Living in Estonia for over 1.5 years gave me the opportunity to go around pretty much all the main cities and landmarks there. That was not too difficult, considering the country is quite small, but despite its size, it has much to offer. Due to its strategic position, Estonia’s land was lusted after by many great powers from its surroundings; also being one of the meeting points for the two main powers involved in the WW2, it represented a clashing point for the Germans and the Russians. Having had been conquered and reconquered, the German, Nordic and Russian influences are present in all cultural aspects, but despite this – or maybe because of it – Estonia has developed its own strong and unique identity.
In order to understand the true spirit of the country, one must visit in Estonia, besides the amazing Tallinn, other towns around the country, which are indeed quite small and lack much action, but all together paint a complete picture of the Estonian identity.
So what are the best places to visit in Estonia?
1. When you say Estonia, you say Tallinn. Tallinn is hands down the most exciting, mixed and colorful city to see in Estonia. Its Old Town has been added to UNESCO’s World Heritage Sites list in 1997 for its exquisitely well preserved medieval architecture, and I got to live here for over a year! A city that has it all, offering the variety of a bigger city and having the advantage that it is in fact quite small and therefore the distances are most of the times walkable. It is a young and artistic places, very modern, innovating and welcoming both to tourists and to expats. The best times to visit are after the summer season ends or before it begins, and so avoid the sea of tourists that invades the city from May till September and still avoid the extreme temperatures and the darkness that dominate the city from December till March.
2. If you’re in Estonia during the summer, definitely check out the Viljandi Folk festival. For 4 joyful days, it seems like the whole population of Estonia migrates to the small town located 2.5 hours south from the capital to celebrate Estonian tradition through music and dance, food and handicrafts. The festival is the biggest event of the summer, taking place in July, which is the warmest month of the year (check out dates here) and also the one with the most daylight, it’s the perfect time for all Estonians to gather together, drink till dawn and get no sleep at all, accompanied by their traditional rhythms.
3. Parnu is a small town on the coast of the Baltic Sea, most popular as a beach resort. There is not much going on here event-wise, except maybe a film festival during the summer. It’s nice and quiet and probably the chic-est place I’ve seen in Estonia. There’s an abundance of boutiques down its main road, a good number of old wooden houses that have been restored and turned into hip restaurants and cafes. The only down side is that the town is alive for only a couple of moths a year, when the weather allows to enjoy a bath in the sea and almost deserted outside this time.
4. Tartu is the main student town and the cultural capital of Estonia. It has a young, inspiring vibe. There are some museums you should not miss while here, like the KGB Museum. Other than that, just enjoy long walks around the hills, see the Angel’s and the Devil’s Bridges, the ruins of the Old Dome Church next to the History Museum. There are some nice student-priced cafes around town, my favorite is the Eduard Vilde Health Cafe, with a veggie-friendly menu and tasty fresh smoothies.
5. Haapsalu is a peaceful little town, with Swedish origins, located on the Western coast. The old town is charming, with its typical wooden houses. Famous for its spas and mud baths, it’s ideal for a weekend of relaxation. Very nice and chic cafes and ruins of the Haapsalu Castle are also must-dos while here.
6. The number one holiday in Estonia is the Mid Summer celebration. The day of the 21st of June is the longest day of the year, the one with the most daylight – in Estonia practically non-stop light for 24 hours. There is a tradition for Estonians to go to Saaremaa Island and celebrate this holiday. There’s a music festival, lots of alcohol and many bong fires. The island is beautiful and, at this time when it is packed with celebrating Estonians it’s lively and gives you a taste of the culture. Some 10 km South from Kuressaare, the main town on the island, there is a camping site. Here’s where all the action happens. Don’t miss the Kuressaare Castle!
7. Estonia is the country with most forest covered areas in Europe. It’s also very flat, but being so up-North, the vegetation is similar to a mountain one. Tall trees covered in moss cover the majority of the land which forms the Laahema National Park, the biggest of the many National Parks of Estonia. Besides woods and big lakes, waterfalls, there is also a big swamp you should see while there, with loads of interesting local plants and animals. The park extends all the way up a rocky beach, which makes for an interesting landscape.
8. After the Soviets took over Estonia, they decided to build a naval mine factory on the now deserted island of Naissaar. They declared the area a military zone and closed it to public. Nowadays, the island is again mostly deserted, it’s not very popular with tourists, but there is a daily boat that takes people there. It represents an attraction due to all the mines that were left behind once the factory shut down. A walk through the “forbidden” route in the woods and to the old factory buildings is a must. A small train, once used for transportation, has been turned into a tourist train and takes people from the port, through the thick wood, to the middle of the island. At the end of the line there is a small village with an outdated guesthouse, and a “history museum” – just an old abandoned house with some pieces of old papers cut up and placed around. A day trip to the island is worth while in Tallinn (it’s only about an hour away by boat), the exotic mine covered landscape will entertain you. The island is also popular for mushroom and berry picking.