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 neighbouring 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…
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Three reasons why you should visit Estonia
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.
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).
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…
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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…
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 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.
After lunch, we recommend a visit to one of Tartu’s museums, for example:
- If you love sports, the Estonian Sports and Olympic Museum might be for you. Paul certainly learned a thing or two.
- If you’re more into science, check out the AHHAA Science Centre.
Both museums are very interactive, so kids will enjoy them too.
If you are interested not only in history but also in modern architecture, Tartu has a few interesting examples for you:
- For starters, you can’t miss the Snail Tower, Tartu’s tallest building next to the AHHAA Science Centre. Both were built between 1997 and 2011 (by architects Künnapu and Padrik).
- Located two kilometres north of the city centre, the Estonian National Museum, which opened in 2016, was built into the runway of a former Soviet military airfield (by architects Dorell Ghotmeh Tane).
Just around the corner from the latter, you can challenge your senses in the upside-down house.
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
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.
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.
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.
After lunch, check out
- the Vabamu Museum of Occupations and Freedom to learn more about life under the Soviet regime, about Estonians living in exile and about Estonia’s struggle for independence from the perspective of ordinary Estonians.
- the National Front Museum with its free photo exhibition to round up your understanding of Estonia’s journey to independence from 1987 to 1992.
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.
Food and Drinks in Estonia
- 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 visiting 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:
Kaali, Saaremaa, Estonia
Koigi bog, Saaremaa, Estonia
Angla Windmills, Saaremaa, Estonia
Karja Church, Saaremaa, Estonia
Panga Cliff, Saaremaa, Estonia
Sõrve Lighthouse, Saaremaa, Estonia
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 of 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.
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.
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.
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.
Continue your journey westwards along the coast to Panga Cliff (35 kilometres/30 minutes from Angla), with 20 metres of 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 southernmost lighthouse.
Without the lighthouse, the loop is approximately 190 kilometres long, requiring just under three hours of driving (plus stops). The trip to/from the lighthouse adds approximately 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.
If you have time in the afternoon (on your arrival day), we recommend visiting 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.