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'.
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.
About 2km east of Old Town, this beautiful park’s ample acreage is Tallinn’s favourite patch of green. Together with the baroque Kadriorg Palace, its 70 hectares were commissioned by the Russian Tsar Peter the Great for his wife Catherine I soon after his conquest of Estonia (Kadriorg means 'Catherine’s Valley' in Estonian).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
In Tallinn all roads lead to Raekoja plats, the city's pulsing heart since markets began setting up here in the 11th century. One side is dominated by the Gothic town hall, while the rest is ringed by pretty pastel-coloured buildings dating from the 15th to 17th centuries. Whether bathed in sunlight or sprinkled with snow, it's always a photogenic spot.
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