2021 Estonia Visitors Guide
It’s a tribute to the resilience of the Estonians that during the ten years since the Declaration of Independence in August 1991 they’ve transformed their country from a dour outpost of the former Soviet Union into a viable nation with the most stable economy in the Baltic region. This is even more impressive in the light of the fact that Estonians have ruled their own country for barely thirty years out of the past eight hundred. A Finno-Ugric people related to the Finns, the Estonians have had the misfortune to be surrounded by powerful, warlike neighbors. The first to conquer Estonia were the Danes, who arrived at the start of the thirteenth century; they were succeeded in turn by German crusading knights, Swedes and then Russians. Following a mid-nineteenth-century cultural and linguistic revival known as the National Awakening, the collapse of Germany and Tsarist Russia allowed the Estonians to snatch their independence in 1918. Their brief freedom between the two world wars was extinguished by the Soviets in 1940 and Estonia disappeared from view again. When the country re-emerged from the Soviet shadow in 1991, some forty percent of its population were Russians who had been encouraged to settle there during the Soviet era.
The capital Tallinn is an atmospheric city with a magnificent medieval center and lively nightlife. Two other major cities, Tartu, a historic university town, and Pärnu, a major seaside resort, are worth a day or so each. Estonia’s low population means that the countryside – around forty percent of which is covered by forest and much of the rest by lakes – is generally empty and unspoiled. To get a feel for it at its best, head for the Baltic islands of Saaremaa and Hiiumaa. Kuressaare, capital of the former, is home to one of the finest castles in the Baltics.
Spring and summer are the best times to visit, with the warm weather bringing color to the countryside and a rash of outdoor pavement-cafe drinking to the cities. In winter the temperature can fall below zero for weeks at a time, although it’s worth bearing in mind that public transport continues to function normally, and the sight of both countryside and townscapes decked out in deep snow can be a magical one.
Best Attractions in Estonia
Climb Toompea hill for a great view of Tallinn, overlooking the city and port. The cobbled streets of the old town continue up the hill to Lossi plats (Castle Square), where you are confronted with the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral and the splendid Toompea Castle.
White sandy beaches of Estonia’s major mainland resort draw thousands of visitors every summer. For solitude, head for the dunes east of the Pärnu Mud Baths.
Estonian National Museum, Tartu
Devoted to peasant life and the development of Estonia, the Estonian National Museum also includes some imaginatively recreated farmhouse interiors. English text and guided tours on request.
A small island easy to explore on foot or by bicycle. The Kassari Kabel is Estonia’s only reed-roof church and is situated in the northeastern corner of the island.
This largely forested island is a popular holiday destination that is also inhabited by elk, lynx and boar.
Kuressaare Castle, Saaremaa
This formidable fortress dates from the fourteenth century, and its labyrinthine keep houses the Saaremaa Regional Museum.
The Kiek-in-de-Kök tower in Tallinn, whose name means “look in the kitchen” in Low German, was once one of the linchpins of the city walls. It now houses a museum dedicated to the history of Tallin’s fortifications.
The Estonian national tourist association ( www.tourism.ee ) operates tourist offices in all the places covered here, which can be useful for booking bed-and-breakfast accommodation and hotel rooms. Most will also have a few maps , brochures and limited information on specific sights. The useful Kümmerly & Frey 1:1,000,000 map of the Baltic States covers Estonia and includes a rudimentary street plan of central Tallinn. Once in the country, you’ll find the range of regional maps and city plans published by local firms Regio and Eomap readily available in bookshops. The best detailed street map of Tallinn is the Falk Plan which includes enlarged Inner and Old Town sections and also covers public transport routes. For other destinations, local tourist offices and bookshops will usually have reasonably priced maps and plans.
The following terms or their abbreviations are commonly encountered in Estonian addresses : mantee (mnt.) – road; puistee (pst.) – avenue; tänav (tn.) – street. Normally when giving an address or naming a street in Estonia tänav is not actually used – the street’s name alone is enough.
Food in Estonia
Soup ( supp ), dark bread ( leib ), sour cream ( hapukoor ) and herring ( heeringas ) figure prominently in the Estonian diet, a culinary legacy of the country’s largely peasant past
Estonians are enthusiastic drinkers with beer ( őlu ) being the most popular tipple. The principal local brands are Saku and A. Le Coq , both of which are rather tame light lager-style brews,
Getting Around Estonia
- Tallinn to Moscow (1 daily; 15hr 30min); Pärnu (2 daily; 3hr); Riga (1 daily; 9hr); St Petersburg (1 daily; 11hr); Tartu (3 daily; 3hr 20min).
- Tallinn to: Haapsalu (7 daily; 2hr); Kaina (1 daily; 5hr); Kärdla (3 daily; 5hr); Kuressaare (6 daily; 4hr 30min); Pärnu (12 daily; 2hr); Riga (4 daily; 5hr); St Petersburg (2 daily; 9hr); Tartu (every 30min; 2hr 30min); Vilnius (2 daily; 10hr).
- Kuressaare to: Tallinn (6 daily; 4hr 30min).
- Pärnu to: Tallinn (12 daily; 2hr).
- Tartu to: Tallinn (every 30min; 2hr 30min)
- Tallinn to: Helsinki (around 17 daily; 1hr 30min-3hr); Stockholm (1 daily; 15hr).
- Rohuküla to: Heltermaa for Hiiumaa (12 daily; 2hr).
- Triigi to: Orjaku (summer only; 5 daily; 1hr 30min).
- Virtsu to: Kuivastu for Saaremaa (12-20 daily; 30min)
The port city of TALLINN , Estonia’s compact, human-scale capital, has been shaped by nearly a millennium of outside influence. Its name, derived from taani linnus , meaning “Danish Fort”, is a reminder of the fact that the city was founded by the Danes at the beginning of the thirteenth century, and since that time political control has nearly always been in the hands of foreigners – Germans, Swedes and Russians. The Germans have undoubtedly had the most lasting influence on the city; Tallinn was one of the leading cities of the Hanseatic League, the German-dominated association of Baltic trading cities, and for centuries it was known to the outside world by its German name, Reval. Even when Estonia was ruled by the kings of Sweden or the tsars of Russia, the city’s public life was controlled by the German nobility, and its commerce run by German merchants. Today reminders of foreign rule abound in the streets of Tallinn, where each of the city’s one-time rulers have left their mark. Everything about Tallinn, from the fortress of the Germanic knights above the Old Town to the grimmest Soviet-era satellite suburbs, reveals something of its past, making it a fascinating place to explore.