Estonia Travel Guide – Everything You Need to Know

Estonia, a hidden gem in Northern Europe, is a nation of natural beauty, rich history, and vibrant culture. Nestled on the shores of the Baltic Sea, this small but dynamic country offers tourists an array of unique experiences. Explore medieval towns, pristine forests, and innovative urban spaces, all while immersing yourself in Estonian hospitality and traditions.

What’s the Best Time to Visit? 📅

The best time to visit Estonia as a tourist depends on your interests and the type of experience you seek. Estonia experiences distinct seasons, each with its own attractions. Here’s a breakdown of the seasons to help you choose the ideal time for your visit:

  1. Summer (June to August):
    • Best for Outdoor Activities: Summer is the most popular time to visit Estonia. The weather is mild and pleasant, with long daylight hours.
    • Festivals and Events: Numerous festivals and events take place during the summer, including music festivals, outdoor markets, and cultural celebrations.
    • Lush Nature: Estonia’s forests and countryside are in full bloom during this time, offering excellent opportunities for hiking, cycling, and wildlife-watching.
  2. Spring (April to May) and Autumn (September to October):
    • Milder Weather: Spring and autumn offer milder temperatures and fewer tourists. It’s a good time for exploring cities and nature without the summer crowds.
    • Colorful Foliage: In autumn, you can witness the beautiful fall foliage in forests and parks. Spring brings blooming wildflowers.
    • Cultural Activities: You can still enjoy cultural events, museums, and historical sites during these seasons.
  3. Winter (November to March):
    • Winter Activities: If you enjoy winter sports, such as skiing and ice skating, or experiencing a winter wonderland, Estonia offers snowy landscapes.
    • Christmas Markets: Explore the charming Christmas markets in cities like Tallinn and Tartu during December.
    • Sauna Culture: Embrace the local sauna culture to stay warm during the cold months.

Keep in mind that Estonia’s proximity to the Baltic Sea can bring unpredictable weather, so it’s advisable to check the forecast before your trip. The best time to visit Estonia varies depending on whether you prefer outdoor adventures, cultural experiences, or the peaceful ambiance of each season. Summer is the most popular time, but each season has its unique charm and attractions.

What’s the Best Way to Get Around? 🚌

Getting around Estonia as a tourist is relatively easy, thanks to its well-developed transportation infrastructure. Here are the best ways to get around the country:

  1. Public Transportation: Estonia has an efficient and reliable public transportation system, especially in major cities like Tallinn and Tartu. You can use trams, buses, and trolleys to navigate urban areas. Public transportation is affordable and convenient for short trips within the cities.
  2. Taxis: Taxis are readily available in cities and can be hailed on the street or ordered via a taxi app. While taxis are more expensive than public transport, they offer convenience and speed.
  3. Rental Cars: Renting a car is an excellent option if you plan to explore the countryside and visit smaller towns or remote areas. Estonia has well-maintained roads, and traffic is generally light outside major cities. It’s advisable to have an international driver’s license if your license is not in English or Estonian.
  4. Bicycles: Many Estonian cities, including Tallinn, offer bike-sharing programs, making it easy to explore urban areas by bicycle. Estonia has a growing network of dedicated bike lanes.
  5. Long-Distance Buses: If you plan to travel between cities or explore more remote regions, long-distance buses are a cost-effective and convenient option. Bus services connect most major towns and cities in Estonia.
  6. Trains: While Estonia has a limited train network, you can use trains for certain routes. For example, the train ride between Tallinn and Tartu is a comfortable and scenic option.
  7. Ferries: Estonia has numerous islands, and ferries are an essential mode of transport to reach these destinations. Regular ferry services are available to islands like Saaremaa and Hiiumaa.
  8. Domestic Flights: While not usually necessary for domestic travel within Estonia, you can book domestic flights for convenience if you need to cover longer distances quickly.
  9. Walking: Estonia’s cities, especially Tallinn, are pedestrian-friendly, and exploring on foot is a great way to soak in the local atmosphere and see historic sites.
  10. Hitchhiking: Some travelers choose to hitchhike, but it’s essential to exercise caution, especially when traveling alone.

Estonia’s public transportation system is well-connected, and most tourist destinations are easily accessible. The best mode of transportation depends on the nature of your trip, your destination, and personal preferences. For city exploration, public transport, bicycles, and walking are excellent choices, while renting a car is ideal for exploring the countryside.

What’s the Official Language?

The official language of Estonia is Estonian (Eesti keel). While many Estonians, especially in urban areas, speak English, especially in tourist-related businesses, learning a few Estonian words and phrases can enhance your travel experience and show respect for the local culture. Here are some basic Estonian words and phrases for tourists:

  1. Tere – Hello
  2. Aitäh – Thank you
  3. Palun – Please
  4. Vabandage – Excuse me
  5. Jah – Yes
  6. Ei – No
  7. Kuidas läheb? – How are you?
  8. Tere tulemast – Welcome
  9. Tänan, hästi – Thank you, I’m fine
  10. Vabandage, ma ei räägi eesti keelt – Excuse me, I don’t speak Estonian
  11. Raha – Money
  12. Menüü – Menu
  13. Arve – Bill
  14. Apteek – Pharmacy
  15. Toit – Food
  16. Joogivesi – Drinking water
  17. WC – Restroom
  18. Bussijaam – Bus station
  19. Rongijaam – Train station
  20. Mitmendal korrusel? – Which floor?

Estonians generally appreciate it when visitors make an effort to speak their language, even if it’s just a few basic words and phrases. However, you’ll find that many Estonians, especially those in the tourism industry, speak English, Russian, or other languages, making communication relatively easy for tourists.

Where to Stay? 🏨

Estonia offers a wide range of accommodation options for tourists, from budget-friendly hostels to luxury hotels and charming guesthouses. The best place to stay depends on your budget and the type of experience you seek. Here are some popular areas and accommodation types for tourists in Estonia:

Tallinn: Tallinn, the capital city, is a top destination for tourists and offers a variety of accommodation options, including:

  1. Old Town: Staying in Tallinn’s historic Old Town allows you to immerse yourself in its medieval charm. You’ll find boutique hotels, cozy guesthouses, and hostels here.
  2. City Center: The city center offers a mix of accommodation types, including upscale hotels and apartments. It’s a convenient base for exploring the city.
  3. Kadriorg: This peaceful neighborhood is home to the beautiful Kadriorg Park and Kadriorg Palace. It’s an excellent area for relaxation and upscale accommodations.
  4. Kalamaja: Known for its bohemian atmosphere and wooden houses, Kalamaja offers a unique and artsy vibe. It’s home to stylish boutique hotels and hostels.

Pärnu: Pärnu is a popular coastal resort town known for its sandy beaches and spa culture. You’ll find a range of hotels, resorts, and guesthouses, many of which are close to the beach.

Tartu: Tartu is Estonia’s second-largest city and a university town, offering a mix of accommodation options, including hotels, hostels, and guesthouses. It’s known for its youthful and vibrant atmosphere.

Saaremaa and Hiiumaa Islands: For a peaceful and nature-oriented experience, consider staying on Saaremaa or Hiiumaa Islands. These islands offer guesthouses, rural accommodations, and spa hotels.

Narva: Narva, located on the border with Russia, has historical significance and offers accommodation options, including hotels and hostels.

Estonian Countryside: If you want a tranquil rural experience, you can find guesthouses, farm stays, and nature retreats in the Estonian countryside.

Hostels: Estonia has several hostels catering to budget-conscious travelers. Hostels are often clean, comfortable, and a great way to meet fellow travelers.

Holiday Apartments: Consider renting a holiday apartment for more space and self-catering options, which can be convenient for longer stays.

Luxury Hotels: Estonia boasts a few high-end luxury hotels, especially in Tallinn and Pärnu, offering top-notch amenities and services.

When booking accommodation in Estonia, it’s advisable to make reservations in advance, especially during peak tourist seasons. Consider your preferences, budget, and the regions you plan to visit when selecting your lodging. Estonia offers a wide array of accommodations to suit various travel styles, from historical Old Town stays to serene countryside retreats.

What to Eat? 🍽️

Estonian cuisine is characterized by its simplicity, reliance on local ingredients, and hearty flavors. When visiting Estonia as a tourist, be sure to try these traditional dishes and food items to savor the local flavors:

  1. Estonian Rye Bread (Leib): Estonians are known for their dark and dense rye bread, which is often enjoyed with butter and various toppings.
  2. Verivorst: This blood sausage is a traditional Estonian Christmas dish, typically served with lingonberry sauce.
  3. Hapukapsas: Sauerkraut is a common accompaniment to many Estonian meals, especially during the winter months.
  4. Mulgipuder: A hearty dish made from barley or potatoes and typically served with pork and a rich gravy.
  5. Kartulipuder: Mashed potatoes are a staple side dish in Estonian cuisine, often served with a variety of meats.
  6. Estonian Black Pudding (Verikäkk): A type of blood sausage, often seasoned with barley and spices.
  7. Sült: A jellied meat dish made from pork, traditionally served cold.
  8. Kama: A versatile Estonian superfood, kama is a mix of roasted barley, rye, oat, and pea flour. It’s often blended with yogurt and berries for a nutritious breakfast.
  9. Rosolje: A traditional salad made from beets, potatoes, pickles, and herring, usually dressed with sour cream.
  10. Karask: A type of Estonian bread or flatbread, typically made from barley or rye flour and buttermilk.
  11. Estonian Pea Soup (Hernesupp): A comforting soup made from split peas and often served with a dollop of sour cream.
  12. Smoked Fish: Estonia’s proximity to the Baltic Sea means you can enjoy a variety of smoked fish, including Baltic herring and salmon.
  13. Pirukad: These pastry pockets are filled with meat, cabbage, mushrooms, or other ingredients. They make for a convenient and tasty snack.
  14. Kohuke: A popular sweet treat, kohuke is a curd snack covered in chocolate or various flavored glazes.
  15. Vastlakukkel: A sweet bun traditionally enjoyed on Shrove Tuesday (Vastlapäev) and filled with whipped cream and jam.
  16. Vana Tallinn: Try Estonia’s famous liqueur, Vana Tallinn, which comes in various flavors and is often sipped as a digestif.
  17. Kvass: A non-alcoholic fermented beverage made from rye bread, sugar, and yeast, with a slightly sour and sweet taste.

Exploring Estonian cuisine is an integral part of understanding the country’s culture and heritage. Don’t miss the opportunity to taste these dishes and flavors while experiencing the rich culinary traditions of Estonia.

What to See? 🔍

Estonia offers a diverse range of attractions and places of interest for tourists to explore. Here are some must-see places when visiting Estonia:

Tallinn:

  1. Tallinn Old Town: The well-preserved medieval Old Town of Tallinn, a UNESCO World Heritage site, is a charming and historic area with cobblestone streets, Gothic architecture, and a wealth of shops, restaurants, and cafes.
  2. Alexander Nevsky Cathedral: This Russian Orthodox cathedral stands as an iconic symbol of Tallinn and offers stunning architecture and interior decor.
  3. Kadriorg Palace: Visit this grand baroque palace, surrounded by beautiful Kadriorg Park, home to several museums, including the Kadriorg Art Museum.
  4. Tallinn Song Festival Grounds: This historic site has hosted numerous song festivals and events and offers panoramic views of the city.

Tartu:

  1. University of Tartu: Explore the vibrant university town of Tartu and visit its historic university, founded in 1632, and the beautiful botanical gardens.
  2. Tartu Old Town: Discover the quaint Old Town with its Hanseatic-style architecture and cultural attractions.

Saaremaa Island:

  1. Kuressaare Castle: Explore the medieval Kuressaare Castle, which now houses a museum dedicated to the history of Saaremaa.
  2. Angla Windmills: These iconic windmills are a cultural symbol of Saaremaa and offer picturesque views of the island.

Hiiumaa Island:

  1. Kõpu Lighthouse: Visit the historic Kõpu Lighthouse, one of the oldest in the world, and enjoy panoramic views of Hiiumaa.

Pärnu:

  1. Pärnu Beach: Relax on the sandy beaches of Pärnu, a popular summer destination known for its spa culture.
  2. Pärnu Old Town: Stroll through the charming streets of Pärnu’s Old Town and admire its architecture.

Lahemaa National Park:

  1. Palmse Manor: Explore the grand Palmse Manor, a well-preserved historic estate within the national park.
  2. Jägala Waterfall: Witness the impressive Jägala Waterfall, the most powerful waterfall in Estonia.

Rakvere:

  1. Rakvere Castle: Visit the medieval Rakvere Castle, where you can immerse yourself in the past and experience various historical reenactments.

Paldiski:

  1. Pakri Lighthouse and Cliffs: Enjoy the scenic beauty of the Pakri Peninsula, known for its rugged cliffs and the historic Pakri Lighthouse.

Narva:

  1. Narva Castle: Explore Narva Castle, which offers a unique mix of architectural styles and is situated on the border with Russia.

Viljandi:

  1. Viljandi Castle Hills: Discover the historical ruins of Viljandi Castle and enjoy the serene ambiance of Lake Viljandi.

These are just a few of the many attractions and natural wonders Estonia has to offer. Whether you’re interested in history, culture, nature, or relaxation, you’ll find a wide range of places to explore and experiences to enjoy throughout the country.

What to Do? 📸

As a tourist in Estonia, there are several must-do activities and experiences that will help you make the most of your visit. Here are some of the top things to do in Estonia:

  1. Explore Tallinn’s Old Town: Wander through the medieval streets of Tallinn’s Old Town, a UNESCO World Heritage site, and soak in the historic charm. Don’t miss the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral and Toompea Castle.
  2. Visit Saaremaa and Hiiumaa Islands: Discover the serene beauty of these two islands, known for their picturesque landscapes, historic sites, and relaxed atmosphere.
  3. Savor Estonian Cuisine: Try traditional Estonian dishes like black pudding, rye bread, and sauerkraut. Don’t forget to taste local desserts and sweets.
  4. Hike in Lahemaa National Park: Explore the pristine nature of Lahemaa National Park, with its lush forests, coastal cliffs, and historic manors. You can hike, bike, or take nature walks.
  5. Attend a Song Festival: If your visit coincides with one, attend a traditional Estonian Song Festival, where thousands of singers come together to perform in a magnificent choral event.
  6. Enjoy a Sauna: Embrace Estonian sauna culture by taking a relaxing sauna bath, which is an integral part of the local lifestyle.
  7. Visit the University Town of Tartu: Explore the youthful atmosphere of Tartu, Estonia’s second-largest city, with its historic university and vibrant arts scene.
  8. Take a Ferry to Finland: Estonia is well-connected to neighboring Finland by ferry. Consider taking a day trip to Helsinki to experience another Nordic culture.
  9. Experience Winter Activities: If you visit during the winter months, enjoy activities like ice skating, cross-country skiing, and winter sports in places like Otepää.
  10. Tour Castles and Manors: Estonia is home to numerous historic castles and manors, such as Kuressaare Castle and Palmse Manor, where you can learn about the country’s past.
  11. See the Baltic Coast: Explore the beautiful Baltic coastline, with its sandy beaches, fishing villages, and opportunities for swimming and water sports.
  12. Learn about the Singing Revolution: Visit museums and historic sites related to Estonia’s Singing Revolution, which played a crucial role in the country’s path to independence.
  13. Attend Local Festivals: Join in on local festivals and cultural events to experience the vibrant and diverse traditions of Estonia.
  14. Participate in Outdoor Activities: Whether it’s hiking, biking, canoeing, or wildlife-watching, Estonia’s natural landscapes offer various outdoor activities for nature enthusiasts.
  15. Shop for Local Crafts: Purchase traditional Estonian handicrafts like wooden items, ceramics, and textiles from local markets and shops.
  16. Discover the Art Scene: Explore Estonia’s contemporary art scene by visiting galleries and art exhibitions in cities like Tallinn and Tartu.

Estonia offers a mix of historical, cultural, and natural experiences that will leave you with lasting memories of this enchanting Baltic country. Whether you’re interested in history, nature, or the vibrant city life, there’s something for every type of traveler in Estonia.

Culture and Safety 🦺

Culture:

  1. Respect the Local Customs: Estonians are generally reserved but friendly. It’s essential to respect their personal space and privacy. Handshakes are a common form of greeting.
  2. Language: While many Estonians, especially in urban areas, speak English, it’s appreciated if you learn a few basic Estonian phrases. Locals will often switch to English to assist you.
  3. Punctuality: Estonians value punctuality, so be on time for appointments and tours.
  4. Sauna Etiquette: Saunas are an essential part of Estonian culture. If you’re invited to a sauna, familiarize yourself with the etiquette, which usually involves alternating between the hot sauna and cold dips or showers.
  5. Dress Code: Dress appropriately for the season and activity. In more formal settings, such as restaurants, dressing neatly is appreciated.
  6. Tipping: Tipping is common in Estonia, and it’s customary to leave a tip of around 10-15% in restaurants, cafes, and for tour guides.
  7. Photography: Always ask for permission before taking photos of people, especially in rural areas. Some people may prefer not to be photographed.

Safety:

  1. Low Crime Rate: Estonia has a relatively low crime rate, making it a safe destination for travelers. However, like in any country, exercise common-sense precautions, such as keeping an eye on your belongings in crowded places.
  2. Healthcare: Estonia has a good healthcare system. If you need medical assistance, look for public health facilities or private clinics.
  3. Travel Insurance: It’s advisable to have travel insurance to cover unexpected events, such as medical emergencies or trip disruptions.
  4. Road Safety: If you’re driving, be cautious on the roads, especially in rural areas. Roads can be narrow, and wildlife might be crossing.
  5. Weather Awareness: Estonia experiences varying weather conditions, so check the weather forecast and prepare accordingly, especially during the winter months.
  6. Alcohol and Tobacco: The legal drinking age in Estonia is 18. Be mindful of alcohol consumption and the consumption of alcohol in public places, as it’s regulated. Smoking is prohibited in many public indoor spaces.
  7. Wildlife Encounters: In natural areas, be cautious around wildlife, especially in national parks and forests. Maintain a safe distance and don’t feed wild animals.

Estonia is generally a safe and welcoming destination for tourists. By respecting local customs and exercising common-sense precautions, you can have a pleasant and trouble-free experience while exploring the culture and natural beauty of this Baltic nation.

Conclusion

For tourists, Estonia promises a journey through time, from ancient castles to modern innovation. Explore its captivating capital, Tallinn, and lose yourself in the untouched wilderness. As you bid farewell to this enchanting nation, you’ll leave with treasured memories of Estonia’s unique blend of history, nature, and contemporary charm. Visit Estonia, where past and present harmonize, creating an unforgettable traveler’s tale.