Though it's considered part of the Baltic States, Estonia shares more similarities with its northern neighbor, Finland, the most apparent being the Finno-Ugric language. With a flat mainland and 2,355 islands, Estonia is one of the least populous E.U. member states with a population of a little over 1.3 million. Inhabited since around 9000 B.C., ancient Estonians were some of the last European pagans. Over several centuries, Estonia shifted in between German, Danish, Swedish and Russian rule. National sentiments arose during the 19th and 20th centuries. On February 24, 1918, independence was declared. By the end of World War II, Estonia was annexed by the USSR. However, Estonia's de jure state was preserved by diplomats and government in exile. In 1987, a singing revolution began against Soviet rule which culminated with restoration of Estonia's de facto independence on August 20, 1991. Since independence, the nation has rapidly developed its IT sector, which earned them the moniker: e-Estonia. In 2005, Estonia become the first country to conduct elections over the internet, and in 2014, the first nation to provide e-residency.
I spent 5 days touring and photographing various points of interest in Tallinn, Tartu and Haapsalu.
Day 1 - Tallinn
Tallinn, Estonia's capital and largest city, is situated on the northern coast of the country along the shore of the Gulf of Finland. First established in the early medieval era, modern day Tallinn is a balanced mix of old and new. Something out of a fairytale book, Tallinn is littered with colorful gabled houses and medieval buildings that line the cobblestoned streets with guard towers along the enclosed city walls. Often dubbed the Silicon Valley of Europe, Tallinn has the highest number of startups per person in Europe and is the birthplace of many international companies, including Skype.
Old Town, the city's historic centre, is one the best preserved medieval cities in Europe and is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1997. In the days of the Hanseatic trade league, Old Town was divided into Lower Town and Toompea Hill. Lower Town housed the merchants and churches, while Toompea was and still is the country's administrative center. Nestled in the center is Town Hall Square. Used as a marketplace and meeting point for many centuries, the square is now a hub of activity with quaint outdoor cafes, cozy restaurants and whimsical shops.
Town Hall Square
Tallinn's cobblestoned streets
Commanding attention in the center of Old Town is the towering Town Hall (Raekoda) that has dominated the square since its completion in 1404. Considered Scandinavia and Baltic countries' "oldest surviving town hall," it currently functions as a museum and occasional concert venue.
Perhaps the brightest looking government building I've ever seen, Toompea Castle was built during the 18th century and is home to the Estonian Parliament (Riigikogu). The current structure was erected on the foundations of the crumbling eastern wing of the fortress that was a stronghold for the city in the 13th and 14th centuries.
Nestled within the walls of Tallinn is Alexander Nevsky Cathedral. An orthodox church built in typical Russian Revival style, the cathedral is dedicated to Saint Alexander Nevsky who won the Battle of Ice in 1242. The cathedral is richly decorated with onion-like domes and eleven bells that were cast in St. Petersburg. The largest bell weighs 16 tons!
A few blocks from Old Town is Kassikohvik Nurri (Nurri Cat Cafe). A cozy cafe with delightful dishes and adorable furries, this cat cafe is must visit! I had a great time playing with and photographing the cats who are a mix of playful youngsters to suspicious adults. Oh, and you can also adopt a cat!
Nurri Cat Cafe
I ended the day at Patkuli viewing area, a wonderful spot that captures the beauty of lower town from above the hill. The red roofs and church spires are as picturesque as postcards suggest.
Day 2 - Kadriorg Palace & Harju County
East of Tallinn is Kadriorg Palace. Considered the grandest example of palace and park design in Estonian architectural history, the place was originally built as an imperial summer residence for Tsarina Catherine I. Complete with a garden, fountains, hedges and flowerbeds, the palace was modeled after Versailles according to the wishes of Peter the Great, Catherine's husband. Currently, the palace houses the Kadriorg Art Museum.
Thereafter, I traveled further east to Harju County to explore Lahemaa National Park. En route to the bog, I stopped by Jagala Waterfall, the highest natural waterfall in Estonia at 8 metres tall. Located on the lower course of the Jagala River, approximately 4 km before the river flows into the Gulf of Finland, the waterfall is quite wide at 50 metres.
After a few quick snaps, I continued east to Viru Bog. For those who don't know what a bog is (myself included, before this trip), a bog or mire/quagmire/muskeg is a wetland that accumulates peat - a deposit of dead plant material. Frequently covered in shrubs rooted in moss and peat, the gradual accumulation of decayed plant material functions as a carbon sink. Bogs often occur where water at the ground surface is acidic and low in nutrients. Water within and flowing out of the bog is characteristically reddish-brown. a result of the dissolved peat tannins. Viru bog is one of the most accessible bogs in Estonia with a 3.6 km wooden trail throughout the bog.
Aerial view of Viru Bog from a lookout point
Bog and wooden trail Tannins from the dissolved peat
Approximately 30 km north of Viru Bog is Juminda Tuletorn (Juminda Lighthouse). Built in 1937, it is a circular concrete tower with a lantern and double gallery. The upper portion is painted red, while the lower tower is painted white. The lighthouse has consecutive bursts of bright light every 15 seconds and can be seen from 15 nautical miles.
The area surrounding the lighthouse is littered with several species of mushrooms. Not sure which were edible and which were not.
Day 3 - Tartu
Tartu, the country's second largest city, is considered the intellectual centre of the country, hence the nickname "university city." It is home to the University of Tartu, the nation's oldest and most renowned university established since 1632. The Supreme Court, National Museum and the Ministry of Education and Research are also located within this major hub. The most memorable buildings were Tartu Cathedral and the Town Hall.
University of Tartu
Tartu Cathedral is a former Catholic church located on Toomemagi (cathedral hill). Badly damaged by Protestant iconoclasts, the cathedral fell into decay and is now an imposing ruin overlooking the lower town.
Domes of the cathedral
Toomemagi, the surrounding hill and area, was landscaped as a park in the 19th century. It's picture perfect during autumn.
Within the park are Angel's and Devil's bridges. Angel's Bridge (Inglisild) is not named after an angel, but rather due to confusion in translation. It's said the bridge was named after an English garden - in Estonian, the word for English (inglise) is similar to the word angel (ingel). However, no English garden was ever planted on the hill. More than likely, the bridge was named in to contrast to the nearby Devil's Bridge. The multi-pillared wood bridge links two knolls of Toome Hill.
Devil's Bridge (Kuradisild) is robust concrete arch constructed in 1913 to celebrate the 300th anniversary of the Romanov Dynasty. The name is borrowed from the bridge's construction supervisor, a German named Werner Maximillian Friedrich Zoege von Manteuffel, whose last name roughly translates to "man-devil".
The Town Hall is the seat of Tartu's government. Located in Town Hall Square in the city centre, it was built in an early Neoclassical style with Rococo and Baroque details. The hall shares many stylistic similarities with the older town hall of Narva.
Directly infront of the town hall is the Kissing Students sculpture and fountain. One the most recognized symbols of Tartu, the fountain has remained in the same place since 1948 where newlyweds and their guests would visit it for luck.
Day 4 - Haapsalu
Two hours west of Tallinn is Haapsalu, a resort town, once a favorite summer spot of Russian Tsars. I visited Haapsalu Railway Station, a wooden station operational since 1904. The station once served passenger and cargo trains on a daily basis. However, as of 2014, most of the track has been removed with the former rail bed now used as a bicycle path.
A quick car ride away is Haapsalu Bishop's Castle. Once the residence of the medieval Prince-Bishops, the castle was founded in mid-13th century and remained in use until the end of the 17th century. Accordingly to legends, during full moons in August, an image of a maiden, The White Lady, appears on the inner wall of the chapel. The story goes that a canon fell in love with an Estonian girl, who he secretly brought into the castle. She hid by disguising as a choirboy and remained a secret for a long time. Eventually, she was discovered and the Bishop's council decided that the girl should be immured in the wall of the chapel and the canon was to be put in prison where he was starved to death. Placed within the wall, the girl's cries were heard for sometime. Some believe that she grieved not for herself, but for her beloved.
Day 5 - Tallinn
Tallinn was once Europe's greatest fortified city and still houses a vast range of defense towers and historic gates that collectively make up the Walls of Tallinn, a World Heritage Site. The first wall was constructed in 1265 at approximately 16 feet high and 4.9 ft thick at its base. Since then, the wall was significantly enlarged and strengthened. A portion of the Wall connecting Nunna, Sauna and Kuldjala towers can be visited.
Located on Toompea Hill, between the city wall and lower Tallinn, is the Danish King's Garden. Legend has it that this is the spot where a flag descended from the sky during the Danish invasion and turned the course of the battle in favor of King Valdemar II. The flag later became the national flag of Denmark. The garden is picturesque with flowers, trees, benches and spectacular views to the lower town, a medieval wall and two fortification towers.
St. Olaf's Church tower is the tallest spire in Old Town. Once the tallest building in the world from 1549 to 1625, the steeple's 159 metres spire served as a signpost for approaching ships. Dedicated to King Olaf II of Norway (also known as Saint Olaf), the church was once the centre for the city's Scandinavian community before Denmark conquered Tallinn in 1219. During the summer, visitors can climb 232 steps leading to the observation at the 124 metres tower platform for fantastic 360 degree views of Tallinn and the Gulf of Finland.
Lower towers of St. Olaf's
St. Olaf's Church (the observation deck is the square around the tower)