Estonia’s Best Kept Secret, the Island of Saaremaa

Saaremaa Meteorite Crater

Beyond Tallinn, people generally don’t know of other destinations to visit on a trip to Estonia. This is a pity as the country in the north of Europe has plenty in the way of attractions, including its second city Tartu or the seaside at Pärnu. But I think the country’s most overlooked and under-appreciated spot has to be its largest island, Saaremaa.

How is it possible that Estonia’s largest island is still a secret known to so few people? No idea! I’m generally reluctant to throw phrases like “Best Kept Secret” around but I honestly feel it applies here. Saaremaa is a fantastically diverse destination, possessing unique historical, culture and natural attractions that are bound to appeal to those who visit. My time there was far too short to fully cover all there is to see and do, but I will share here three of the big sights to see when visiting Saaremaa.

 

Saaremaa

Saaremaa Countryside

Before we get into the main sights of Saaremaa, I thought I’d share a little about the island itself. Saaremaa is Estonia’s largest of the country’s 2,222 islands and lies in the country’s west in the Baltic Sea. Saaremaa is roughly similar to the area of Rhode Island and home to approximately 30,000 people. Much of Saaremaa’s history mirrors that of mainland Estonia, except that after WWII it was basically isolated, almost cutting it off from the mainland between 1946 and 1989. It may be this restriction that has meant the island is behind the rest of the country in terms of tourists.

Although I had difficulty in telling, the people of Saaremaa are said to speak in their own distinct accent that even mainlanders can struggle to understand. The island is well known for its dairy products, but also for the delicious and dense black bread that you can find throughout the country. I swear, this bread is so delicious that all you need is a little butter and you’re set. One evening, the free bread I was served with my meal almost eclipsed the main meal I had ordered. Now, enough raving about bread…

 

Kuressaare

Kuressaare on Saaremaa

I don’t know if it’s just me, but the castle actually looks like the real life version of the one from Shrek.

Let’s start our look at the sights of Saaremaa with its largest town, the impossibly quaint Kuressaare. Found on the island’s south coast, Kuressaare is most likely the place visitors will find themselves based. With almost half of the island’s population living here, it’s fair to say that the town is the hub of the island. Good news then that Kuressaare has an easy going charm to it. Throughout the town centre you’ll mostly come across old fashioned wooden houses and plenty of small boutique shops and cafes to while away your day.

If there’s a highlight of Kuressaare it has to be the town’s castle. Kuressaare Castle, once known as Arensburg Castle, is a large moated castle found by the sea shore. The castle cuts a very distinct star shaped figure on the map with its angular fortified walls surrounded by a deep moat. Outside the moat are also some very elegant manor buildings that are more recent additions and there are some spectacular views from the surrounding park. Unfortunately, I managed to delete ALL of my photos from Kuressaare so sadly the castle photos below are not my own.

Kuressaare Linnus by Anneli Rumm
“Kuressaare Linnus” by Anneli Rumm is licensed under CC BY 2.0

The castle’s history is tied with that of Kuressaare itself, which is first mentioned in writing in 1154. It was during this time that the crusading Livonian Brothers of the Sword arrived on Saaremaa and settled. The castle was built sometime during the 13th and 14th centuries, originally of wood, aiding their efforts to spread Christianity to the locals. The castle as with the island of Saaremaa passed hands many times over the centuries between big regional players like the Danes, Swedes and Russians.

What makes Kuressaare Castle such an impressive sight today is it’s big square, almost monolithic keep. Not fancy at all, but if you were to draw a textbook basic castle, Kuressaare Castle wouldn’t be far off. I don’t know if it’s just me, but the castle actually looks like the real life version of the one from Shrek. The keep now hosts the Saaremaa Museum, but the grounds and fortifications are open to the public.

Kuressaare Castle by Bernt Rostad
“Kuressaare Castle” by Bernt Rostad is licensed under CC BY 2.0

It was during my exploration of Kuressaare Castle that I came across the noise and people of the local Kuressaare Maritime Festival. Celebrating it’s 20th anniversary, this three day festival was a pretty big affair with everything from music performances, to food and antique markets. There were even some old wooden ships sailing around at one point a ship flying the Latvian Flag blasted its cannons without warning giving everyone a good scare. The festival runs during the middle of August and sees a swell in visitor numbers without losing its laid-back, seaside feel.

Maritime Festival on Saaremaa

Maritime Boat at Saaremaa

 

Kaali Meteorite Craters

Main Crater on Saaremaa

It dawned on me that I was standing in the impact crater from a space rock on an island in the Baltic Sea, with it all to myself.

One of the coolest attractions I came across not only in Saaremaa, but all of Estonia was the Kaali Meteorite Craters. Across the span of 1 square kilometre in the centre of the island are 9 craters caused by the impact of a meteorite hitting the island. It is believed that when the meteorite hit the Earth, it weighed somewhere about 1000 tons, hitting the ground at 10-20km/second. Those insane figures aside, the meteorite is believed to have fallen over 4000 years ago. In what I thought was fascinating, the age of the meteorite was determined through a combination of scientific analysis and examination of folklore and sagas that actually feature the event.

Crater Loop on Saaremaa

The most visited of the Kaali Craters is the Main Crater found right by the town centre. A sight to behold, the main crater is 110 metres across and 22 metres deep. While it was mostly dried up when I visited, there is a lake at the bottom that can get as deep as 6 metres. Around the edge of the crater is a walking track to see the crater from various angles, but you’re also able to climb down in and admire it up close.

While being a physical phenomenon in it’s own right, the main crater also has significance as a historical and ecological site. During the late Bronze Age, a settlement was formed on the walls of the main crater and was later surrounded by a small wall when it was likely used as a place of important spirituality. As it happens, the crater is also important from an ecological standpoint as various types of local moss and flora have been discovered here.

Kaali Main Crater on Saaremaa

After being wowed exploring the main Kaali Crater, I decided to see if I could search for the lesser craters spread out over the surrounding countryside. Once I had consulted the map at the main information area, I set off down a country road. I soon came across a farmer’s field with a small but conspicuous copse of trees in the middle of it. As it was in roughly the right area according to the map, I concluded it must have been the site of another crater.

Observing the farmer’s sign granting access to the property during the day, I headed into the field. Immediately I regretted my choice of shoes as my feet were quickly soaked by the dew and wet ground underneath. I followed the vague track and soon found myself in trees surrounding Crater 1. Considerably smaller than the main crater, Crater 1 made up for it with an almost magical atmosphere. It dawned on me that I was standing in the impact crater from a space rock on an island in the Baltic Sea, with it all to myself.

Krater Copse of Trees

Crater 1 Saaremaa

Once I’d had enough at Crater 1, I continued on around the countryside around Kaali and came across another crater, this time even smaller. It seems many of the craters are located in people’s farmland limiting their access. Still, getting to see 3 of the 9 was pretty fantastic.

While hunting the Meteorite Craters, I got to explore the countryside and actually came across a few eerie spots. First there was the seemingly derelict factory of some sort with crumbling sheds that looked like it had been that way since WWII. The truly creepy spot though was the abandoned manor house that I came across. As I stood in front of its unhinged gate, two unseen trees ground together making a squeaking noise that definitely startled me. I did dare walk through the gate into the grounds a little in order to get a few shots but man I was creeped out. Perfect location for a horror movie if your a film scout I reckon.

Small Crater on Saaremaa

Creepy Mansion on Saaremaa

 

Windmills of Angla

Windmills of Saaremaa

Last of the sights in Saaremaa is the charming Windmills of Angla in the island’s north. It is here on Windmill Mount outside the tiny village of Angla that five historic windmills stand proud. While its characteristic windmill was once the symbol of the island, few remain today and Angla has the only remaining group on Saaremaa. Once, hills like Windmill Mount were common across the island and the locals harnessed this power to grind wheat and rye for bread making. There are mentions going back as far as the 16th century of 9 windmills found here at Windmill mount, making this both important to the history and culture of the island.

Angla on Saaremaa

Of the windmills, 4 are of a traditional style local to Saaremaa, but the largest one is actually of a Dutch style. Built in   1927, this windmill differs from the local style due to its size, that it was more mechanised and also the fact that it was fixed in place. See the local windmills of Saaremaa were actually able to be fully turned to face whatever direction the wind was blowing, whereas the Dutch mill had a turnable cap.

A visit to Windmill Mount includes a walk through the windmills, which are all able to be climbed into so you can see the inner working. Inside the Dutch Mill are several levels, with some information inside, but you can also walk around its outside upper deck as well. The site has a small restaurant and museum with information on the windmills and their place in the culture of Saaremaa. Entry costs 3.5€.

Tractors of Saaremaa

Angla Windmills of Saaremaa

Buses from Kuressaare don’t run very frequently, so while I waited for the next one I darted off to the small village of Angla nearby. Angla is a simple farming village and extremely tiny, so it doesn’t take long to explore. What’s great is that you get to walk down a quiet country lane and admire the old, traditional farm houses that line it. Simple.

Angla Street on Saaremaa

Angla Village on Saaremaa

 

Information and Tips

Saaremaa Ferry

  • While Kuressaare is serviced with its own airport, the more likely means of getting there is by the ferry from Virtsu on the mainland. Bus connections that include the ferry ride are possible from Tallinn and Pärnu among others (Schedules here);
  • Best means of getting around the island seems to definitely be by car. There is a bus network covering the island but the times are few and far between, with the schedules found at Kuressaare bus station;
  • You’re likely to find most of the accommodation options in Kuressaare, but there are plenty to choose from. I’d happily recommend the comfortable and homely Muru Guesthouse where I stayed;
  • There are plenty of dining options available to you in Kuressaare. Personal recommendations would be Retro Kohrvik for the friendly staff (and the bread!) and Saaremaa Veski for the ambience of eating in an actual windmill;

 


Have you visited the Island of Saaremaa before? If not, where would you heard first? Please share in the comments below.

*Disclaimer: This post contains affiliate links. If you click on one and make a booking, I may make a small commission, but at no extra cost to you. 

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Estonia's Best Kept Secret, the Island of Saaremaa via @travelsewhere

 


This post is part of Weekend Wanderlust linkup put together by A Brit and A Southerner. Please follow the link for more great posts.

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40 Comment

  1. Boy you certainly did find a gem! The island is so beautiful and has so much to offer! Pinned!

  2. I have become more interested in Estonia after e-meeting Kreete in our #feetdotravel group so this blog is a wonderful read. It looks like such a lovely place and Saaremaa a hidden gem. Will definitely add this to my list of must-see’s when I hit Europe on my full time travels! #feetdotravel

  3. Midori says:

    Sooooo beautiful! I think this year I should go to Estonia! So many beautiful places there and not so much crowded by tourists! Perfect! thanks for sharing!

  4. mymeenalife says:

    That’s a lot of islands! I can see the similarities between Kuressaare Castle and the one in Shrek, wonder if they used it as inspiration? I’ve only visited a huge meteorite crater in Arizona, and so these small craters with such lush greenery seem very different by comparison. That one on the farmers land is incredible.

    1. David says:

      Maybe it was the inspiration Meena. Yeh, I imagine it is quite different, would love to see more craters to compare. Thanks for reading.

  5. Kathleen says:

    Great post! Saaremaa is definitely my favourite Estonian location as well! And there’s a lot more to discover than the main spots. I wrote about Saaremaa and a few other islands I’ve visited if you’re interested: http://kathleenfritzsche.com/travel-guide-estonia-part3/

    1. David says:

      Thank you very much for sharing that link Kathleen. I wish I had had more time to see the other sights of Saaremaa and hopefully others will find your link useful.

  6. Interesting place. I love an island.

  7. Very interesting post. The eerie spots really look like out of a scary movie, but that is what makes them more interesting also. So sad that you deleted your pictures from the castle, since all your photos are very beautiful! Thanks for sharing, it looks like a beautiful place to visit and hunt for meteorite craters!

  8. I am so enjoying your Estonia travel posts. I didn’t even know there were islands in Estonia! And I love traveling to other islands and small towns/villages. My kind of pace. Saving!

    1. About 1500 island in all I am told. two biggies and the rest very small

  9. Oana says:

    Such a great reading. I would definitely consider Estonia for future travels after reading your posts, thank you for showing us how beautiful this country is.

  10. I found the windmills very interesting – I love how they are built on top of the base of rocks! This place is so interesting to me with the castle and the woods vs. the markets and ferry ride to the airport. They do not look like they’re in the same place!

    1. Marju says:

      Hi. Ferry ride doesnt take you to the airport, it takes you to a mainland 🙂 But we do have an airport also 😛

  11. paulandcarolelovetotravel says:

    Looked an interesting island to visit. Have pinned for future reference! #feetdotravel

  12. Lisa (Simple Sojourner) says:

    This looks like a place I would love to visit. Love castles and those windmills look quite interesting. Looks like some good hiking in those woods and visit a crater. The small town looks relaxing and not touristy, I like that. Will pin for future visit.

  13. Barry says:

    Saaremaa looks nice – I love the meteor crater and the old windmills. Last time I was in Estonia I stayed with my friends parents about 30 min drive away from the Tannin. I had a great time as they showed me all around. They even drove me all the way to Riga for the next leg of my trip.

  14. This is stunning! I’m hearing so many great things about Estonia at the moment, I think I need to go!

  15. Daina says:

    My mother was born a block from the castle and skated the moat before WWII. It is a lovely island and place to visit…and also to “be from.”

    1. David says:

      That’s a lovely area near the castle and I can only imagine what the island was like before WWII. Thank you for reading my post Daina!

  16. Wow, I didn’t realise how many islands there are in Estonia. This one is definitely one I’d love to explore from the meteor craters to the creepy mansion! I would love to say I’d go and check out what’s inside but I think I’d be lying to myself! Awesome find, thanks for sharing

  17. I had no idea Estonia had so many islands. Love the windmills!

  18. erlessa says:

    People in Saaremaa do not in fact speak a near different language, it’s just the accent that is very distinct to other Estonians (people do speak nigh non-understandable dialects in Southern Estonia though). You are very welcome nevertheless!

    1. David says:

      Oh that’s right it was the accent, thank you for correcting me Erlessa. I’ll fix that now!

  19. Liis says:

    Im proud to live in Saaremaa😉 and my granny is the oldest person in Angla village. Come and visit us😃😃😃😃

    1. David says:

      Thank you Liis for commenting, I can understand why you would be proud to live there. It is a beautiful island indeed.

  20. Garth says:

    You always show us such interesting places David! Saaremaa looks great. I love its simplicity and those meteorite craters! I’ve never seen one before, must be interesting to see it for real, great photos as always 🙂

  21. I know very little about Estonia and had never heard of this island! Thanks for drawing my attention to what is undoubtedly a gem! I love reading blogs and learning about new places too!

  22. Marju says:

    My homeland!!! I just moved back here. So quiet and safe place to raise a children 😛 I love Saaremaa. Summer is the best time here, but City is full of finnish tourists 🙂 But not so full, so you are all welcome !!!

    1. David says:

      Thank you for reading Marju, you have a wonderfully beautiful homeland. I visited in summer and it didn’t feel too busy which is nice 🙂

  23. I have NEVER heard of this place before – how incredibly cool! I love that you always find the unique and off-the-beaten-path things to do and see. I’d love to visit one day and see the meteor craters.

  24. What a beautiful, interesting Island of Saaremaa, Estonia. No kidding the castle which looks very interesting does remind me of the Shrek Castle 🙂 My husband as talked about his wonderful visit to Estonia but I would also love to visit this interesting island. I can not believe how many meteors have hit the island. Love the photos and thanks for sharing!

  25. Wait…beautiful scenery, quaint windmills, charming towns, delicious bread…AND it’s all about good cheese? I think I just want to move to Saaremaa! Great post – definitely had me hooked. And you’re right, we never heard of the place!

  26. You just made me homesick. I know what you mean about our bread, I haven’t been able to get this kind of dark rye bread anywhere else in the world and this is one of the main things I always miss from home. I am a bit ashamed to admit I have never made it to Saaremaa, but have heard a lot about the attractions and after reading this, I feel like I have been there my self. So cool you went to hunt the other craters too and didn’t just stick to the main one. About the dialect in Saaremaa, they just use a few different words and Ö instead of Õ that people do on the mainland. It’s not hard to understand at all, but it is different. I am glad you went to explore Saaremaa as now I want to as well!

  27. The crater, the windmills, the castle! Keep this island a secret as long as you can until I get there. 🙂

  28. I always enjoy reading your posts because you take us, the readers, to the lesser known places 🙂 I have to admit my knowledge of Estonia is very limited, so I feel more informed and educated during this series! Estonia definitely looks beautiful and full of culture. I can’t wait to visit 🙂

  29. Wow, there are so many craters and windmills! I really want to try that black bread with butter now. I wonder why it’s black.

  30. Relika says:

    I moved to Saaremaa 7 years ago and i just love this island. And there are so much more to discover.

  31. sinam86 says:

    I’ve been to Tallinn last year and loved it but this island looks amazing too. Definitely have to come back to see more. Thanks for sharing!

  32. James says:

    A few years ago, I flew to the airport on Saaremaa, which is very cheap and quick from Tallinn, then rented a car and drove around for two days through Saaremaa and Muhu. I loved Saaremaa and I enjoyed reminiscing through this post, but there is much more to discover. I used the “places of interest” on the Saaremaa tourism website as my guidebook and it was like a scavenger hunt http://www.saaremaa.ee/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=498&Itemid=263&lang=en There are several atmospheric medieval churches in tiny villages or just in the middle of nowhere and ancient hill forts hidden down back roads. At one point, I was driving down a dirt road into the dense forest in search of a stone age burial area. It was so narrow that I started to doubt it was more than a hiking trail and I got worried I wouldn’t be able to get turned back around until suddenly there was a house, and a little while later there was another. My Estonian friend later explained that that’s how Estonians traditionally lived, in the forest with no immediate neighbors. I found most of the items of interest on my list and many more to boot as there are signs throughout the island indicating places of historic or natural interest.

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