The last truly European nation before the great swathe of Russia takes over in the east, Estonia offers travelers a fascinating mixture of Slavic, Russian, Scandinavian and altogether unique local cultures. It ranges from the beautiful, windswept coastlines of the Baltic Sea and the Finnish Gulf to the rolling forests around Tartu in the south, and offers up some amazing and wondrous destinations along the way.
Lets explore the best places to visit in Estonia:
The mighty rises of Toompea Hill are what define Estonia’s magnificent capital; soaring in a curious medley of Orthodox onion domes and medieval bulwarks right in the heart of the town. Below this sprawls one chocolate box of a walled city, where stony streets and shadowy alleyways open up onto an enthralling market square and curiously-named keeps like ‘Fat Margaret’ soar above the crenulated fortifications.
Given the UNESCO tag, the glorious array of historical monuments and the buzzing collection of shops, beer halls and Estonian eateries, it’s hardly surprising that this one’s on the up as one of Europe’s most coveted capitals. And that’s not even mentioning the bohemian streets of Kalamaja, or the palaces and parks of the Kadriorg district!
Nestled neatly on the edge of its very own little coastal inlet on the Gulf of Riga, Parnu comes complete with one of the Baltic’s best stretches of pearly-white sand. It’s backed by the all-new and indelibly lively Beach Promenade, where babbling fountains abut al fresco restaurants and the courses of a truly excellent bike track.
And in the centre of the town itself, the remnants of an Art Deco boom in the 20s add a real dash of class to the resort, spas rise unexpectedly on the street corners, Ruutli Street beats to a night time tune, and charming timber villas dot the outskirts. In short: this one’s every inch Estonia’s summertime capital!
In the warmer months of the year, Otepaa draws in modest crowds of hikers and mountain bikers to the winding trails of Valga County, for strolling through the thick fir forests and walking around the banks of Puhajarve Lake. However, it’s when the snows come that this self-proclaimed winter capital of Estonia really hits its stride.
Nordic ski tracks delve deep into the woods, the ski jumps roar with local cheers and the various downhill alpine runs offer a smattering of beginner and intermediate pistes. Aside from the outdoors action, Otepaa also boasts one gorgeous church spire and the crumbling remains of an aged citadel for the history buffs.
4. Soomaa National Park
The flooded forests and mystical bayous of the Soomaa National Park represent unquestionably one of the most beautiful and enchanting destinations in all of Estonia. All-in-all the site encompasses a whopping 359 square kilometers of undulating dunes and low-lying peat bogs, which oscillate between ochre-brown, verdant green and ice-caked white with the changing of the seasons.
Unsurprisingly, ecotourism has boomed here in recent years, and today outdoorsy travelers and intrepid types flock here to hit the water capillaries of the Raudna River and Parnu Basin on canoes and kayaks, or to hike the alluvial meadows in the company of cranes and crooked wooden farmhouses.
5. Saaremaa Island
Much-vaunted Saaremaa Island is right up there with Tallinn; an impossibly wonderful landscape of washed-out timber windmills and breezy meadows, sprawling spruce forests and gorgeous coastal stretches scented with juniper and Baltic salt.
Walkers and outdoorsy types will love getting lost in the orchid-peppered reaches of Loode, wandering between the mysterious Kaali meteorite craters, beautiful Bear Lake and the hot springs of Puhatu, or bracing the sea winds at the sacred Panga clifftops. The local Saaremaa folk add a dash of nuance to the land too, boasting their own folklore and curious traditions, deeply ironic sense of humour and high-quality vodka to boot!
Straddling the border with Russia in the deep eastern recesses of Estonia, Narva has an altogether different character than the other major urban areas in this Baltic land. For one, the locals overwhelmingly speak Russian, and the character tends to lean eastwards to Moscow rather than westwards to Tallinn and the EU. Hermann Castle is the jewel in the Narva crown, standing tall and proud in whitewashed keeps and stony bulwarks above the city, while the brutalist reconstructed centre offers an interesting taste of the indelible Soviet influence.
And then there’s the nearby resort strips of Narva-Joesuu, which come complete with the longest beach in the country and some acclaimed spas to boot.
7. Matsalu National Park
A truly beautiful patchwork of riparian wetlands, reed grass plains and blooming flood meadows on the courses of the Kasari River Delta, the Matsalu National Park is a veritable wonderland for nature lovers and wildlife seekers making their way through Estonia.
The 400-square-kilometer park’s birds are particularly famous, coming complete with endangered species like the white-tailed eagle, colossal flocks of barnacle geese, tufted ducks and the single largest migrating amount of cranes on the continent (which can be seen stopping by here in Autumn). Wild horses can also be spotted grazing amidst the wetlands, roaming between the timber fishing huts and the tracks of the Suitsu hiking trail.
8. Hiiumaa Island
A lesson in all things rural Estonia, Hiiumaa is the second largest island in the country, found rising in a medley of windswept coves and coastal fir forests from the Baltic Sea and connected by Europe’s longest ice road to the mainland by winter. Travelers heading here often make a beeline straight for the coast, which comes virtually completed secluded and peppered with historic lighthouses like the stone-clad Kopu Lighthouse – one of the oldest on the planet.
Meanwhile, in the island’s inland reaches, crooked timber farmhouses and creaking mills meet dense beech forests at the Suuremoisa Park and smoked plaice fillets issue their enticing aromas from the earthy tavernas.
Tartu may officially be Estonia’s second city, but the locals prefer to see themselves more as joint first. Fiercely independent from the much larger capital in the north, this southern stronghold of students and Russian speakers is known for its intellectual accomplishments above all else. It has the most prestigious university in Estonia, which rises in a series of neoclassical columns right in the midst of the town.
Nearby stands the leafy reaches of Toomemagi; the historic citadel of the city where now the ruined nave of Tartu Cathedral exudes a haunting historicity. Tartu also pulses with youthful energy thanks to its many lecture halls, and al fresco beer bars and underground clubs claim the summertime nights.
Traces of human habitation dating back more than three millennia have helped to make Tuhala one of Estonia’s major historic sites; a place offering a glimpse at the centuries before Tallinn’s great medieval bulwarks were even raised. Yes sir, this earthy region is home to mysterious collections of cult stones and ancient religious statues, curious cup-marked carvings and sacred sites oozing pre-Christian traditions.
There are also aged timber roads dating from the fourth century, and – of course – the legendary Witch’s Well – a unique phenomenon that occurs when the subterranean channels of the region’s karst system bubble up and overflow from a rustic well into the surrounding farmlands.
The pretty, castle-topped town of Kuressaare makes its home on the Estonian (as opposed to the Finnish) edge of Saaremaa Island, where it hails in as the westernmost city in the country. Given the unique geography, it’s hardly surprising that this one oozes Germanic and Swedish influences, going from the Teutonic bulwarks of the mighty citadel to the elegant Baroque traces decorating the municipal buildings on Keskvaljak Square.
Kuressaare is also famed for its coastal spas, which extoll the healing virtues of the seaside mud and silt deposits and helped to make the city a favourite with naturalist and ecotourists over the years.
A boomtown of the Hanseatic League, Viljandi once boasted one of the largest merchant town fortifications in the entire Baltic region. Its raison d’être? To secure the popular trading routes between the heartlands of Prussia in the west and Russia in the east.
Today, and the citadel that once made Viljandi so strong stands ruined atop the town, surrounded by the blooming green spaces that line Lake Viljandi; groves of birch and oak, parks dotted with pine and the pretty timber houses that hide amidst the tree-lined streets. This is the perfect backdrop for Viljandi’s many summertime festivals, which range from nostalgic medieval fayres to open-air theatre productions and ad hoc public art displays.
13. Lahemaa National Park
A whopping 725 square kilometers make up the wild, pine-studded hinterlands of the Lahemaa National Park, making this one of the largest protected natural areas in all of Europe. Sandwiched between the salty rollers of the Baltic and the highways that run eastwards out of Tallinn, the area is eminently accessible for travelers based in the capital, and offers a fine antithesis to city life.
There are rolling peat bogs to explore, winding boardwalks, dense thickets of spruce and beech trees, the primeval Oandu Forest (the stomping ground of lynxes and wolf packs) and the majestic Hauaneeme Bay, which can be found glowing pink and mirror-like against the Estonian sunset in the evening.
Hailed by some as the Venice of the Baltics and trodden by the mighty Romanovs during Russia’s imperial age, Haapsalu was raised to prominence under the patronage of the tsars, who came to exploit the curative and medicinal powers of its coastal mud spas.
Today and this tradition of bathing is still very much alive, while other visitors will come to stroll down the seaside promenades as the sun sets over the Finnish Gulf, weave between the elegant timber architecture, gawp at the haunted turrets and bulwarks of Haapsalu Castle, enjoy one of Estonia’s most acclaimed blues and jazz festivals in summer, or purchase some of the famous handwoven Haapsalu shawls.
15. Lake Peipus
Straddling the border with Russia in the depths of Southern Estonia, Lake Peipus remains one of the country’s least-trodden and explored areas. It’s famed for the traditional way of life that continues to tick over around its western shores.
Here, strings of pretty, timber-clad villages like Varnja and Kallaste abut empty lakeside coves at Nina and Lahe. These come interspersed with the occasional sprawling estate, and enfolded in great swathes of onion fields, while ad hoc farmer’s markets abound and the mysterious churches and religious traditions of Estonia’s so-called Old Believers still stand firm.