Tartu lays claim to being Estonia's spiritual capital. Locals talk about a special Tartu vaim (spirit) inhabiting its 19th-century streets, old wooden houses, green parks and peaceful riverfront. Small and quaint, with the quietly flowing Emajõgi River running through it, Tartu is also 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 surprising sophistication for a city of its size.
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 by the city's idealists. Today visitors can get a more authentic depiction of Estonian life than in its glitzier cousin to the north. In addition to galleries and cafés, there are fascinating museums here, and Tartu is a convenient gateway to exploring southern Estonia.