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 the beauty of its parks and riverfront. Tartu was the cradle of Estonia’s 19th-century national revival, and escaped Soviet town planning 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.
Small and provincial, with the tranquil Emajõgi River flowing through it, Tartu is Estonia’s premier university town; students comprise nearly a seventh 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 who haven’t abandoned the city for the beach can be found on the hill behind the Town Hall, flirting and drinking.