Old Town gates of Tallinn Estonia | Image by Sharon Ang from Pixabay

Discover the Baltics: One week in Estonia

Paul Ryken and Sandra Rosenau Last Updated: Monday 6 April 2020 Estonia Leave a Comment

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Are you planning to visit Estonia and wonder what there is to see and do (in a week)? If you are looking for an itinerary that shows you not only cities rich in history but also gives you a taste for Estonian island life in the Baltic Sea, you’ve come to the right place.

Estonia is the northernmost of the three small countries commonly referred to as The Baltics. While still a relatively young country, regaining independence after Soviet occupation on 20 August 1991 (and beating neighboring Latvia by just one day), present-day Estonia has actually been inhabited for over 10,000 years. And the Estonian people were first mentioned 1,000 years ago in Roman documents which called them Aesti. Plenty of history to discover here, I’d say…

Baltic Tours

Our self-guided itineraries are for those of you who want to explore the Baltic countries independently. But you may want someone else to do the work for you. You may also want to consider taking a tour of the Baltics, rather than organising everything on your own. It’s also a nice way to have company if you are travelling solo.

If you prefer a professional to do all the organisation for you and an English-speaking guide who makes your Baltic adventure even more memorable, check out Baltic Tours.

Baltic Tours offer comprehensive (small) group tours in Scandinavia and North-Eastern Europe (including Russia, Ukraine and Belarus) at surprisingly affordable prices. All of them can be booked online. But if you do need to call, their friendly staff are more than pleased to discuss the various options available. Don't take our word for it, though. Check out TrustPilot for reviews provided by other customers.

If you ever wondered what happened to the torn-down Lenin and Stalin statues head to Maarjamäe Castle near Tallinn | Photo by Kate Sobol
If you ever wondered what happened to the torn-down Lenin and Stalin statues head to Maarjamäe Castle near Tallinn | Photo by Kate Sobol

Three reasons why you should visit Estonia

  1. If you’re into history and the great outdoors as much as unusual experiences (for example, walking around a meteorite crater or in an upside-down house) Estonia has it all.
  2. Estonia also has a flourishing start-up scene. Companies like Skype, TransferWise and Bolt/Taxify were born here. The country makes it super easy to establish an online business with its e-residency program. So, if you’re an online entrepreneur or digital nomad, it might be time to check out Estonia (in person).
  3. While it shares historical and culinary aspects with Latvia and Lithuania, Estonia has a slightly more Scandinavian feel to it, and listening to Estonians, you could easily think you’re in Finland.

Time to visit? Let’s get to it…

One of the cool and unusual experiences you can have in Estonia - shame we only found this on our way to the airport
One of the cool and unusual experiences you can have in Estonia - shame we only found this on our way to the airport

Suggested Route and Destinations

Ultimate one-week Estonia itinerary for independent travelers
Ultimate one-week Estonia itinerary for independent travelers
Suggested Stays (Nights)Destination
2 nightsTartu
3 nightsTallinn
2 nightsKuressaare

Our itinerary assumes that you travel to Tartu overland from Latvia and fly out of Estonia from Tallinn (IATA Code: TLL). If you want to start your trip in Tartu, your best airport choice would be Tallinn (2-2.5 hours north-west from Tartu). Tartu has its own airport, but it is only served by FinnAir. Another option would be Riga airport (IATA Code: RIX), which is 4-5 hours by train/bus from Tartu.

To organise your mode of transport between the three stops (and your car hire on the island of Saaremaa) check out the transport section in our Baltics post.

But first, let’s talk about what there is to see and do…

How much does it cost to explore the Baltics?

Visiting the Baltic countries in Spring 2019 cost us on average EUR45.17/USD50.54 per person per day. Check out our individual country costs here:

Highlights of Tartu

Tartu is Estonia’s second-largest city. Situated on the banks of the Emajõgi River, it is very easily walkable, with many parks and outdoor cafes to have a rest and watch the world go by.

To get your bearings, we suggest starting your visit to Tartu with a self-guided walking tour. The Tourism Office provides an excellent little brochure in several languages – you can pick up a physical copy inside the train station when you arrive or at the tourism office inside the Town Hall.

Combining the two routes described in the brochure takes you past all the interesting sites Tartu has to offer: through Toomemägi Park with the impressive Cathedral ruins, through the Old Town (including Tartu’s very own Leaning House and the last remaining piece of Tartu’s old city wall), along the Emajõgi River, and past interesting artistic sculptures as well as statues commemorating the many famous scientists who worked here.

The self-guided walking tour takes you past all the important sights of Tartu, including the majestic ruins of Tartu's Cathedral
The self-guided walking tour takes you past all the important sights of Tartu, including the majestic ruins of Tartu's Cathedral

Speaking of scientists: Founded in 1632 by King Gustav Adolph of Sweden as the Academia Gustaviana in the then Swedish province of Livonia, Tartu’s University is the oldest university in Estonia.

The university itself has had a tumultuous history, being moved to both Tallinn and Pärnu (and even closed intermittently) during wars and famine in the 17th and 18th centuries. Tartu University produced not only a Nobel Prize Laureate and several prime ministers. Today, Tartu University is the Alma Mater of pretty much every Estonian doctor, dentist, pharmacist, judge and prosecutor.

Tartu University was actually the brainchild of Johan Skytte - a sculpture in the shape of a stamp commemorates him
Tartu University was actually the brainchild of Johan Skytte - a sculpture in the shape of a stamp commemorates him

After lunch, we recommend a visit to one of Tartu’s museums, for example:

Both museums are very interactive, so kids will enjoy them too.

Snail Tower, Tartu’s tallest building, with the interactive AHHAA Science Centre
Snail Tower, Tartu’s tallest building, with the interactive AHHAA Science Centre

If you are interested not only in historic but also modern architecture, Tartu has a few interesting examples for you:

Just around the corner from the latter, you can challenge your senses in the upside down house.

'The Kissing Students' sculpture and fountain in front of the Town Hall is one of the most recognised symbols of Tartu
'The Kissing Students' sculpture and fountain in front of the Town Hall is one of the most recognised symbols of Tartu

Finish your day in Tartu with a concert at St Johns Church (concerts are held 3-4 times a month).

Alternatively, head to Genialistide Klubi to meet friendly locals and enjoy some cool acts, or check what’s on at Aparaaditehas, an old widget factory turned culture centre in the Karlova neighbourhood.

Highlights of Tallinn

Day 1

The historic centres of all three Baltic capitals are UNESCO world heritage sites. Tallinn’s Old Town with its hilly location in an otherwise relatively flat city is particularly picturesque.

To get a good understanding of the history of Tallinn and its many medieval buildings (including Europe’s oldest continuously operating pharmacy), we recommend joining the yellow suitcase free walking tour. The tour starts at 1200h outside the Tourist Information Centre and takes approximately two hours.

The free walking tour takes you all around Tallinn's Old Town including the medieval Town Hall Square | Image courtesy of Kate Sobol
The free walking tour takes you all around Tallinn's Old Town including the medieval Town Hall Square | Image courtesy of Kate Sobol

If you’ve never been on a submarine or icebreaker (but always wanted to), head to the Seaplane Harbour after lunch. The museum is located in an old seaplane hangar, a masterpiece of engineering in its own right. The entry tickets aren’t cheap though…

After the museum visit, take a stroll back towards the Old Town, past the many wooden houses in the Kalamaja district and the Balti Jaama Market. And make sure you stop for a drink (or two, three, …) and a bite to eat at one of the many cafes and bars at the Depoo (behind the Central Railway Station) and/or the Telliskivi Creative City.

The Telliskivi Creative City and nearby Depoo are great to enjoy a chilled drink and a bite to eat
The Telliskivi Creative City and nearby Depoo are great to enjoy a chilled drink and a bite to eat

Day 2

If you happen to be in town on a Saturday head to St Mary’s Cathedral for the Organ Recital at 1200h. Afterwards, enjoy the views over Tallinn from the bell tower.

Speaking of views, Tallinn’s Old Town has several vantage points from which one can enjoy views over the city and towards the Baltic Sea. Our favourite was the Patkuli viewing point.

Tallinn's old town has several great viewpoints over the city and towards the Baltic Sea | Photo by Kate Sobol
Tallinn's old town has several great viewpoints over the city and towards the Baltic Sea | Photo by Kate Sobol

After lunch, check out

If you are travelling with children, the Vabamu Museum will be more suitable as it is more interactive and contains a special exhibition for children.

2019 marks the 30th Anniversary of the Baltic Way, which ultimately led to the Baltics regaining their independence

Food and Drinks in Estonia

  • If you’re looking for a delicious bite to eat away from the hustle and bustle, stop for lunch at Von Krahli Aed in Tallinn’s Old Town.
  • For chilled out drinks and a bite to eat in more Bohemian surroundings, pick one of the many cafes and bars in Kalamaja, Depoo or Telliskivi.
  • To try traditional Estonian cuisine on the island of Saaaremaa, head to the Windmill restaurant or Pub Vaekoda in Kuressaare.

Highlights of Saaremaa

With close to 40 inhabited islands, you are spoilt for choice in Estonia. We (chose and) recommend to visit Saaremaa, Estonia’s largest island – for its variety of things to see and do and for its ease of reach from Tallinn.

While the bus ride to/from Saaremaa is very comfortable, for the one full day you have on the island, we suggest you hire a car and travel anti-clockwise along a circular route:

Ultimate Saaremaa itinerary for independent travelers
Ultimate Saaremaa itinerary for independent travelers

Your first stop is Kaali, home to the Kaali Meteorite Craters and Museum (20 kilometres/20 minutes drive from Kuressaare). Crater #1 is the biggest, most obvious and best known one. You can check out the others though too. If you don’t want to walk through fields in search for barely noticeable craters, crater #6 is right by the roadside towards Angla (and marked) so you can’t miss it. And don’t forget to pop by the museum.

The largest of nine meteorite craters in the village of Kaali measures 110 metres in diameter
The largest of nine meteorite craters in the village of Kaali measures 110 metres in diameter

Instead of continuing up the road to Angla, you continue your drive along road number 10 (back towards the ferry). Near the village of Koigi (40 kilometres/35 minutes from Kaali) is Saaremaa’s largest swamp. The Koigi Bog can be explored along a five kilometre long walking trail.

Explore Koigi Bog, Saaremaa's largest swamp, along its 5 kilometre walking trail
Explore Koigi Bog, Saaremaa's largest swamp, along its 5 kilometre walking trail

From Koigi head north-west to visit the Windmills in Angla and Karja Church (35 kilometres/30 minutes from Koigi – both are only ~2 kilometres away from each other).

The Angla Windmill Park is the largest remaining set of windmills that once dotted the whole island. It comprises a number of post mills and one Dutch windmill. You can explore the inside of a few of them, and learn about milling and the local area. There is also a small museum with old but well-maintained machinery in the main building.

Angla Windmill Park is the largest remaining set of windmills that once dotted the whole island
Angla Windmill Park is the largest remaining set of windmills that once dotted the whole island

Nearby Karja church was closed when we visited. We peaked through the keyhole of the church portal (you can see the altar with the stained glass window behind it) and explored the surroundings (which are beautiful too). If you want to see the interior of the church: there are services every (other) Sunday. The church also seems to be open daily in Summer, at least according to the ladies staffing the Angla Windmill site.

Even Karja Church's surroundings are worth a visit
Even Karja Church's surroundings are worth a visit

Continue your journey westwards along the coast to Panga Cliff (35 kilometres/30 minutes from Angla), with 20 metres Saaremaa’s highest sea cliff. From Panga cliff, head 35 kilometres/30 minutes south/southwest and stop at Karujärve Lake for a swim. The abandoned houses along the road to the lake apparently belonged to the Soviet Army that was stationed here during the occupation.

From the lake, return to Kuressaare (27 kilometres/25 minutes) or head south to the Sõrve Lighthouse, Saaremaa’s southern-most lighthouse.

Note: Without the lighthouse, the loop is ~190 kilometres long, requiring just under 3 hours of driving (plus stops). The trip to/from the lighthouse adds ~90km or 75 minutes of driving to your overall journey. If you’re visiting Saaremaa outside of Summer (peak season) bring a picnic, as there won’t be much open on your route.

Saaremaa's southernmost lighthouse is actually closer to the Latvian coast than to Kuressaare
Saaremaa's southernmost lighthouse is actually closer to the Latvian coast than to Kuressaare

If you have time in the afternoon (on your arrival day), we recommend to visit Kuressaare Castle. The castle and fortifications have recently been restored and are quite the sight. The place overflows with exhibits, and it’s a bit of a maze, so make sure you ask for a floor plan to guide you through the collection in chronological order.

Alternatively, you could spend the afternoon getting pampered with a relaxing treatment at one of the spa hotels. After all, Kuressaare is a spa town.

Kuressaare Castle is not only impressively looking but a treasure trove for those interested in local history
Kuressaare Castle is not only impressively looking but a treasure trove for those interested in local history
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Have you been to Estonia? What other suggestions do you have for a first time visitor? Please leave a comment below.

Feature photo by Sharon Ang on Pixabay

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