In the space of only one generation and with a newfound sense of confidence, diminutive Estonia has crept out 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.
While the chocolate-box charms of the capital are far from a state secret, the 1500 islands dotted off Estonia’s coast may come as a surprise. Also unexpected are bears and bog-walking in the country’s national parks, long stretches of golden beaches, crumbling castles, joyous song festivals, and a burgeoning food culture taking its cues from the New Nordic kitchens of its Baltic brethren. By all means make a beeline for Tallinn, but don’t overlook the surprising gems (an irresistible blend of Eastern European and Nordic) that deserve to lure you outside the city limits.
Tartu for city lovers
Estonia’s second ‘city’ is Tartu (population 100,000), which lays claim to being the country’s spiritual capital - locals talk about a special Tartu vaim (spirit), created by the time-stands-still, 19th-century feel of its wooden houses and stately buildings, and by the beauty of its parks and riverfront. 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 surprising sophistication for a city of its size.
Pärnu for beach lovers
Local families, hormone-sozzled youths and Finnish holidaymakers join together in a collective prayer for sunny weather while strolling the golden-sand beaches, sprawling parks and picturesque historic centre of Pärnu, Estonia’s premier seaside resort. In these parts, the name Pärnu is synonymous with fun in the sun; one hyperbolic local described it to us as ‘Estonia’s Miami’, but it’s usually called by its slightly more prosaic moniker, the nation’s ‘summer capital’.
Saaremaa for island-lovers
Of the astonishing 1500-plus islands off the Estonian coast, it is the largest island, Saaremaa, that sounds an irresistible siren call: during the Cold War it was a border zone, off-limits to almost everyone. Enforced isolation translated into unspoiled countryside - rural traditions thrive here, and fragrant pine forests and juniper groves stir the heartstrings of locals. Despite the sleepy villages, thatched roofs and windmills, island life isn’t frozen in time. Long summer days see an influx of beachgoers, a full dance card of festivals and much flowing of the legendary island beer, plus well-heeled Estonians sampling the new breed of day spas in the picture-book main town, Kuressaare (leading to the island’s nickname, 'Spa-remaa').
Lahemaa for nature lovers
Located about 80km east of Tallinn (en route to the Russian border), Lahemaa National Park makes the perfect country retreat from the capital. Lahemaa, the ‘land of bays’, is a microcosm of Estonia’s natural charms: a stretch of deeply indented coast with several peninsulas and bays, plus an abundance of pine-fresh forested hinterland rich in wildlife, including brown bear, lynx and wolf. Visitors are well looked after with cosy guesthouses, restored 18th-century manors, remote seaside campsites and an extensive network of forest trails for walkers, cyclists and horse-riders.
Muhu for luxury lovers
On the island of Muhu, Pädaste Manor (www.padaste.ee) is Estonia’s premier place to bed down - and a serious contender for its best place to pig out. In a manicured bayside estate, the boutique resort encompasses the exquisitely restored manor house (housing rooms and a restaurant), a carriage house (with more rooms, a private cinema and a spa centre) and a separate ‘sea house’ with a brasserie and terrace. The attention to detail is second-to-none, from the pop-up TVs, antique furnishings and Muhu embroidery, to the island’s herbs, mud and honey used in the spa treatments. Alexander, the on-site fine-dining restaurant, is a chart-topper on any list of Estonia’s best restaurants.
For spas, island hideaways and the most charming Baltic cities, take a peep at Lonely Planet's Estonia, Latvia & Lithuania travel guide.