Picturesque islands. A rich and deeply ingrained 10,000 year old culture. World-class cuisine fresh from the sea and fields. Soviet history. White nights in summer, and relaxing saunas in winter. Spruce forests stocked with wildlife and tasty berries. Seaside resorts and Baroque palaces beloved by the tsars. One of the best-preserved medieval walled cities in Europe - oh, and free WiFi found practically everywhere. Have we sold you on Estonia yet?
We know that life is uncertain right now. But we're not going to stop dreaming about travel, and we hope that you won't either. We're staying inspired and hopeful by exploring and discovering new places from home, and what better opportunity to add a new destination to your bucket list?
The Country of Contrasts
Estonia is a place that will endlessly surprise and delight its visitors. It boasts one of the oldest continuous settlements of people in Europe, giving them over 10,000 years of rich cultural tradition that is deeply woven into their modern life. It's also at a crossroads of influences - you'll find Orthodox churches, Slavic hospitality, Nordic traditions, German and Russian dishes, and sobering remnants of Soviet rule, just to name a few. Traditional methods, dress, cuisine, and ways of life are still very much prevalent and honored here. This doesn't mean that it's a stodgy and outdated place, by any means - in fact, over the past few decades Estonia has dramatically restructured its economy and government to become one of the most technologically advanced nations in Europe. Following the collapse of the Soviet Union and the regaining of their independence, Estonia has made incredible leaps and bounds forward, and is now considered a major tech hub of Europe. Free WiFi is virtually everywhere, all public services can be done online, and Estonians also benefit from one of the lowest government debts in Europe. Oh, and did you know that Skype was founded here? It's just one of the many successful startups being incubated in this tiny, yet impressive country.
Interested in learning more about Estonia's unique computerized government? Read on in this fascinating article by the New Yorker!
A Little Something for Everyone...
No matter what your interests are, Estonia has something to pique your curiosity. History buffs can explore old Soviet buildings, marvel at architecture dating from the 12th century, and relive the grandiose days of tsars at Estonia's many palaces and manor houses. Art lovers will delight in the famed Baroque-style Kadriorg Palace and its sumptuous gardens, as well as the Kumu Art Museum next door, one of the largest art museums in Northern Europe. Gourmands can enjoy the just-caught fish and fresh rye bread, as well the berries and grains harvested daily to make fantastic dishes. Music lovers will be swayed by Estonia's inspiring singing tradition, a demonstration of national pride and rebellion that was sustained under years of controlling rule and occupation. Health enthusiasts can relax and de-stress at the many state of the art saunas and spas found here, a staple that Estonians enjoy during the long Baltic winters. Adventurous? Enjoy hiking the majestic limestone cliffs of north Estonia, or take the plunge and dive into Rummu, a former Soviet labor camp that became derelict and flooded by groundwater, and has become a popular, if eerie, dive site. Wildlife enthusiasts will enjoy the clean and fresh air of Estonia's spruce forests and verdant valleys while birdwatching - one might even spot a lynx or bear. And if none of that is your cup of tea, Estonia offers many cozy cafes to relax and enjoy treats like kohuke, a traditional chocolate-glazed delicacy.
A Day in Tallinn
While Estonia itself is a small and relatively little-known country, Tallinn has become a very popular port for cruise ships to dock in while sailing through the Baltics. If you've only got a day to spend in Tallinn, check out our highlights below to make the most of your short stay in Estonia!
See: -St Olaf's church, thought to date from the 12th century and once known as one of the tallest steeples in Europe, and the surrounding town square
-Aleksander Nevsky Cathedral, a classic example of Orthodox style architecture
-KGB Museum, housing artifacts and offering guided tours of Soviet relics in the city
-Kohtuotsa Viewing Platform, offering fantastic views of the city and harbor beyond
-Kadriorg Palace, built by Peter the Great for his wife, and now part of a public park surrounded by splendid gardens
-KUMU Art Museum, one of the largest art museums in Northern Europe
Eat: -Black pudding
-Kama, a specialty of Estonia made with wheat and yogurt
-Kiluvõileib, or smelt and hard boiled egg atop dark rye bread
-Kalev chocolate, made in the country's biggest candy factory
Buy: -Handcrafted wooden items made from local juniper trees
-Vana Tallinn, an iconic rum-based liqueur made locally
-Socks patterned with unique traditional Estonian designs
-Woolen sweaters and slippers
A Week in Estonia
Day 1-2: Arrive in Tallinn and settle in. Spend the days exploring the fascinating walled old city - don't miss St Olaf's church with its towering steeple and the charming town square, and the classically Orthodox-style Aleksander Nevsky Cathedral. Hop on a tram car to visit the jewel of Tallinn, Kadriorg Palace, while exploring its magnificent gardens and the KUMU Art Museum. Relax in the evenings with a view of the harbor and steeples from Toompea Hill while sampling local Estonian cuisine. Finish it off with a glass of strong local beer at one of the country's atmospheric breweries for a perfect end to the day.
Day 3: Venture to Haapsalu, a charming city west of Tallinn. Stroll along its oceanfront promenade and stop for a rest on Tchaikovsky's bench, named for the famed composer who often summered here. Take the time to venture one of the beautiful islands just off the coast, such as Vormsi, where remnants of Swedish settlers can be found, or Hiimuaa, famous for its wool and lighthouses.
Day 4: Continue to Pärnu on the southwest seaboard of Estonia. On the way, take the short ferry to Saaremaa Island, the largest of Estonian's over 1500 islands. Here you will find hallmarks of the traditional Estonian lifestyle, including a wooden windmill. Visit Vilsandi National Park for glimpses of seals, or stop by Kuressaare Castle, a fascinating medieval citadel. Finish the day in Pärnu and enjoy its wide range of architecture, from Art Nouveau to functionalism.
Day 5: Today's itinerary takes you to Tartu on the eastern edge of Estonia. This university town is full of life and bohemian atmosphere, and you'll find no shortage of lively music and cafes. On the way, stop by Viljandi, located on the shore of a picturesque lake. The panoramic view from the ruins of Viljandi castle is breathtaking. Soomaa National Park, just outside Pärnu, offers lovely hikes through its unique and beautiful bogs, as well as canoeing during the "fifth season" just before spring, when floods arrive in the country.
Day 6: Arrive in Narva and explore its picturesque beaches, long ago a beloved summer destination for the tsars and their families and still greatly enjoyed today. The longest and most famous is Narva-Jõesuu, whose meticulously maintained white sands have drawn beachgoers for centuries - giving it its nickname of the 'Nordic Riviera'.
Day 7: Return to Tallinn from Narva. On the way, the town of Rakvere offers a glimpse into medieval life at its fascinating castle. Then, stop at Lahemaa National Park, where the eight-meter high Jägala waterfall cascades over limestone cliffs. The verdant forest preserve also offers manor houses for visitors to explore, magnificent relics of a time gone by and now used as museums and the visitor center. For a breath of fresh sea air, visit Käsmu and Altja, fishing villages that offer a charming glimpse into traditional Estonian life.
More time to spare? Consider adding any of these to round out your Estonian adventure!
Matsalu National Park - A favorite for birdwatchers, where millions of birds pass through the skies during their great migration in May.
Kihnu Island: A UNESCO Heritage site, this tiny island offers its own unique and rich culture.
Setomaa - A region home to a people with their own distinct language, culture and traditions. It's also famous for its mineral water and mud, used in health treatments.
Võru - A town set on an idyllic lake and offering a renowned health spa.
Getting There & Getting Around
Tallinn is accessible from Scandinavia via a two hour fast ferry from Helsinki, and the Tallinn airport is an easy jump from major European hubs, with regular flights to and from Frankfurt, Paris, and London.
For the independent traveler, we recommend renting a car to maximize your time and enjoyment of the country. All the segments on our itinerary take at the very most three hours by car, and are easily done in a day with stops for sightseeing and lunch.
For those more comfortable with someone else taking the wheel, Estonia offers a timely and reliable train and bus system. A small group tour or private car service are also great options.
Hungry for more...or just plain hungry? Discover 5 traditional Estonian dishes, or try your hand at baking your own Estonian-style dark rye bread!