Since gaining independence in 1991, Estonia still remains an unchartered territory for most globetrotters. The country’s proximity to Finland makes it ideal for a short stop during a Northern Lights holiday, but those who invest more time in the Baltic nation also quickly realise it is worthwhile doing so.
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It comes as no surprise that Estonia’s most popular site is its capital, Tallinn. A former economic centre of the Hanseatic League, the city is a treasure box of historic and cultural gems with a vibrant music and booze scene for added fun. But go beyond the shores of Tallinn and you will discover a lesser-known side of Estonia — you just need to take the plunge!
Journey through time with a stroll around Tallinn’s old town
Designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the old town of Tallinn dates back to the 13th century and remains one of the best preserved medieval towns in Europe. Take a walk down the cobblestoned streets of Tallinn’s old town and you will notice a myriad of architectural styles stemming from the town’s long history under the Germans, Swedes, Danish and Russians. In no time, you will find yourself lost in the labyrinth of colourful houses, Gothic churches, guilds and warehouses belonging to wealthy merchants from Germany and afar.
Do not limit your exploration to the ground level — climb up one of the many towers along the fortified town walls for panoramic views or venture into the underground world of bastion tunnels that run beneath the city for a different perspective.
Reconnect with nature and Estonia’s past at Lahemaa National Park
Just an hour’s drive away from Tallinn lies Estonia’s oldest and largest national park, where time seems to have stood still. Let silence and tranquillity engulf you as you amble on boardwalks across a bog, cycle past sandy beaches and coastlines littered with glacial boulders from the Ice Age, or hike through canola fields and pine forests teeming with wildlife.
You can also gain insight into the lives of Estonians in the past through the little traces of civilisation that remain in Lahemaa National Park — explore an abandoned submarine base of the former Soviet Union, visit historic classic manor houses that once belonged to rich aristocrats and drop by fishing villages or the local maritime museum where model ships and antiquated fishing tools are preserved.
Make merry with Estonian craft beer
Many small breweries have been springing up around Tallinn as locals attune their taste buds to the popular beverage. When you are looking to rest those tired legs after a long day, pop by a local speakeasy or gastropub for a taste of Estonian drafts. Be sure to try the beer from Põhjala Brewery; their brews are ranked among the best in the country. This is also your chance to strike up a conversation with the locals over drinks because nothing works better at breaking the ice than a cool pint.
Time your visit to coincide with the Tallinn Craft Beer Weekend, the largest international beer festival in the Baltic region, where you can savour the unique brews of more than 30 microbreweries from Estonia, the United States and Europe.
Go island hopping
Estonia has a whopping 1,521 islands, each different from the other, which means you can easily spend a few days hopping from island to island. Saaremaa, Estonia’s largest island where Viking battles were once fought, wields a mysterious charm — it is home to wooden windmills, a 14th-century castle and a crater field where a giant meteorite fell with the force of an atomic bomb some 7,500 years ago.
For a taste of laid-back and authentic island life, visit Muhu or Kihnu, where islanders still retain their colourful village traditions. The unique culture of Kihnu, where women wield more power than men, is even on UNESCO’s List of Intangible Cultural Heritage. If you relish the outdoors, you can go kayaking among islets at Hiiumaa or go seal-watching at Prangli.
Sing along to Estonian folk songs
For a country that gained national independence with the Singing Revolution, singing holds a special place in Estonia as an expression of national identity. From songs about mythical legends to the everyday life of farmers, the country has one of the world’s largest collections of folk songs.
This singing tradition is kept alive with the Estonian Song Festival, which is held once every five years in July. Feel the excitement and passion as you sit among the 100,000-strong crowd at the Tallinn Song Festival Grounds and watch more than 25,000 singers come together to give a resounding choral performance. The festival, which is inscribed in UNESCO’s Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity, is next scheduled to take place in 2019.