Estonia is a spectacular country that is too often overlooked. This Northern European destination offers a variety of experiences in a compact package. From Tallinn’s breathtaking Old Town — arguably one of the best in the world — to the quaint villages and unspoiled countryside of the islands, Estonia truly is a hidden gem. Read the rest of this insider guide to Estonia to learn more about this charming Baltic nation.
Located in Northern Europe, Estonia shares land borders with Latvia to the south and Russia to the east. It is bordered by the Gulf of Finland to the north and the Baltic Sea to the west. Helsinki, Finland is located just across the Gulf of Finland from Tallinn — Estonia’s capital city. This Baltic country includes thousands of offshore islands, with the two largest being Hiiumaa and Saaremaa. It also features approximately 1,400 lakes. In total, Estonia’s land area is 17,505 square miles.
Estonia lies mostly in the northern section of the temperate climate zone. In July, the average temperature ranges from about 61 degrees Fahrenheit on the islands to around 65 degrees Fahrenheit in the inland areas. In February, the average temperature ranges from around 26 degrees Fahrenheit on the islands to 18 degrees Fahrenheit in the inland areas. Snow generally covers southeastern Estonia from December through March.
When packing for a summer trip to Estonia, think layers. Bring a cardigan and lightweight jacket. Many of Estonia’s city centers and old towns have cobblestone streets. While charming, they are not conducive to high heels. Bring comfortable walking shoes.
The official language of Estonia is Estonian. It is most closely related to Finnish and is one of the few languages in Europe that is not classified as Indo-European. Surprisingly, it is not related to Latvian or Lithuanian — the languages spoken in the other Baltic countries.
Because Estonia was part of the Soviet Union until 1991, Russian is spoken as a second language by a good portion of the population. However, English is one of the most common foreign languages taught in schools today. In fact, many Estonians would rather speak English to tourists than Finnish or Russian. Still, less than half of the Estonian population consider themselves fluent in English, so it’s wise to download a translation app and learn a few key phrases.
The official currency in Estonia is the euro (€). While larger stores, restaurants, and hotels will take major debit or credit cards, it’s still wise to carry some cash. Currency can be exchanged at both banks and exchange offices, but they will both charge fees. These fees tend to run even higher in hotels and airports. Instead, use one the country’s many ATMs. These often have fewer fees and more favorable exchange rates.
Tipping is not compulsory in Estonia. If service at a restaurant was incredible, leave five to 10 percent of the total bill. Feel free to round up the final fare in taxis, and leave the hotel bellmen a euro or two.
Traditional Estonian cuisine relies heavily on local ingredients and the time of year. In summer, fruits and vegetables are consumed fresh, while in winter, they are turned into jams and pickles. However, today, the cuisine is more international, as everything can easily be purchased fresh at a store, but traditional cooking styles and preservation are still seen throughout the countryside. Some staples of Estonian cuisine include pork, seafood, potatoes, mushrooms, dairy products and black rye bread. Mushroom hunting is a national pastime, and Baltic herring is a national dish.
Estonians eat breakfast, lunch and dinner. Traditionally, lunch is the biggest meal of the day, but most Estonians now consume their largest meal at the end of the day. This meal often includes a course of cold dishes, a soup and a main hot course served with black bread. This is all followed by dessert. Locally brewed beer and vodka are the most popular alcoholic beverages.
Because of its history, Estonian culture has been influenced by a number of outside sources. Today, the country is liberal, and the people place great importance on free education and a strong work ethic. The family is at the center of the social structure. Estonians tend to live at home longer and care for one another later in life. This is especially true in rural areas. It is a hierarchical society, and elders are respected for their experiences and wisdom. Music plays an important cultural role, as does the sauna.
Greetings in Estonia tend to be formal. Because it is a hierarchical society, titles are important, and first names should not be used until you are invited to do so. Punctuality is important. At dinner parties, remain standing until you are invited to sit down and finish your meal. Dress in Estonia tends to be conservative.
Estonia is an extremely safe country. Petty theft in Tallinn’s Old Town is a growing concern, so always pay attention to your belongings. Also, pay attention to drink prices. Some places are known to raise prices to exorbitant levels just for tourists. Make sure the establishment is upfront about pricing. Finally, Estonian law requires people to wear small reflectors on their clothing during the dark winter months. Failing to do so can result in a fine.
Tallinn is Estonia’s capital and largest city. Located on the Gulf of Finland in the northern part of the country, Tallinn is most famous for its spectacular Old Town. Surrounded by the original medieval walls, Tallinn’s Old Town is the best preserved old town in all of Europe. Because of this, it is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Old Town Tallinn is divided into Upper Town (Toompea) and Lower Town (All-Iinn). The quaint cobblestone streets of the city are best explored by foot. In Upper Town, the awe-inspiring Toompea Castle now houses the Estonian Parliament. The Russian Orthodox Alexander Nevsky Cathedral is also located in this section of the town. In Lower Town, explore Town Hall Square and the numerous medieval churches surrounding it, including St. Olaf’s Cathedral. At one point in time, this cathedral may have been the tallest structure in the world. There are also numerous shops, restaurants, and pubs throughout Old Town.
This region is home to Lahemaa National Park. Located just an hour from Tallinn, the beautiful park stretches along Estonia’s northern coastline. It features quaint villages, lakes, coves, limestone cliffs, forests and enormous boulders left behind during the last Ice Age. It is also an important wildlife refuge. Bears, wild boar, lynx and moose all call the park home.
The city of Rakvere is also located in North Estonia. This vibrant and eclectic city hosts numerous music events and festivals throughout the year, but the main attraction is a 13th-century fortress.
South Estonia is one of the country’s best nature getaways. Small, traditional villages are speckled throughout dense forests and national parks. However, this region is also home to the city of Tartu. It is the oldest city in the Baltics and home to one of the oldest universities in Northern Europe. Most attractions in this compact and bustling city are in the direct vicinity of the city center. Visit the Tartu Art Museum in the Leaning House, the Neoclassical Town Hall, Neoclassical Tartu University and Gothic St. John’s Cathedral. Built in 1330, this cathedral is mostly known for the 1,000 small, terracotta statues surrounding the entrance.
Located along the Baltic coastline, West Estonia bursts to life during the summer months. Its main two attractions are the resort towns of Haapsalu and Parnu. They both boast traditional wooden architecture, sandy beaches, ample summer festivals and lively outdoor patios. In Parnu, walk along the main pedestrian thoroughfare of Ruutli and admire the historic buildings and shops. Running parallel to Ruutli, visit Kuninga for an impressive concentration of restaurants.
Estonia’s two largest islands are Hiiumaa and Saaremaa. Just a short ferry ride away from the mainland, the islands boast untouched nature, small-town charm, and extensive history. They can be explored by foot, bike, or car. Outside of Tallinn, many consider the islands to be the best examples of quintessential Estonia.
On the island of Saaremaa, visit the 13th-century castle of Kuressaare. The imposing structure is on of the most impressive fortresses in the entire Baltic region.
Picture yourself meandering the streets of Old Town Tallinn and cycling around the island of Saaremaa. Now, make it a reality. This insider guide to Estonia should have you planning your next vacation in no time.