Best things to do in Estonia
Find out more about those top places in Estonia
Of all the post-Soviet capital cities, Tallinn is undoubtedly the most European in outlook. While the city has been shaped by 1000 years of Russian, Swedish, German and Polish influence, today it is a thoroughly Estonian city – that is besides the immense numbers of Finns who arrive daily to stock up on cheap alcohol. The center of Tallinn is the UNESCO-listed walled old town, which thankfully escaped the bombs of World War Two. At its core are the enchanting Raekoja Plats, the historic market square, and the domineering fortress Toompea, from which the Teutonic Knights ruled vast swathes of the Baltic littoral. Today, Estonia’s capital is shaking off its reputation as a down-at-heel Soviet city with buzzing nightlife and a Scandinavian-influenced gastronomical revolution.
Built by the Teutonic Knights during their 14th century Baltic Crusade, Toompea is certainly Tallinn’s most imposing sight. However, first impressions can be deceptive as despite its gloomy façade the castle’s baroque interior, which was built in the 17th century, is a gorgeous pastel-pink. Today, it houses the Estonian National Council and can be explored on guided tours throughout the day.
Right in the heart of Tallinn is the awe-inspiring Alexander Nevsky Cathedral, which stands as a testament to tsarist attempts to Russify their Baltic territories. From the outside, the cathedral’s onion-domes are breathtaking and the inside is if anything more impressive: frescoes cover the walls; mystic icon paintings watch over worshipers; and nearly everything is laced with gold.
Just east of Tallinn’s picture-perfect old town is Kadriorg Park, which was once sprawling gardens belonging to the baroque palace of the same name. The palace, which was commissioned by none other than Peter the Great, now houses Tallinn’s premier art gallery while the tree-lined gardens are a joy to explore.
Perched on the edge of the Baltic Sea, it can be hard to tell what Linnahall, known in English as the Lenin Hall, is from a distance. Looking like a cross between a World War Two fortification and an industrial complex, it was in fact built as the water-sports center for 1980 Moscow Olympics. While the interior is inaccessible to visitors, the vast brutalist building can be explored with the help of local guides who will give you an insight into life in Soviet-era Tallinn.
If you do not have time for a day trip from Tallinn but want to experience the best the country’s countryside has to offer head to the Open-Air Museum. At risk buildings from across the country have been rebuilt stone by stone in the vast pine-clad park, including traditional windmills, a chapel dating from the 17th century and a tavern serving traditional Estonian cuisine. The museum is at its most enchanting during the summer months when tour guides dress up in traditional folk costumes.
Raekoja Plats, known simply in English as Town Hall Square, is the bustling heart of Tallinn’s old town. First laid out as a market in the 11th century, the square is today home to a host of the city’s architectural gems, including the only surviving medieval gothic town hall in Northern Europe. To get to grips with the area’s fascinating history take a guided tour.
At 314 meters tall, Tallinn’s TV Tower is the tallest building in Northern Europe. Guided tours can take you to the top of this spectacular structure, which was completed in 1980 to broadcast the Moscow Olympics, where you can get a bird’s eye view of the entire city and the rugged Baltic coastline.
For a trip through Estonia’s art and design history KUMU is the place to visit. Housed in a striking piece of modern architecture, the gallery has various floors devoted to different eras in the country’s history, including works from the Soviet-era. To get a better understanding of the collection guided tours are available regularly.
Established in 1971, Lahemaa National Park is a watery wonderland where the Gulf of Finland blends into an enchanting landscape of peat bogs, pristine lakes and tranquil lagoons. Despite being a short drive from Estonia’s capital, Tallinn, Lahemaa is a hidden gem. It is one of the best places in Europe to spot lynx, brown bears, wild boars and moose while the park is dotted with enchanting wooden villages that date from the era of the Russian Empire. Lahemma is magical during the snowy winter or Estonia’s surprisingly warm summer months when the picturesque national park town of Võsu becomes a popular getaway for young Tallinners looking to relax on unspoiled golden sands.
Set amongst the dense woodlands of Lahemaa National Park is Palmse Manor, one of the best places to get an understanding of Estonia’s rich history. Built in the early 18th century, the baroque manor house stands as testament to the political power of the Baltic’s former German-speaking serf-owning aristocracy, who immigrated to the region following the Teutonic Order’s medieval Baltic Crusade. The manor house is impeccably restored and guided tours are regularly available.
To get an understanding of what life was like for regular Estonians in the 18th and 19th centuries, head to the picturesque village of Altja. Arriving in the small hamlet is like stepping back in time with clapperboard houses lining the unpaved roads and regular festivals taking place that have origins in the Baltic’s pagan past. For the best experience, walk the Nature and Culture Trail, which leads past many of the village’s most beguiling attractions.
Another relic of Estonia’s former German aristocracy is the imposing Sagadi Manor. While the house itself, which was built in the 1750s, can be explored on guided tours, the main attraction is undoubtedly the immaculate gardens, which were once the Baltic’s finest example of Western European landscaping techniques. In the late-Soviet period numerous works of modern art were also added to the gardens making for an unforgettable experience.
The tumbledown village of Käsmu has scarcely changed since its 19th century heyday as the center of Estonia’s maritime trade. Formerly the site is a maritime school, the village at one stage was home to nearly half of all boats registered in the country! While the days of Käsmu’s maritime buzz may be long gone, its picture-perfect streets and fields of erratic boulders remain one of Lahemaa’s must see attractions.
Unusually, Estonia’s premier art gallery is not located in its capital but in the sleepy seaside village of Viinistu at the tip of the Pärispea Peninsula. Housing an astounding collection of 19th to 21st century Estonian art, the gallery is in fact the private collection of Jaan Manitski, who grew up in the remote village before rising to fame as the manager of the Swedish pop troupe ABBA.
More ramshackle than Sagadi or Palmse, the Kolga Manor house is all the better for it. While visitors cannot enter the crumbling aristocratic palace (attempts to restore it have ultimately run out of funds), you can take pictures of its photogenic exterior and explore the neighboring history museum, which gives an insight into the house’s former owners and the autocratic rule of the Russian Empire.
Lahemaa’s most important natural habitats are the seemingly endless bogs that stretch along the Baltic Sea coast. The most accessible of these is Viru, which can be explored thanks to an elevated boardwalk trail that takes you through dense forests, misty swamplands and towering sand dunes.