Tartu lays claim to being Estonia’s spiritual capital, with locals talking about a special Tartu vaim (spirit), created by the time-stands-still feel of its wooden houses and stately buildings, and by the beauty of its parks and riverfront.
Small and provincial, with the tranquil Emajõgi River flowing through it, Tartu is Estonia’s premier university town, with students making up nearly one fifth of the population. This injects a boisterous vitality into the leafy, historic setting and grants it a vibrant nightlife for a city of its size. On long summer nights, those students that haven’t abandoned the city for the beach can be found on the hill behind the Town Hall, flirting and drinking.
Tartu was the cradle of Estonia’s 19th-century national revival and it escaped Sovietisation to a greater degree than Tallinn. Its handsome centre is lined with classically designed 18th-century buildings, many of which have been put to innovative uses. Aside from its own attractions – including some interesting galleries and museums – Tartu is a convenient gateway to exploring southern Estonia.