Normally I’d be reluctant to provide tips for an entire country after such a short visit. Yet I was surprised how much I learned about Estonia in two weeks. Maybe it’s because I started with knowing so little about this Baltic country, but I think that’s an all too common occurrence. I certainly don’t claim to be an expert now and there is plenty more of Estonia I have yet to explore, but here are 9 valuable insights on visiting Estonia I think are worth knowing.
1. Not the same as Latvia
It might come as quite the surprise that Estonia differs a considerable amount from neighbours Latvia and Lithuania. People tend to lump the 3 countries together as the Baltic States, assuming their shared geography carries over to thing like culture and language. I know I certainly had that impression before visiting and still throw around the term “Baltic States” too often. It was only when I first crossed the border from Latvia to Estonia that I learned how wrong I’d been.
In truth, Estonia is far more similar to its northern neighbour across the sea, Finland. It’s probably most apparent in the language when you see the differences between basics like ‘bus station’ or other basic utilities. You’ll also find that Estonia has a higher cost of living than Latvia and a fondness for the tech industry like the Finns – the popular chat program Skype was created in Estonia.
I’d also say, without wanting to make a gross generalisation, that I found Estonians to also possess the very straightforward character that you often associate with people from Northern Europe. In fact I’d say Estonia is far more Northern European in nature than either of Latvia and Lithuania.
2. More than just Tallinn
A common remark I’ve noticed in the comments recently is that people have either only heard of Tallinn, or only visited there in Estonia. This honestly didn’t surprise me much and I really only knew about places other than Tallinn after I started planning my visit. Hopefully, my previous posts on Pärnu and Saaremaa have shown that there’s much more to Estonia than its capital.
For example, Tallinn is not even Estonia’s only major city. There’s also the university city of Tartu, with its serene riverbank and hilltop ruins to explore. Another popular destination is the resort town of Haapsalu, which boasts restorative mud spas and a nice old castle. There’s also the country’s wilderness, from the many bog lands to its lakes and ancient forests. Not to mention, the country’s seasonal beaches. Which brings me to…
3. Many, Many Islands
I touched on this in my Saaremaa article – Estonia has a lot of islands! According to the Estonia Tourism Board, there are over 2000 Estonian islands in the Baltic Sea and it turns out that they each have their own unique sights and cultures to share. I’ve talked about the windmills and meteorite craters of Saaremaa, but it is only the biggest island.
Speaking of meteorites, the island of Hiiumaa north of Saaremaa is said to have formed out of the aftermath of a meteorite impact. Hiiumaa is said to have beautiful varied landscapes, from forests to sandy beaches. There’s also the small island of Kihnu, one of the rare matriarchal societies in the world. Yes that’s the right, the women officially run the show! The people of Kihnu still wear traditional clothes day-to-day and look quite the sight, zipping by on their motorbikes. Both of these islands are at the top of my list for my next visit!
4. Getting Around
Estonia may seem like a small country compared to other European nations, but it is still several hundreds of kilometres across so there are still some distances to travel to get about. While there is a limited domestic train network, the country’s buses are more likely useful for wider travel. The train network mostly connects Tallinn with the cities of Tartu and Narva, with international trains travelling through to St Petersburg and Moscow in Russia.
The buses on the other hand cover the width and breadth of the country and provide great value for money. Several different bus companies operate within Estonia, but my pick throughout the Baltic would have to be Lux Express. While they may be a little more expensive, the value you get is considerable. I don’t think I’ve ever had more leg room on a bus than I had with them, plus WiFi and personal tv screens make for an immensely comfortable ride. Broader bus information can be found here.
5. Short Summer
Owing to its latitude, Estonia suffers from short summers. There’s no getting around it. I arrived in mid-August and summer was already mostly in the rear view window. While there were several days where it was beaming sunshine with nice and warm temperatures, it was balanced out by some unfortunate wet weather.
Don’t let that deter you though, as there’s still plenty sightseeing you can do when the forecast is looking grim. I still managed to see quite a lot of Tallinn, despite the heavy rain that hit during my walking tour. While on Saaremaa, it drizzled a fair bit the days I went to explore Angla and Kaali, but it didn’t stop me having a blast. I think if you bring some light rain protection with you, if the weather turns it shouldn’t be a problem.
As I mentioned earlier, the closest language to Estonian is Finnish. This probably won’t do you much good if you don’t speak Finnish. These languages are known as “Finno-Ugric languages” and their closest major cousin is actually Hungarian! Essentially, Estonian is almost assuredly going to be unlike any language you know.
Thankfully, based on my experience, a considerable percentage of the population speaks at least passing English, perhaps less-so out on the islands like Saaremaa. For instance, if you’re visiting Tallinn then you’ve got a good chance of getting help in English. Other likely useful languages to know are German and Russian based on the country’s history.
Interestingly, when I first heard people speaking Estonian, I kept mistaking it for Spanish! This isn’t because any of the words are similar but was more to do with the speed and cadence of conversation. Estonian seemed like a really fast and expressive language and I guess that made me think of Spanish. Weird!
Some useful phrases to know include Tere which is ‘Hello’; Aitäh which is ‘Thank you’, Palun for ‘Please’; and Ja and Ei for ‘Yes’ and ‘No’.
7. Intriguing Architecture
Possibly one of the things I most enjoyed about exploring the cities and towns of Estonia was the fascinating variety in architecture you could come across. It felt like you could find buildings from nearly every period in the country’s history, no small feat for a country continually subject to invasions and occupation throughout the centuries.
If you’re after medieval architecture, Tallinn Old Town is the place to go. Then there’s the charming Neoclassical buildings of Tartu, like its pink and red Town Hall seen above. You can find 19th century working class houses in the neighbourhoods of both Tallinn and Tartu, plus gorgeous wood panel houses by the seaside in places like Pärnu. But there’s also signs of modernity in places like Tallinn’s Rotermann Quarter.
One architectural influence I was expecting and surprisingly saw little of was Soviet/Brutalist architecture from the second half of the 20th century. I think this was more a case of me not travelling to the right places than it not existing. Still, plenty of other wonderful buildings to enjoy.
8. Craft Beer
When people talk about the food and drink in Estonia, probably the most common thing mentioned is their delicious black bread. Since I already raved about it here, I thought I’d mention Estonia’s unsung hero, their craft beer. If you’re a beer enthusiast then this is one country you don’t want to miss.
Having first tried several in Pärnu, I was blown away with both the quality and variety you were able to find. Even in a small mini market, you can find a decent selection of craft beers alongside the national fare. I spent my limited time in Estonia attempting to try as many different beers as I could.
My favourite has to be Tanker’s Sauna Session, a fantastic spiced ale whose name definitely catches your attention. While there are plenty of IPAs and APAs which often dominate the craft beer market, they did also have plenty of lighter ales like pale, blonde and amber ales.
9. Russia Relationship
Estonia’s relationship with Russia is a tricky one, so I’ll do my best to explore it as an outsider. Be gentle.
Firstly, people tend to have a misconception that Estonia is very similar to Russia, which for the most part is incorrect. As Estonia fell under Russian rule on and off between 1710 and 1991, there is a fair bit of wariness felt towards their eastern neighbours. Russians do however make up the largest ethnic minority in the country, at a considerable 25% of the population. The majority of the ethnic Russians stem from the occupation of Estonia by the Soviet Union, although there were small settlements in the country’s east prior to that.
Based on conversations I had with Estonians, there have been some problems with assimilation, particularly around citizenship and language. As I understand, many ethnic Russians either struggled with or didn’t want to learn Estonian, a critical requirement of citizenship. After the fall of the USSR, many ethnic Russians found themselves stateless – neither belonging to Russia, nor Estonia.
These people would come to hold “Grey Passports”, identity documents that established them as stateless, all the while not really granting them any freedom to travel. They were effectively stuck in Estonia, unable to go elsewhere. Thankfully, this problem has decreased somewhat through various measures, shrinking from 32% of the country as stateless in 1992 down to 6.8% as of 2015.
What other things would you like to know before visiting Estonia? Have you visited Estonia and have other insights to share? Please share them in the comments below.
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