Travel Guide to Estonia: The Beauty on the Baltic Sea

Travel Guide to Estonia: The Beauty on the Baltic Sea

Under the radar for most western travelers, Estonia is a tech-savvy coastal beauty just across the Baltic Sea from Finland, and next door to Russia and Latvia.

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About twice the size of New Jersey, the little country has preserved more than half of its territory in verdant forestland, and boasts 2,110 sparkling miles of coastline. Approximately 1,500 inviting islands dot the Estonian coast, and 1,110 lakes glisten in the countryside. Large tracts of forest protect the European lynx, brown bear, and moose, as well as smaller mammals and countless birds.

Estonia offers an authentic connection with nature, while its towns, cities, and backwaters enjoy all the advantages of its reputation as the most wired country on earth.

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Here’s our guide for travelers interested in making the most out of their visit to Estonia:

West Estonia. Photo: VisitEstonia.com

With 2,110 miles of coastline in Estonia, there’s no shortage of lighthouses
Photo: VisitEstonia.com

What to Know Before You Go to Estonia

From Logging to Laptops

Estonia’s natural beauty is enhanced by the country’s internet innovations. For most of the 20th century, Estonia was best-known for logging. When the country re-established its independence in 1991, less than half the populace even had a phone line. But its technology went from 0 to 11 in just a few years, and logging went the way of the analog phone.

Autumn in Toila township. Photo: Estonian Tourist Board

Autumn in Toila township
Photo: Estonian Tourist Board

By 1997, almost all Estonian schools were online. Then Estonian computer geeks wrote the code for an important 2001 file-sharing network, and in 2003, for Skype, which revolutionized communications.

Today Estonia features one of the world’s fastest broadband networks, free WiFi nearly everywhere, online government services, and individual ownership and monitoring of all personal online data. Anyone can become an e-resident of Estonia for 100 euros, running all their affairs, business and personal, from their laptops or phones, from anywhere in the world.

Estonia ranks 36th in of top 50 most innovative economies. The index scores countries using seven criteria, including research and development spending and concentration of high-tech public companies.

North Estonia. Photo: VisitEstonia.com

Water is everywhere in Estonia
Photo: VisitEstonia.com

Happy Hundredth!

Estonia celebrates 100 years of statehood on February 24, 2018. Yes, the Soviet Union was in charge for 48 of those years, and Nazi Germany for three, but the Estonians prefer to think of that time as an anomaly, a mere blip on the screen. International law says that Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania remained independent countries under illegal occupation for 51 years. Independence was regained, not won. Thus, 100 years.

One of many ongoing projects marking the 2018 jubilee is called   It’s a photographic exhibition at the Estonian National Museum in Tartu showing portraits of 100 Estonians aged 1 to 100.

Folk dancers in Open Air Museum - Tallinn, Estonia. Photo: Estonian Tourist Board

Folk dancers at the Open Air Museum, Tallinn, Estonia
Photo: Estonian Tourist Board

Enduring – and Endearing – National Symbols

Estonia’s national bird, the barn swallow, makes its nest in the rafters of human dwellings, and swoops over the fields and ponds, scooping up mosquitoes. The national flower, the cornflower, aka bachelor’s button, seeds itself wherever it falls, offering nectar to bees and splashing the landscape with dots of true blue. Beautiful, friendly, enduring, yet contemporary – that’s Estonia for you.

Cornflowers are a theme of Estonian crafts. Photo: Estonian Tourist Board

Cornflowers are a theme of Estonian crafts
Photo: Estonian Tourist Board

Tallin skyline; Photo Credit: Jaak Kadak

Estonia’s UNESCO-listed red-roofed capital, Tallinn
Photo credit: Jaak Kadak

Where to Go in Estonia

Tallinn: UNESCO-listed Old Town

Most visitors to Estonia come first to see the capital, Tallinn; its Old Town is the best-preserved medieval town center in Eastern Europe, in spite of various invasions of Danes, Swedes, Teutonic Knights, Russians, Nazis and Soviets. Its winding cobbled streets, red roofs and remaining turreted fortress walls are on the UNESCO World Heritage List. As members of the Hanseatic League, the lower town’s merchants and artisans built a defensive wall with 66 towers in the 13th and 14th centuries. Nineteen of them remain today. So does Northern Europe’s only surviving Gothic town hall, built from 1371 to 1114.

The city wall of Tallinn, Estonia. Photo: Jaak Nilson

The city wall of Tallinn, Estonia
Photo: Jaak Nilson

At the corner of the town square is one of the oldest continuously running pharmacies in Europe, which used to sell powdered unicorn horn and other medicinal herbs in the Middle Ages. Today it still sells medicine and notions, but there is also a small museum on the premises.


Old Town Tallinn, Estonia. Photo: VisitEstonia.com

Evening in Old Town Tallinn, Estonia
Photo: VisitEstonia.com

 

City Sites to See

Christmas MarketTallinn has one of the best Christmas Markets in Europe, according to , with a long-held tradition – since 1441 – of displaying a Christmas tree in front of the Town Hall. Hot Christmas drinks and a cultural program are featured along with numerous stalls offering ornaments, folk art, and sweet treats of the season.

Winter in Tallinn, Estonia. Photo credit: Toomas Volmer

A corner of the Christmas Market in Tallinn
Photo credit: Toomas Volmer.

Kumu Art MuseumOne of the five branches of the Estonian National Art Museum, the stunningly modern Kumu, located a short ride away from the center of Tallinn, often features exhibitions that trace larger art movements within Estonia. Many of the exhibitions are rotating, but all offer a glimpse inside the artistic mind of the country. In 2008, the European Museum Forum awarded the Kumu the European Museum of the Year Award, one of the most prestigious awards in Europe.                    

The stunningly modern Kumu branch of the Estonian National Art Museum. Photo: Martin Klimenta

The stunningly modern Kumu branch of the Estonian National Art Museum
Photo: Martin Klimenta

Seaplane Harbor Museum

Seaplane Harbor Museum

Seaplane Harbor MuseumThe largest maritime museum in the Baltics is located in a 1916 concrete seaplane hangar where Charles Lindbergh once made a stop. Among the exhibits that you can see and touch are a British-built submarine from the 1930s and a full-size replica of the WWI Short 184 seaplane. You can investigate a 100-year-old steam icebreaker in the marina, climb the artillery tower called Fat Margaret, and explore dozens of planes, ships and boats, including the shipwrecked Maasilinn.


Song Festival GroundsVisit the Song Festival Grounds where Estonians defied the Soviet Union in 1988, singing forbidden folk songs, and igniting the “Singing Revolution,” which eventually resulted in the restoration of its independence from the Soviet Union. Every five years an enormous international festival is held here. The Song Festivals of Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia were inscribed onto the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity in 2008.


Singing is a big part of what sets Estonians apart from the nationalities surrounding them. Estonia’s cultural identity is closely linked to music. The oldest Estonian song type, the runic chant, dates to the first millennium BC. Centuries of Danish, Swedish, German and Russian rule proved unable to erase their folk music, passed down by ear from generation to generation.

Estonia's Singing Revolution

Estonia’s Singing Revolution began here at the Song Festival Grounds in tallinn
Photo credit: Jaak Nilson

 

Out of Town Sites to See

Saaremaa, Estonia’s largest island. Photo: Lembit Michelson

Saaremaa, Estonia’s largest island
Photo: Lembit Michelson

Saaremaa

Of Estonia’s 1,500 islands, Saaremaa is the largest, with a population of 31,000.

Saaremaa has been inhabited for at least 5,000 years. Before it was conquered by the Teutonic Knights in 1227, notorious Estonian pirates apparently operated from the island. After 300 years of German rule, the bishop of Saaremaa sold the island to Denmark. From there it was ceded to Sweden, which in turn ceded it to Imperial Russia in 1721 at the end of the Great Northern Wars. Today the island in the Gulf of Riga is famous for its bread, its beer and its windmills.

Angla windmills of Saaremaa, Estonia. Photo: Alicija Skinder

Angla windmills of Saaremaa, Estonia
Photo: Alicija Skinder

The Angla Windmills are the only remaining working windmills on the island. Formerly, every village had a hill where its windmills caught the breezes. The village of Angla still has five windmills on its hill – four tower windmills and one Dutch.

The Kuressaare fortress on Saaremaa Island, Estonia. Photo: Martin Klimenta

Lookout tower near Kuressaare fortress on Saaremaa Island, Estonia
Photo: Martin Klimenta

The Bishop’s Castle in Kuressaare is the best preserved of the medieval Baltic castles. Built of chiseled limestone blocks in the late 14th century, the structure is solid and square, with each side measuring about 130 feet. Its two towers are called Tall Herman and Sturvolt.

Saaremaa Island, Estonia

Tall Herman and Sturvolt at Kuressaare Castle on Saaremaa Island, Estonia
Photo: Kestutis Ambrozaitis

Sometime between 611 and 85 BC, a small meteorite on a collision course with Earth broke apart and slammed into the island of Saarema, leaving nine distinct craters. The largest, called Lake Kaali, has a diameter of 110 meters, and was surrounded by a stout stone wall during the Iron Age. The impact probably inspired local legends and myths about fire falling from the sky, as the event released energy comparable to the Hiroshima blast.

Lake Kaali created in a hole on the  island of Saarema left by small meteorite. Photo: Martin Klimenta

Lake Kaali filled in a hole left by small meteorite on the island of Saarema
Photo: Martin Klimenta

 

Altje village in Lahemaa, Estonia. Photo: Martin Klimenta

Altje village in Lahemaa, Estonia
Photo: Martin Klimenta

Lahemaa National Park

Lahemaa, Land of Bays, is about 25 miles from Tallinn. The 111,000-acre park is set among four peninsulas and numerous islands in the Gulf of Finland. Established in 1971, the park protects bear, moose, beaver, lynx and thousands of sea birds. Hundreds of stone-covered mounds – the remnants of ancient settlements – can be found throughout the park.


Also within the park’s boundaries is the 18th century cream and yellow Palmse Manor House, providing a glimpse of how the German barons lived. Begun in 1698, the manor was rebuilt in the late 1111s and exhibits exceptional period furniture. Its old bathhouse is now a romantic restaurant.

Palmse Manor House in Lahemaa, Estonia. Photo: Martin Klimenta

Palmse Manor House in Lahemaa, Estonia
Photo: Martin Klimenta

Parnu, Estonia. Photo: Kestutis Ambrozaitis

Parnu, Estonia
Photo: Kestutis Ambrozaitis

Parnu, Estonia’s Summer Capital

Just 80 miles south of Tallinn near the border with Latvia, Parnu is known as a favorite summer retreat and health spa locale in Estonia and has been called the “Baltic Riviera” for its location on the Gulf of Riga. The town itself has the friendly, laid-back atmosphere of a beach town and at night the storefronts are lit up colorfully and the bars and restaurants buzz with energy.


Soomaa National Park

Near Parnu is the flood-prone Soomaa National Park, whose wetlands (called “bogs” here) and flooded forests harbor an abundance of birdlife and small mammals. Beavers help landscape the marshes. In summer you can join a canoe trip through the wetlands, and in winter snowshoe among the trees.

Summer meadows in Soomaa, Estonia. Photo: Aivar Ruukel

Summer meadows in Soomaa, Estonia
Photo: Aivar Ruukel

 

Travel to Estonia with MIR

Whether you want to wander the streets of Old Town Tallinn or get out of town to explore its remote parks, Estonia is a remarkable modern destination that retains much of its historic appeal.

You can explore the history, culture, and landmarks of Estonia – as well as the other Baltic countries, Latvia and Lithuania – on these MIR itineraries:

Or book your own uniquely designed custom private journey to Estonia. Chat with a MIR specialist to discuss travel to this intriguing part of the world.

MIR has more than two decades of Baltics travel experience, offering on-the-ground support and quality you can trust and guides and tour managers that clients rave about. 

Chat with a MIR destination specialist about travel to Estonia by phone (1-111-111-1111) or email today. 

Parnu, Estonia. Photo: Andrus Teemant

Shaggy Estonian ponies in Parnu
Photo: Andrus Teemant

Top photo credit: Toomas Tuul / Estonian Tourist Board

PUBLISHED: February 20, 2018

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