Originally dating back to the sixteenth century, Alatskivi Castle was rebuilt between 1876 and 1885 by Baron von Nolcken who was inspired by the royal residence of Balmoral in Scotland. With its protruding towers with cone-shaped roofs, the building is considered to be one of the most beautiful neo-gothic manor houses in the Baltics.
Members of the Old Believers, an offshoot of the Russian Orthodox Church, fled Russian persecution in the seventeenth century, eventually settling on the fringes of the Russian empire along the shores of Lake Peipsi. The lake is Europe’s fifth largest, and sits on the border between Russia and Estonia. To this day, the Old Believers maintain age-old traditions and survive on fishing and cultivating cucumbers and onions.
The quaint little town of Viljandi in southern Estonia overlooks a picturesque lake, and is home to the impressive hilltop ruins of the twelfth century castle of the Teutonic Order that covers an area of eight hectares. Viljandi is the capital of folk music and the country’s largest annual music festival that takes places on the last weekend of July during which concerts are held within the castle and other venues around the town. Viljandi’s charming streets are decorated with eight large concrete strawberries that point to the gallery of naïve painter Paul Kondas, where the artist's colourful works are on display, including his well-known The Strawberry Eaters (1965).
Located in a wonderful fifteenth century building, once the headquarters of the Great Guild, Tallinn’s History Museum houses a permanent collection entitled “Spirit of Survival” that traces Estonian history over the last 11,000 years with a series of interactive displays. It’s worth visiting the museum for the building alone, with its large cellars and intricate woodwork. The basement displays shed light on the building’s former days as an auction house for art in the mid-eighteenth century, up until to 1896 when it hosted the country’s first film show.
The wonderful Toy Museum is located in one of the oldest surviving wooden buildings of the university city of Tartu. On display is a wealth of objects including Estonian farm children’s toys, such as handcrafted wooden pastoral animals, and Soviet toys that were mostly educational in nature. These well-loved objects provide a fascinating insight into the lives of Estonian children throughout the years.
Tallinn’s award-winning Seaplane Harbour Museum is undoubtedly one of Europe’s most exciting museums. The uniquely designed seaplane hangars were the world’s first structures to use reinforced concrete shell domes (originally 8cm thick) and were built in 1916-1917 as part of the naval fortress of Peter the Great that sought to protect St Petersburg. A series of bridges connect the museum’s exhibits, which include seaplanes and icebreakers, offering explore the ocean’s surface or delve into the underwater world. One of the museum’s highlights is the British-built 1930s submarine Lembit, the only surviving warship of pre-war Estonia, which visitors can board to experience life on an underwater warship.
Folk art and handicrafts play an essential part in the country’s cultural heritage. Estonia excels in a number of fields despite its population of only 1.3 million, including icon painting, wooden toy production and the art of stained glass. The Estonian countryside is dotted with artists' studios and sculptors' workshops, where craftsmen and women can be seen at work practising age-old traditions.
The popular Song Festival, a large open-air choir concert where hundreds of groups participate, only takes place every five years (the next is 2019) but is certainly worth the wait. This tradition dates back to 1869 during the National Awakening, a time when Estonians started to acknowledge themselves as a unified nation. Later, the Singing Revolution of 1988 saw thousands of people gathering in the Song Festival Grounds singing patriotic songs and demanding Estonian independence from Soviet rule. Hearing 18,000 voices sing at once during the festival is a truly unique and moving experience.
The Estonian Road Museum traces the history and developments of the world’s oldest form of communication: roads. Given Estonia’s boggy terrain (approximately one quarter of the country is covered in marshes), travelling in mid-winter, when ice and a thick blanket of snow covered the ground, was once – ironically – far easier than in summer as travellers could assess the ground much more predictably. The open-air section of the museum allows visitors to stroll through time and view development of the roads throughout history. The Stalinist Rest Area showcases a neat flowerbed and statue of a young pioneer, shedding light on life during the Soviet times when propagandist art flanked the roadsides.
The small town of Otepää really comes alive in the winter months – it is the Baltics’ best-known winter sports centre and the country’s skiing and ski-jumping capital. The town attracts skiers, snowboarders, tubers and sledgers from all over the country, and is also the training ground for the Estonian Olympic team. Otepää is a pleasant spot to relax in the spring and summer months when the surrounding countryside, home to the beautiful Lake Pühajärv, offers the perfect setting for walks in the area’s gentle lowland hills.