Cartoon history is the in thing in forward thinking Estonia. The Baltic state country is enticing families into their museums with fun interactive on screen stories which capture the imagination.
Estonia is the 24th smallest country in Europe and with some regions home to just 6.5 people per square kilometre, it is the perfect place for silent tourism. The oldest city in the Baltics, Tartu is gearing up for October when it is officially given its European crown and visitors will be encouraged not only to visit this fun city, but also neighbouring cities.
Estonia’s second biggest city Tartu is known for its laid back style, largely due to its university which dates back to 1632. Already recognised by UNESCO as a child friendly city, Tartu has a fun vibe about it, summed up by the kissing statue inside a fountain at the top of town hall square, where newly weds and graduating students jump in to mark their new found freedom.
An architectural gem, with buildings from Hanseatic League medieval times standing next to tasteful modern creations and one of its major attractions, just outside the city, is The Estonian National Museum, featuring exhibitions, brought to life through fun cartoons, which spell out the country’s rich history through art, music, culture and most interestingly real life tales of how people fought and achieved independence in 1991 from the Soviet Union. Next to the museum is a fun upside down house to test your balance.
The Emajõgi river flows through the city and a great way of seeing the sights is via the Jõmmu barge, the only remaining one of its kind in the world, the wooden vessel was a popular sight from Hanseatic times until the mid 20th century and used to carry goods. Today, volunteers are building a second replica barge which will also be used for trips on the river, Lake Peipus and Lake Võrtsjärv and its here you can witness the country’s obsession with wooden saunas . Floating on water, they are a nod to the community of nearby Võru, which is recognised by UNESCO for its traditional smoke sauna houses.
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Good to know: Street art is a big thing in Tartu and will be a big feature of the celebrations.
Don't Miss Viljandi
Hidden deep in the forests of southern Estonia, Viljandi is just adorable and it was easy to see just why Jaana loves it so much. Like much of Estonia, the lack of locals gives the visitor a chance to breathe in the crystal air and drink in the beauty of place, which may be small, but packs a real punch when it comes to nature and history.
Viljandi lies on the shore of a picturesque lake and has the ruins of a 13th century Teutonic castle at the heart of the city. The backdrop of the castle walls, eaten away by time and fighting, lush forests and spotless scenery are simply stunning and it’s no wonder the city is used as a set for films.
On your travels around the city, you will see lots of cat statues in honour of the feline population and plump ceramic strawberries, which guide you to the art museum. Every July, this cool spot plays host to the world famous Viljandi Folk Festival, which attracts performers and audiences from across the globe, who cross a beautiful old fashioned suspension bridge to the castle to join in the fun.
Good to know: The panorama of this city has been compared to Switzerland.
See the Sooma National Park
A 40 minute drive takes you deep into the forest and into the heart of the Soomaa National Park, where the weather creates a fifth season in early spring as melted snow or heavy rain floods all the lower forests, roads and even people’s back gardens.
Taking a stroll along a man-made board walk in April, the marks on the tall trees indicate just high the water levels reach, making it an ideal route for canoeists paddling alongside the soft bog like pastures. It’s an incredible sight and the flora and fauna mixing with the forest animals, makes it a very special place to be.
Tradition and culture is a big thing in Estonia and 40 kms from Tartu and on the forested shorelines of Lake Peipsi, there are villages full of the old believers sect, Eastern Orthodox Christians, who cultivate a particularly pungent species of onion, which they use for cooking and handicrafts along the “onion route”
Good to know: In winter Sooma is the place to head for kicksledding on frozen rivers.
The country’s third city Narva, in the North, has an intriguing feel to it and is rich in history. Dominated by two facing fortresses, one in Estonia and the other across the border in Russia, it is a must placed to visit.
Built in 1256, Hermann (also known as Narva Castle is divided from the Ivangorod fortress by water and has been beautifully restored, with aspects of old and new and the museum inside has been made child friendly with hi tech games and cartoons to spell out its history. Narva’s war bunkers used to protect locals are also worth a look. Currently the border between Estonia and Russia is closed, due to the war in Ukraine, so it’s interesting to be so close and take a peek at how daily life is still going on.
The Narva river also separates the now derelict and huge Kreenholm factory, which was built on an island and was the biggest textile manufacturer in Europe. Having a toe in both countries, meant the city had the most modern industrial buildings in the Russian empire.
Its links to the North of England are reflected in its fine red brick architecture and at one time, it employed 8,000 people. The vast site closed down officially in 2010 and since then, it has been used occasionally for outdoor concerts, with investment on hold as the conflict continues. The site has an eerie feel to it and you can imagine it at is height of production, with a roaring waterfall and an imposing statue dedicated to the workers who started Estonia’s first labour strike in 1872.
Narva has a lovely old-fashioned promenade to stroll along and just 10 minutes out of town lies the picturesque town of Sillamäe, with beautiful old buildings and a welcoming seafront.
Good to know: In 1991, when Estonia regained its independence, Narva became a border town again.
Accommodation: Where to stay
Tartu can get busy and capital of culture organisers are hoping to encourage locals to offer home stays or for tourists to head a little out and enjoy the delights of such places as Mooste Distillery, part of a 1900’s manor estate, with six rooms and a breakfast and dinner menu which sources local produce.
At the heart of Viljandi is the wonderfully renovated Schloss Fellin Boutique Spa, a former manor house dating back to the 1880s and now home to 17 luxury rooms, a gourmet restaurant and impressive spa. From your bedroom window, you are treated to views of the manor park and the open air Ugala Theatre.
Estonia is known for its spas and the Meresuu Spa & Hotel, next to the country’s longest sandy beach is a short hop from Narva and has seven different saunas including two outdoor wooden ones.
Good to know: Tap water is crystal clear in Estonia and safe to drink.
Food & Drink: What to try
- Fish is a popular dish in Estonia, especially popular is Baltic herring, sprat and flounder.
- Black bread is virtually sacred for Estonians, with locals eating an average 40kg of bread per person every year.
- With plenty of forest, there is much to forage , from lingon berries to wild mushrooms.
- Drink wise, the popular tipple is strong, light or dark beers, crystal clear string vodka and fruit liquers.
Good to know: Estonian chefs have been successful at the Bocuse d’ Or (culinary Olympics) since 2008.
Before you go: Need to know
Travel to Estonia with Air Baltic, which operates out of London Gatwick and flies to the capital Tallinn, bus and train routes make travelling around the country quite easy.
The super helpful Visit Estonia tourist board staff can help you plan your itinerary.
Good to know: Each region of Estonia has adventure and theme parks, beautiful sandy beaches and cultural attractions. It also has some quirky street art and directional signs.