Estonia is a beguiling mix of the ultra-modern and firmly traditional, a northern Baltic land of primeval forests, rivers, and islands, with one of the smallest populations in the world. Most Estonians have opted for city life, leaving the countryside rather wild and filled with rare birds, plants and roaming deer, elk, wild boar, bears and wolves.
The low, largely flat landscape is also dotted with relics of Estonia's medieval glory, when the Teutonic knights reigned supreme and built castles which are now left as decaying hulks, testament to the wealth of traders who used the country's ports. The main port, Tallinn (still the capital city today), was part of the mighty Hanseatic League in the 13th century.
Its medieval prosperity has given the romantic city a wealth of attractions for modern-day tourists to explore. Historical and natural attractions are only one reason why Estonia is experiencing an upsurge in tourism. Access is another, as the country is sandwiched between east and west Europe, and is easily reached from the south as well. All in all, it offers fresh and unspoilt opportunities for those who enjoy the Nordic experience.
Estonia has only recently (in 1991) thrown off the shackles of Soviet domination, and a vibrant spirit of freedom and rebirth pervades the air. This is true of the capital, the lively university town of Tartu, the busy industrial centre of Narva and the idyllic summer vacation capital of Pärnu on the southwestern coast.
Tallinn's historic centre is the focus for most visits to the city, and the hub of its major tourist attractions. The walled Old Town is divided into two parts: Toompea Hill, the residential area of the aristocracy and gentry in days of yore, and the Lower Town. Much of the Old Town dates back to the 10th century and is extremely well preserved, its powerful stone buildings enduring despite frequent invasions over the centuries. Visitors will revel in Town Hall Square and its adjacent pharmacy, which operates on the site it has occupied since 1422. The Old Town is also full of historic churches, like St Olav's - perhaps the tallest church in Medieval Europe. The area's walls and its many fortresses made up one of the strongest defence systems in northern Europe by the 16th century, though today, the dominating landmark on Toompea is the magnificent Alexander Nevsky Russian Orthodox Cathedral. History lovers should note that the Old Town's medieval atmosphere is particularly evident in St Catherine's passage, where visitors can stroll past the open studios of artists and craftsmen who have laboured here for centuries.
This popular family attraction is an enchanting space filled with close on 6,000 animals, from Polar bears to Siberian Tigers, as well as species from warmer climates, like crocodiles and chimpanzees, which frolic in the Tropical House. Visitors can really make a day of this attraction, as there is more than enough variety to suit all tastes. If visitors need a break between exhibits, the zoo has some comfortable restaurants where its patrons can relax and enjoy refreshments. The delightful petting zoo is always a hit with children, and guided tours are available to help visitors get better acquainted with certain themes and topics.
A beautifully designed layout makes Tallinn's magnificent Botanical Garden a wonderful attraction that shouldn't be missed on a sunny day out in the capital. Containing more than 8,000 plant species, the garden is a great place to visit, especially when sightseeing with a family. The flora comes from all around the world and is displayed in arboretums, glasshouses, open fields and thematic gardens. Specialised exhibits change every month, and thematic tours are offered all year round, the most popular being the summer night aroma tours, and the rose days. A nature trail traverses the different habitats.
The beautiful pink baroque Kadriorg Palace was the summer residence of the Russian Tsar Peter the Great. It stands proudly in the centre of its namesake seaside resort suburb of Tallinn, where the streets are lined with noble villas and summer estates. The Palace today houses the Estonian Art Museum's foreign collection, which features thousands of western European and Russian works from the 16th to 20th centuries, ranging from prints and paintings to sculpture and furniture. The palace is also the venue for concerts, theatrical performances, lectures and receptions. The park surrounding the palace is a popular recreational spot for visitors and locals alike, consisting of formal gardens and the symmetrical Swan Lake, as well as meadows and forest groves traversed by paths.
This enchanting collection of historic Estonian buildings lies in a picturesque expanse of forest on Kopli Bay. Transplanted from around the country to represent rural life through the centuries, it exhibits various farm buildings, windmills, watermills and other country clutter, offering a pleasant and informative escape from the nearby city. Handcrafts are on sale, horseback rides are on offer, and a village inn caters for visitors keen to sample local fare. Folk music and dancing displays are scheduled regularly, and most national holidays are celebrated here in grand style.
Like the rest of coastal Estonia, Tallinn has a humid continental climate with warm, mild summers and cold, snowy winters. Winters, from December to February, tend to be very cold, with temperatures hovering close to the freezing mark but with occasional mild spells of weather pushing temperatures above 32°F (0°C). Snowfall is common during the winter in Tallinn. Summers, from June to August, are mild, with temperatures ranging between 66°F (19°C) and 70°F (21°C). Tallinn receives around 24 inches (610mm) of precipitation annually, but there is no distinct wet season and rainfall is quite evenly distributed throughout the year. Summertime brings unexpected rain showers, so an umbrella and light raincoat are recommended.
Estonia has a temperate climate, with warm summers and severe winters. Temperatures range from a summer average of 70°F (30°C) to a winter average of 18°F (-8°C). Being on the Baltic Sea, the country is subjected to sea breezes and humidity and its northern latitude means long summer daylight hours (the longest summer day stretches to 19 hours), and dark winters when daylight sometimes lasts only six hours. The cold winter does not necessarily mean constant snow; in fact snowfalls are few and far between. When it falls it stays though, and there tends to be a layer of snow constantly on the ground between December and March. Summertime brings unexpected rain showers, so an umbrella and light raincoat are recommended.
The twisting streets of the Old Town hold many culinary delights, from fashionable fringe restaurants to traditional Estonian experiences and world cuisines. Even visitors looking for a quick and simple fix will be glad to know Tallinn offers excellent and infinitely healthier alternatives to McDonald's, often at a lower cost.
Visitors commonly converge on the Town Hall Square after finishing their activities and fan out to the surrounding restaurants. As a popular tourist area with beautiful surroundings and a few great eateries, it is not cheap.
Travellers who are feeling a little more adventurous should dig a bit deeper for the real culinary gems. They won't struggle to find them, as Tallinn is a small city and easily traversed by foot. Some local favourites include a traditional and exquisite beef stroganoff, zavarka (Russian black tea), ikra krasnaya (red caviar) and eye-watering vodka.
This cosy little restaurant serves some of Tallinn's finest local fare and it does it in style. Featuring some of the city's finest Italian pizzas, other favourites on the menu include the Norwegian salmon with potato puree and tomato sauce, pepper steak with cheesy potato bake and vegetables and the baked apple with ice cream and vanilla sauce. Buffets are also available. Open daily for lunch and dinner. Bookings recommended.
Decked out in dark wooden panels and brown leather booths, the Goodwin Steak House has got the ambience of a classic steak house and the meat to match. This popular and very cosy eatery is known as one of the best, and only, steak houses in Tallinn. Open daily for lunch and dinner. Reservations recommended.
Serving some of the finest Asian cuisine in Tallinn, Chedi is a favourite with locals and tourists alike. The minimalist black and red stylish décor sets the perfect mood for an Asian experience. The roast duck with szechuan pepper sauce is delightful, while the stir-fry Mongolian style venison is an interesting and delicious choice. Open Monday to Sunday for lunch and dinner. Reservations recommended.
This stylish Italian eatery is somewhere guests might expect to bump into a local celebrity - and they just might! With clean lines, minimalist décor and a fresh and trendy feel, Restaurant ORE delivers when it comes to ambience and food. The merlot-grilled fillet of tuna with cherry tomatoes marinated in merlot wine vinegar is to-die-for, while the decadent foie gras with apple and melon in cranberry sauce is not to be missed. Open daily for lunch and dinner. Reservations essential.
The Estonian currency is the Euro, as the Kroon (EEK) was discontinued in 2011. Foreign currency can be easily exchanged at hotels, banks and exchange bureaux in the larger towns, at the airport and main railway station. Major credit cards are generally accepted in the larger hotels, main restaurants and shops, but it is wise to check first.
Banking hours are generally weekdays 9am to 4pm. Exchange bureaux are open till 6pm on weekdays and from 9am to 3pm on Saturdays. Some open on Sundays. ATMs are available in most towns.
Locals speak Estonian, which is part of the Finno-Ugric family of languages. English is widely used and understood among the younger generation and those involved in the tourist industry.
The electricity supply in Estonia is 230 volts, 50Hz. European-style two-pin plugs are in use.
US citizens must have a passport that is valid for three months beyond the period of intended stay in Estonia. A visa is not required for a stay of up to 90 days in a 180 day period.
British passports endorsed 'British Citizen', 'British Subject' (containing a Certificate of Entitlement to the Right of Abode issued by the United Kingdom), and 'British Overseas Territories Citizen' issued by Gibraltar, only need to be valid for period of intended stay in Estonia. All other endorsements require at least three months validity beyond the period of intended stay in Estonia.
A visa is not required for passports endorsed 'British Citizen', 'British Subject' (containing a Certificate of Entitlement to the Right of Abode issued by the United Kingdom), and 'British Overseas Territories Citizen' issued by Gibraltar. No visa is required for stays of up to 90 days in a 180 day period for holders of passports with any other endorsement.
Holders of identity cards issued by Gibraltar authorities, and endorsed 'Validated for EU travel purposes under the authority of the United Kingdom', do not require a visa to visit Estonia.
Canadian citizens must have a passport that is valid for three months beyond the period of intended stay in Estonia. A visa is not required for a stay of up to 90 days in a 180 day period.
Australian citizens must have a passport that is valid for three months beyond the period of intended stay in Estonia. A visa is not required for a stay of up to 90 days in a 180 day period.
South African citizens must have a passport that is valid for at least three months beyond the period of intended stay in Estonia. A Schengen visa is required.
Irish citizens must have a passport that is valid upon arrival in Estonia. No visa is required.
US citizens must have a passport that is valid for three months beyond the period of intended stay in Estonia. A visa is not required for a stay of up to 90 days in a 180 day period.
New Zealand citizens must have a passport that is valid for three months beyond the period of intended stay in Estonia. A visa is not required for a stay of up to 90 days in a 180 day period.
The borderless region known as the Schengen Area includes the following countries: Austria, Belgium, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Iceland, Italy, Latvia, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Liechtenstein, Malta, The Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden, and Switzerland. All of these countries issue a standard Schengen visa that has a multiple entry option, and which allows the holder to travel freely within the borders of all the aforementioned countries. Additionally, most foreign passengers entering Estonia must have a passport that is valid for three months beyond the period of intended stay in the country. Passports that have been issued more than ten years prior to the time of travel are unlikely to be accepted.
It is highly recommended that travellers' passports have at least six months' validity remaining after the intended date of departure from their travel destination. Immigration officials often apply different rules to those stated by travel agents and official sources.
No vaccinations are required for entry to Estonia. Lyme disease is often reported from April through October and travellers should wear protective clothing if embarking on a nature trip and check themselves for ticks. Estonia's medical professionals are highly trained. Good health facilities can be found in Mustama and East Tallinn Central Hospital. Immediate cash payment is expected from visitors requiring care. There is a reciprocal health agreement with the UK and most EU countries, whose citizens are entitled to free medical and dental treatment on presentation of a European Health Insurance Card (EHIC). Medical insurance is advised for all nationalities.
Tipping is not a common practice, but there is a growing trend to leave tips in restaurants; generally 10 percent of the bill according to level of service; some places do however include a service charge on the bill. Taxi drivers appreciate the spare change.
Visits to Estonia are usually trouble free, but with an increase in tourism there has also been an increase in tourist-related crime. There is a risk of pick-pocketing and mugging around Tallinn's Old Town, at ferry ports and major hotels. Tourists should be vigilant and take precautions like avoiding unlit side streets and parks after dark.
Estonians are at first glance generally quiet and reserved, and do not like to draw attention to themselves. A handshake is the practised form of greeting.
Business is conducted formally in Estonia, meaning a formal dress code is expected and shaking hands is the common form of greeting for men and women. People should be referred to as 'Harra' (Mr), 'Proua' (Mrs) or 'Preili' (Miss) followed by the surname. Relationships based on trust need to be developed and several meetings may need to take place. Business cards are often exchanged and it is polite to have the alternate side translated. Decisions are not necessarily made during the meetings. Business hours are generally 8am to 6pm Monday to Friday with an hour taken for lunch.
The international dialling code for Estonia is +372 and the outgoing code is 00 followed by the relevant country code (e.g. 0044 for the United Kingdom). The country has area codes, except for the capital, Tallinn. There is a GSM mobile network available.
Travellers over 18 years arriving from non-EU countries do not have to pay duty on goods to the value of €430 if arriving by air or sea. The following items are duty-free: 200 cigarettes (if travelled by air, otherwise 40 cigarettes) or 100 cigarillos or 50 cigars or 250g tobacco (if travelled by air, otherwise 50g); 1 litre spirits higher than 22 percent alcohol volume or 2 litres spirits or aperitifs with alcohol content lower than 22 percent (includes sparkling wines, liqueur wines,) 4 litres wine or 16 litres beer. Goods for personal consumption include 50g perfume, 250ml eau de toilette and medical products for personal use. Travellers arriving with goods purchased in EU countries have more leeway.
Estonian Tourist Board, Tallinn: +372 627 9770 or www.visitestonia.com
Estonian Embassy, New York City, United States: +1 212 883 0636.
Estonian Embassy, London, United Kingdom: +44 20 7838 5388.
Estonian Embassy, Ottawa, Canada: +1 613 789 4222.
Estonian Honorary Consulate, Cape Town, South Africa: +27 21 913 3850.
Embassy of Estonia, Yarralumla, Australia (also responsible for New Zealand): +61 409 798 474.
Estonian Embassy, Dublin, Ireland: +353 1 478 8888.
United States Embassy, Tallinn: +372 668 8100.
British Embassy, Tallinn: +372 667 4700.
Canadian Embassy, Tallinn: +372 627 3311.
South African Embassy, Helsinki, Finland (also responsible for Estonia): +358 9 6860 3100.
Australian Consulate, Tallinn: +372 650 9308.
Irish Embassy, Tallinn: +372 681 1870.
New Zealand Embassy, Warsaw, Poland (also responsible for Estonia): +48 22 521 0500.
Tallinn's nightlife has a big reputation that belies its diminutive size as one of Europe's smallest capital cities - albeit one of its most attractive. The biggest influx of visitors come from Britain, where cheap flights draw stag parties and people on salacious weekend breaks, and Finland, where booze cruisers dock to take advantage of inexpensive alcohol. Tallinn's nightlife is conveniently clustered around the compact Old Town, and the streets are generally safe to walk around at night.
The city has some world-class nightclubs, long-standing mega-venues that accommodate over 1,000 patrons and attract top DJs, many centred on the scenic town square. When these get too crowded, travellers can seek out the many chic lounge bars and trendy wine bars that attract more locals than visitors. Tallinn artists and intellectuals tend to gather in these smaller venues, while the stag party visitors can enjoy some of Tallinn's many revue bars, which offer an up-market striptease experience.
For a more cultured experience, there are some excellent classical music concerts at the Estonia Concert Hall.
There are also large cinema venues for movie buffs, mostly centrally located, and all showing films in their original language with Estonian subtitles. There are also a few casinos, such as the glitzy Olympic Casino and old-town based Casino Grand Prix.
With its wonderful variety of shops, boutiques and speciality stores hidden down side streets, Tallinn will appeal to all shopaholics' senses. The main shopping areas in the Old Town are Viru, Müürivahe, Suur-Karja, Väike-Karja and Kullassepa. For those who prefer a shopping centre, the Viru Centre is the place to find a selection of fashion, homeware and music stores.
Travellers should visit the Old Town for souvenir and antique shopping, while the Katariina Passage is a magical place to observe where medieval-style workshops create glasswork, ceramics, leather goods and quilts. The Central market is worth strolling around, even if only to mingle with the locals.
The most popular souvenirs from Tallinn are amber jewellery and accessories, Vana Tallinn liqueur, handicraft items like carved wooden beer mugs, felt hats, ceramics and glassware. Kalev-brand bittersweet Estonian chocolate and hand-painted marzipan are also popular souvenirs.
Most shops are open Monday to Friday from 10am to 6pm and from 10am to 5pm on Saturdays. The sales tax, which is levied on most goods and services in Estonia, is 20 percent. Non-European travellers can apply for a tax refund on goods bought at a minimum of EUR 320, and will need to fill out a form at the point of purchase to claim tax back. These forms can be obtained from most retailers and Customs Offices.
Tallinn's fairly extensive public transport network is made up of trains, trams, buses and a ferry, meaning visitors have a number of ways to get around. Buses are the backbone of Tallinn's transport network and can take visitors virtually anywhere in the city. Generally, bus services run between 5.30am and midnight.
The tram network only covers the central area of the city, while trolley buses connect western areas of Tallinn to the city centre. Those who want to travel in comfort can use taxis, which are readily available in the city centre. However, tourists would be wise to ask their hotels to a recommend a taxi operator, as scams on unsuspecting foreigners are common.
Those with an international driving licence have the option of hiring a car in Tallinn. A number of car hire companies have offices at the airport or in the city centre. However, the city does experience a high volume of traffic and foreigners will find road rules and the local driving style quite confusing. Signposts are not always clear, so it is best to use a satellite navigation system. There are plenty of parking lots in downtown Tallinn, and street-side parking is provided but must be paid for in advance on curb-side machines.
Steeped in history and a rich cultural heritage, Tallinn is a sightseer's paradise and a great place to explore on foot or by bus. Dubbed 'mini Prague', the beautiful cobble-stoned streets of the Old Town are the perfect place to start discovering the city.
Travellers will love the enchanting feel of the town, which features old buildings and churches such as Alexander Nevsky Cathedral and St Olav's - allegedly the tallest church in Medieval Europe. They can stroll through the Estonian Open Air Museum, take the kids to the Tallinn Zoo for the day, or pack a picnic and enjoy a day out at the Botanical Gardens.
Visitors in Tallinn keen on doing a lot of sightseeing should look into purchasing a Tallinn Card, which enables the bearer to free public transport, a free two-hour city sightseeing tour, and free admission to all of Tallinn's museums. The card is available for one, two and three-day options starting at EUR 36 for adults and EUR 20 for children. The card can be bought from the airport, harbour, tourist information offices and most hotels.