With its dreamy church spires, ancient battlements and quaint outdoor cafés, Tallinn is a charming destination to visit by day – as pretty as any fairy tale. However, when the sun goes down and shadows fill the winding, cobbled streets, a darker side of this UNESCO World Heritage Site is revealed. With a complex history stretching back over 1,000 years and many episodes of war, plague and other tragic events over the centuries, it's not surprising that some unhappy memories linger in hidden corners of the Estonian capital.
Many locations in Tallinn's Old Town have acquired a reputation for being haunted, and ghosts are deeply rooted in the local culture. Whether you believe in spirits or are simply fascinated by the city's age-old legends, exploring these mysterious sites is a brilliant way to delve further into the area's lore. Read on to discover the spookiest places to visit in Tallinn…if you dare.
Why are there so many ghosts in Tallinn?
Like many well-preserved, historic cities, Tallinn provides a perfect stage for a classic haunting. "I guess the scenery over here, the darkness and twilight we have for so many months of the year, combined with the medieval houses, narrow cobblestone streets, and the look and sounds of the city late at night when there are not many people about – it can all tickle your imagination," observes Kadi Pilt, who works as a guide with The Dark Side of Tallinn, one of several local companies that offer ghost tours of Tallinn, and has extensively studied the many ghost stories that infest the city.
Tom Tonks, who runs the blog Hidden Tallinn and also offers free, private walking tours that highlight quirkier elements of Estonia's culture and history, agrees that the city and its people are primed for the supernatural: "Estonians are not very religious people, but they are somewhat superstitious. Combine these superstitious tendencies with long, dark winters, creaky old houses and a strong adherence to mythology and it's not surprising that many people claim to have seen or heard ghosts."
The result is a plethora of eerie stories, although Kadi notes that many of the more ancient legends have been lost in time: "Over the centuries the population of Tallinn has been erased and replaced for quite a few times, if you consider the many sieges and wars the city has been involved in – not to mention the waves of plague killing off a large part of the inhabitants. After each historic turmoil new inhabitants arrived [who were] unaware of the old stories…Yet we inherited some of their ghosts and are keeping the stories alive. These ghosts belong to us now."
Are the ghost stories true?
For many residents of Tallinn, ghosts are very much part of their everyday reality. When asked about first-hand encounters, Tom cites the experience of a friend who was "playing his guitar alone in a loft on the upper side of the Old Town when he heard an audible 'ssshhh' coming from the corner of the dark room. Believing it to be a mouse, or maybe a gust of wind, he continued playing until a louder 'ssshhh' was heard from the same corner.
"After pausing, he realised that there were no other people in the building, as he had the only keys. He made a very swift exit and never returned to that room."
Kadi has also experienced some things that are difficult to explain. "Back in high school, I was working in a library, and as the youngest, they often gave me tasks they considered tedious. So one day I was down in the basement, sorting old magazines. I was bowing down over a lower shelf, focusing on my task and suddenly felt someone put a hand on my shoulder, squeezing it slightly. Assuming it was a colleague, I turned around, but there was no one there.
"When I went upstairs during my lunch break, I mentioned it and my colleagues said that it must have been one of the ghosts. The building was on top of an old graveyard and allegedly they had also seen or encountered ghosts there."
However, she's still undecided whether she believes in the supernatural or not. "Even in the place I work, the Kiek in de Kök artillery tower and the underground passages inside the Ingrian Bastion, where there are so many ghost stories, I do not really know what to think," she says. "I have not seen anything, but I have experienced locked doors opening by themselves, and heard footsteps on stairs when there was no one there (and I was not alone, so others witnessed it too) – but still, who knows, there may be a rational explanation.
"I do have some colleagues who did not believe in ghosts, but after some encounters and witnessing poltergeist activity, they are no longer able to claim that. Quite recently, 15 visitors spotted a tall monk going from one wall into another and started to scream."
So are the ghosts of Tallinn real, or just stories? "It does not really matter whether the ghosts really exist or not," Kadi says. "We tell these stories and therefore the ghosts are real. I think we could call these ‘fluctuating entities’, as the late scholar Umberto Eco named the literary characters who sometimes seem more real than actual historic characters – for example, Sherlock Holmes."
She feels that preserving these tales is important: "I think they add an interesting layer [to the city] and help the history to come alive. In the same way we need fiction and we need fairy tales, we need stories of ghosts and hauntings. Some say that the chaos and uncertainty of our everyday life is so huge, it is a relief to have a thrill or fear that can be controlled and contained: you hear a ghost story, it may scare you, but it ends, and after all you can tell yourself that it is just a story."
Haunted places in Tallinn
Tom observes that the spookiest location must be "the upper Old Town after midnight. Very few people live in this area, so the silence at night is thick. Even the smallest click, scrape or whistle of the wind permeates the atmosphere. The narrow streets and dark windows play tricks on the mind as you creep around in the palpable silence. There are no other people around at this time."
Brave enough to explore on your own? It often feels that every building, street and tower in Tallinn has a chilling story attached to it – Kadi says she herself knows over 100 ghost stories. From medieval legends to modern encounters, here are just a few of the many sites in Tallinn with an uncanny reputation – all located within a 20-minute walk of the Radisson Blu Hotel Olümpia, Tallinn:
The Devil's Window (Rataskaevu 16)
Many centuries ago, a mysterious, cloaked man approached the owner of this 15th-century manor on Rataskaevu and offered to pay him handsomely for the use of a particular room on the upper floor of the house – on the condition that he was granted complete privacy. That night, a rowdy party took place in the room, and one observer who peeked through the keyhole reported that it was the devil himself hosting a wedding reception. From that day on, unexplained sounds have occasionally been heard from the room late at night, even when no one is there. Eventually, the owner bricked up the room's window to stop the reports.
Garden of the Danish King
This peaceful garden in the Old Town is a pleasant spot to while away some time on a sunny day; however, after dark you may encounter some unexpected company. "The area near the Danish King’s Garden at the top of the [street known as the] Short Leg has the highest concentration of ghost sightings," says Tom. It's also the site of three notoriously haunted towers (discussed below): "Walk past these three towers in the dead of night and you may see a woman in old-fashioned dress, the spirit of a troubled monk and even a dog that spits fireballs. All have been spotted in this area."
The garden is also home to several creepy statues of faceless monks which Kadi says were inspired by the many ghostly monks that are said to haunt various places in the city.
The Stable Tower (Tallitorn)
Next to the Garden of the Danish King, this small, round tower with a conical top forms part of the medieval city walls and is one of three haunted towers in the area. In centuries past it served as a prison, during which time it gained a reputation for frightening phenomena. "Legend tells of a young man imprisoned here in the 16th century who was so terrified by the ghosts that haunted the tower that his servant was sent to accompany him," recounts Tom. "Both were found pale, shaking and unable to speak the next morning, petrified after a night of intense torment.
"A sceptical prison guard decided he would 'expose the myth' and slept in the same cell himself. He was removed from the prison the next morning in a catatonic state and died after a few days. No one knew what he saw."
The Maiden's Tower (Neitsitorn)
Nearby is another haunted tower, which was formerly used as a prison for medieval prostitutes. Over the years, footsteps and other unearthly sounds have been heard in the tower, and some people say they have seen a phantom monk drinking wine in the cellar. Today, the tower is a modern café where the staff have reported strange happenings, so you can pop in and see if your coffee comes with a side of paranormal activity.
The Short Leg Tower (Lühikese Jala Väravatorn)
This tower at the base of the historic hill Toompea is said to be home to a number of ghosts, including that of a novice monk named Justus who had previously worked as the town executioner. According to a psychic who claimed to make contact with the spirit, Justus is unable to rest in peace until he atones for his first occupation. Other unusual activities include objects moving on their own, a spectral ship sailing across the room; and the face of an angry man appearing on a wall, which pulls faces at witnesses before slowly fading away.
Toom-Kooli 13 (now the Canadian Embassy)
Once the home of the wealthy von Uexküll family, this handsome manor on the short, cobbled street Toom-Kooli currently houses the office of the Canadian Embassy. However, it seems some of its previous residents have not made way for the diplomats. The building is said to be haunted by the ghosts of two women, one dressed in black and one in grey. The grey lady in particular has an unsettling reputation: she is said to carry an odour of death and decay and to force her attentions on unsuspecting men, with long, ragged nails. In 1919, an English officer staying on the premises was sectioned after being tormented nightly by the spirit of a cackling lady.
The Cathedral Restaurant
Although there are no local legends we know of attached to the building, staff at the Cathedral Restaurant near Toompea Castle have experienced plenty of odd things in their workplace. Creepy incidents include footsteps and knocking sounds coming from empty rooms, doors slamming on their own and even figures moving through the dining room. Some staff members even claim to have been touched by invisible entities!