Photo: Kaupo Kalda
Photo: Kaupo Kalda

    Lasnamäe – Tallinn's youngest and oldest district

    07.07.2020 Eduard Kohlhof
    Although Tallinn may not appear to have any dramatic peaks or ridges, many of the names of the city’s districts end in ‘-mägi’ (Estonian for ‘mountain’, also written ‘mäe’). 

    Lasnamäe is a fascinating part of the city that was considered Tallinn’s model socialist microdistrict 30 to 40 years ago. It has a typical Soviet atmosphere with apartment buildings that have not yet been remodelled, and it has preserved its original appearance as a typical residential district.

    Modern Lasnamäe is a young, actively developing district with fascinating architecture: sport halls and ice rinks, Tallinn’s largest malls, and the only Ferris wheel in the Baltics. The Silicon Valley of Estonia – Ülemiste City – and the Lennart Meri Tallinn Airport are both located in Lasnamäe.

    For anyone interested in history and the atmosphere of late-Soviet Tallinn, Lasnamäe definitely has something to offer. The district is like an open-air museum of Soviet Estonia but will not remain so for much longer: its buildings are being remodelled, and the atmosphere of a socialist district that remains to this day may not last for long.

    Iru hill fort (Iru Linnapära)

    The history of Tallinn began between the fifth and seventh centuries with the Iru hill fort, located on a river cape with a height up to 20 metres and fairly steep slopes. Remains of the moat and embankment have survived to this day, and the hill fort is surrounded by an earthen rampart that creates an impression of impenetrability. 

    The Iru hill fort burned down and was abandoned in the eleventh century, and the Toompea hill fort became the main fortified settlement on this stretch of the coastline and the lands of Reval (modern-day Tallinn). Toompea is located in the Tallinn Old Town, nine kilometres west of Lasnamäe.

    Origins

    The history of Lasnamäe as a part of Tallinn began on 13 May 1265, when Queen Margarita Samborskaya created a commission to determine and fix the borders of the city and the royal estates. Contemporary Lasnamäe fell almost entirely within the city limits. 

    The name ‘Lasnamägi’ (German: Laksberg) was first documented in 1371 as ‘Lakeder bergh’ or Lagedi Mountain, which also brought about the archaic Russian name, Mount Laksbergskaya. At that time, the territory of the contemporary district was a sparsely forested wasteland with swamps and land unsuitable for cultivation. The wasteland was adapted for grazing and mowing, and part of the mowed hay was given to monasteries, part to city officials. In 1521, after the Reformation, monastic lands were transferred to almshouses. Urban manors were also established on these lands and leased out until the beginning of the twentieth century.

    Majaka quarry

    Lasnamäe’s most intriguing landmark, preserved since the Middle Ages, is the city quarry. Stone was mined here from the thirteenth century until the 1960s. In the fourteenth century, Reval became a stone city: the city walls, churches, and burgher’s houses were constructed from stone. Limestone is an important construction material for Tallinn and North Estonia as it is abundant. The Baltic Klint is a limestone plateau that stretches along the northern Estonian coast and ends in cliffs of 40–50 metres in height. 

    The Lasnamägi Klint can be called Tallinn’s Table Mountain, which provides a stunning view of the sea and the towers of the Old Town from its flat top. We recommend taking a walk along the Lasnamäe nature trail (5 Paekalda Street) with its beautiful views and picturesque rock formations. It is a natural site within a quarry, a place where you can enjoy the view of rocky cliffs with small ice walls that appear in the spring and end of winter, as well as limestone sections several metres in height, and a beautiful mixed forest.

    How to get there: 

    Bus routes 12, 29, 60, 63, 65, Paevälja bus stop.

    Tallinn Gothic

    A Gothic style appeared in Reval at the end of the fifteenth century: Tallinn Gothic. Its hallmark is local limestone, a caustic stone that is difficult to work with, and this contributed to the formation of a singular architectural style. The influence of Tallinn Gothic can be found in the sacral architecture of Finland in the Turku Cathedral, and even the architecture of Veliky Novgorod, Russia.

    The masons’ settlement is located in the present-day Majaka Street neighbourhood. Compared with other historical areas around the city, Majaka has the greatest number of stone buildings. Its street names capture this history: Pallasti (Ballast) Street, Kivimurru (Quarry) Street, and Lubja (Lime) Street. You will enjoy a visit to the old quarries where Pae Park (21 Paepargi Street) is now located.

    How to get there: 

    Bus routes 31, 67, 68, Kumu bus stop; bus route 39, Pallasti bus stop.

    Catherine's Staircase

    The eighteenth and nineteenth centuries left their mark on Lasnamäe’s contemporary appearance. In 1721, Peter the Great took full control of Estonia and Reval. He had already bought the summer manor Fonnental at the foot of Lasnamägi in 1714, which became Peter the Great’s first residence in Reval. In 1718, Peter the Great began to build a new residence near his summer house, in a grove under the Lasnamäe mountain. It was a palace later to be called Yekaterinental (Russian) or Kadriorg (Estonian) – ‘the valley of Catherine’.

    The construction of the royal palace came to define the Kadriorg district but had very little impact on the Lasnamäe district. Perhaps most notable was the fact that Peter liked to climb the cliff in Lasnamäe and observe the sea, the construction of the port, and the Swedish fleet, which occasionally appeared on the Reval roadstead. A staircase was later built at the place where Peter climbed the cliff, now called ‘Catherine's Staircase’ (32 A. Weizenbergi Street).

    How to get there: 

    Bus routes 31, 67, 68, Kumu bus stop; bus route 39, Kumu bus stop.

    Neustadt, or New Town

    In 1795, construction began on a military compound under the supervision of Governor General Repnin and Admiral Chichagov. It included seven barracks and auxiliary buildings, as well as a church and observatory where astronomer Ferdinand von Wrangel worked from 1828 to 1829. Neustadt, or ‘New Town’, as city residents called it, was constructed quickly but quite shoddily, and, in 1834, it was decided to sell the barracks for scrap.

    The remains of the lime kiln (1840) have been preserved on the district’s territory since that time. For many city dwellers, they have become an observation deck (126 Narva Road) or romantic ruins, and not without reason: this area was called the ‘Wolf's Ravine’ during the Romantic period. Its earlier name, however, was not so poetic – ‘Mördersgrube’, or ‘Shelter of the Robbers’.

    How to get there: 

    Bus route 39, Hundikuristiku bus stop; bus routes 29, 35, 39, 44, 51, 60, 63, 66, Lasnamägi bus stop (you will have to walk back along Narva Road a little).

    Sikupilli factory district

    At the end of the nineteenth century, Lasnamägi was a wasteland overgrown with juniper. Yet it was here that the first hot-air balloon in Reval went up in 1881. In 1884, the ‘wasteland’ was used as an urban racetrack, and the first football match was held here in 1908.

    The working-class district of Lasnamäe emerged in the twentieth century. Factories began to pop up where the old quarries had been. Back then, the workday was quite long, so workers sought to live close to their workplaces – and land was three times cheaper in Lasnamäe than in Tallinn’s other districts.

    Sikupilli is Lasnamäe’s oldest subdistrict. It is a compact neighbourhood of wooden houses that appeared at the beginning of the twentieth century.

    How to get there: 

    Tram routes 2, 4, Majaka tram stop; bus routes 39, 55, Majaka bus stop.

    The new city centre that never was

    In 1913, well-known Finnish architect Eliel Saarinen's master plan for Tallinn’s development was executed, and the Lasnamägi district was meant to become part of the city’s new centre. An opera house and Museum Square were planned to be built on the Lasnamägi cliff, along with an eastern train station. But these plans were not meant to be: World War I and the revolution that followed it prevented Saarinen’s grandiose plans from being realised.

    Lighthouses in the stone jungle

    Lighthouses are undoubtedly one of the things that set any coastal city apart, and few European capitals can boast these ancient structures within their very city limits. Tallinn is unique in this sense. If we leave out the fact that sailors used St. Olaf’s Church as a landmark in the Middle Ages, there are a total of nine lighthouses in the Tallinn Bay area today, three of which are leading lights.

    Ships use the Lasnamäe leading lights to orient themselves when arriving in Tallinn. The first lighthouse – the Northern or White Lighthouse (3 Valge Street) – was constructed at the end of the Laksberg cliff in 1806 and rebuilt in 1835.

    A second lighthouse – the South or Red Lighthouse (16 Pae Street) – was built in 1835 about 1.2 km to the south and rebuilt in 1896. They are listed in marine handbooks as Tallinn's Front and Rear Lighthouses.

    How to get there:

    • Northern Lighthouse: bus routes 31, 67, 68, Kumu bus stop; bus route 39, Kumu bus stop (Catherine’s Staircase is also only a walk trip away).
    • Southern Lighthouse: tram routes 2, 4, Majaka põik tram stop, then by foot to Pae Street; bus routes 50, 55, 58, Kiive bus stop.

    Lasnamäe as a model Soviet city of the future and a modern Hollywood favourite

    Lasnamäe is like a slice out of the Soviet past and was a concept for the idealistic Soviet city of the future, reflecting the style and architecture of its time. Today, it is clear that the concept of prefab neighbourhoods has failed. Yet, in the 1970s, this type of development appeared to be innovative and promising.

    Lasnamäe is the city’s largest ‘sleeper’ residential district. In 1967, a competition was announced for a plan for the district. Its architect Mart Port also went on to participate in the design of the city of Slavutych, which was built for the displaced residents of Chernobyl.

    The territory of Lasnamäe was divided into neighbourhoods that were to be ‘strung’ on a future line of the light rail system, like beads on a string. To this end, a street – Laagna Street, which locals call ‘Ditch Street’ – had to be cut through the cliff.

    The light rail has yet to be launched, but the ‘ditch’ – Laagna Street – turned out to be full of cinematic charm. In general, Tallinn’s vivid appearance has kept it in regular demand as a film set. Recently, international film companies have paid attention to Tallinn, including Lasnamäe: Eastern Europe or Soviet-era cities and countries are brought to life here. But the region’s global film reputation is about to be elevated: Hollywood director Christopher Nolan’s new film Tenet, which was shot in seven countries including Estonia and Lasnamäe’s ‘Ditch’, is set to premiere in July 2020.

    How to get there: 

    Take a bus down Laagna Street and get off at the stops where the film Tenet was shot. Bus routes 7, 13, 49, 53, 56, 67, 68, Kotka kauplus, Laagna, Taevakivi bus stops.