A Short History Of Tallinn

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Our short history of Tallinn is just that.  A short history so that you know a little bit about the place before you go.

Early History of Tallinn

Human presence in and around Tallinn is thought to date back over 5000 years. However, the first evidence of a permanent settlement is in the district of Iru, a region of Tallinn, in the 9th or 10th centuries AD. The first fortress was built on Toompea Hill.  This fortress remained in use until the 11th century AD.

Danish rule in Tallinn began in 1219, and the history of the city and region from then on is much more documented. It was initially known not as Tallinn but as Reval, a germanic name. The Danes ruled over the city until 1346, when they sold the region to the German Teutonic Knights.  Interestingly, legend has it that in 1219 the Dannebrog (Danish Flag) fell from the sky into the Kings Garden in Tallinn.  According to the legend it was then adopted as the flag of Denmark.  This would make it the oldest continually used national flag in the world.  The Dannebrog is also used as one of the coats of arms of Tallinn.

The coat of arms of Tallinn is similar to the flag of Denmark

Middle Ages

The city flourished between the 14th and 16th centuries, and it was during this time that the majority of the historic town centre that you can see today was constructed.

Throughout the late middle ages, the role that Tallinn played as a trading town grew and the city continued to grow. Tallinn was briefly under the territory of the Swedish crown from 1561, before being taken over by the Russians in 1710 in the Northern War, a war fought primarily between Russia and Sweden.

The Two World Wars

Russian rule in Tallinn and Estonia lasted up to and throughout the course of World War One. Towards the end of the war Russia underwent major political changes, with the Russian Revolution of 1917. Following this, Estonia proclaimed independence on the 24th of February of 1918. Two years later, after an independence war with Russia, the Tartu Peace Treaty was signed and the Russians formally acknowledged Estonia as an independent Republic.

An image of Tallinn During the Estonian War of Independence, 1918.

This independence for Estonia was short-lived.  World War Two was the beginning of a new era in the history of Tallinn and Estonia. The city was initially occupied once again by the Soviets. By August of 1941, German Troops had invaded and occupied the city. Throughout the course of World War Two, the Nazis used Estonia as a base for a number of their extermination camps. It is estimated that around 10,000 Jews were killed in Estonia throughout the course of the German occupation.  Jews that were killed were from both Estonia and also from surrounding countries. Tallinn was bombed at times throughout the war, with many of its buildings destroyed. Luckily, the majority of the old town remained unscathed. By 1944, the Germans had retreated and the Soviets again occupied the city. At the conclusion of the war, Soviet presence in the city remained.

Soviet Occupation

There was an initial resistance to the Soviet Occupation. Although the Soviets were in charge, a resistance movement developed that was known as Metsavennad. The movement was based in the countryside of Estonia. This resistance movement was quickly suppressed. In 1949, the Soviets deported over 20,000 people to Siberia, and the resistance movement was effectively crushed.

Soviet rule in Estonia continued until the 1980s.  In 1988, Estonia issued the Estonian Sovereignty Declaration. Free elections were held for the first time in 1990, and in 1991 a referendum was held.  In the referendum, Estonians voted to re-establish their independence from the Soviet Union.

  • If you’re interested in learning more about life in Tallinn and Estonia under Soviet Occupation, pay a visit to the Museum of Occupations.  It details what life was like under both Nazi and Soviet occupation.

The museum of occupations in Tallinn details what life was like under both Nazi and Soviet occupation

Modern Day Tallinn

Since Estonian independence, Tallinn has gone from strength to strength. Estonia became a part of the EU in 2004, and Tallinn is now a hub for budding developers – it has a higher per capita amount of startups than anywhere else in Europe, and was the birthplace of many major companies, including Skype.


If you’re interested in learning more about the history of Tallinn, there are a couple of great things in Tallinn that you can do.  The Tallinn free walking tour gives a great overview of the history of both Tallinn and Estonia.  And as we already mentioned, the museum of occupation details what life was like under both Nazi and Soviet occupation.


Further reading on Tallinn and Estonia that we found helpful

Further reading on Journey Seals Blog