Estonia: A Baltic Beauty Full of Surprises

Talinn, the capital city of Estonia. Photos by Janis Turk.
Talinn, the capital city of Estonia. Photos by Janis Turk.
Jaanus Hiis, King of the Seto
Jaanus Hiis, King of the Seto

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By Janis Turk

Across the globe, there are supermodel cities where beauty is expected, even taken for granted. Travelers can always count on Venice, Paris, and Rome to wow. But it’s a delight when a trip takes an unexpected turn and a quiet little place takes your breath away.

Sometimes beauty appears by surprise, and that’s what happened when I visited the Baltic beauty of Estonia. There I discovered the beguiling cities of Tallinn and Tartu, as well as a peaceful Old World region called Setumaa near the Russian border.

Such hamlets of unexpected loveliness certainly rival touristy spots with photo ops. For sometimes a place’s charm comes upon a traveler quietly as he gets to know and see more of an area and meet its people.

A destination with a great personality can be as charming as one with old church steeples, cobblestone streets and lilting meadows. Luckily, Estonia has all that, as I learned during my own little Baltic holiday.

Beautiful inside and out

Many Americans know little or nothing about Estonia. Those who do may have taken a Nordic cruise and learned that it’s a small country edging the southeastern side of the Baltic Sea. Like other “Baltic States,” it was once occupied by Soviets, so those who’ve never been may suppose it to be a cold, dreary Soviet-saturated spot with soot-colored cinder-block buildings. Estonia is nothing like that. It’s a small serene country with cities dating back to the 13th Century and earlier.

Roughly the size of New Hampshire and Massachusetts combined, Estonia features large, sparsely populated rural expanses, and it ranks among the smallest countries in the world by population (1.29 million), though it’s larger in size than Denmark and Holland.

The city square in Talinn, Estonia.
The city square in Tallinn, Estonia.

Since its national independence in 1918, Estonia has been a democratic parliamentary republic, even though both the Soviets and the Nazis occupied it at different periods from the 1940s to 1991. Despite that sad sliver of history, Estonia is today a modern, thriving, developed country, with a high income/advanced economy.

Tartu City Hall
Tartu City Hall

Its capital city, Tallinn, was designated the 2011 European Capital of Culture, and Estonia was also named the “Most High-Tech Country in Europe” by the BBC. In fact, Estonia’s parliament has declared Internet access a basic human right.

A part of the European Union, Estonia boasts a strong euro-based economy, high employment, and a distinctly strong Nordic style. Sweden, Denmark, and Finland are near neighbors.

However, the real charm of Estonia lives in the fresh follow-your-dream faces of its people, who carry a strong entrepreneurial spirit and a determination that serves them well.


Resting on the northern coast of the country, hugging the banks of the Gulf of Finland, Estonia’s capital city of Tallinn is a real treasure. Tallinn is the oldest capital city in Northern Europe, first appearing on a map as early as 1154.

The ancient walled city that is now known as Tallinn’s Old Town is like something from a Cinderella storybook. Streets of large cobblestones stretch up hill and down with limestone buildings hugging tightly the slim streets that wend their way to castle-like structures and churches near the Old Town square. This was the center of the medieval trade, which enabled Tallinn to grow and prosper for centuries.

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Today it and the adjacent area called Toompea, or Cathedral Hill, is a UNESCO World Heritage site. Toompea Castle is the center of government and the Riigikogu (parliament).

When the late-evening sun was still high, I trudged along fortress walls up the hill to get a glimpse of the city skyline. Tall steeples and huddled masses of orange-red rooftops of the Old Town glistened in the sunset. The view was worth the climb.

As I walked back through the town square, passing the old Russian Orthodox Alexander Nevsky Cathedral with its colorful domes and arched windows, I came to a central plaza where tourists and locals gather in outdoor cafes. From there, I admired the ancient architecture of the Great Guild Hall and the stately steeple of the Holy Spirit Church.

In the Old Town, I stayed in a boutique hotel set in a lovely medieval white-limestone 13th-century building. The Hotel Schloessle is cozy and enchanting, with its ancient stone walls, low ceilings with massive wooden beams, and a roaring fireplace. The little inn has a castle-like feel—without the intimidating size.

Tucked quietly away in one of the inn’s old rooms overlooking a small courtyard garden, I enjoyed being close to the Old Town square with its agreeable little shops, cigar and wine bars, and even a little candy store and Marzipan museum.

But by far my favorite eatery in all of Estonia is a colorful “underground” spot called nAnO house in the private home of a former Finnish supermodel. The model, Beatrice, and her ex-husband Pritt serve guests organic, healthful, home-cooked meals at a communal table.Estonia is known for wonderful chocolates, and so I peaked into Chocolaterie Pierre, a coffee house/ chocolate shop with low lighting and funky warm furnishings and quirky décor—not to mention fabulous hot chocolate and pastries.

The eclectic menu features Estonian, Mediterranean, Thai, Italian, Russian, Indian cuisine, “Soul Food” and Vegan offerings. The house has a cheery and bright funky Moroccan/1960s hippie coffeehouse vibe, and the food is fabulous.

The city of Tallinn offers much more outside the old town, like its bright fresh Sadama Turg Harbour Market, the intriguing little KGB museum in the Viru hotel, and the lofty Tallinn TV Tower, which rivals Seattle’s Space Needle in design and boasts a World-Class chef in its revolving restaurant.

As taken as I was with Tallinn, I wanted to see more of Estonia, and so we headed south.

Tartu and Setumaa

Tallinn, Estonia in the winter.
Tallinn, Estonia in the winter.

Tartu, a college town, is the second-largest city in Estonia, with a population of about 100,000. Like Tallinn, Tartu’s Old Town area bustles with college students, families, couples, locals and tourists. The Emajõgi river runs through it, so this town of hills and charming old houses and inns, Soviet-era buildings, modern structures, massive stone ruins of a 13th Century cathedral and more is worth a visit.

After leaving Tartu, we traveled south past miles of white birch tree forests at the eastern edge of Estonia near Lake Peipsi, bordering Russia. Home to the University of Tartu founded in 1632, it’s considered the intellectual and cultural center of Estonia. There I stayed in at the delightful Villa Margaretha hotel, a 17-room inn set in a 1911 Art-Nouveau-style house.

There on the River Emajõgi, we enjoyed a beautiful outing on a replica of a 14th-Century one-mast wooden sailing vessel or barge called “lodi” that served as a trading ship throughout the inland waters of Estonia. This barge adventure was merely my first introduction to the Estonia of old.

Simply Seto

I spent the next two days learning about the life and culture of the Seto people who have lived for centuries on the borderland of southeast Estonia and northwest Russia. The Seto women said their name means, “Not this, and not that” — or “on the border of two worlds” – and while they claim to be neither Russian nor Estonian — simply Seto — they are content in all places by holding tightly to their ancient language, culture, customs and faith.

During church holidays, the Seto honor loved ones by bringing food and drink to their graves singing Leelo, their type of folk song, and visiting together.

While in Setumaa, I was honored to meet the Seto king, Jaanus Hiis, at the Seto Talu Museum in Värska. This modern and intelligent leader impressed me, and his excitement about the future of the Seto people and the importance of their contribution to the art and culture of Estonia was contagious.In the little clustered villages of Setumaa, Seto people were warm and eager to share their culture and music. Many families keep a large wooden swing in the yard where children and adults — even the elderly — swing and sing together.

Clearly, the strength and beauty of the Seto and their strong progressive spirit will ensure that their culture continues for ages to come.

Castles, Saunas and So Much More

While in Estonia, I was able to visit arresting places like the Alatskivi Castle on the eastern border of Estonia and dine at a restaurant in an old manor house, and even spend the night at a rural Seto lodge.

One surprising thing I learned is that in Estonia, many homes and most hotels have their own dry heat saunas. Sauna is an integral part of the family culture there. Traditional Seto homes had smoke saunas fueled by burning wood.

Taking time to sing, swing, relax in a sauna and enjoy life is an integral part of Estonian culture. Perhaps that’s why Estonia was such a pleasant surprise. How lovely to feel at home and find beauty in unexpected places.

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Listen to the Seto Leelo Choirs

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