Even though Estonia is a relatively small country, there is a lot to see. Therefore, you should set some priorities when planning your trip. Even with your own vehicle, Estonia offers enough for a few weeks of intensive travel. Here is a list of the top things to do in Estonia to get you started planning your trip to Estonia and an overview of the most important Estonian sights.
Things to do in estonia – the highlights
Let’s start with our list of the most beautiful things to do in Estonia. We start, of course, in Tallinn, the Estonian capital.
Tallinn Old Town
The Old Town of Tallinn, Vanalinn in Estonian, is rightly the flagship of Estonian tourism. The UNESCO World Heritage Site impresses with the large number of preserved buildings including numerous towers and wall sections of the city fortifications. Gothic facades of imposing merchant houses from the Hanseatic era, the proud guild houses along Pikk Street and an exciting gastronomic scene invite visitors to lose themselves for a long time in the narrow and sometimes still quiet alleys. The central Town Hall Square with the city’s landmark, the Gothic Town Hall, and the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral on Cathedral Hill are the hustle and bustle of the city. Cathedral Hill, with its aristocratic palaces worth seeing, is now the seat of the Estonian Parliament and the Estonian government.
Tallinn neighborhoods and quarters
Tallinn’s Old Town is a real highlight – but if you visit Tallinn and only see the Old Town, you’re missing out. Walks or short trips by bus and streetcar will take you to quiet or vibrant, historic-dreamy or hypermodern neighborhoods that you should see.
Kalamaja, the old fishing district, is the creative center of Tallinn. In addition to complete streets of romantic, colorful wooden houses, there are a number of unusual highlights to discover, like the Maritime Museum in a converted seaplane hangar.
On the creative campus of Telliskivi, bohemia reigns with organic stores, craft beer, cultural projects and, as a new star tenant, an offshoot of Stockholm’s Fotografiska Museum.
Lahemaa National Park
Much of what makes Estonia special outside the cities can be found in compact form in Lahemaa National Park. Lahemaa means “land of bays,” and indeed four striking peninsulas stretch into the Gulf of Finland on the north coast. Beyond the rocky coast are wide fields where cranes and storks rest, forests and streams.
Among the preserved manors, Palmse is the most famous, but at least as worth seeing are the estates of Kolkja – although partly a ruin – and Sagadi, whose extensive grounds are also home to the Estonian National Park Administration. The fourth of the large and well-known estates is Vihula and is home to a chic hotel*. Lahemaa can be explored by car or bicycle, or on marked hikes such as the Beaver Trail (you’ll spot beaver dams). Traditional wooden houses can be seen in the old fishing village of Altja, while Käsmu has become famous as a captain’s village. Art enthusiasts will find a great museum right by the sea in Viinistu.
If you’re driving into Narva on a dreary day, you’re probably wondering why it shows up on this list. Once praised as one of the most beautiful in the Baltic region, the city was completely destroyed during World War II and then rebuilt as a Soviet city, with monotonous rows of soulless apartment blocks. You have to look for the magic of Narva, but it exists.
The main attraction is Hermann Castle, the mighty castle that today also marks the external border of the EU. On the other side of the Narva River towers Ivangorod Fortress in Russia. The beautiful riverside promenade invites you to take a stroll along this historically and symbolically charged site – while trucks wait for clearance at the top of the bridge. Another factor contributing to Narva’s special atmosphere is that this third largest Estonian city has a predominantly Russian-speaking population. By the way, if you can, take the guided tour through the huge 19th-century Kreenholm textile factory – it’s well worth it.
Tartu has its place in a row with cozy student cities like Oxford or Uppsala: student life, alternative culture and a relaxed mood characterize the city. Given the tranquil hustle and bustle, it’s easy to overlook the fact that Tartu is also the country’s second largest city. In addition to sights such as the town hall square, the main university building or the mighty St. John’s Church (Jaani kirik), a cheap mug of beer in the Powder Cellar, a trip to the Botanical Garden and a walk on Cathedral Hill are part of every visit to Tartu.
European Capital of Culture 2024
The university has made a name for itself in the field of genetic research and regularly appears in international rankings. Just outside the city the Estonian Folk Museum awaits you in a spectacular modern museum building. In 2024, there will be one more reason to travel to Tartu: The city will then be European Capital of Culture.
Haanja Nature Park with the Suur Munamägi
The South Estonian countryside is quite different from the landscape typical in the rest of Estonia. In the glacial landscape, despite the overall low altitude, there are steep slopes and lakes enclosed by the mountain ranges, secluded farms and some tourist attractions. The highest mountain in the country can be “climbed” without special equipment (it is 318 meters high), and in the beautiful village of Rõuge you can find the so-called Nightingale Valley and other beautiful walks in a quiet environment. In the direction of the Russian border the impressive ruins of Vana-Vastseliina are waiting to be discovered. In this part of Estonia it is most true that the tourist attractions are not easy to find, but worth the effort.
Viljandi and its folk festival
Viljandi is a pretty and quiet town, medium-sized by Estonian standards, with castle ruins and swimming lake. Worth a stop at any time, but not spectacular in itself. For music lovers, however, Viljandi is a first-rate destination. Viljandi is home to the Center for Traditional Music and the venue for the annual Viljandi Folk Festival. If you want to experience the exciting musical tradition of Estonia, this is the place to be. The best way to do this is with a glass of wine on a warm summer evening at the festival.
Soomaa National Park
Soomaa means swampland and that tells a lot about the region. Soomaa belongs to the largest wetlands in Europe and is therefore an important refuge for numerous animal and plant species. The area is poorly developed, even reaching the national park center requires a longer approach on a gravel road that runs through the park. The best way to get acquainted with the nature is to take one of the signposted boardwalks, including the opportunity to swim in the marsh pondd. The fifth season in the park, which here has nothing to do with carnival, but with the large-scale flooding in the spring after the snow melts, is quite famous.
Summer capital Pärnu
There are only a few places in Estonia that are touristy and Pärnu is perhaps the closest to that. A wide, white sandy beach, a huge selection of hotels and gastronomy, spa treatments … you can spend a classic seaside vacation in Pärnu without any problems. In particular, Finnish tourists do this in large numbers, many have bought a vacation home here right away. Pärnu, with its villa districts and largely well-preserved center, is also a nice destination for strolling through the then quieter streets in the off-season. Because of its role as the most important vacation and spa resort in Estonia, Pärnu officially bears the title “summer capital”.
Haapsalu spa city
Haapsalu is the smaller and quieter sister of Pärnu, but still – or because of that – worth a visit. The port of Rohuküla, from which you go to Hiiumaa, is nearby, so you can combine a trip to Hiiumaa with a stop in Haapsalu. The highlight is the Bishop’s Castle, which you should definitely visit. From the highest accessible towers you have a great view of the city and the bay where Haapsalu is located. Railroad enthusiasts should take a look at the railroad museum at the old railroad station, from the street you can already see the locomotives outside. And during a walk along the waterfront, the spa hall with its “wooden lace” works is definitely worth a look.
The islands of Muhu and Saaremaa
Saaremaa is the fourth largest island in the Baltic Sea and slightly bigger than Lewis and Harris, but three times the size of Rügen. If you take the ferry from the mainland, you will first reach the island of Muhu, which is ranked third in the list of the largest Estonian islands. Over a dam you continue your trip to Saaremaa. But the inhabitants of Muhu do not want to be seen only as the appendage of the bigger and better known sister.
The Western Estonian islands are a little world of their own, each with its own traditions, costumes and charms. Many typical images of Estonia, of wind-bent juniper, lighthouses and windmills come from the islands. A visit to Saaremaa should be high on the list of a trip to Estonia, not only because of the top sights, the meteorite crater of Kaali and the bishop’s castle in the main town of Kuressaare.
Vilsandi National Park
The Estonian islands are sparsely populated anyway, but when you reach Vilsandi National Park on the west coast of Saaremaa, it can feel like the end of the world. Vilsandi is a bird island off Saaremaa with only a handful of permanent human inhabitants. Even the birds are mostly seasonal visitors: it’s busy here in spring and autumn, when migratory birds stop over. The brave can reach the island at low water by crossing several tidal flats, which is something quite special. The national park also includes larger parts of the west coast of Saaremaa, where long gravel roads lead to very lonely beaches and heath areas.
Hiiumaa, number 2 of the Estonian islands, seems to exude a special magic. Many visitors spontaneously fall in love with Hiiumaa, although the island does not have many spectacular sights. Most famous, and rightly so, is the massive brickstone lighthouse of Kõpu, built in 1531. Together with the island’s other lighthouses, such as at Tahkuna on the northern tip and Ristna in the far west, the island can be easily explored on a lighthouse route.
If you are a surfer, you will visit the area of Ristna anyway, because water sports enthusiasts meet at the surf camp there to enjoy the good wind conditions at the headland. Otherwise, the most interesting things on Hiiumaa are silence, space, nature and wind.
You are curious about travelling to Estonia? Let us know your favourite places and leave a comment.
- Rahkema, Heli (Author)