Best things to do in Estonia
With centuries of occupation by other countries and some of it, in more recent history, incredibly brutal, the Estonian people have shown incredible strength and resilience. Estonia has forged ahead, not forgetting its history, but building a new chapter.
It has wrapped its arms around changing technology, fostering the thoughts of some of the smartest people in the country to create an entrepreneurial and creative think tank. In Tallinn, Estonia’s capital, the use of leading technology has made it stand out in a world where technology drives almost everything.
Tallinn is a beautiful city and unlike most of what you will see throughout the rest of Estonia. In a way, it’s sad that for many, Tallinn will only be a peek through the window of what lies beyond the city perimeter. As one of the major ports in the Baltic Sea, it’s a popular cruise ship port.
On the days they dock, the city is flooded with tourists for a few hours as they work their way through the quaint cobblestoned streets, hitting the few highlights that are possible during a short on-shore visit.
Most will not stay the night. I worry that the influx of cruise ships into small towns will cause issues for Tallinn, as is being evidenced in other parts of the world like the Cinque Terre, Venice and more recently, Bruges.
We spent several days in Tallinn and of course, loved it. However, we also went further afield, wanting to explore this country of such contrast. In the west, we visited Haapsalu, a town right on the west coast, and perfect for the summer holidays. Days later, we turned our head towards the east, towards Russia to see just how much the influence of this country continues in a place that would rather leave all of this behind.
We covered the major areas of eastern Estonia in two separate day trips, meaning we had plenty of time to spend in the towns we wanted to see.
Day trip from Tallinn to Rakvere via Lahemaa National Park
Over 40% of Estonia is covered by forest, 50% of which is considered useful for farming. The largest of all parks in Estonia is the Lahemaa National Park, occupying some of the Gulf of Finland coastline. In this national park, you will find tiny traditional fishing villages, waterfalls and misty bogs, a unique Estonian natural feature. All of this is enveloped by tall pine forests.
Once you escape the city traffic of Tallinn (which honestly isn’t that bad), the pine trees will soon line the highway as you head east. Snow has started to fall, lightly dusting the ends of the trees and making it look like something out of a fairytale.
Key places to stop in the Lahemaa National Park
This tiny village on the coast is known as the “Captain’s Village” and despite its size, it is an iconic piece of Estonian history. Once home to a maritime school where men went to train to be ship captains, 30% off all Estonian boats were registered to this village by the 1920s. With the village dominated by the presence of ships’ captains, it was once noted that every family had at least one of them in their midst.
Kasmu also lies in a part of the coast scattered with erratic rocks. Erratic rocks are so named because their style and formation are not considered to be like anything in their nearby surroundings. This is so because they are actually glacial rocks, moved during the Ice Age. Along the coastline, they have been washed ashore, some even hitting sizes of around 30 metres in diameter. In many areas, the glacial rocks are embedded in the sea bed and visible from the land.
Hiking is popular here. At the end of the road that leads into Kasmu, a 4.2-kilometre walking trail weaves its way through the pine forests. A 15-kilometre round trip path starts near the church.
The Kasmu Maritime Museum showcases the history of the village and the area.
It’s a cute little village to visit, especially if you love to hike. Guesthouses are the main source of accommodation here. You can check out locations, pricing and availability on Trip Advisor.
Another coastal town, Vosu is popular for having one of the best sandy beaches in the area.
Palmse is home to one of the largest mansions in Estonia. The baroque-styled building is now a museum, with the open-air portion celebrating the nature of Estonia.
Altja was my favourite fishing village, but it took a little bit to find as some of the street signs made us believe that we would be trespassing if we continued. Eventually, we realised we had to go down that path and we were so pleased we didn’t just turn away. In Altja, all of the village’s houses are in one street. When you get right out to the end of the road (accessible by walking) there are several old fishing huts there. They are not originals but have been carefully made using historical notes and photos.
There is a tavern nearby which gets great reviews but unfortunately, it wasn’t open when we visited. You can’t miss this building with the steep thatched roof! The erratic stones are most spectacular here.
This part of Estonia is not home to any great destination icons, but slow travelling around the country, stopping in at little villages along the way gives a great sense of where you are. It also shows how important Tallinn is to the economy of the country.
Estonia has long, cold winters so we were interested to see that many of the houses had outdoor smokehouses. Some even had old-fashioned water wells.
You will definitely need to hire a car if you want to head out into the Lahemaa National Park and be free to go where you would like. We recommend Auto Europe.
After spending so much time in small villages, Rakvere feels quite large. Giving scale to the population spread in Estonia, Rakvere with its 15,500 strong population is the fifth largest city in the country. Visitors come to Rakvere to see the 13th-century castle ruins that sits prominently on the hill just outside the city.
Entry is possible inside the castle walls where visitors can get a glimpse of 16th-century life.
Rakvere also shows a softer side to its architecture here, with timber buildings obvious throughout the city. They reminded me a little of the houses we saw in Akureyri, Iceland. After receiving a tip from a British man we met in Kasmu, we had lunch at Rohuaia Cafe. It didn’t disappoint with hearty traditional fare served up within a warm and welcoming inner space.
I didn’t think the food prices in Tallinn were expensive but the further away from the capital you go, the cheaper it gets. The prices here were incredibly inexpensive especially considering the portion size.
The drive through Estonia continued to offer up plenty of beautiful locations. Out of nowhere, we spied this pink building so popped in for a peek. The 18th-century manor house sits on a grand expanse of land in the Lahemaa National Park. Today it is used mainly for conferences and conventions.
You can also stay at the Sagadi Manor Hotel. Check out prices and availability on Trip Advisor.
Then, as quickly as you might see a stunning historically important building, you will also come across those that have been abandoned long ago. It’s a mishmash of old and new, restored and dilapidated.
How to get from Tallinn to Lahemaa National Park and Rakvere
Car: Our day trip from Tallinn to the Lahemaa National Park and out to Rakvere covered 288km, which isn’t much driving at all and is easy to do as a day trip from Tallinn. Most of the driving is on a connecting highway and most of the roads are quite good. This would be our preference for doing such a trip.
You could do this differently by separating into two different day trips.
Train: Trains leave the Tallinn Train Station just outside the Old Town for Rakvere. Trains take around 1.5 hours.
Bus: Buses take approximately 1.5 hours. The tickets are very inexpensive.
Day trip from Tallinn to Narva
The highway between Tallinn and Narva brings little other than the continuing beautiful landscapes and some little villages and towns every now and then. As we head closer to the Russian border, we ponder the history of the two countries and wonder how Estonians must feel with new tensions simmering between Russia and the US, and sometimes what feels like the rest of the world. Our thoughts extend over a pastry in the warmth of a roadside cafe. As we get further east, food prices become even lower.
For all of the beautiful places we had seen so far in Estonia, it was Narva that taught me the most about where the country had been, and perhaps more importantly now, what the future might hold. Narva was the most Russian-looking city we had seen. As a border town between Estonia and Russia, and a former part of the USSR, it is hardly surprising. These days, only a river separates the two countries.
On a freezing day, with the bitter wind chilling me to the bone, the icy river looks as menacing as the two fortresses on either side. There is no mistaking that this has been a battlefield. The question is, will it be again? The city of Narva was almost razed to the ground during World War Two.
The independence of Estonia from Russia that came in 1991 paved the way for new freedoms for the Estonian people, but it left those in Narva in a displaced kind of no-man’s land. Despite the Estonian overtures, this city looks, feels and sounds like Russia. The population is largely from Russian origin, with strong genetics and speaking the mother language. Estonian citizenship requires, amongst other things, that the Estonian language must be able to be spoken. It has left many of the Narva population unable to achieve an official Estonian status.
On the western side of the Narva River, Hermann Castle, or Narva Castle as it is more commonly known looks ready to be used again. The castle was built by the Danes during their occupation in the 13th-century and has remained well looked after ever since. It’s another telling sign of the need to keep their military defences intact. Where many countries and regions might have long ago stopped relying on their fortresses, Narva Castle still sees practice military operations undertaken here.
Directly across the river, and now joined by a bridge that sees thousands of people pass through the border security every day, lies Ivangorod Castle. There is now a museum located inside.
Unfortunately, the overall landscape of the town apart from a few old buildings in the Old Town and the fortresses is fairly bland. The common Russian rectangular apartment blocks made of concrete are found everywhere here.
With most of the city destroyed during the second world war, many of the old European style houses were damaged or demolished. The Town Hall was spared although it’s looking like it could do with a little more love and attention.
If we weren’t convinced of the Russian influence here, then lunch in a local pub sealed it. With Russian speaking staff and Russian music, it was as though we were on the other side of the river. Unlike our experience in Tallinn where we had eaten at some incredible places, the food here was less inspiring, albeit warming on such a freezing day.
Visiting Narva is a great opportunity to learn more about the history of the area. More importantly, it gives huge insight into the current political environment and the impact that Russia could have on it in the future. With Estonia being a member of NATO along with the US, any tensions between the global players could and will create issues for a range of people, not in the least, the residents of Narva. It’s something I will be watching with interest.
Note: You cannot cross the Narva River into Russia without the appropriate paperwork, visas and passports.
How to get to Narva from Tallinn
Car: The day trip from Tallinn to Narva was a round trip of 420km. The drive is mostly highway driving and is easy. Once in Narva, walking around the main part of the city is possible.
Train: The Tallinn train station is just outside the Old Town. Trains from Tallinn to Narva take almost three hours and are inexpensive to purchase.
Bus: Buses also operate from Tallinn, taking approximately 3 hours 15 minutes and cost roughly the same as the train.
Beer and Croissants was a guest of Visit Estonia at the #storyttellersnest in Tallinn. We created our own itinerary so that we could see all the places in Estonia that we wanted to personally see. We are appreciative of Visit Estonia providing us with our vehicle so that we could drive around Estonia with ease. As always, all editorial content, opinions and images are entirely our own.