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Discovering the varied facets of Estonia

Discovering the varied facets of Estonia

Historic Church in Tallinn


By Joseph Francis
From the stone-clad towers and bulwarks that still loom above the Baltic Sea in Tallinn to the shadowy swamp forests that line the Russian border in the east, the bustling student bars of Tartu to the windswept beaches of the out-at-sea islands, Estonia packs one serious punch when it comes to things to do and see. Long the enigma of the Baltic states, this nation of sauna-going polyglots is part Central European, part Scandinavian, part Slavic, part Russian in flavour. That makes for one curious kaleidoscope of foods to try, music to hear, buildings to wonder at and people to meet. In this Estonia travel guide, take a look at the top things every traveller should sample when making their way through this far-flung corner of the continent.

Estonia Town Hall Square

Explore Tallinn

Tagged by UNESCO and hailed by many as the best-preserved medieval city in all of Europe, Tallinn now figures as the beating cultural, political and economic heart of the nation. With a population of just over 400,000, upwards of 30% of all Estonians call this one home. And what a home it is! At the city’s heart, soaring towers and turrets crown Toompea Hill; the kernel of the country’s parliament that sits watched over by the onion domes of the controversial Alexander Nevsky Cathedral. All around this fortified ridge of bulwark and castle, red-tiled roofs spread out to form the so-called lower old town. This maze of cobblestone streets rarely fails to enchant, hiding beer halls and quality restaurants amidst the darkened courtyards and tight-knit alleyways, not to mention the likes of the Kiek in de Kök tower and the bustling Town Hall Square. But it’s not all history here either, and many Tallinn tour guides now lead visitors to the up-and-coming boho district of Kalamaja, where old prisons are rising as quirky bars and historic industrial depots are reinvigorated as art galleries.


Hang out with students in Tartu

The second city of Estonia, youthful Tartu sits in the eastern half of the country, not far from the border with Russia. A surprisingly energetic town of criss-crossing streets that’s centred on a charming historic middle, it dances to a wholly different tune than packed and pugnacious Tallinn. Locals here can be found flitting between al fresco beer bars and the lawns of the city parks in the summer, while winter brings a fairy-tale like quality to the colonnades of the Tartu University (the most prestigious in the nation) and the fir trees that shroud it. However, Tartu tour guides will propagate the real must here as Toome Hill, which rises right in the heart of the town, encompassing the mysterious ruins of Tartu Cathedral and a series of legendary bridges all steeped in myth and legend.

Tartu University Building

Wonder at the Vilsandi National Park

A picture of windswept Estonian beauty, the Vilsandi National Park makes its home between the icy rollers of the Baltic Sea. As the habitat of more than 33% of the country’s protected species, it’s hardly surprising that this one is a regular draw for nature lovers eager to experience the biodiversity of the north, with majestic landscapes of rocky beaches tumbling down into a mirror-like sea, rolling sand dunes peppered with orchids and juniper groves beset by shifting seas of sand hills. The whole area is now also criss-crossed by a web of managed walking and biking trails, while many Tallinn tour guides offer travel packages to Vilsandi that depart from the capital.

Vilsandi Tuletorn

Go to a Sauna

Just like their near Scandinavian neighbours to the north, Estonians love a good trip to the sauna. It’s said that the tradition of attending the hot room in this section of the Baltic runs back almost 1,000 years and hence there are saunas peppering every town and city, adjoined to every public spa and leisure centre, and a part of most all rural farms and ranches. For the true Estonian sauna experience, be sure to attend a steam sauna with the locals, using rough fir or birch branches to beat all the impurities out of your skin. Another option is to make for the town of Võru south of Tartu, where smoke saunas are the norm in the countryside homes and the locals continue a traditional type of sauna-going that is now on the UNESCO list of cultural heritage practices.

Estonia Sauna

See the Valaste Waterfall

A photographer’s dream spot if there ever was one, the Valaste Waterfall marks one of the highest points on the Baltic Klint that runs through the sea from the archipelagos of Sweden in the west. Dramatically cascading off a cliff of more than 30 meters, the cataract offers up a show of raw natural power both summer and winter. In the warmer months it roars over the escarpments and down to a deep-cut basin of rock and stone below, all while onlookers peer on from the suspended viewing platform opposite. December to March is the most popular time to go however, when the water channels of the fall are often frozen solid by the icy winds that make their way south from the arctic, creating a dramatic show if colossal icicles that both tower and dangle uneasily from the cliffs.

Valaste Falls

Sample the Estonian kitchen

Unashamedly diverse in its offering of dishes from right across northern Europe, the Estonian kitchen is a veritable treasure trove of flavours that range from Saxony to Russia. What’s more, the foods here bear the influences of a seafaring folk and the Vikings, with smoked eel, mackerel, crayfish and prawn a common addition to cold cut platters. Expect a smorgasbord of packed pirozhki pastries (breads stuffed with meat or marinated vegetables), vats of sour soups, and loaf upon loaf of dark rye bread. Then there’s the farm-to-table offering that’s made possible by Estonia’s forests and bucolic swathes, meaning plenty of aromatic mushroom dishes, filling mulgipuder porridge made from potatoes and oats and rustic baking that rarely fails to tingle the taste buds!

Pirozhki Pastry

‘Rich’ as he’s known to most was born in not-so-sunny Swansea, South Wales, where he grew up loving sea, sand and surf. He has since moved to Poland in an attempt to fulfil his insatiable wanderlust for everything Eastern Europe. He’s travelled extensively in Asia and Europe and now runs a local travel portal.
Details of Images and Licenses: (Dennis Jarvis, CC BY-SA 2.0), (TausP., CC BY-ND 2.0), (amanderson2, CC BY 2.0), (Johan Viirok, CC BY 2.0),, (Anita, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0), (Veronica Burke, CC BY-ND 2.0)