Estonia Travel Guide - Everything you need to know before your trip
Updated: Jan 25, 2021
Estonia is a small country in the north of Europe, bordering Russia to the east, Latvia to the south, and the Baltic Sea to the north and west. Aside from its picturesque medieval capital Tallinn, Estonia boasts a number of interesting sights. Large forests, mystical bog landscape, and caves, castles, and cliffs make Estonia a worthy candidate for a roadtrip.
Read on as we share important things to know before your trip to Estonia.
When to visit
Choose your season wisely. Every season in Estonia has its charm. But there are several things to consider when choosing a time for your trip. Most importantly, you should think about which activities and travel style you prefer.
If you want to experience Tallinn and Tartu, without every sight being overrun by tourists, then spring or autumn is the right choice for you. While the weather is not as sunny as in summer, you won‘t have to deal with busloads of tourists thronging their way through Tallinn‘s old town. Just be prepared that it can also be grey and rainy. Saying that, hiking is a great activity during this time of year, as in autumn a lot of berries and mushrooms can be picked from the forest floor.
If you want to camp, swim and enjoy the sun, then visit from June to August! In summer you can expect mild and pleasant temperatures and many hours of daylight, leaving you plenty of time for activities. Be aware that you won’t be the only person enjoying the sunshine in nature though. Many locals spend the summer traveling their own country and enjoy family time outside.
Winter, while generally cold and dark, has its own appeal as well. In terms of tourists, it is definitely the low season, leaving you plenty of time to wander around at your own pace. Additionally, you get the chance to go ice skating or snowshoeing. You could even go (ice)-swimming, and warm yourself up in a sauna again.
Keen to explore Estonia? Then check out our Estonia Travel Guide.
What and Where to visit
City trip? Check. Active hiking holiday? Check. Lounging on the beach? Check.
You may be surprised to hear that Estonia, despite its small size, offers a large variety of possible holiday activities. What and where to visit really depends on your personal preferences.
Go on a roadtrip. Estonia‘s excellent road infrastructure and compact size mean that the country is well-suited to be explored by car or camper van. Combined with its excellent camping infrastructure, you can easily spend several weeks driving around to explore each corner of the country. A roadtrip allows you to combine the best of what Estonia has to offer, e.g. the historic towns of Tallinn and Tartu, the bog landscapes of Rapla County, Lake Peipus in the east, or the beautiful sandy beaches of the Baltic Coast in the west.
Go on a city trip. Estonia‘s towns are not really sprawling metropolises, which, to be honest, makes them all the more special. Estonia‘s capital Tallinn offers visitors a beautiful Old Town with medieval buildings dating back centuries. Wander along the cobblestone alley, enjoy the views from the viewing platforms on Cathedral Hill or visit one of the many historic churches. The districts of Kalamaja and Noblessner on the other hand are symbols of a young and thriving city, while the nearby City Beach is perfectly suited for a dip in the shallow Baltic Sea.
Exploring Tartu is equally worth it, as its inner-city dates back to the 18th century and the impressive ruins of Tartu Cathedral beckon visitors for a stroll. Other cities such as the seaside town of Pärnu or the former Bishopric residence Haapsalu are equally interesting.
No matter which city you visit, take your time to go on a stroll to take in the city at your own leisure.
Off to the beach? Even though Estonia is not necessarily famous as a beach destination, the country has a surprising number of beautiful sand beaches on the Baltic coast and the shore of Lake Peipus. In the summer, temperatures in Estonia rise to a pleasant +20° Celsius (sometimes as high as 30°) and the water in the shallow lakes equally warms up.
Explore the Baltic Islands. If you are in want of some silence, visiting the Baltic Islands of Saaremaa and Hiiumaa could be for you. Life moves even slower than on mainland Estonia on these heavily forested islands. Exploring those forests you will often encounter abandoned Soviet bunkers dating back to World War 2. Explore them with caution!
Estonia has had a turbulent history. To fully understand Estonia, one has to take a look back at its history. For close to a millennium the country has been struggled over by foreign powers, often to the detriment of the local population. A comparably late Christianization by German and Danish crusaders was followed by centuries of fighting between Swedes, Germans, Poles, Danes, and Russians. Many castles were built by the German Livonian Order, but most of them were destroyed again in the Livonian War in the 16th and the Great Northern War in the 18th century. German nobleman also left behind many beautiful manors, of which a good number have survived. As a result of the Great Northern War, Estonia was conquered by Czarist Russia resulting in a subsequent Russification. After Estonia‘s first independence following WWI, Soviet Russia conquered the country once more during World War 2, before Estonia gained their independence again in 1991. Today, the country is part of the EU and Nato, and a liberal democracy.
Don‘t say Estonia is in Eastern-Europe Estonians have a very strained history with Russia, which explains their disliking of being called Eastern European. Moreover, they rightly point out that they are of Finno-Ugric origin, and hence prefer to be called Nordic. Another term that is frequently used is Baltic and usually refers to the three countries Estonia, Lithuania, and Latvia.
The Estonian language is unlike most others. Good luck trying to understand an Estonian speaking their local language. The Estonian language is of Finno-Ugric origin and completely unrelated to the Slavic, German, or Roman language families. Its closest relative is the Finnish language, but even here, both languages have evolved apart from one another to such an extent that Estonians and Finns may understand each other, but cannot fluently converse anymore. Interestingly, Estonian is also completely different from Latvian and Lithuanian.
Many people speak excellent English. While most Estonian’s native language is, no surprise here, Estonian, large parts of the population speak excellent English. Estonians learn English in school as a second language and thus can fluently converse with visitors. Even many of the older generation speak English. In Tallinn or Tartu, you will never have a problem finding someone who will be able to help you. Exceptions may apply the more northeast you travel. The northeast of Estonia is heavily influenced by ethnic Russians who moved to Estonia under its Soviet occupation. Therefore, in this part of the country, Russian is much more widely used than English, or Estonian for that matter.
Estonians can seem reserved. Similar to Finnish people, many Estonians need some time to thaw in social situations. Don‘t expect exalted smiles or exuberance in your first interactions with any local. What can come across as rude or cold-hearted is simply a different culture. Estonians don’t talk loudly or fast. Sometimes they don’t talk at all. Casual small talk is not really a thing and even waiters in restaurants don‘t necessarily smile at you. Estonians are also fairly direct, stating things as they are instead of beating around the bush. Of course, as always, there are many exceptions to that rule and some Estonians are just as bubbly as the rest of us.
Rye Bread is part of the culture. Don’t leave Estonia without at least trying original Estonian dark rye bread once. Every decent restaurant serves its own homemade rye bread free of charge for you to enjoy. The hearty goodness often comes with homemade butter or some form of cream.
Dark bread is an absolute staple food in Estonia. For centuries it has had an impact on Estonia‘s culture. This connection goes that far that some Estonian marriage proposals even feature the mention of bread. "Paneme leivad uhte kappi" literally means "let's put our bread in the same cabinet". It is also a good custom to ‚kiss the bread‘ when a piece fell to the floor accidentally.
Sauna is part of the culture too. Once again, sharing a passion with their Finnish neighbors to the north, Estonians are extremely fond of sweating. Yes, that‘s right: Estonians love to go into a little wooden room, heat it up to an almost unbearably hot temperature and smack themselves with birch veins. Oh, and they tend to be naked doing so. While that may sound unusual to you, there are many good reasons to visit a sauna. The intense sweating opens up your skin pores - ‚detoxifying you‘ - while the rapid cool down in a cold shower or a lake washes away the ‚toxins‘ and closes the pores again. After a couple of sessions, you will feel rejuvenated. Regular sauna visits have been proven to benefit the health significantly, as they strengthen the immune system. Don‘t leave Estonia without experiencing a sauna at least once!
Fast Internet throughout the country. Estonia is well known to be a digital powerhouse and an innovator in all things internet. The country has a thriving startup ecosystem with many companies focusing on digital services. Most public services of the country are available online - including the right to vote. And the country is the first nation globally to have introduced an e-residency, a means for non-Estonian‘s to gain virtual residency to found a business in Estonia. It, therefore, comes as no surprise that finding internet anywhere around the country is an easy feat. Estonia has an excellent wifi network, so much so, that you can hike into a remote forest far from any city and still find that your phone has full internet coverage.
Keen to explore Estonia? Then check out our Estonia Travel Guide.
Camping is free. If you are into camping, then Estonia is the right place for you. Believe it or not, a large number of campsites in Estonia is completely free! Of course, you shouldn‘t expect electricity, wifi, hot showers, or Instagram-style glamping, but if you like "wild" camping, you'll love it. The campsites come with covered picnic tables and benches, fire pits with barbecue grills, garbage containers, dry toilets, and even firewood. And all of this is free of charge!
This amazing camping infrastructure is provided by the RMK, the Estonian State Forest Management Centre (Estonian: Riigimetsa Majandamise Keskus). All around the country they have set up free campsites so that you are rarely more than 20 km from any of them. The RMK has also developed an app where you can not only overview all campsites throughout the country but also see photos, a description, the capacity, as well as the facilities. Just be prepared that on weekends and holidays you will not be the only nature lover. Many locals take the chance and escape from everyday life.
Bring insect repellent. In the summer, it hums and buzzes everywhere in Estonia’s nature. Mosquitos and horse flies seem to enjoy the sun just as much as we humans do. And while they do not carry any deadly diseases, it is still advisable to bring insect repellent if you don‘t want to be bitten too often.
Estonia is flat. The highest mountain of Estonia rises to an astonishing height of 318 meters. Not only does that make it the highest mountain of the country, but even the entire Baltics. When climbing to the top of the lookout tower on Suur Munamägi (Big Egg Mountain), you will look upon a mostly flat country. Visitors to Estonia won‘t encounter any high elevations, switchbacks, or exhausting mountain climbs. The entire country is easily navigable by bike, car, or camper van.
There are lookout towers everywhere. Of course, Estonians also want to have a look at their landscapes. Missing mountains or any higher vantage points, Estonians have resorted to building lookout towers all across the country. If you are unafraid of heights, we highly recommend you climb up one of the many towers, whose lookout platforms can be as high as 24 meters. From the top, you will often gaze upon beautiful bog landscapes, which helps you develop a different kind of appreciation for the country.
Estonia is home to bears, wolves, moose, and lynx. Yes, European brown bears and wolves roam freely through the forests of Estonia. Should that be a point of concern? Absolutely not! Even though these animals are apex predators, they have learned that it is in their best interest to avoid humans. Seeing a bear is a rarity if you don‘t go on a dedicated bear watching tour. The same applies to when you are camping in the wild. It is extremely rare that a bear would approach any camper, they are much more likely to run away. Should you ever encounter a bear, make yourself as large as you can, stretch up your arms, and talk in a loud and determined voice. This will tell the animal that you are no suitable prey. Oh, and make sure to have the camera rolling, otherwise, no one will ever believe you.
Estonia is heavily forested. More than 50% of Estonia is covered by forests, although to an increasing degree by monoculture tree species, which has resulted in the harsh criticism of the RMK.
Nonetheless, there are plenty of opportunities for visitors to go out into nature and enjoy the silence of the forests. While doing so, keep your eyes peeled for mushrooms and berries on the forest floor.
Most lakes and the Baltic Sea are very shallow. Estonia has neither high elevations nor deep crevices. If you want to go for a swim in the Baltic Sea or in one of the many lakes, don‘t be surprised to find yourself walking for a considerable distance. In fact, Estonia‘s largest lake, Lake Peipus, is so shallow that it only reaches 7.1 meters in depth - even though it is the fifth-largest lake in Europe. Similarly, the Baltic Sea is very shallow at many points. This makes Estonia a great place for a relaxed family swimming holiday.
Estonia has an excellent hiking infrastructure
Estonians love to spend time outdoors, so it is no surprise that there are well-maintained hiking trails to be found all across the country. From short forest walks to bog trails and hiking through the Baltic Sea, Estonia has it all. Most trails are easily accessible and can be walked in sneakers. The ground is usually firm and if traversing a bog, wooden boardwalks have been installed.
Visit at least one bog. No visit to Estonia would be complete without exploring one of the many bogs of the country. Unlike elsewhere in Europe, many wetlands have survived until today offering a fascinating glimpse into the past of the continent. Bogs are lake-turned-wetland types of landscape that are a result of the last Ice Age 10.000 years ago. As the glaciers retreated, water-filled many of the depressions in the landscapes. Over the course of millennia, dead plant material accumulated creating an intricate network of swampy ground and clear bog lakes.
You don‘t need a car to explore Tallinn. If you want to spend a couple of days in Estonia‘s picturesque capital Tallinn, then save yourself the trouble of booking a rental car. The city is easy to discover on foot! The narrow cobble-stone roads of Tallinn‘s old town are best explored on a leisurely stroll. Navigating these tiny alleys in a car is not only stressful, but there are barely any parking lots in the vicinity anyway. If you bring a pair of sneakers, walking from Old Town to other parts of the city, such as Kalamaja or Noblessner, is absolutely no problem either.
You need a car to explore the countryside. If you think about exploring more of Estonia than Tallinn, and we highly recommend you do, then a car is indispensable. Public transport is a good option to get around Tallinn, but as soon as you want to explore little backcountry roads, there won‘t be any bus to drop you off.
Driving in Estonia is easy. In general, driving in Estonia is fairly laid-back. There are barely any traffic jams, everything is comparably orderly and the road network is in excellent condition. Estonian‘s drive on the right side of the road and do not speed a lot, as there are plenty of speed cameras across the country. The speed limit on single-lane highways is 90 km/h, on double-lane highways 110 km/h. In cities, you are allowed to drive 50 km/h. Be cautious when driving through Tallinn‘s Old Town as the streets are very narrow. Also pay attention to possible pedestrian crossings in Tallinn, as some of them go across four-lane roads.
The road infrastructure is excellent but expect some gravel. The road network in Estonia is very developed and well-maintained. All major roads and highways are tarred and in excellent condition. Smaller forest trails tend to be gravel roads, but even those are fairly smooth and no problem for most regular cars. Before venturing onto these gravel roads, make sure your vehicle is in decent condition, as you don‘t want to break down. Also note that some campsite access trails can be muddy and bumpy, and are therefore unsuitable for camper vans or sports cars.
Never drink and drive. This should really be self-evident, but never drink and drive. Ever. Estonia has a strict zero alcohol limit. That means you cannot even drink a beer and drive. Please, for yourself, but mostly others, stick to it!
Don’t underestimate Estonia‘s size. Yes, in comparison to most countries Estonia is rather small. The country’s size - 45.227 sqm - is similar to the US State of Ohio, the Netherlands, or the state of Lower Saxony in Germany. Saying that, you can easily spend three weeks or longer exploring the country as there is plenty to see. Don‘t expect you can explore all of Estonia in just a couple of days. You will only scratch the surface.
Point-of-Interest Signs are brown and often in Estonian. Sometimes you will be driving along a road and unexpectedly come across a brown road sign saying something in Estonian. Lacking an English translation, you may be left to wonder what that actually indicates.
Let us tell you: you probably just drove past a point of interest and missed it! Large brown street signs indicate that there is something worth exploring nearby. These points of interest could be anything from hiking trails to springs, abandoned bunkers, or historic mansions. If you pay attention to the last Estonian word on the sign, you can usually understand what is waiting for you at the end of the road.
Here are the most common Estonian terms for you. Memorize them well!
Loss = Castle
Mõis = Manor
Raba = Bog
Allikas = Spring
Järv = Lake
Koopad = Cave
Maastikukaitseala = Nature park
Matkarada = Hiking trail
Rahvuspark = National park
Rand = Beach
Tuuletorn = Lighthouse
Tuuleveski = Windmill
Vaatetorn = Observation Tower
Travel costs are comparably low. While Estonia is certainly not a ‚cheap‘ country to travel to, the costs for food, fuel, or accommodation are comparably low. In restaurants, many main courses won‘t cost you more than 10 Euros. Buying groceries in the supermarket is affordable too, with rates similar to Germany, but cheaper than many of Estonia‘s Nordic neighbors. Similarly, fuel is not as heavily taxed either.
The affordability of alcohol even leads to so-called alcohol runs by Finnish citizens, who take the short 2-3 hour ferry ride from Helsinki to Tallinn to stock up on alcoholic beverages in bulk, before returning home with suitcases full of booze.
Estonia is very safe to travel to.
As a liberal, social democracy with a small population, low crime, and fairly equal income distribution, Estonia is a perfectly safe place to travel to. This applies to families, solo female travelers, or homosexuals equally. Estonia‘s crime rates are low, and often limited to petty crime. Of course, you should always pay attention to your personal belongings and don‘t leave valuables lying around in the car.
Estonia is family-friendly. The low crime rate combined with a fairly predictable climate and the lack of venomous animals make Estonia a great place to explore with the entire family. At many points dedicated family-friendly activities such as archery, rowing boats, playgrounds, or climbing parks are available. Several beaches have lifeguards in the summer and the forest trails are well-maintained. Lastly, the distances are manageable, so there won‘t be many ‚Are we there, yet?‘ moments.
You don‘t need to buy bottled water.
This won‘t be a surprise for many Europeans, or any Kiwis for that matter, but in Estonia buying bottled water is a luxury, not a must-have. All tab water in Estonia is clean and potable, as it originates from springs. Therefore, it is safe to drink from any tab in Estonia. Alternatively, if you want to get closer to the source, you can also visit one of the many springs and drink water bubbling from the ground.