Estonia is a vibrant and fascinating country, full of history, culture and undisturbed nature. The northernmost Baltic state, this oft-overlooked travel destination is at the crossroads of Scandinavia, Russia and Northern Europe. Because of this cultural confluence, Estonia is bursting with unique opportunities for travelers looking to experience a visual journey through centuries of dynamic history in one compact country.
Estonia is largely still a hidden gem, and because of this, the country exudes a sense of authenticity. The incredible old towns and medieval castles transport you back in time, and the vast swaths of nature feel unexplored. Of course, with all Estonia has to offer, word is sure to eventually spread like wildfire, and this exciting destination will undoubtedly become trendy. These are just some of the reasons why you should visit Estonia this summer.
Estonia has a complex history. In short summary, human settlement in Estonia dates back over 10,000 years. German crusaders invaded the territory in the early 1200s, and the Baltic country became an active battleground for the Northern Crusades for centuries. In the years after, the geographically important area switched hands between Germany, Denmark, Sweden and Russia. Estonia enjoyed a brief period of independence from 1918 to 1940. However, during World War II, Estonia was occupied by the Soviet Union and Germany. At the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, Estonia finally regained independence. It joined NATO and the European Union in 2004.
Because of this complicated and often tragic history, Estonia is still in the process of truly forming its own identity. However, this same history makes the country absolutely inspiring. Architectural evidence from various time periods and cultural influences are spread throughout the country. For example, Tallinn’s walled old town dates back to the Middle Ages, numerous grave sites in Northern Estonia are traced back to the Iron Age, the coastline is speckled with homes from the Hanseatic League, certain towns — such as Narva — are almost entirely Russian, and evidence from the Soviet Union remains both occupied and abandoned throughout the beautiful country. Of course, those are just the tip of a very large iceberg. The history in Estonia is second to none for those who appreciate it.
Tallinn’s Old Town
This could be grouped in with history, but Tallinn Old Town is so special it deserves a section of its own. Almost completely surrounded by original medieval walls, it is regarded as the best preserved old town in Europe. Also a UNESCO World Heritage Site, Old Town Tallinn is an absolute must-see for all who visit Estonia. Plan to spend at least an entire day walking around the quaint cobblestone streets, but it’s very likely you will want to spend more time in this historic time capsule.
The capital city’s old town is divided into Toompea (Upper Town) and All-In (Lower Town), and both areas are all easy to explore by foot. Toompea hosts medieval Toompea Castle, which has always been the seat of Estonia’s ruler. In keeping with tradition, it now houses the Estonian Parliament. Toompea is also home to Alexander Nevsky Cathedral. Built between 1894 and 1900, this Russian Orthodox cathedral is a beautiful example of Russian Revival architecture.
All-In is home to Town Hall Square (also known as Raekoja Plats). Situated around the 12th century Town Hall, Town Hall Square is a central meeting place for events and small concerts. Numerous shops and restaurants now fill the historic buildings lining the square and surrounding streets. Lower Town also hosts numerous medieval churches, including St. Olaf’s Church. Dating back to the 1100s, this church may have been the tallest structure in the world for a period of time. When not admiring the architecture, take some time to relax in a cafe and enjoy the local fare.
There are five national parks in Estonia, and a visit to at least one should be required for all tourists. One fifth of Estonia’s land is protected, and these national parks each offer a glimpse at uninhabited Estonia. Lahemaa National Park is located just one hour outside of Tallinn and stretches along the country’s northern coastline. The park offers traditional villages, limestone cliffs, forests and lakes. Massive boulders left behind during the last Ice Age also make this park unique. Plus, moose, brown bears, lynx and other species call the park home.
Soomaa National Park is located in the southwestern portion of the country. This park floods each year, so many parts are only accessible via kayak or canoe. This gives visitors a unique vantage point of Estonia’s bog habitat. Bogs make up around 30 percent of the country’s total surface area, so paddling throughout this landscape is a fantastically Estonian activity.
There are over 2,300 islands off of the Estonian coastline. Of these, two — Saaremaa and Hiiumaa — are substantial enough to constitute their own, separate counties. This impressive number rivals countries that are widely known for their islands. Yet, many prospective travelers are unaware that Estonia boasts spectacular island destinations. Visitors are able to explore these waterfront oases largely unaffected by the tourism industry. Plus, getting to them is easy. A short ferry from Estonia’s western coast will bring either just you or you and a rental car straight to the islands. Once there, explore by car, on foot, or by bicycle.
The island of Saaremaa boasts sandy beaches, dense forests, windmills, 19th-century lighthouses and the imposing Kuuressarre Castle. This 13th-century fortress is one of the most impressive castles in the entire region. For nature enthusiasts, the island also offers the Kaali crater. Located in the village of Kaali, the Kaali crater is made up of nine meteorite craters dating back to 1530–1450 BC (by the most recent estimates). This impact event was one of the few to occur in a populated region, and it burned forests within nearly a four-mile radius. Finally, the Midsummer celebration in Saaremaa is one of the best.
The Food and Nightlife
When the sun sets, Estonia’s restaurant and bar scene bursts to life. This small country has culinary and entertainment offerings that rival any popular city in Europe — usually, for a fraction of the cost. From pubs to jazz bars to swanky lounges, tourists and locals alike enjoy live music, renowned craft beer, and innovative cocktails in intimate settings, and numerous area nightclubs remain open well after sunrise. Much of this activity takes place in Tallinn’s Old Town or Telliskivi, but many hidden gems are located throughout Estonia’s smaller cities.
The culinary scene in Estonia is equally as impressive as the nightlife. Locals and visitors enjoy world-class dining, without the price tag. Most restaurants in the country are farm-to-table and take advantage of purely seasonal ingredients. This guarantees that each dish is fresh and offers a true taste of Estonia. Food tours are unsurprisingly becoming increasingly popular.
Estonia is a magical country that is sure to appeal to travelers of all ages and interests. From relaxing beaches to pulsing music emanating from historic storefronts, this Baltic nation is truly special. Tallinn Old Town will quickly capture your heart, and the islands will leave you yearning for more. Plan a trip to Estonia before this quiet country becomes the next “it” destination.