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Estonia: Positively Surprising

By Sean Mahon

Posted: 12th May 2014 14:14

Estonia sits proudly at the tip of the Baltic Islands.  Compact but dense with much to see and do, this is a country which has not let its small size hold it back.  The nation is a cultural sponge that has soaked up traits of former rulers and the different nations of people who have decided to make Estonia their home.  History might be found around every corner however, but with each turn you are also never far away from free Wi-Fi – because Estonia has truly embraced the technological age.  (Skype was founded here in 2003 and as such the country prides itself on modern amenities).  Throw in the fact you are nearly always treated to a stunning natural backdrop of forests, beaches, lakes and other aesthetically arresting sites, and you’ll quickly realise that this is a country that will really capture your imagination. 

We're Tallinn You It's Great!

On latitude 59, as far north as Stockholm and Oslo, is the less known, yet preciously preserved medieval city of Tallinn.  Only a two hour flight from London, yet you will find yourself in a country that doesn’t quite fit to any known regional concept – Estonia is a unique mix of Eastern Europe and Scandinavia, being technologically also one of the most advanced countries in the world.

It is one of the Baltic States most cherished cities; Tallinn effortlessly mixes architectural grandeur with cultural diversity.  You will find yourself strolling through narrow medieval passages in the colourfully decorated and traditional Old Town where all types of getaways can be found, from art-deco cafes to smoky drinking holes that were etched from carved stone walls.  Once you breach the castle walls, you will come across a thriving a modern metropolis that is home to tall office blocks and sleek glass buildings.  Tallinn is a city which can accommodate any type of traveller, from those with a taste for the finer things in life to those who prefer a rustic simplicity; this is a city which has it all.

Peruse The Old Town

The Old Town exudes an opulence that takes the form of small cosy cafes tucked down winding side streets, shops which sell traditional Estonian goods as well as galleries, antique venues -like pharmaceutical shops which house traditional remedies and curious cures!  When the festive season comes around Tallinn transforms itself into a magical setting with a Christmas Market that has an outdoor skating rink, film screenings as well as classical musical events and jazz concerts.

The cobblestone streets and houses dating back to the 11th Century, and churches with magnetising spires all come together to produce an authentic Hanseatic architectural experience .  Its beauty has seen it listed as a  UNESCO World Heritage Site, whilst its fairy-tale appearance is further enhanced by the (mostly!) intact city wall; dotted with guard towers, it encloses a collection of quaint courtyards and colourful, gabled houses. 

Be sure to visit the upper part of the Old Town which has an excellent viewpoint overlooking the capital’s landscape.  The Old Town exudes an opulence that takes the form of small cosy cafes tucked down winding side streets, shops which sell traditional Estonian goods, galleries antique stores and pharmaceutical shops which house traditional remedies and curious cures!

Buzzin' Nightlife

Of course, there is also a buzzing nightlife to be found in Tallinn – dark cellar pubs and clubs housed in former Soviet era cinemas are just some of the highlights to be found here after dark.  You should start you night off in ‘Hell Hunt’ (which actually means “gentle wolf” in Estonian); during the summer, the “first Estonian pub” features an open air terrace, meaning you can sip a beer in the sunshine.  Other drinking holes worth checking out include ‘Porgu’ and ‘Koht’, but if you want to carry the party on into the night, look no further than ‘Studio’ or ‘Clazz’.

Meanwhile, in summer, the sun hardly sets and the party never ends.  There are some fantastic spots to enjoy the white nights such as the rooftop cinema on top of the Viru hotel, lounge Varblane just next to the Freedom Square and the rooftop terrace of the Cafe Komeet that hosts Legendary Wednesday parties until early hours.

Nature Escape

One of the biggest sins many travellers commit when coming to Estonia is not looking past Tallinn – yes, it is a fantastic city with a thriving culture, but there is so much more to Estonia than its capital.  The country’s landscape lends itself to some sensational nature tours, making it a must for any adventure traveller or for anyone with any vague interest in the great outdoors. 

Jägala Waterfall

Found along the lower course of the Jägala River, four kilometres before the river flows into the Gulf of Finland lies Jägala Waterfall.  Standing at roughly eight metres in height and more than 50 metres in width, it is the widest natural waterfall in Estonia.  When winter comes along this site takes on a whole new aesthetical spectacle altogether; the water freezes and what stands is a glistening ice wall with large, dagger like icicles hanging perpetually frozen – a fantastic image of nature at its most beautiful.  A tunnel can sometimes be formed in between the ice hanging down from the edge of the waterfall and its wall – another truly spectacular feat of nature and a definite must see. 

Lahemaa National Park

For a vintage Estonian natural landscape, look no further than Lahemaa National Park.  Lahemaa (Land of Bays) was named after the bodies of water between its peninsulas – this really is an adventurer’s paradise.  Picturesque marshes, pine forests, old-growth forests, cliff forests, alvars and rivers that have cut into the limestone cliff create a canvas of explicit beauty.  You will also find many geological, historical and architectural monuments dotted around which add another insight to the country.  There are numerous erratic glacial boulders that dominate the landscape; brought over from Finland by continental ice, they are surrounded by a wealth of myths and legends. 

Viru Bog

One of the highlights of Laheem National Park is Viru Bog.  Its accessibility means it is a well traversed part of Estonia, and many keen hikers and tourists have passed through the forest and marsh landscapes that are typical of this section of the park.  Bog-shoeing trips are organised by experienced experts who will take you through a true winter wonderland – take your camera with you and get a glimpse of Estonia’s rich animal kingdom, with moose, deer, boar, lynx, foxes, wolves, hares, squirrels and countless birds.  The study trail provides information about the flora in the bog, the former sand dunes, the ridges and the heath woodland.  A boardwalk winds its way through the bog, at the centre of which is a viewing tower which offers a breath-taking panorama of the wondrous surroundings.

Lake Peipus

Estonia has thousands of small bodies of water and picturesque bog lakes, but perhaps one of the best known is Lake Peipus.  On the north shore you can enjoy the privacy of the longest sandy beach in Estonia that measures over 30 kilometres.  Along the eastern shore of the lake, take time to visit the unique villages of the Old Believers, a traditional Russian community.

Lake Peipus is the fifth largest in Europe.  Like much of Estonia, when winter comes along the lake under goes a grand transformation.  The lake is frozen over completely and many Estonians venture out to do a spot of ice fishing – you can join them too, just make sure you bring some bait!  This beats fishing at your local lake or river, because where else can you warm yourself up with some locally brewed vodka?

Relaxation

Estonia offers a holiday for your health.  Boasting five resort towns, more than 40 spas, a range of unique and luxurious manor hotels, and untouched countryside with the world’s cleanest air – this is a place for replenishment. 

Healthy Food

As a proud Baltic city, there are of course many places to enjoy a fine dining experience, and at a reasonable price too.  As Estonia’s seasons are well defined, the cuisine on offer is a mixture of different tastes that change considerably with each new season.  The food is a combination of the different cultural influences that have shaped Estonia over the centuries, so look out for the flavours of Germany, Sweden and Denmark, with a hint of Russia!

‘Leib Resto ja Aed’ offers traditional and simple Estonian food and gastronomic pleasure right in the heart of Old Town.  Pretentious menus and obnoxious people are nowhere to be found here, just soulful food made from the freshest ingredients.  Further exciting dining experiences should be sought at ‘Il Gallo Nero’ and ‘Cafe Klaus’.

The Sauna

Often considered a Finnish phenomenon, Estonians are also true sauna-lovers – their sauna traditions date back 800 years, and there are many opportunities to enjoy them for yourselves while visiting the country.  The earliest records of saunas in Estonia date back to the early 13th Century, and today saunas form an inseparable part of every private home, summer cottage and farm.  The healing power of a sauna is hard to match and Estonians have such respect for saunas that they’ve built them in some very unusual locations, including on buses, old fire trucks and barges (where in between enjoying the sauna itself you can jump into the lake or river straight from the sauna door).   So come back from Estonia a brand new, healthier you!

Culture

With such a deep and fascinating history, it certainly comes as no surprise that there is a rich culture to be found.  Life in Estonia is so diverse and this is reflected in the nation’s culture.  Every single day there are many exciting events, including exhibitions, concerts, theatrical performances and festivals to be found.             

Festivals

A strong musical tradition in Estonia means that those interested in the musical side of the culture can enjoy attending several international music festivals.  Top musicians come to Tallinn to participate in the Jazzkaar Festival every year, the refreshing Tallinn Music Week dedicated to Estonian pop music and the Birgitta Festival of classical music.  There are plenty of music festivals taking place outside the capital city, too.  In Southern Estonia you have the Festival of Estonian Composers in Tartu and the Viljandi Folk Music Festival.  The island of Saaremaa is the Opera Days venue and the city of Haapsalu offers the Haapsalu Early Music Festival.

Summer 2014 sees the UNESCO listed XXVI Song Festival and XIX Dance Festival take place, a special festival that only takes places every five years.  The XIX Dance Festival "Touch" is a fairytale born of a longing to notice what is real and not to keep running away from happiness.  A great way to escape and have some fun!

Museums & Galleries

There are about 250 museums in Estonia for you to enjoy.  Art lovers often descend upon Kumu Art Museum which displays an overview of Estonian art from classic period to the modern day; it has a great collection of Estonian Modernists and Socialistic Realism.  Estonian History Museum collects and displays all kinds of interesting exhibits about Estonia and its history from ancient Arabic gold coins to medieval weaponry.  The museum itself is a bit of a relic as it is situated in a medieval building – The Great Guild Hall – in Tallinn Old Town.  As a nation with a proud Hanseatic capital, the Estonian Maritime Museum hosts a diverse collection of exhibitions on the rich history of the Baltic Sea, including various ships on display. 

Design

A huge creative scene has flourished in recent years, so enjoy the best of modern Estonian design and the latest fashion coupled with traditional handicrafts too while shopping in Tallinn.  Design, art and fashion are quite often compared to gourmet food.  No wonder as, if executed well, both food and art can stimulate all the senses!  The small galleries, design boutiques and fashion stores – there is something for everyone.  With long established textile, glass, ceramic and jewellery craft traditions, make sure you leave a lot of room in your case because you will be trying to cram in as many Estonian treasures as you can!

Visit Estonia

Estonian Tourist Board (ETB) works closely with business enterprises and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) as well as with a number of administrative bodies, foundations and inspectorates to ensure a supportive environment for tourism development in Estonia.  On the NGO-level, tourism development is primarily in the domain of the Estonian Travel and Tourism Association, Estonian Hotel and Restaurant Association, Estonian SPA Association, and Estonian Rural Tourism Association.

ETB is part of the Enterprise Estonia network and contributes to achieving its goals by implementing business and regional development policies and, in close cooperation with its partners and clients, increase the competitiveness of Estonian business environment.

For more information visit the website www.visitestonia.com/en or contact the Estonian Tourist Board by phone on +372 6279 770 or via email at tourism@eas.ee

The Estonian Tourist Board featured in the iGap Travel Guide European Edition 2014, which can be found here.