This post is also available in: French
Let’s start with the question I was most asked during my stay in Estonia : Why Estonia ? Why did you choose to spend your holiday here ? How did you come up with that idea ?
I have to admit that when you are preparing your summer holiday to Europe, Estonia doesn’t come to mind, ever. But I like to do things differently from others. That’s why last summer I didn’t go to Greece or Croatia, but I chose Estonia. A small Baltic country in Northern Europe, with Russia and Finland as neighbors.
Since the country entered the European Union in 2004, and since I had to learn all the new capital cities in high school, I’ve wanted to learn more about this new country who has been living quite a long time under soviet occupation. So why Estonia and why not Latvia for example ? It was totally arbitrary, I chose to visit the furthest, the northern most country. I was expecting a country still marked by Russian influence. I was hoping to find typical architecture and Russian culture. I’ve been dreaming to visit Russia for years but the visa application is fairly complex. Estonia is Europe, have your national ID, even expired by 6 months, and you’re good to go. You are welcome here.
It was only over the last three years that I started getting serious about visiting Estonia. I bought the guide book and was monitoring the plane prices regularly. But it was still expensive for a European destination. Last July, when I saw a return trip Lyon/Tallinn for 250€, I decided it was time to go for it. I would hardly find a lower price at a period I would be available to travel. And that’s how I ended up in Estonia.
There, I gave you my personal reasons for choosing this European destination over another. Now that I have visited it and that I know what I’m talking about, I’m going to give you 5 real reasons to visit Estonia.
1.This country is unaffected by mass tourism (for now)
I’ve really appreciated Estonia for this reason.
When you live in old Europe, you see that it is over-populated, I would even say it is saturated. Infrastructures are not meant to host so many people, that’s why there are so many malfunctions. When summer comes with its load of tourists, it gets even worse. Whether it is France, Spain, Italy or even new countries with paradise beaches like Greece or Croatia, we are all stepping on each other’s feet. It’s unbearable.
In Estonia, even the capital city of Tallinn looks like a village. The old town, VanaTallinn, is surrounded by city walls and medieval towers, it’s so charming. The new town exhibits a few skyscrapers and luxury hotels and has a good bus and tramway network. Everything is at human scale and no place is ever crowded. In the middle of the summer season, I’ve never had to queue for anything, whether it was to visit a place or to get some food.
I’m not saying the capital is completely empty of tourists, that wouldn’t be true. You have to know that cruise ships do stop in Tallinn. But you know what ? The cruise passengers will only be here for two hours and they will only walk around the city in groups of 50 people. You will never see them in museums, monuments or on top of those numerous towers for which you have to climb some 300 flights of stairs.
And when you leave the capital city, the big open spaces are all yours. You may be driving for a few hours before you encounter another vehicle. I got to explore the West side of the country and I was really surprised by how few people there were, by those big spaces, the fact that everything is accessible without queuing, without being pushed by others. There are tourists in Estonia, but a different kind of tourist, more respectful, mainly German and Finnish people.
In conclusion, Estonia is an easy country. Compared to many European or Asian destinations, Estonia is clearly spared from mass tourism. Take this opportunity to visit because I don’t know how long it will last.
If you are afraid that the country is too small, that you might get bored (it won’t be the case), you may include it to a bigger trip. For example a roadtrip through the three Baltic countries, an extension to a trip to Helsinki or Stockholm (with the ferry) or you may choose Estonia as the starting point of a trip to Russia. There is a direct bus doing Tallinn-St Petersburg.
2.Historic and cultural visits
As I told you earlier, despite the country being small, you needn’t worry about getting bored.
First of all, Estonia has a super interesting history. It has always been under foreign domination. It went from the Germans, the Danes, the Swedes up to the soviets until it gained its independence in 1991.
On the brink of the breakup of the Soviet bloc, Estonians start to rebel against soviet oppression and the interesting part is that it is the only country of the former Soviet Union to have obtained its independence without a single drop of blood. How did they do that ? It’s called the « Singing Revolution » : every night, Estonians would gather in the streets and sing traditional songs in the Estonian language. It was forbidden to speak Estonian back in the time, they all had to speak Russian and convert to the orthodox church. Singing in Estonian was their way to protest, and they won.
We can see the evolution of the numerous foreign occupations through the buildings of the capital and in other towns of the country (ex : Narva is a completely Russian town). This rich history allows you to have very varied visits among:
- Art museums, history museums, theme museums (marine, open air, KGB)
- The numerous churches (catholic, orthodox, greek) and their very high bell towers from which you get amazing views on the city
- Very old streets, city walls and medieval towers
- Typical houses from the Hanseatic League, art nouveau buildings
All of this gathered in the capital makes up for a beautiful contrast of time periods and cultural influences from other countries.
3.Nature is king
Maybe you’re going to tell me that you don’t really fancy cities and museums, therefore you don’t think Estonia is for you. Wrong ! Estonia has a lot to offer outside its capital and I can tell you it is a very green country offering big open spaces. Yes, I’m using « big open spaces » because every time I was staring at such a beautiful landscape, I was picturing myself in Canada or in Norway fjords. That’s what Estonia reminded me of.
The country has five national parks and several other natural reserves or protected areas.
In particular, I have visited Lahemaa National Park. A beautiful place that I loved. My favorite part : hiking in a « bog » with free unlimited blueberry tasting. A bog is a kind of enormous swamp, except that its ecosystem is more acidic than a swamp. 30% of Estonia’s surface area is composed of bogs. Therefore, walking through a bog is a must-do activity during a trip to Estonia.
There is also Lake Peipus (or Peipsi Järv), the fourth biggest lake in Europe, which serves as the Russian/Estonian border. Sand beaches, cute villages and ancient traditions are on the agenda if you drive along this lake.
To finish with, Estonia accounts for more than 1 500 islands, that’s more than Greece can count for. I wanted to see all the natural wonders Estonia had to offer, that’s why I’ve spent two days on a retreat on the country’s biggest island : Saaremaa. Saaremaa is « the place to be » during Midsommer (Scandinavian celebration, the longest day of the year). But in August, like every where else in the country, it was dead quiet, it was peaceful. I was alone on the roads. It was a real haven of peace among windmills, forests and beaches. I also did some walks in Vilsandi National Park : the road to access it felt like the end of the world, there were wild islands where seals and numerous bird species like to rest.
Despite all of this beauty, I want to warn you: this is not a country with mountains, it’s actually very flat. The majority of the country is located at 50 m above sea level. The country’s highest waterfall, Jägala, is 8 m high and the « highest mountain » peaks at…318 metres. This is still higher than the Netherlands or Belgium. Nevertheless, this country is beautiful and we easily find wonderful landscapes. I would still recommend it.
4.A culture to discover
Traveling to Estonia is also about discovering a new culture. It is a European country, but with a painful past because it was always occupied by other nations. Today, 25 years after its independence, we can still feel the different cultural influences but we see that Estonians also want to show us their own culture.
The Russian community represents the biggest minority of the country (37% of the population). Therefore, every street sign, label, food packaging, museum signs… are written in Estonian and translated into Russian below. Not so much about the English, you will have to make do.
But culturally speaking, Estonians do not want to have too many ties with the Russians. Besides the many orthodox churches, they only share a few typical dishes. For example, I’ve tried Russian dumplings with sour cream.
In general, Estonians refer a lot to Finland when it comes to culture. By the way, their language is closer to Finnish than to Russian or Latvian, Lithuanian. A young Estonian told me they consider the Finnish as their big brother. One thing is certain, Estonians do not identify themselves to the culture of Baltic countries, and they do not have anything in common with their neighbor Latvia.
Estonia always takes example on Finland. Except they’re always two steps behind.
And what about Estonians ? Are they nice people ? Before going there, I had read on the internet that Estonians were distant people, not very pleasant, with weird behavior sometimes. On my very first evening in Estonia, with the bus driver, the hostel receptionnist and the cook at the restaurant, I could see on the contrary that they were very welcoming, very sweet and always looking for my well-being.
But in the next days, I started to understand what people meant when they said Estonians were distants or weird. In some restaurants, you have to order your meal at the counter, pay immediately, sit and wait for your dish to come. But it doesn’t work that way in every restaurants, sometimes it’s a traditional service with waiters. How are we supposed to know when it’s one way or the other ? Maybe it’s written somewhere in Estonian but there is nothing to help the foreigners. Which led to some uncomfortable situations where I would be waiting in the restaurant for over 20 minutes and all the staff ignoring me. After a while, I would ask the cashier how it works and that’s when they look at me like I’m an alien and answer to me very coldly. Not nice at all. I’ve been in this situation twice during my trip.
So I would say I have mixed feeling about the Estonians’ kindness. You will meet very open-minded people, super friendly and enthusiasts as well as arrogant people who will talk to you coldly.
That being said, the few unpleasant people I met didn’t ruin my holiday in this country. I have spent a great time in Estonia and I have met two young native Estonians who were exceptional people.
This country is heaven for any blogger wanting to post live their photos on social media, for the geeks who can’t live without internet. Did you know that Skype was invented by an Estonian ? I was really impressed to find free Wi-Fi absolutely EVERYWHERE. Even on the ferry to Saaremaa island, whose journey lasts only 15 minutes, UN-BE-LIE-VA-BLE. We are very late in France regarding this topic. It came very handy for me, I cut off the 3G and was still able to send text messages through Viber or iMessage, consult Google Maps when I was lost or look for an info on the internet, without getting overseas phone charges. Congratulations Estonia on this digital exploit.
That was my sales pitch to make you come to Estonia. I hope I’ve managed to convince you that this country is awesome. I absolutely do not regret choosing this destination for my 2015 summer. It was a wonderful European discovery, I loved it and I think I may come back one day to explore the Eastern side. Do not hesitate to leave the capital Tallinn for greener and bigger lands.
Other positive side of it : last summer, while the rest of Europe was suffering from the heat waves, in Estonia it was hot, around 27°C, but not scorching.
Are you ready to visit Estonia now ? Have you ever been to the Baltic countries ? Which one of the three is your favorite country ?