Last updated on May 1st, 2017
Did you know that Estonia was number one best value destination in 2016 according to Lonely Planet? With each year this country is also becoming more popular as a startup destination. I’ve decided to check its awesomeness and visit it myself. Moreover, being an Eastern European, I have a special interest in Estonia for many reasons.
SPOILER ALERT: This country has topped my traveling list by the quality of experience, thus I would really like to share some local tips and personal advice to help you plan a trip to Estonia by yourself and discover this country beyond its capital Tallinn. Here is the menu for your convenience:
- When to visit Estonia and how long to stay there?
- Places to visit in Estonia
- How to plan an itinerary for Estonia?
- Travel budget for Estonia
- Intercity transportation
- Food in Estonia
- What to take with you to Estonia?
- Things I like about Estonia
When to visit Estonia and how long to stay there?
Let’s firstly start with a time frame question, e.g. how much time should you plan to visit Estonia? I met many tourists during Tallinn city tour and most of them came just to visit the capital. In my opinion, if you are interested getting a comprehensive feel about this country, you will need at least five days. Preferably one week.
When to visit: from the point of weather locals consider May to August as the best time. Let’s look a bit into details about the places.
What to see in Estonia
Tallinn is a cultural hub of the country and an inspiring city for many reasons. It has a charming Old Town that keeps many centuries’ history inside its streets. From the other hand, due to technological progress achieved during last 20 years, Tallinn produces and attracts startups from different countries providing all required facilities.
The city has numerous cultural and social events for any taste making it an interesting destination for young people. Yet, it’s not a huge world metropolitan city that has an ability to exhaust you with its rhythm.
Tallinn is a city that makes you feel comfortable. It is relatively easy to guide yourself around. Estonians are very nice and polite. Moreover, they understand and speak English and they are always ready to help.
In addition to this, free internet connection almost everywhere makes this city a great destination for freelancers and remote workers. Information about suggested itinerary, transportation and local advice I’ve covered in a detailed post about Tallinn trip.
Tartu is a student capital of Estonia. Though it’s the second largest city of Estonia I would describe it as cute and cozy. As most of the heritage and cultural places are situated in the center area, it’s quite easy to walk through these places by foot. Moreover, it isn’t overcrowded with tourists like Tallinn Old Town. This gives a special charm and authenticity to Tartu.
How to plan your route better? I would advise starting your journey at the tourist info point in the main Town Hall Square. If you arrive from Tallinn by bus, it makes a stop near the Old City. You can reach as well to the final bus station, which is just 15 minutes away from the square by foot.
At the tourist info point, you will receive a nice booklet with a self-guided tour. It includes a map and description of all the points of interest around the city. Though the booklet tells the walking tour takes about 2.5 hours, it includes only walking time. I would suggest planning one day for Tartu to explore and feel the city.
Places to visit in Tartu – city highlights
Toomemagi (Toome Hill). It is an area that unites panoramic views, nice park, old cathedral ruins, UNESCO observatory, old bridges and some other interesting sights. It’s a good 1-2 hour walk. If you grab a coffee or tea with you, you will definitely feel being part of a movie.
University – In addition to being the oldest university of Estonia, it has a very nice architecture and surroundings.
St John’s Church – this is an old Church dating back to the 14th century. It was damaged during World War II and was reopened only in 2005 after restoration. In addition to its historical interest, there is also a view point in the top from where you can see different parts of the city.
Walk near the river – there are nice views. On the way, there will be several bridges. When I was there, one of the bridges displayed an exhibition with important achievements of the city.
In the evening I’ve spent a good one hour at the Town Hall Square. There was live instrumental music and young people were dancing. Tartu was one of the cities which I didn’t want to leave. It was too cute, vibrant and moving not to fell in love with it
I think I made a too detailed intro to Tartu, though I believe so many places in Estonia deserve more tourist attention than they have.
Explore the nature
Estonia is famous for its pristine nature. Actually, 50% of the country surface is a forest area. There are many parks, one of the oldest and most famous is Lahemaa. Sunny weather is crucial for this place.
If you come for a longer trip to Estonia in summer, you might be interested checking out its islands. Saaremaa is the biggest one that has historical heritage, beautiful nature, beaches and local specific activities for any taste. As it’s relatively far from Tallinn and has more places to explore, you will have to plan few days for this island.
Visit beach cities
If you are visiting Estonia during the summer season, take a swim suit just in case. Beach cities in Estonia have historical centers to explore and this is one of the great things about them. That means, even if the weather by chance gets rainy, you will find places to explore in the city. Even during colder summer days, the walk on the beach feels very nice and refreshing. In addition to Tallinn, there are other popular sea destinations:
- Parnu – also called a summer capital of Estonia.
- Haapsalu is a small medieval town located on the west coast of the country just two hours away from the capital.
- Narva Joesuu is one of the famous beach destinations located close to Narva city. It is an extreme point at the east of the country that serves as well as a border with Russia. Narva is one of the cities that suffered a lot from the damages of II World War, thus it was almost completely rebuilt later. Soviet architecture dominates the city. The major part of the population is Russian speakers. If you are interested to see a completely different part of Estonia, this is the place.
Explore smaller towns
There are many small and charming towns in Estonia. They don’t get into popular touristic guides, though they are very adorable and worth a day trip. I’ve visited Viljandi and fell in love with its small streets, cute wooden houses, vast meadows and clean lake near the ruins of a medieval castle.
Every July this town hosts a Folk Music Festival where gets thousands of visitors. In other times, it’s a small paradise in the center of Estonia. Comparing to other cities, here are quite a few tourists. Despite it, there is a tourist info center with maps and guides.
You can explore more options of activities and places on the official website about tourism in Estonia.
How to plan the itinerary for Estonia?
If you are planning to travel to several places in Estonia, there are two main ways you can go about it:
- Base yourself in Tallinn and organize day trips to other places. Everything except Saaremaa is in a close proximity to the capital.
- Make a circle trip around Estonia: E.g. Tallinn -> Lahemaa -> Narva -> Tartu -> Parnu and so on. In this case, ensure you have booked accommodation in advance. On the weekends during the season getting a place in a hostel can be quite challenging.
How much does it cost to travel in Estonia?
Even if you are an ultimate budget backpacker, I would suggest planning at least 25 EUR per day. Of course, you can find free accommodation through couch surfing, hitch hike (it’s quite popular among tourists in Baltic countries) and eat junk to save money further.
The mentioned above amount will give you a basic comfort to live in a hostel, eat regular budget food and do some sightseeing. To break up the daily expenses:
- Budget accommodation will take 6-15 EUR/day depending on the place and season. You might get discounts for off season and for staying longer.
- A minimum required food expense per day 5-10 EUR
- Sightseeing – common price for entrance to different heritage sights is 0-5 EUR (per sights) with few exceptions that cost more.
- Transportation: 6 EUR for all 5 days (~1 EUR/day) in Tallinn for all transportation types (there are also available options for one and three days). Intercity – through carpooling FB groups mentioned below you can get a place for Tallinn – Tartu route for 5 EUR.
How to commute in Estonia?
There is a general ticket platform in Estonia – tPilet, where you can find all available tickets for different cities. Otherwise, you can check up Lux express and Ecolines, especially if you are planning to commute from Estonia to another European country. If you are under 26, you can avail youth discount while buying some tickets.
If you want to get cheaper options check out Facebook groups for different intercity routes. E.g. Tallinn – Tartu – Tallinn, Tallinn – Parnu, etc. There you will find daily posts from people who have extra spaces for other passengers on the route. Price wise this option comes cheaper than a bus ticket. You can check as well Wisemile for carpooling deals between cities.
Though there are many food options in café menus, Estonians claim one of the most common dishes is herring with cheese crème, potatoes, and vegetables. I found this combination of ingredients unusual, though it’s actually tasty.
Eastern Europe is generally a “potato” area, thus you can expect many varieties of dishes with potatoes. Baltic countries are also famous for dairy products. There are many varieties and I do advise to try them out.
There are many hostels in the area of the Old Town of Tallinn. I suggest booking a place in advance if you are traveling during the weekend in a high season (summer). You can always find good accommodation deals online – just don’t forget to filter by lowest price first. If you are ready to spend a bit more on accommodation, there will be always available places in hotels or Airbnb rooms.
What to pack to Estonia?
In addition to your standard packing list, I would strongly suggest taking the following:
- Warm clothes. Even if you come in summer, the weather can be very unpredictable. There are rains and winds at times, thus it’s hard to understand sometimes the optimal number of clothes. If you take a summer coat/hoodie, it might come handy especially in the evenings.
- Comfortable Shoes. In Tallinn as well as in the other cities the central area is made of cobblestones. Your shoes need to be ready to hours of walking on different surfaces.
- Sun crème. Despite the temperature was +15 +18 during my visit and just a few sunny days (rather parts of the days), somehow I managed to get sunburned.
- Umbrella. It’s raining quite often in Baltics. You can always check hourly forecast of the weather, though you want to double check it on the same day as it might change.
Things I like about Estonia
- Politically calm – you might see crowds of tourists roaming around government buildings. If you are lucky, you will see some of the local government workers moving on the streets. They are not protected by 100s of guards who are blocking the traffic whenever commuting.
- Technologically advanced – as a visitor, I liked that I can find any information about any destination within Estonia online, book tickets or acquire other required services online. From the point of local citizens, it’s quite cool that they can pay bills, vote and do other procedures without leaving their homes.
- Free public transportation in Tallinn for registered local residents. This is a great idea to decrease the number of cars in the city and increase number of taxpayers.
- English is widely understood especially among young Estonians. That was quite surprising that even people elder than 40 years are feeling comfortable in speaking English. Though local people told that Russian is widely understood by elder generation, I heard quite seldom Russian as a language of communication.
- Nice, patient, polite and helpful people. Whenever I was asking any question or direction, locals were literally on a mission to explain me everything as much detailed as possible.
- Proud to be Estonian. I’ve talked to quite a few locals both young and old, Estonian and Russian speakers – everyone has some local specifics they are proud for (though many people as well complain about the climate :D)
- For anything you buy in Estonia, you get a receipt. This might not sound surprising for Western World, but it’s not the common rule that works around Eastern Europe.
Estonia was a pleasant surprise of my journey! I loved it for many reasons. If I choose two main reasons those will be a combination of contrasts I talked about in the beginning of this post and wide coverage of free Wifi.
When you work online, connectivity can be one of the stress situations on the road, which was never the case in e-Estonia. It’s interesting to see how this country made a significant breakthrough in last two decades.
What about you? Have you visited or planning to visit Estonia? If you live in Estonia, what other tips you would share with the first-time visitors?