There was a fortified stronghold on the slope of Toompea in the 11th century and there were also a settlement and fenced-in market place in the vicinity of the present Town Hall Square. There were two market yards nearby – the Scandinavian and the Russian market.
When the crusaders arrived in 1219, a castle and dome church were erected in Toompea. The building of the first battlements around Toompea was started in 1229. In the lower town, the first battlement was erected in 1265 at the behest of Queen Margaret. The battlement that remains today dates back to the 14th century. A town consisting of two separate parts was formed at that time – the capital of the Estonian Duchy – Toompea (Domberg or upper town) – and the lower town of the Hanseatic Town Reval.
The most important period in the architectural development of Tallinn was 13-16th century. Tallinn's gothic architecture was influenced by the architecture of the island of Gotland, Lower Rhine and Westfalen and subsequently by the architecture of the Hanseatic Towns and the German Order. Local construction material – limestone – added character to the architecture.
By the 14th century, the castle in Tallinn had become one of the most powerful fortresses of the Livonian Order. The layout of the castle, its architectural austerity and its simplicity served as a model for other fortifications in the area. Only the western and northern outer walls, along with its three towers – amongst them one of Estonia’s symbols, Tall Herman – were spared later reconstruction.
In the 15th century (Late Gothic era), a town hall, guild building, convent buildings and residential houses were built in the town. These are characterised by the high dormers on the high-stretched facades. Of the different layouts, the prevalent type of house was that with two rooms, a diele and a dornse. A diele is a spacious room that extends to the height of two storeys with a fireplace at the back wall; this type of building was primarily used as an office or workshop. And behind it was the dornse – a living room with hot-air heating. The upstairs, cellars and attics were used as storage rooms.
Such buildings were first erected on Pikk street (The Three Sisters, Pikk street 71), Lai street (The Three Brothers, Lai street 38, 40, 42) and at the Old market (Father and Son, Kuninga street 1).
Tallinn Old Town has been entered in the UNESCO World Heritage List as a well-preserved medieval town. It is a unique town within the Baltic Sea region and in the context of Europe.
Examples of Gothic architecture in Tallinn:
- Town Hall (15th century), Raekoja street 1 (Town Hall Square).
- Dome Church (15th century), Toom-Kooli street 6.
- St. Nicholas' Church or Niguliste Museum (1420), Niguliste street 3.
- St. Olaf's Church or Oleviste Church (15th century), Pikk street 65 / Lai street 50.
- Church of the Holy Spirit (15th century), Pühavaimu street 2.
- Great Guild Hall or the Estonian History Museum (1417), Pikk street 17.
- St. Olaf's Guild Hall (1422), Pikk street 24.
- St. Catherine's Dominican Monastery Hall (14-15th century), Vene street 12/14.
- New alms-house (16th century), Rüütli street 7/9.
- Horse mill (14-18th century), Lai street 47
- The ravelins of St. Bridget's Convent (1417), Merivälja tee 18.