Visitors to Estonia encounter a mix of urbanity and wilderness, the medieval and contemporary, with crumbling castles and colourful designs permeating urban landscapes. An efficient transport system makes it easy to get around, and the tech-savvy, dynamic residents welcome visitors with open arms. Estonia is also one of the most budget-friendly destinations in Europe. Here's our pick of the best things to do in Estonia.
The information in this article is inspired by The Rough Guide to Europe on a Budget, your essential guide for visiting Europe.
Visiting the island of Saaremaa, off the west coast of Estonia, is claimed by many to be one of the most authentic things to do in Estonia. Buses from Tallinn, Tartu and Pärnu come here via a ferry running from the mainland village of Virtsu to Muhu Island, which is linked to Saaremaa by a causeway.
The principal attractions are Kuressaare’s thirteenth-century castle, one of the finest in the Baltic region, and Kaali village, home to a giant Kaali meteorite crater thought to be at least 4000 years old, which makes a worthy detour.
Tallinn, Estonia’s compact, buzzing capital, with its enchanting heart surrounded by medieval walls, has been shaped by nearly a millennium of outside influence. The heart of Tallinn is the Old Town, still largely enclosed by the city’s medieval walls. At its centre is the Raekoja plats, the historic marketplace, above which looms Toompea hill, the stronghold of the German knights who controlled the city during the Middle Ages.
Raekoja plats, the cobbled market square at the heart of the Old Town, is as old as the city itself. On its southern side stands the fifteenth-century Tallinn Town Hall (Raekoda), boasting elegant Gothic arches at ground level, and a delicate steeple at its northern end. At the head of Lossi plats, the pink Toompea Castle stands on the site of the original Danish fortification. The building is now home to the Riigikogu, Estonia’s parliament.
The Old Town is the tourists’ favourite part of Tallinn, but at weekends the locals wander in the parks on the east side of Tallinn Bay. The best-loved of these is Kadriorg Park, a name synonymous with affluence, nature and, most of all, tranquillity. Most of it remains a wooded, informal park, planted with lime, oak, ash, birch and chestnut trees and punctuated by open fields.
Among the more developed exceptions are the large rectangular Swan Pond with fountains and a beautiful white gazebo, which provide a fittingly romantic introduction to the park. The jewel in the Kadriorg’s crown is without a doubt the lavish, Baroque Kadriorg Palace (Kadrioru loss) that Peter had built in 1718. The palace is a stunning monument to imperial extravagance.
Just to the east of Tallinn, the space-age Teletorn dominates the skyline; 314 metres (1,030ft) in height, it offers unforgettable views of the city and surrounding ports from its observation deck and café at the 170-metre (558ft) level. A few metres from the tower’s base is the Tallinn Botanical Garden (Tallinna botaanikaaed), covering 123 hectares (304 acres) of the Pirita Valley with its beautiful gardens and nature trails.
On this tailor-made City hopping in Finland and Estonia, you will explore enchanting Helsinki with its blend of modernity and nature, and Tallinn, the capital of Estonia, with its rich heritage.
Just along the coast from here is Tallinn’s Lennusadam housing Seaplane Harbour Maritime Museum. In addition to a minesweeper and a patrol boat, the collection includes Europe’s largest steam-powered ice-breaker, dating from 1914, the Lembit submarine, built in Britain in 1938. From its decks, you can peer across the Old Town’s skyline and imagine what a tempting prize Tallinn would have been to any seafaring invaders.
The Lauluväljak at Narva, just to the northeast of Kadriorg Park in Tallinn, is a vast amphitheatre which is the venue for Estonia’s Song Festivals. These gatherings, featuring a 25,000-strong choir, are held every five years and have been an important form of national expression since the first all-Estonia Song Festival was held in Tartu in 1869.
The grounds were filled to their 45,000-person capacity in the summer of 1988 when people assembled here spontaneously to sing patriotic songs in protest against Soviet rule, in what became known as the “Singing Revolution”. The next Song Festival is in July 2024.
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The largest of Estonia’s national parks, 725-square-kilometre Lahemaa lies an hour’s drive or bus ride from Tallinn. It stretches along the north coast, comprising lush forests, pristine lakes, and ruggedly beautiful coves and wetlands. The land is dotted with erratic boulders (giant rocks left over from the last Ice Age) and tiny villages throughout, while the forest is home to brown bears, wild boar, moose and lynx.
One of the best things to do in Estonia is to explore the park by bicycle, the villages are all connected by well-paved roads. Parts of the park are doable as a day trip, but you may well be charmed into staying longer.
Just over two hours southeast of Tallinn, Tartu is in many ways the undiscovered gem of the Baltic States. A small-scale university town is full of youthful energy but happily free from the city-break tourism that tends to swamp the Estonian capital. With plenty of diversions and events all year round, it’s worth a stay of a couple of days.
Tartu is especially proud of its nostalgic Toy Museum and the Science Centre AHHAA showing that science can be really fun. Science Centre AHHAA is one of the largest science centres in the Baltic and has a wide range of interactive exhibits, workshops, and demonstrations which makes visiting the centre one of the best things to do in Estonia with kids.
North-east of Tartu City Museum, at Muuseumi tee 2, is the Estonian National Museum with the country’s most important permanent folklore collection. The new museum building was inaugurated in 2016 on the grounds of the Raadi Manor, formerly home to the Baltic German von Liphard family. The building is ultra-modern and huge, complete with a cinema, library, restaurant and cafe. The manor park is open to the public.
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Pärnu, Estonia’s main seaside resort, comes into its own in summer, when it fills up with locals and tourists, and hosts daily cultural and musical events. Rüütli, cutting east–west through the centre, is the Old Town’s main pedestrianized thoroughfare, lined with shops and a mix of seventeenth- to twentieth-century buildings, while parallel Kuninga boasts the largest concentration of restaurants.
Follow Nikolai south from the centre and you’ll reach the Kunsti Museum, set in the former Communist Party HQ. It holds excellent temporary exhibitions of contemporary art. South of here Nikolai joins Supeluse, which leads to the beach, passing beneath the trees of the shady Rannapark. Just beyond the dunes lies Pärnu’s main attraction: the wide, clean sandy Pärnu beach, lined with see-saws, changing booths and volleyball nets.
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From Pärnu, a side-trip north to the Soomaa National Park is one of the best things to do in Estonia for the landscape that’s little seen elsewhere in Europe. At the end of the route, 59 through Tori and Jõesuu signs direct drivers into the heart of the 371 sq km (143 sq mile) nature reserve. Soomaa means “land of bogs”.
The area is known for its floodplains and wildlife, its unique feature is its mysterious and often misty bogs – clear areas with peaty land, low trees and small ponds – a scene that doesn’t look like it belongs on our planet. They can only be reached by carefully walking over specially built plank pathways.
Route 60 northwest of Pärnu leads to the small town of Lihula, which has a huge, Soviet-built cultural centre, a plaster-and-stone Orthodox church and a point-spired Lutheran church. Just 3km (2 miles) north of Lihula, the village of Penijõe is the gateway to the Matsalu National Park (Matsalu rahvuspark). Matsalu Bay has a range of habitats including reed beds, water meadows, hay meadows and coastal pastures.
It was already noted for its birdlife back in 1870. Among the species found here today are avocet, sandwich tern, mute swan, greylag goose and bittern. There are also some white-tailed eagles. The reserve was formed from 39,700 hectares (98,000 acres) of the bay area in 1957. It can be visited by car or since water covers some 26,300 hectares (65,000 acres) of this same area, by boat.
The E20 reaches the Russian border at Narva. With just 56,000 inhabitants, it is Estonia’s third-largest city and its least Estonian. The border itself is the city’s most striking feature. Ivangorod Castle and Narva Castle stand facing one another across the Narva River Promenade like sentries guarding their respective lands.
The “Friendship Bridge” stretches across the river between them, with EU flags on one side and Russian flags on the other. The 15km (9-mile) drive north along the river leads to Narva Jõesuu, a popular beach resort town in the 19th century.
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Either route leads to the shore of Lake Peipus (Peipsi järv), where there are forests of tall conifers and white beaches of bleached oyster shells. There are occasional fishing villages strung along the water’s edge. Their attractive clapboard houses are painted a variety of colours, each fronted by banks of vibrant flowers and backed by greenhouses which are used to extend the short growing season.
Mustvee, 65km (40 miles) north of Tartu, is Lake Peipsi’s largest town, and the centre of Estonia’s community of Old Believers. These are Russians who fled to Estonia in the 17th century to avoid religious persecution, and they have since developed their own distinct culture and traditions.
Rummu Underwater Prison is a unique Estonian landmark located in the Rummu quarry. The quarry is a former prison and labour camp where prisoners were forced to mine limestone. In the 1990s, the prison was closed and the quarry was flooded.
Today, Rummu Underwater Prison has become a popular tourist attraction, and it's one of the best things to do in Estonia for scuba divers who can explore the submerged remains of the prison. The transparent waters of the quarry allow for a full, detailed exploration of the prison ruins.
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