Estonia’s gate to the world – from the Bronze Age to the Digital Age

The region of Tallinn has been strategically important for thousands of years in the search for trade routes and for military purposes. The earliest data and findings of shipping activities in this region date back to the end of the Bronze Age, i.e. the 8th and 7th centuries BC.

During the trade voyages and military campaigns of the Vikings at the end of the first millennium, Tallinn became an important gate for importing silver coins and weighed silver, which led to Tallinn joining the network of Hanseatic towns. 

The “good old Swedish time” that still lives in folklore saw more active construction of waterways and port facilities. The first mention of the passengers who visited the port of Tallinn by Balthasar Russow also dated back to this time.


Provincial port of an empire


The facilities of Tallinn and on the entire northern coast of Estonia at the start of the era of the Russian Empire, which lasted longer than two centuries, are best described with the term “military”. St Petersburg and Riga became the main commercial ports on the Baltic Sea, and Tallinn was even renamed a category II port in the middle of the 19th century.

The triumph of steam ships led to the start of regular ship connections with Helsinki in 1837, and 5,139 passengers had travelled between Tallinn and Helsinki by ship by 1840. In the middle of the century, it was already possible to get to Stockholm by ship. The transport of goods via Tallinn started becoming more active in 1870 after the opening of the Baltic railway.

Vanasadam will become a lively urban environment by 2030. Source: Zaha Hadid Architects


Pivotal 20th century


Similarly to Estonia, the development of the Port of Tallinn in the 20th century was influenced by revolutions, the two world wars, the establishment of an independent state and foreign rule until the last decade of the century.

The decade that followed the Tartu Peace Treaty was difficult for the ports and the state of Estonia, and eastward transit was very volatile. However, the renovation of the port facilities started and 13 shipping lines connected Tallinn with foreign ports by 1928. Foreign trade accelerated in the 1930s, after the Depression was finally coming to its end with businesses exporting timber and sawn timber and importing cotton and black metal. Two ships sailed between Tallinn and Helsinki in 1936 and a little over 9,000 passengers travelled between the two capitals that summer in one month, with 65 percent of them Estonians.

The Port of Tallinn was closed to cargo and fishing ships in October 1939 after the so-called “military bases treaty”, and the connection with Helsinki was also cut on 1 December.

The world war that followed brought along massive destruction, just like elsewhere in Estonia and Europe. The port facilities were blasted by the German and Russian troops alike, and the restoration of the fully destroyed buildings of the six ports in the surroundings of Tallinn took a couple of decades.

The connection with Helsinki was relaunched in July 1965 and 19,000 passengers, mostly Finnish, used the line during the first season. A new milestone in passenger shipping was the year 1980, when the regatta of the Moscow Olympic Games was held in Tallinn. This was marked by the start of the voyages between Tallinn and Helsinki by the Georg Ots, a passenger ship specially built for this line in Poland, which was also used as the floating hotel of Mikhail Gorbachev during his meeting with Ronald Reagan in Reykjavik.

The decision to build a new commercial port, mostly for importing grains and fruit, was also made in the late 1970s and Muuga Harbour’s deep water port was opened in 1986.

A vision for the development of the Port of Tallinn was created as long as four hundred years ago, in 1630. Source: National Archives


Rebirth of free Estonia


In the wake of the changes brought by the Singing Revolution, the Estonian-Finnish joint venture Tallink launched ferry traffic between Tallinn and Helsinki in 1990 with a ferry of the same name and in June, the passenger ship Nord Estonia made the first post-war regular voyage between Tallinn and Stockholm.

The Tallinn Commercial Seaport and New Port of Tallinn (Muuga) became the state-owned company Port of Tallinn in December 1991. The Tallinn Commercial Seaport and the ports of Copenhagen and Rostock founded the Baltic Ports Organisation (BPO) a month a half earlier, which is currently the most important cooperation platform for all major Baltic ports.

936,000 passengers travelled through the Port of Tallinn in the first (half) year of freedom and in the next year, the number of passengers exceeded one million for the first time, reaching 1.34 million.

After the restoration of independence, Muuga became a landlord port that managed the infrastructure and provided navigation services, whilst harbour services were provided by operators. Muuga added various new operators in the middle of the decade, and the area of the Vansadam (Old Port) was renovated and Terminal D was built at the same time. The former state-owned company Port of Tallinn became a public limited company in 1996.


New millennium


The keywords of the first decade of the 21st century are the start of the establishment of a logistics and industrial estate at Muuga and the opening of a free zone, the start of regular cruise traffic and the arrival of brand new ferries on the Helsinki and Stockholm lines.

The threshold of a million passengers was crossed for the first time in 1992, but today the number of passengers per year exceeds 10.5 million. Over 8.8 million of them travel to and from Finland, which is why describing the southern side of the double city of Talsinki as the place of our business operations is not an exaggeration.

In recent years, the Port of Tallinn has grown from a traditional port to a development company with four different business directions. We will of course continue developing passenger transport and Muuga Harbour to a complete centre of logistics and industry that offers higher added value.


An extremely important new business for us is the ferry connection with the largest Estonian islands with four new ferries as well as the long-term development of urban space in the Vanasadam region.


Port of the Digital Era


It’s remarkable that the long-term development plan of the Vanasadam was completed in the year of the 100th jubilee of the Republic of Estonia. The Masterplan created by the renowned architects of Zaha Hadid give a vision of how the port area could become a part of the city space in the next few decades.

We use different Smart Port IT solutions at our ports for more efficient management of traffic flow, and our partners and we want to bring the entire Estonian logistics and transport sector to the paper-free digital era.

The Port of Tallinn has always been Estonia’s gateway to the world and gone through every significant stage in the development of our people and state, the painful and joyous ones alike. It is a great pleasure and honour to us to manage the design of this gateway in the year of Estonia’s jubilee, so our people and guests can see that life here is in constant development and everyone is welcome here!

A little over 9,000 passengers per month travelled between Tallinn and Helsinki in the 1930s. Source: Tallinn City Archives

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