Estonia doesn’t have to struggle to find a point of difference; it’s completely unique. It shares a similar geography and history with Latvia and Lithuania, but culturally it’s distinct. Its closest ethnic and linguistic buddy is Finland, though 50 years of Soviet rule in Estonia have separated the two. For the last 300 years Estonia has been linked to Russia, but the two states have as much in common as a barn swallow and a bear (their respective national symbols).
With a newfound confidence, singular Estonia has crept from under the Soviet blanket and leapt into the arms of Europe. The love affair is mutual. Europe has fallen head over heels for the charms of Tallinn and its Unesco-protected Old Town. Put simply, Tallinn is now one of the continent’s most captivating cities. And in overcrowded Europe, Estonia’s sparsely populated countryside and extensive swathes of forest provide spiritual sustenance for nature-lovers.
These are our favorite local haunts, touristy spots, and hidden gems throughout Estonia.
Dating from the 13th century, the imposing St Nicholas' Church (Niguliste kirik) was badly damaged by Soviet bombers in 1944 and a fire in the 1980s, but today stands restored to its Gothic glory. Although deconsecrated, it's a strikingly apt site for the Art Museum of Estonia to display some of its treasures of sacral art – the late-medieval altarpieces, paintings and sculptures you'll see are drawn from all over Estonia, but much of it originally belonged right here, in St Nicholas'. The most famous work on display is Berndt Notke’s 15th-century masterpiece Dance Macabre. The gist of this eerie skeletal conga line is that whether you’re a king, a pope or a young slacker, we’re all dancing with death. Annoyingly, the plastic screen that protects the painting has a surface sheen which makes the work difficult to see from some angles. Other artefacts include painted altarpieces (including the church's own extraordinary cabinet-style altarpiece by Herman Rode from Lübeck, dating from 1481), carved tombstones and a chamber overflowing with ecclesiastical silverware. The acoustics of the former church are also first-rate, and organ recitals are held here most weekends. If you're going to visit the nearby Adamson-Eric Museum, a joint ticket can be bought at either venue for €8.
This sprawling ethnographic and architectural complex comprises 80 historic Estonian buildings, plucked from across the country and resurrected in sections representing the different regions of Estonia. In summer the time-warping effect is highlighted by staff in period costume performing traditional activities among the wooden farmhouses and windmills. Different activities and demonstrations (weaving, blacksmithing and the like) are scheduled and an old wooden tavern, Kolu Kõrts, serves traditional Estonian cuisine. Activities such as weaving, blacksmithing, and traditional cooking are put on, kids love the horse-and-carriage rides (adult/child €9/6) and bikes can be hired (per hour €3). If you find yourself in Tallinn on Midsummer's Eve (23 June), come here to witness the traditional celebrations, bonfire and all. To get here from the centre, take Paldiski mnt. When the road nears the water, veer right onto Vabaõhumuuseumi tee. Bus 21, which departs from the railway station at least hourly, stops right out front. Combined family tickets are available that include Tallinn Zoo, which is a 20-minute walk away.
This futuristic, Finnish-designed, seven-storey building is a spectacular structure of limestone, glass and copper that integrates intelligently into the 18th-century landscape. Kumu (the name is short for kunstimuuseum, or art museum) contains the country's largest repository of Estonian art as well as 11 or 12 temporary exhibits per year. The permanent exhibition covers 18th-century classics of Estonian art to venerable, intricately painted altarpieces and the work of contemporary Estonian artists such as Adamson-Eric. On the third floor you'll find ‘Treasury’, featuring works from the beginning of the 18th century until the end of WWII; while on the fourth is ‘Difficult Choices’, showcasing art from the Soviet era. Current and cutting-edge exhibitions fill the 5th floor, which can be visited separately (€8/6) if you don't want to pay the full admission price for all galleries. The complex is wheelchair-accessible and has an excellent shop and cafe.
Completed in 1404, this is the only surviving Gothic town hall in northern Europe. Inside, you can visit the Trade Hall (whose visitor book drips with royal signatures), the Council Chamber (featuring Estonia’s oldest woodcarvings, dating from 1374), the vaulted Citizens’ Hall, a yellow-and-black-tiled councillor’s office and a small kitchen. The steeply sloped attic has displays on the building and its restoration. Details such as brightly painted columns and intricately carved wooden friezes give some sense of the original splendour. Occasionally the building is used to host prominent visiting art exhibitions, in which case the entry fee may be considerably higher. If the kids are getting restive, draw their attention to the iron shackles still hanging on the exterior wall facing the square, or pay a little extra to climb the tower (between May and mid-September).
The Great Guild Hall (1410) is a wonderfully complete testament to the power of Tallinn's medieval trade guilds. Now a branch of the Estonian History Museum, its showpiece exhibition is 'Spirit of Survival: 11,000 Years of Estonian History', illustrating the history and psyche of Estonia through interactive and unusual displays. There's also the old excise chamber, with numismatic relics stretching back to Viking times; the basement, exploring the history of the Guild itself; and sections on Estonian music, language and geography. The major exhibition poses such questions as ‘Is Estonia the most secular country in the world?’ and ‘Have Estonians been happy in their own land?’ (The answer to the latter is 'no', apparently – statistics suggest they’re one of the least happy peoples in Europe.)
Majestic Kuressaare Castle stands facing the sea at the southern end of the town, on an artificial island defended by stone-faced earth bastions and ringed by a moat. It’s the best-preserved castle in the Baltic and the region’s only medieval stone castle that has remained intact. The castle grounds are open to the public at all times but to visit the keep you'll need to buy a ticket to the castle's branch of the Saaremaa Museum. A castle was founded in the 1260s, but the mighty dolomite fortress that stands today was not built until the 14th century, with some protective walls added between the 15th and 18th centuries. It was designed as an administrative centre as well as a stronghold. The more slender of its two tall corner towers, Pikk Hermann to the east, is separated from the rest of the castle by a shaft crossed only by a drawbridge, so it could function as a last refuge in times of attack. Outdoor concerts are held in the castle yard throughout the summer and you can also try your hand at archery. There’s a memorial on the eastern wall to 90 people killed within the castle grounds by the Red Army in 1941. Its grim companion piece lies beyond the castle wall on one of the island ramparts – a large memorial to 300 people executed during the Nazi occupation. The shady park around the castle moat was laid out in 1861 and there are some fine wooden resort buildings in and around it, notably the Spa Hall (Kuursaal) dating from 1899, which is now a restaurant, and the neighbouring bandstand from 1920. If the weather’s nice, you can hire rowboats (per hour €10) or bikes (per hour €4) from the Spa Hall.
Kadriorg Palace, a baroque beauty built by Peter the Great between 1718 and 1736, houses a branch of the Art Museum of Estonia devoted to Dutch, German and Italian paintings from the 16th to the 18th centuries, and Russian works from the 18th to early 20th centuries (check out the decorative porcelain with communist imagery upstairs). The pink palace is exactly as frilly and fabulous as it ought to be, and there’s a handsome French-style formal garden at the rear. Take tram 1 or 3 from the centre to the 'Kardiorg' stop to reach the park, then follow the signs. Joint tickets with the Mikkel Museum (adult/reduced €8/6) and House of Peter I are available (€9/6.50) as are tickets that cover all five branches of the Art Museum across the city (€20).
When this cavernous, triple-domed building was completed in 1917, its reinforced-concrete shell-frame construction was unique in the world. Resembling a classic Bond-villain lair, the vast space was completely restored and opened to the public in 2012 as a museum celebrating Estonia's rich seafaring heritage. Highlights include exploring the cramped corridors of a 1930s naval submarine, an elegant collection of ice-yachts, hanging from the ceiling as though in flight, and the many interactive exhibits to try your hand at. Don't overlook the antique ships moored outside, including the handsomely-maintained Suur Tõll, the world's largest surviving steam-powered ice-breaker, which you can explore from stem to stern.
Strikingly set on a bluff above the Piusa River in western Setomaa, the photogenic ruins of one of Estonia's greatest medieval strongholds and places of pilgrimage are well worth seeking out. Basic entry allows you to explore the grounds and the walls and three towers that still stand, but a little extra opens access to the medieval theme park and pilgrim house, for activities, re-creations of medieval life and labour, and insights into the pains and pleasures of pilgrimage. Founded in 1342 by the German Livonian knights on what was the border with Russia, Vastseliina (or Neuhausen, as it was then known) was once the strongest castle in Old Livonia. It prospered from its position on the Pihkva–Rīga trade route and as an important pilgrimage site due to the presence of a miraculous white cross that conveniently materialised in the chapel. The castle was finally destroyed after falling to the Russians in 1700, early in the Great Northern War. Just outside the castle walls you can visit a small chapel and an old stone building housing a handicrafts store and tavern, open 10am to 6pm June to Augus and serving 'medieval-inspired' cuisine in a suitably rough-hewn wooden setting. Vastseliina is also the starting point for a 15km hiking trail, which heads across country to the village of Lindora. Buses head to Vana-Vastseliina from Võru (€2, one hour, four daily) and Obinitsa (€1, 20 minutes, three daily).
Top 10 travel goals
The world's most amazing abandoned places
Introducing Estonia, Latvia & Lithuania