There are several attractions outside Tallinn that are well worth visiting, such as the vast, beautiful expanse of Lahemaa National Park and the pretty island of Saaremaa, home to the Bishop’s Castle. The seaside resort of Pärnu is a slightly livelier affair, but outshone in vibrancy by the buzzy university town of Tartu.
Top image: Aerial view of Tartu, Estonia © Shutterstock
The largest of Estonia’s national parks, 72,500-hectare 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 rocks (giant boulders) left over from the last Ice Age and tiny villages throughout, while the forest is home to brown bears, wild boar, moose and lynx. The park is best explored by bicycle, as the villages are all connected by good paved roads. Parts of the park are doable as a day-trip, but you may well be charmed into staying longer.
If you go with Tallinn’s Tallinn Traveller, this is the day route that offers an excellent introduction to the park: start in the village of Palmse, where you can take in the grand German manor (May–Sept 10am–7pm; Oct–April shorter hours; €7), then cycle 8.5km northeast to Sagadi Manor, a well-preserved eighteenth-century aristocratic home (May–Sept daily 10am–6pm; €4), before heading north for 3km to Oandu – the start of several nature trails. Just before the fishing village of Altja, 2km to the north, you’ll find the 1km Beaver Trail, where you can see dams built by beavers and stop for lunch at Altja Korts – an attractive tavern serving tasty fresh dishes, such as grilled salmon with grated potato pancakes (mains €8). From Altja you can cycle around the coast of the Vergi peninsula, taking in the picturesque villages (17km) surrounded by pine forest, before ending up on the wide, clean, windswept beach in Võsu. A seaside trail heads north from Võsu for 6km before arriving at the attractive village of Käsmu, which has a superb nautically themed museum (daily 9am–6pm; donations welcome) started by a local collector many years ago; look out for the giant sea mines in the front yard.
If you have any energy left, you can then tackle the rugged cycle trails along the western half of the Käsmu peninsula before getting picked up. Travelling independently, you can take the bus to Käsmu (see p.249), do the trail in reverse and then cycle up from Palmse to Võsu (6km) for an overnight stay before catching a bus back to Tallinn the following day.
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. The entertaining Pärnu Museum is at Rüütli 53 (Tues–Sun 10am–6pm; €4, students €3), tracing local history from 9000 BC to World War II; ask for the information sheet in English. The oldest building in town is the Red Tower (Punane Torn; Tues–Sun 10am–5pm; free), a fifteenth-century remnant of the medieval city walls at Hommiku 11, a block north from Rüütli.
Follow Nikolai south from the centre and you’ll reach the Kunsti Museum (daily: June–Aug 9am–9pm; Sept–May 9am–7pm; €3), set in the former Communist Party HQ at Esplanaadi 10. 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 sand dunes lies Pärnu’s main attraction: the wide, clean sandy beach, lined with see-saws, changing booths and volleyball nets.
The island of SAAREMAA, off the west coast of Estonia, is claimed by many to be one of the most authentically Estonian parts of the country. 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 attraction is Kuressaare’s thirteenth-century castle, one of the finest in the Baltic region, but the rest of the island also deserves exploration; cycling is the best way to get around.
In Kuressaare’s Kesk väljak (main square) you’ll find the yellow-painted Town Hall, dating from 1670, its door guarded by stone lions. From the square, Lossi runs south to the magnificent Bishop’s Castle (Piiskopilinnus), set in the middle of an attractive park and surrounded by a deep moat. The formidable structure dates largely from the fourteenth century and is protected by huge seventeenth-century ramparts. The labyrinthine keep houses the Saaremaa Regional Museum (May–Aug daily 10am–7pm; Sept–April Wed–Sun 11am–7pm; €5; students €2.50), a riveting collection of displays charting the culture, nature and history of the island (including an excellent section on Soviet occupation). You can also climb the watchtowers, one of which houses stunning contemporary art and photography exhibitions.
Around the island
Cycling is a wonderful way of seeing Saaremaa, with its alternating landscapes of pine forest, tiny villages and vast fields. Highlights include the 37km route north from Kuressaare to ANGLA, its five much-photographed wooden windmills by the roadside. Halfway along, KAALI village, home to a giant meteorite crater thought to be at least 4000 years old, makes a worthy detour.
Ten kilometres southwest of Kuressaare, you can stop at JARVE, the local beach hangout, or do the 47km down to the tip of the Torgu peninsula, which ends in an amazing view from the jagged cliffs.
Just over two hours southeast of Tallinn, TARTU is in many ways the undiscovered gem of the Baltic States, a small-scale university town that 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.
The city’s centre is its cobbled Raekoja plats, fronted by the Neoclassical Town Hall, a pink-and-white edifice with the “Kissing Students” statue in the fountain in front of it. The northeast corner features the Leaning House (a wonky-looking structure that is still essentially sound), home of the Tartu Art Museum (Wed & Fri–Sun 11am–6pm, Thurs 11am–9pm; €3), with edgy temporary exhibitions downstairs and works by Estonian masters upstairs. The Neoclassical theme continues in the cool white facade of the main Tartu University building at Ülikooli 18, just north of the square. Upstairs you can see the Student Lock-up, where students were incarcerated in the nineteenth century for such offences as the late return of library books and duelling (Mon–Sat 10am–6pm; €1). About 100m beyond the university is the red-brick Gothic St John’s Church (Mon–Sat 10am–7pm; church free; tower €2), founded in 1330, and most famous for over one thousand pint-sized terracotta sculptures set in niches around the main entrance, although only about two hundred still survive.
Behind the Town Hall, Lossi climbs Cathedral Hill, a pleasant park with the remains of the red-brick Cathedral at the top, housing the University History Museum (May–Sept Tues–Sun 10am–6pm; Oct–April Wed–Sun 11am–5pm; €4). Inside are some weird and wonderful scientific instruments, and a viewing terrace on one of the former cathedral towers. Nearby is the Sacrifice Stone, left over from Estonia’s pagan past; students now burn their lecture notes on it after the exams. Behind the stone you’ll find Kissing Hill, where newlywed grooms carry their brides.
South of Cathedral Hill, the infamous “Grey House” at Riia 15b – a place which filled the inhabitants of Tartu with dread in the 1940s and 50s – is now the KGB Cells Museum (Tues–Sat 11am–5pm; €4) with exhibits on deportations, Estonian resistance and life in the Soviet gulags, summarized in English.