• Lucas T. Jahn

111 Interesting Facts About Estonia

Updated: Jan 31

Estonia is a fascinating Northern European country to travel to. Large forests, mystical bog landscapes and medieval castles are waiting to be explored. If you want to learn more before your trip, read these 111 interesting facts about Estonia.


History


1. The first humans settling in Estonia were Finno-Ugric tribes from the Ural Mountains around 9000 BC. Before that, Estonia was covered by a 1 km thick ice sheet.


2. Estonia was first mentioned as Aestii by the Roman author Tacitus in his book Germanica in the first century AD.


3. Estonians were among the last pagans in Europe to be Christianised. German and Danish crusaders conquered Estonia in the first half of the 13th century and subsequently started to build churches for the newly Christianised locals.


4. The local Estonians evidently weren‘t the biggest fans of Christianity. During the St. George’s Night Uprising between 1343-1345, the locals tried to rid themselves of their Christian overlords of Danish and German ancestry, and among others, killed 28 monks and knights at Padise Monastery.


5. Estonians still don‘t care much about religion. Around 65% of Estonian‘s are unaffiliated with any church, while only 14% of people claim that religion plays an important role in their life.


6. Estonia‘s oldest city Tartu was first mentioned in 1030. It gained city rights in the 13th century.


Keen to explore Estonia? Check out our Estonia Travel Guide!


7. Lake Peipus in the east of Estonia was the site of the Battle on the Ice between the Republic of Novgorod and the German Livonian Order in 1242. The fighting predominantly took place on the frozen lake, ending in a decisive victory for the Russian side which was led by Russian folk hero Alexander Nevsky.


8. Toolse Castle on the Baltic Coast in Northeast Estonia once marked the northernmost outpost of the Holy Roman Empire. Today only ruins remain of the former crusader castle.


9. Nearby the ruins of the medieval Helme Castle, the man-made Helme Caves are a relict of Estonia‘s pagan past. Digging into the soft sandstone, the local population created a network of tunnels and chambers to hide before approaching enemies.


10. For most of its history, Tallinn was known by its historical German name Reval, whereas Tartu was known as Dorpat. In 1893, the Russians renamed Tartu to Yuryev, but the name never caught on. The city was officially renamed Tartu in 1918 after Estonia‘s first independence.


11. Tallinn‘s Old Town is one of the most well-preserved medieval towns in Europe, with many buildings dating back centuries. Unlike other Estonian cities, Tallinn was lucky enough to escape complete destruction during the World War II.


12. Estonia was devastated by several major wars - the Livonian War in the 16th century, the Great Northern War in the 19th century, and World War I & II in the 20th century.


13. Estonia, or parts of it, used to be ruled by Danes, Germans, Swedes, Poles, and Russians. First conquered by Danish and German crusaders in the 13th century, the Swedish and Polish increased their influence over the following centuries before Estonia fell to Czarist Russia after the Great Northern War in 1821.


14. The opposing medieval Hermann Castle in Narva and Ivangorod Fortress in today's Russia are an impressive sight, dating back to the days when the German Livonian Order and the Russian Grand Duchy of Moscow faced off in this part of Europe.


15. Estonia‘s oldest university was founded in 1632 by the Swedish King Gustav II Adolf in Tartu.


16. Walking through the forests of Saaremaa and Hiiumaa, visitors will often come upon abandoned Soviet military buildings such as bunkers and watchtowers. Many of these defense structures played a role in the fighting between the German and Soviet armies during World War II. They can be explored with headlights and caution.


17. In the 1950s, the Soviet Army built a large military facility known as the Hara Submarine Base east of Tallinn. The site was used to demagnetise submarines in an effort to protect them from underwater mines. The base was decommissioned after Estonia‘s independence, but the remaining concrete structures can still be visited today.


18. During Soviet times, the towns of Narva in Estonia and Ivangorod in Russia were one city. Today, the Narva river cuts the former city in half and the border customs tend to take quite some time. Similarly, the towns of Valka in Latvia and Valga in Estonia used to be one town. As both are part of the European Union and the Schengen Agreement, there are no customs here.


19. Around 2 million Estonians, Latvians, and Lithuanians formed a 675 km long human chain called the Baltic Chain on 23. August 1989, peacefully demanding the independence of their countries from the Soviet Union as part of the Singing Revolution.


20. Estonia gained its first independence from the Soviet Union on 24. February 1918. After being reconquered by the Soviets during World War II, Estonia achieved its re-independence on 20. August 1991. Today, Estonians celebrate their independence twice a year.


21. After Estonia‘s independence from the Soviet Union, all but one Lenin statue were removed from the public sphere. The last public Lenin statue can be found in the courtyard of Hermann Castle in Narva, metaphorically pointing east.


22. An Estonian national tragedy occurred in 1994 when a passenger ferry called 'Estonia' sank on its way from Tallinn to Stockholm. 852 people lost their lives.


23. Estonia joined the EU in 2004. Before they introduced the Euro in 2011, the local currency was called Kroon (kr).


24. Estonia‘s northeast used to be the industrial powerhouse of the country during its Soviet occupation. Many factories and mines sprang up leading to high employment and increasing air pollution. Today, most of the factories are closed leading to high unemployment among the predominantly Russian population.




Language


25. The Estonian language is of Finno-Ugric origin, closely related to Finnish and remotely to Hungarian while being completely unrelated to any Slavic, German or Roman language. Despite a large number of loanwords taken from the German language in the last 700 years, there is no chance a German will understand any Estonian. As a matter of fact, even Finns and Estonians cannot really converse anymore which is why they often switch to English.


26. Estonian is very hard to learn. The language has 14 different grammatical cases, uses Umlauts and other special characters (Õ, Ž, Š, Ä, Ö, Ü), and is challengingly melodic in its pronunciation.


27. The majority of Estonians is multilingual. Most young Estonians grow up learning English next to their mother tongue, while the older generation often speaks Estonian, English, and Russian, and sometimes even Finnish or German.



Identity


28. The color of the Estonian flag is blue, black, and white - symbolising the sky and the country‘s many lakes (blue), the burdensome past of the Estonian nation (black), and the white nights during summer (white).


29. Marriage is not that big of a thing for Estonians. Not only have marriages declined in absolute numbers, but Estonians also marry later in life. Many Estonians raise their children as partners, without intending to get married at all. However, Estonia also has one of the highest rates of single-parents around the globe.

30. Estonian‘s are not known as great conversationalists. At first, they can seem a bit reserved or even grumpy as they are not fond of over-sharing information. However, with some time, Estonians open up and develop into engaged conversationalists. The best chances to see this happen are in a sauna or at a campfire.


31. Estonian‘s don‘t exaggerate. Compared to other cultures, Estonian‘s are very matter-of-fact and down-to-earth. They are known to describe things as they are instead of using superlatives for everything. Personal anecdote: On a work trip, I visited a restaurant with an Estonian couple and their newborn baby. A colleague remarked how cute the child is, to which the mother replied: ‚Ah, you‘ll get over it‘.



32. The Baltic island of Kihnu is also known as The Isle of Woman. In the past, men were traditionally at sea as fishermen, while the women stayed at home. In the absence of men, the women took over more and more ‚male tasks‘ and developed into an independent female-led society.


33. In the 2018 Pisa Study, Estonian students ranked first in reading, mathematics, and writing among all European countries.


34. Virtually every single Estonian can read and write, as the country’s literacy rate is 99,89 %.


35. Estonians are avid readers - they own an average of 218 books per household, ranking first globally.



Demography


36. For every 90 males, there are 100 females in Estonia. This gap, which used to be as wide as 74/100 in 1950, has been closing continuously in the last decades.


37. With an average height of 175cm, Estonians are among the tallest people on earth, coming in third after the Dutch and Latvians.


38. Estonia is among the least densely populated countries in Europe, with a population of 1.3 million and only 29 people per km².


39. Only four Estonian cities have more than 50.000 inhabitants - Tallinn, Tartu, Narva, and Pärnu.


40. Around 25% of Estonians are ethnically Russian.


41. Estonia is home to a minority of Russian Old Believers that fled their homeland after increasing persecution from the Russian Orthodox Church and the Czars. To this day, Russian Old Believers have retained much of their traditional beliefs, culture, and clothing. Most of them live on the western shore of Lake Peipus.


42. Other than the Russian Old Believers, the Setos of southeastern Estonia are a Finno-Ugric Christian Orthodox tribe whose dialect is distinct enough from Estonian to be considered its own language. There are around 15.000 Setos remaining. Most of them live in Setomaa in southeast Estonia. They equally have retained their culture and are well-known for their traditional garments and polyphonic singing.



Digital Powerhouse


43. In Estonia, internet access is a basic right.


44. (Free) WiFi is widespread around the urban centers of Estonia, but fast mobile internet connectivity is available almost everywhere around the country, even in remote forests.


45. Estonia has among the most startups per capita in Europe. The majority of them are based in the capital of Tallinn and the university town Tartu.


46. Estonians invented Skype, sort of. To be completely fair, Skype was founded by a Dane and a Swede but several Estonian engineers played a pivotal role in the programming of the video conferencing app. Undoubtedly, you will hear and read about this piece of information several times when visiting Estonia, as 'it’s basically an unwritten law in Estonia that we have to remind the world at every opportunity that Skype is Estonian.'


47. The Estonian Mafia is a thing. Being a bit of a misnomer, the Estonian Mafia is a loose connection of founders, investors, and business people who are shaping the country‘s startup ecosystem. The term emerged alongside the ‚Skype Effect‘ after several former Skype employees founded their own companies, or invested in promising startups.


48. Estonian ride-sharing startup Bolt is a serious contender for American Uber and Southeast Asian Grab. Taking one of their cars is one of the most convenient ways to get around Tallinn.


49. Estonia‘s startups are growing so quickly, that they are in desperate need of qualified IT professionals, resulting in Career Hunts by government agency 'Work in Estonia'.


50. The country’s nickname is e-Estonia. It refers to Estonia‘s advanced digitisation and innovative digital solutions.


51. Estonia was the first country to introduce e-Residency, a means for foreigners to become virtual residents of Estonia. E-Residents can found and run a business in the European Union without being based in Europe.


52. Estonians can vote from the sauna. Or a hot tub. Or the forest. For Estonians, almost all public services are available online. Their digital ID-Card allows them to do everything online, with the exception of getting married, getting divorced, or buying and selling a property.



Culture


53. Estonians love saunas. A tradition shared with their Finnish neighbours to the north and Latvian neighbours to the south, Estonian‘s love to sweat in little wooden rooms. Sharing a sauna session and whisking each other with birch branches is a central part of Estonian culture. Some people even build saunas into their city apartments.


54. The European Sauna Marathon happens in Estonia‘s town of Otepää each February. 1000 competitors from all around the world visit 20 different saunas for three minutes each and cool down in ice holes.


55. In Tartu, visitors can experience the most immersive Estonian sauna experience: Staying on a sauna boat overnight and jumping in the Emajõgi river to cool down.


56. Estonians have one of the largest collections of folk songs globally - 133.000 songs!


57. The Estonian Song Festival is held every 5 years since 1869. The joint choir in 2019 comprised of more than 30.000 people, with close to 200.000 people attending.


58. Estonia’s national Epos, Kalvipoleg, meaning Kalev’s son, has more than 19.000 verses and describes the doings of the giant Kalev who is said to have formed much of the Estonian landscape by throwing boulders, changing the course of rivers, and founding cities. The poem was published by Friedrich Reinhold Kreutzwald in 1857.



Cuisine


59. The Estonian cuisine is a mix of Finnish, German, Russian, Swedish, Latvian, and local influences. Many dishes such as Kama, Pirozhki, or Vastlakukkel have their equivalents in other countries.


60. Dark Rye bread is an absolute staple food and a cultural identifier for Estonians. Most restaurants offer their own homemade bread alongside their meals. This connection goes so far that Estonian marriage proposals can feature the mention of bread. "Paneme leivad uhte kappi” literally means “Let's put our bread in the same cabinet”.