Located in Northern Europe, Estonia is a largely underrated gem. In addition to being affordable for travelers, Estonia boasts medieval cities, scenic coastlines and a fascinating history. Bordered by Russia, Latvia, the Gulf of Finland and the Baltic Sea, Estonia is also more accessible than many travelers expect. Among the best places to visit in Estonia are castles, national parks and cultural hotspots. Tallinn is amazing, but it’s not the only Estonian destination worth exploring!
In Southern Estonia is the small city of Viljandi. The city has a rich history that is nearly 2,600 years old, and plenty of historic architecture still remains. The 16th century ruins of the Viljandi Order Castle, for example, are a major attraction. The biggest reason to visit Viljandi, however, is the annual folk music festival. Every July, the city attracts as many as 20,000 visitors who come specifically for the folk music. Dozens of concerts are held in every venue imaginable, and the event is the largest music festival in the entire country.
Soomaa National Park is a fascinating destination. Primarily a peat bog formed as a result of glacier melt from more than 10,000 years ago, Soomaa National Park is cut by several beautiful rivers. The best way to explore Soomaa is with a canoe. You rent canoes or join a self-guided tour, and as you paddle you’ll be able to spot deer, elk, boars, beavers, golden eagles and more. Canoeing is especially popular in the spring, or what locals call the fifth season. During this time of year, water levels rise substantially, and boats are sometimes the only way to get around.
Northern Estonia is home to Rakvere, a city where humans have lived for nearly 1,500 years. The city’s biggest attractions is Rakvere Castle, which was constructed in the 16th century. The castle has become a kind of medieval theme park, and costumed visitors and staff wander the grounds. You can watch knights polishing their armor, see an alchemist’s workshop and tour the ancient wine cellar. In the castle’s Shenkenberg Tavern, you can even dine on classic medieval dishes. Visiting the castle is an unforgettable way to bring history to life.
When most people picture Estonia, they don’t picture islands. However, Hiiumaa is just one of several islands off the coast and in the Baltic Sea. To reach Hiiumaa, you can take a plane from Tallinn or a ferry from multiple coastal cities on the mainland. Equally loved by surfers, sailors, and hikers, Hiiumaa is great place to visit for those looking for peace and quiet. The island also boast many interesting lighthouses. The 19th century cast iron Tahkuna Lighthouse is the tallest in the country. The Kõpu Lighthouse, however, is far older. Dating back to the 15th century, Kõpu is one of the oldest lighthouses on the planet.
The city of Narva is the easternmost destination in the country, not to mention the entire European Union. The city was heavily bombed during World War II, but thankfully the beautiful and historic Narva Castle still stands. The castle, which is also known as Hermann Castle, was built in the 13th century but the Danes as a residence for the Danish King’s vice-Regent. Inside the castle is the Narva Museum as well as a collection of handicrafts workshops where you can watch and even learn the skills used in medieval times. The castle tower overlooks the Ivangorod castle on the Russian side of the river.
Where the Parnu River meets the Gulf of Riga, you’ll find the coastal resort city of Parnu. Parnu is known as the summer capital, because it is where so many Estonians choose to take their summer vacations. The biggest reason to come to Parnu is the beach, which boasts fine, white sand and gorgeous dunes. The beach promenade runs along the shore and helps to create the traditional coastal resort feel in the city. Even after the sun sets for the day, lighting along the promenade ensures that people are still walking and enjoying the coastal scenery. If a rainy afternoon appears, join the locals at Vee Park, a popular indoor water park in Parnu.
The largest Estonian island is called Saaremaa, and it is located in the Baltic Sea. The island has an 8,000-year-old history, and was ruled by Danes, Swedes, Germans and Russians in that time. Today, most visitors spend their time in the island’s capital city of Kuressaare. In Kuressaare, you can explore the completely intact medieval castle. You can tour the castle and the grounds, which now serve as home to the Regional Museum of Saaremaa. If you’re interested in hiking, sightseeing, birdwatching or photography, then Saaremaa’s Sõrve Peninsula is a spectacularly scenic destination to explore.
One of the most popular national parks in Estonia is Lahemaa. Since it is just an hour’s drive from the capital, it is the ideal day trip. Viru Raba, or Viru Bog, is a must-see part of the park. Trees poke from the swampy ground, and there is a definite ethereal quality. To make it easy to explore Viru Bog, there is a 5-km (3-mile) boardwalk that is usually dry, keeping you out of the water but close enough to admire the scenery. In the middle of the park is Sagadi Village, a fascinating spot where you can tour Sagadi Manor and learn more about the culture and history of the region.
The city of Tartu is considered the intellectual hub of the country, thanks to the impressive and well-known University of Tartu. Between the university and the fact that Tartu is the oldest city in the nation, this city is clearly an interesting destination. Its handsome centre is lined with classically designed 18th-century buildings, many of which have been put to innovative uses. One of the coolest attractions in Tartu is the soup neighborhood. In the soup neighborhood, every street is named after soup ingredients like potatoes, beans and peas. Old wooden houses line these streets, which are just next to the Emajõgi River.
1. Tallinn Where to Stay
The most popular place to visit in Estonia is Tallinn, the capital and the hub of medieval architecture. The heart of the city is called Toompea, a hill that retains a historic atmosphere thanks to cobblestone streets and 15th century buildings. The area is amazingly preserved and accessible on foot. From the top of Toompea, you can look out over much of the Old City. Some highlights of the Old City include the bustling shops on Viru Street, the 14th century Town Hall and the opulent 19th century Alexander Nevsky Cathedral.