall and fell into disrepair, but was renovated and reconsecrated in 2002. It now has a congregation of around 200, and continues to hold services in Swedish.
In addition to its Baroque altar by Joachim Armbrust and a Baroque pulpit, the church has a unique baptistery created by famed sculptor Christian Ackermann in 1680.
It was only after Estonia regained independence in 1991 that a real Jewish religious community was reestablished here. It started with a cultural center, then a Jewish school. In 2000, following the appointment of Rabbi Shmuel Kot as the chief rabbi of Estonia, a prayer centre was set up in a nearby building.
With the opening of the synagogue, the Jewish community was given a new focus. In addition to hosting religious services and Jewish holiday celebrations in its 200-seat main hall, it oversees the preparation and distribution of kosher food, as well as hosting a Mikvah, and a Jewish museum.
Though the Ukrainian congregation has been active in Tallinn since the 17th century, the church is a newcomer to Old Town. The congregation acquired the building a few years back, and through renovations have made it a very pleasant place to worship – one that seems historic and modern at the same time. Be sure to go inside to explore the amazing interior and the iconostasis by Pyotr Gumenyuk.
The church also acts as a cultural center for Tallinn’s Ukrainian community, and a small museum of Ukrainian religious art and handicrafts operates here.
A special booklet, available at the Tallinn Tourist Information Centre, provides a complete list of the churches along with descriptions and opening hours.