While Estonia is the most visited of the three Baltic States, it is still a rather unusual and forgotten European destination. And it’s unfair! These six reasons to visit Estonia by Julien of Exploration Junkie will help put it on the map!
This former Soviet territory has something for everyone: an interesting history, charming architecture, and very well-preserved nature.
Estonia is a hidden gem packed with opportunities to try something new, and have experiences that you wouldn’t probably have in most other countries.
When I first researched about Estonia, I didn’t really know what I would find.
Things to See in Estonia
I knew most travellers were charmed by Tallinn, Estonia’s capital, but at first glance, it didn’t seem to go much further than that.
After scratching the surface, I discovered experiences that I really didn’t expect, and you bet I made point to try them all! I will share here what I liked the most during my stay in Estonia.
Explore The Historic Centre of Tallinn
No trip to Estonia is complete without a proper visit of its capital city, Tallinn. Its particularly charming old town never fails to enchant visitors, and I was no exception.
With its medieval atmosphere, Tallinn is a real delight to explore. If there is one spot that attracts everyone like a magnet, it would be Town Hall Square.
This cobbled plaza built around the Town Hall is where everything happens – including a nice little market where you can search for the perfect Baltic gift to bring back.
But this is just the beginning. Tallinn features a whole lot of houses dating from the Hanseatic League, a 13-14th century commercial confederation running along the Baltic Sea.
With their tall and narrow facades, pointed roofs and pastel colors, they are really picturesque and create a special atmosphere.
In spite of its relatively small size, you can spend a whole day strolling in the cobblestone streets, along the city walls, learning bits of history along the way.
Tallinn also has some beautiful churches that you can visit, including the gorgeous Aleksander Nevsky Orthodox Cathedral.
Don’t miss the Patkuli and Kohtuotsa viewing platforms for a beautiful panoramic view over the roofs of Tallinn.
Craving some modernity? Just walk out the old town through the Viru Gate, and you will come across a bunch of shopping malls.
Hotel recommendation: Three Crowns Residents
Before my trip to Estonia, I had literally no idea that this activity even existed!
The concept is to use what looks like bright-colored plastic snowshoes (logically called bog shoes), to actually walk directly on the waterlogged bogs without sinking in!
It is in Soomaa National Park, near Pärnu (south of Tallinn) that I – a little clumsily – walked on a bog for the first time of my life.
And I did that on largest bog in Estonia, no less!
I must admit that I didn’t have a very deep knowledge about peat bogs before going for this tour, and like most people I figured they were nothing more than some kind of random swamps except they are full of peat moss.
Peat bogs actually are amazing ecosystems, and very fragile ones. Their growth rate is around 1 mm (0.04 inch) per year, and in Soomaa the accumulation of peat moss can reach 8 metres (26 feet), so you can calculate how ancient it is.
It is an acidic environment where most plants would not survive.
However, it is the ideal environment for the rounded-leaved sundew, a pretty carnivorous plant that is growing all over the place, catching insects with drops of glue around its leaves.
That’s a unique experience that will please any nature lover. For the least cold sensitive, it is possible to dip in one of the natural ponds inside the bog.
Hotel recommendation: Terve Hostel (in Pärnu)
Price of the tour: 55 Euros (75 Euros with the transfer from Pärnu)
Night Canoeing & Wildlife Watching
Canoeing is a pretty common activity but at night, it’s a really different experience. It is again in Soomaa National Park that I went for this night exploration.
What’s so great about a night canoe trip?
Well, first of all, the atmosphere. I think I had never seen such quiet waters in my entire life.
The canoe was sliding on a flawless mirror, isolated deep into the wilderness.
Secondly, it’s not canoeing for the sake of canoeing, but to try to catch a glimpse of the abundant wildlife of the national park.
The kings of the parks are the beavers, calling home all the rivers around the bog.
You are able to witness their lumberjack talents, with chewed fallen logs and their nests made of a huge accumulation of dead wood.
Unfortunately, I wasn’t very lucky with beavers on that night.
A few of them did splash around the canoe but I never managed to see one clearly. Nature decides and you can’t get lucky everyday!
Seeing the unfairness of the situation, Nature finally decided to offer me a beautiful encounter just before it got really dark.
As we were carefully paddling towards a river junction, paying attention not to make any splash sound to remain as silent as possible, a big elk suddenly appeared and left me awe-struck.
It’s not every day you can find yourself face to face with such a beautiful animal. I wasn’t so unlucky, after all.
Price of the night tour: 50 Euros (70 Euros with the transfer from Pärnu). Of course, you can combine the bog walking and night tours and pay the transfer only once (which I did).
Explore an Abandoned Submarine Base
The History of Estonia was deeply marked by the Soviet occupation, and ruins dot the country.
In a small location called Hara, in the heart of Lahemaa National Park, there is an interesting one you can visit.
I visited it as part of a tour in the national park, but I believe you can rent a car and visit it on your own as well.
What you can visit in Hara is a de-magnetizing submarine base. Did you know that a submarine needs to be regularly de-magnetized? I thought so. I didn’t either.
How to De-magnetize a Submarine
I will try to explain the principle. The submarines, which are made of steel, naturally get magnetic.
This makes them detectable and vulnerable to mines. That’s why they need to regularly get de-magnetized.
A crane lifts the submarine out of the water, a copper cable is coiled around it and electrical current is sent to the cable.
The de-magnetized submarine can then be put back in the water.
There is a weird atmosphere in these abandoned buildings, with graffiti-covered walls and cracked concrete revealing rusted reinforcement grid.
It’s really cool to be able to explore these ruins, and imagine all the military activity that was once taking place there, with soldiers everywhere and impressive submarines being taken care of.
How to go: Buy a day tour to Lahemaa National Park (55 Euros, from Tallinn) or with car rental.
Spending The Night in A Bear Hide
If beavers and elks fail to to impress you, what about a brown bear?
With its 700 bears in a relatively small territory, Estonia is very well suited to Bear watching and spending the night in a hide is hands down the best way to do it.
You will need to rent a car in Tallinn and drive to the place, which is quite lost in a countryside in the region of Altaguse, in the north-east of Estonia.
From there, the owner will guide you through the forest to the hide. And you’re on your own!
The hide is very well made, with comfortable chairs, specifically designed windows for your camera lens to take great wildlife pictures, dry toilets and a whole row of basic beds with sleeping bags.
But you don’t really get much sleep! The wait can be long until an animal shows up, but the reward is worth it.
When a brown bear suddenly appeared from nowhere, after a long wait, a great feeling of joy and relief invaded my body. Finally, I did manage to see one! And let me tell you that it’s an impressive beast.
Brown bears are not the only animals you can expect. These vast forests are home to a whole secret wildlife.
Raccoon dogs are very common, and many people report seeing foxes even though I haven’t been lucky enough to see one.
Price for the night: 95 Euros per person.
Discover The Beautiful Beaches On The Baltic Sea
Estonia is surrounded by the sea, and there is no shortage of beautiful coast to explore.
A part of the coast I really liked and recommend is the beach town of Narva-Jõesuu. We are at the extreme north-east of Estonia, on the border with Russia.
The best is to take advantage of your bear hide car rental to drive there and enjoy the beach for a while before driving back to Tallinn.
I really loved this seemingly endless beach, beautiful stretch of golden sand along a peaceful, sunny Baltic sea.
The beach goes all the way to the the mouth of the Narva River. On the other side, it’s Russia.
Why Visit Estonia?
By now, you should be convinced to visit Estonia. It is much more than the old town of Tallinn! (although Tallinn is amazing)
Estonia is a modern country – Skype was born there and it is the world’s most digitalized government (meaning all the usual paperwork can be done online).
It is equipped with impeccable roads and modern transportation which, combined with its small size, make it very easy to go around.
Even if you just have a week, it is already enough to try all these experiences.
To give you an idea, I could do all these (and more) during a 2-week trip to the Baltic States. I have spent about a week in Lithuania and Latvia, and a week in Estonia.
Now you have no more excuses to not visit this wonderful country and live all these surprising and unique experiences.