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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. Fresh and unspoilt opportunities to enjoy the Nordic experience await visitors.
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, such as St Olav's. 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, such as 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. The zoo also sells non-profit merchandise and collects donations to fund species conservation projects.
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 32F (0C). Snowfall is common during the winter in Tallinn. Summers, from June to August, are mild, with temperatures ranging between 66F (19C) and 70F (21C). 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 70F (30C) to a winter average of 18F (-8C). 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.
The Estonian currency is the euro, and 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; 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 nationals: 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.
UK nationals: 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.
UK nationals: 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.
UK nationals: 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.
CA nationals: 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.
AU nationals: 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.
ZA nationals: 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.
IR nationals: Irish citizens must have a passport that is valid upon arrival in Estonia. No visa is required.
NZ nationals: 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. Tick borne encephalitis 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 at the North Estonia Medical Centre and East Tallinn Central Hospital, though immediate cash payment is expected from visitors requiring care. There is a reciprocal health agreement with most EU countries, whose citizens are entitled to free medical and dental treatment on presentation of a European Health Insurance Card (EHIC). After Brexit, the Global Health Insurance Card (GHIC) replaced the European Health Insurance Card (EHIC) for UK citizens. The GHIC allows UK citizens access to state healthcare during visits to the EU. The GHIC is not valid in Norway, Iceland, Liechtenstein or Switzerland, nor is it an alternative to travel insurance. Medical insurance is advised for all nationalities.
Tipping is not a common practice but there is a growing trend to leave tips in restaurants. The amount is generally 10 percent of the bill according to level of service, though some places include a service charge on the bill.
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 such as 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). Estonia is one of the most advanced digital societies in the world, meaning wireless internet is almost everywhere, and is almost always free and speedy.
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 or 100 cigarillos or 50 cigars or 250g tobacco 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.
Embassy of Estonia, Yarralumla, Australia (also responsible for New Zealand): +61 409 798 474.
Estonian Honorary Consulate, Cape Town, South Africa: +27 21 913 3850.
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.
Australian Consulate, Tallinn: +372 650 9308.
South African Embassy, Helsinki, Finland (also responsible for Estonia): +358 9 6860 3100.
Irish Embassy, Tallinn: +372 681 1870.
New Zealand Embassy, Warsaw, Poland (also responsible for Estonia): +48 22 521 0500.
Tallinn's fairly extensive public transport network is made up of trains and 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. Taxi booking apps such as Bolt and Uber are also options.
Those with an international driving licence have the option of hiring a car in Tallinn, as a number of car hire companies have offices at the airport or in the city centre. The city does experience a high volume of traffic, though, 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 curbside 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. 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 Tallinn Botanic Garden.
Visitors in Tallinn keen on doing a lot of sightseeing should look into purchasing a Tallinn Card, which grants the bearer free public transport, free admission to more than 40 of Tallinn's museums and attractions, and discounts to sightseeing tours, activities, shops and restaurants. The card is available for one, two and three-day options, and can be bought online, at the airport, harbour, tourist information offices and most hotels.
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