Long sandy beaches, Bohemian-esque old towns and a country with a population so small that you can wander with ease, Estonia is a great off the beaten track destination
Let’s clear up the geography straight away – Estonia is one of the Baltic states, which, as well as Estonia, includes Latvia and Lithuania, and they’re in Northern Europe, across the sea from Scandinavia. They’re really rather nice and definitely worth a visit. One thing to note of that description is the Northern bit – in Summer it only really gets dark for about 5 hours a night, and in Winter you'll need to be quick to get daylight photographs. Once you get over the disorientation, it’s quite fun!
Estonia is well connected to come and go from a range of places -there are now economical flights into Tallinn from the UK, and you can also arrive, or leave, by ferry from Helsinki. There’s a regular bus service from the airport into the city, and it takes all of 10 minutes-this isn't a big city - you really could walk it if you were so inclined! The train station, with services to St Petersburg is in the centre of town, and tram number 2 will take you from the city to the long distance coach station, where you can travel around Estonia, onto the other Baltic states, into Russia, and beyond.
The city is one of those slightly odd capitals that has few ‘big sights’, but is a wonderful place to wander around without any definite plan and take in the atmosphere. You can walk along parts of the old town wall, explore cobbled alleyways and old churches, guild houses, and small museums, and take in the seemingly constant festivals in the old town square. Think Bohemian architecture, jazz music emanating from cellar bars, and very few crowds, and you might get the picture. A litre tankard of beer on a lazy afternoon at a street café is what it’s all about.
One of the key things to keep you busy, however, is Kadriorg Park, which is a wonderfully relaxing place on the edge of the City (remember, that’s not far away-Tallinn is small!), with the palace of Catherine the great, a small museum on Peter (also the great!) and the wonderful Kumu art museum. This was European museum of the year a couple of years ago, and can stand proudly next to any of the great art museums of the world. The exhibits have a local slant, cover modern and traditional art, and the building itself is striking, and has a pleasant glass-fronted cafe .
All the Baltic states were occupied by Nazi Germany in the war, and the Soviet Union both prior to that, and following the war until 1991. As such, they’re one of the few countries that greeted the German invasion with optimism. It didn’t, of course, quite turn out as hoped. Many towns in the Baltics have museums to this intriguing but unpleasant period of history, and the museum of the occupation in Tallinn (Toompea 8, in the old town) is worth a look and a reflection on how this small nation has managed to shape itself in barely 20 years of real independence since the fall of the Soviet Union.
Where to Stay.
Hotels and guesthouses abound, and I confess I took easy options – the Radisson Blu is a good international hotel in the new town, with a great rooftop bar – worth going to even if you don’t stay here, and good internet discounts. The Nordic hotel has smaller, but well laid out, and spotless, rooms, and the added advantage of a pool with the greatest range of water features I’ve seen outside of a theme park. All unlabelled and with underwater switches –they take a bit of finding!
Saarema is a lovely little island off the West coast of Estonia, where the pace of life slows down still further. There’s a traditional moated castle, a peaceful town square surrounded by restaurants and a small beach. The island was the last part of Estonia to fall to both the Russians and Germans, so the occupation museum here is particularly interesting, if you fancy more history.
Parnu is the main beach resort in Estonia, and boasts miles of sandy beaches (including the intriguing “women's beach” – I never saw it, obviously) and typical seaside entertainment for kids. Swimming in the sea involves a fair walk, as the incline on the beach is so gentle that it seems to take forever to get water beyond your knees. A great place to stay, and eat, is Ammende villas, a beautiful old fashioned villa where you can pretend it's 1930, play billiards in the bar, and get some of the best food in the country.
Tartu is the main university town of Estonia, but think a couple of Oxford colleges rather than a huge modern campus. The main university building is worth a look, particularly the ‘lock-up’ where misbehaving students were sent to repent their crimes. It was eventually closed when it became a rite of passage rather than a punishment for students to be sent there! As with most Baltic towns, the town is dominated by its town square, and the town hall which overlooks it. The former KGB cells are an interesting but macabre sight worth visiting on the edge of town. Villa Margarita is a listed building on the edge of town, and a good place to stay and eat, perhaps particularly afternoon tea and cakes.