Estonia’s intricate history includes interaction with powerful neighbours like the Teutonic Knights, Swedish and Russian Empires, as well as the Nazis and the Soviets. These interactions, and its absorption of a large, powerful German merchant class, are amply expressed in the lovely cities of Tallinn and Tartu, as well as in fine country estates. Tallinn, a Hanseatic city, has soaring brick-and-stone church towers that were beacons for medieval merchant shipping. Its lower town is dominated by the limestone hill, Toompea and its castle, where successive foreign rulers attempted to control its merchant class. On Toompea are also located Estonia’s Parliament building and Tallinn Cathedral. Orthodox Alexander Nevski Cathedral, built by 19th-century Russian occupiers, is named after the Russian ruler who invaded Estonia in the 13th century. Tallinn Lower Town, with fine merchant houses and high-gabled warehouses, centres on Town Hall Square. It also has Europe’s oldest apothecary (1422), and fine Jugendstil buildings.
Between Tallinn and Pirita harbour is a green band of beaches, parks, old palaces, museums and the massive ruined convent of St Birgitta. Kadriorg Palace, built following Peter the Great’s visit to Tallinn (1718), is now home to the Estonian President. Once every 5 years, the Song Festival Amphitheatre hosts the Estonian Song Festival, one of the largest amateur choral events in the world.
Tartu, a city of quiet charm, centres on Tartu University, Estonia’s cultural and intellectual heart since its foundation as the Swedish Empire’s second university. The University is home to the Tartu Art Gallery and the beautiful Assembly Hall. We also find a historical lockup where students who returned a library book late spent two days. Elsewhere in Tartu, Town Hall Square is lined with elegant Neo-Classical buildings, especially the Town Hall itself. Nearby, Gothic St John’s Church’s exterior is decorated with 200 terracotta sculptures, survivors of an original 1,000! Tartu’s huge new National Museum details the history of the Finno-Ugric peoples and that of the region since Prehistory. Estonia’s north Lahemaa National Park is an unspoilt coastal region of forests and farmland. It has fine country houses like Palmse and Sagadi manors, built by Baltic German barons.
Explore the beautifully preserved old towns of Vilnius, Riga and Tallinn (all UNESCO World Heritage sites), Tartu and Kaunas. Visit museums, medieval castles, cathedrals and Baroque palaces. Read more