This page is divided into to sections. The first section contains general information about Estonia and the second part contains information about the cities I have been to.
General information about Estonia
The capital of Estonia is named Tallinn and it's mediaeval old town was built by German crusaders in the late middle ages and is in good condition, with the mediaeval city walls and towers almost completely intact and it rates as one of Europe's best preserved mediaeval old towns. Visitors can also experience an ex-Soviet occupied country that is now part of the European Union. Traces of the Soviet era are still there to be seen — e.g. Paldiski, a deserted Soviet army base that was once off-limits to Estonians themselves, can easily be visited on a day trip from the capital, Tallinn.
After 7 centuries of German, Danish, Swedish, Polish and Russian rule, Estonia attained independence in 1918. Forcefully annexed into the USSR in 1940, it re-gained independence in 1991 through its Singing Revolution, a non-violent revolution that overthrew an initially violent occupation.
Since the last Russian troops left in 1994, Estonia moved to promote economic and political ties with Western Europe. It is now one of the more-prosperous former communist states, enjoying a high-tech environment, an open and liberal economy and a transparent government system. On the other hand, it is faced with a fairly low (but growing) GDP per capita (in a European Union context), as well as a very low birth rate, which is creating a slight population decline. Between 1991-2007, the country saw rapid economic expansion, leading it to be among one of the wealthiest and the most developed of the former Soviet Republics. However, its economy was badly damaged during the ongoing global recession, although more recently, it has been recovering quickly. In 2011, the Euro was adopted as the official currency.
Since its accession to the EU, Estonia is becoming one of the most popular destinations in North-Eastern Europe with (EU highest) 30% growth in the number of visitors in 2004, according to Eurostat.
The official language, Estonian, belongs to the Finnic branch of the Uralic languages. I couldn't tell the difference between Estonian and Finnish when I visited Tallinn. Estonian is closely related to Finnish, spoken in Finland, across the other side of the Gulf of Finland, and is one of the few Languages of Europe that is not of an Indo-European origin. Despite some overlaps in the vocabulary due to borrowings, in terms of its origin, Estonian and Finnish are not related to their nearest geographical neighbours, Swedish, Latvian, and Russian, which are all Indo-European languages.
Thanks to heavy tourism and popular TV broadcasts from the other side of the gulf, Finnish is also spoken quite well by many people in Tallinn. German is taught at school in Estonia, and around 10% of the population can speak it.
Between 1945 and 1989, the share of ethnic Estonians in the population resident within the currently defined boundaries of Estonia dropped to 61%, caused primarily by the Soviet programme promoting mass immigration of urban industrial workers from Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus, as well as by wartime emigration and Joseph Stalin's mass deportations and executions. By 1989, minorities constituted more than one-third of the population, as the number of non-Estonians had grown almost fivefold.The largest minority groups in 1934 were Russians, Germans, Swedes, Latvians, Jews, Poles, Finns and Ingrians.
The culture of Estonia incorporates indigenous heritage, as represented by the Estonian language and the sauna, with mainstream Nordic and European cultural aspects. Because of its history and geography, Estonia's culture has been influenced by the traditions of the adjacent area's various Finnic, Baltic, Slavic and Germanic peoples as well as the cultural developments in the former dominant powers Sweden and Russia.
Today, Estonian society encourages liberty and liberalism, with popular commitment to the ideals of the limited government, discouraging centralised power and corruption. The Protestant work ethic remains a significant cultural staple, and free education is a highly prized institution. Like the mainstream culture in the other Nordic countries, Estonian culture can be seen to build upon the ascetic environmental realities and traditional livelihoods, a heritage of comparatively widespread egalitarianism out of practical reasons (see: Everyman's right and universal suffrage), and the ideals of closeness to nature and self-sufficiency
Travel to Estonia
Tallinn is Estonia's main international gateway. In addition to direct daily flights to/from all major Scandinavian and Baltic cities. There are also direct flights from all major European hubs like London, Paris, Frankfurt, Brussels and Amsterdam and regional hubs like Prague and Warsaw. Eastward connections are from Moscow, St. Petersburg and Kiev. Tallinn airport is situated just 4 kilometres outside the city canter and is reachable by tram line #4. The easiest tram station to use the tram from is close to Tammsaare park.
Close proximity and excellent ferry services with Helsinki allow for combination of open-jaw air travel. Additionally, even if you are only visiting Estonia, it is frequently still significantly cheaper (particularly on flights from North America) to fly into Helsinki and then take the ferry to Tallinn.
International train services are to/from Russia, Moscow. Domestic services connect Tallinn with Narva in the east and Viljandi in the south, Pärnu in the south-west, Tartu and Valga in the south-east. Baltic Station railway terminal in Tallinn can be used to start your journey. The station can be accessed from town center and vice versa by tram number 2 - use the "Balti jaam" stop. The platform and trains are modern and the fares are reasonable. Free wifi is available on Elron trains.
Good road connections are to the south (Via Baltica routing Tallinn-Riga-Kaunas-Warsaw) and east (Tallinn-Saint Petersburg). The domestic road network is dense and covers all regions of the country. There are lots of good and cheap connections from Moscow, Saint Petersburg, Kiev, Kaliningrad, Warsaw, and all larger Baltic and German cities. The most popular regular service provider is Luxexpress Group, others include Ecolines and Hansabuss.
Domestic coach companies offer services nationwide. A schedule is available at t-pilet.ee. The most popular route is Tallinn-Tartu, where busses depart at least hourly.
Ferry lines connect Tallinn with Sweden (Stockholm), Finland (Helsinki, Mariehamn) and also with Germany (Rostock) during the summer months. Tallinn-Helsinki is one of the busiest searoutes in Europe and has daily 20 ferry crossings and nearly 30 different fast-boat and hydrofoil crossings (the latter do not operate during winter). For details see Port of Tallinn passenger schedules.
Travelling within Estonia
In Estonia, the public transport system is well-developed and it is preferable to walk, cycle or use public transport.
Estonia's train network is operated by Elron. Tickets can be bought from Elron's website or from the ticket seller aboard the train. The ticket machines one can see on the train still do not work after almost a year since they were fitted (as of 2018-07).
Mobile internet sucks in middle of nowhere where the tracks go through, so stick with the (limited) train WiFi. 1st class has it's own, with the password known to the ticket seller on written on the ticket. Different trains can have it's WiFi network by the same name and password but are different networks.
Estonia has a comprehensive bus network all over the country. All bigger cities like Tartu, Pärnu, Viljandi and Narva are accessible by bus. Which work fine as long as you want to travel from or to Tallinn. Connections are more coincidental than planned.
There are several websites for bus information; Tpilet.ee and peatus.ee are two examples.Various bus companies that service lines heading outside Estonia as well, such as Eurolines, Lux Express, and surely several others.
As of July 2018 the Estonian government made some county lines free of charge, so don't be surprised if the bus driver does not want your money.
Quality of cycling infrastructure is similar to other non-cycling countries. Outside towns light traffic paths often exist, separated from the road.
As for cycling in towns, do it in the manner that does not hurt you nor anyone else. If necessary ride on the pavement, if conditions allow then on the road, and if you find one - a bicycle path/lane.
Hitchhiking in Estonia is generally good. The Baltic countries have a strong hitchhiking culture.
The road system is quite extensive although road quality varies. The speed limit in the countryside is 90 km/h and 50 km/h in the cities unless specified otherwise. Passengers are expected to wear seat belts. Lights must always be switched on.
In the central areas of bigger cities, a fee is levied on parking cars, but finding a provider of tickets is sometimes difficult as mobile parking is widespread.
Estonia has lots of car rental companies and the level of English spoken by their representatives is generally very high. If you go to Level 0 of Tallinn international airport, there are several car rental agency counters.
Car rental in Estonia is very cheap compared to Western Europe. You can get a decent car shared between two people for approximately €10/person/day e.g. a 2004 Fiat Punto.
Driving in Estonia can be more dangerous than in much of Europe and the United States. Some drivers can be aggressive, recklessly overtaking vehicles and traveling at high speed, even in crowed urban areas. The best advice is to drive defensively: don’t assume your fellow drivers will do what you expect them to do, like avoiding overtaking in poor visibility or signal before they merge into your lane.
Estonian laws against driving under the influence of alcohol are strict and follow a policy of zero tolerance. Unfortunately, accidents involving intoxicated drivers are distressingly frequent.
Places to sleep
There are many types of tourist accommodation, ranging from hotels, pensions and rented villas. You may use i.e. hotels.com, booking.com or hostelworld.com to find somewhere to sleep. If you want to rent a private home Airbnb.com is somewhere you could check out.
As Soviet collective farms were disbanded, many farmers switched to running "turismitalud," or tourism farms, which are inexpensive and indispensable places for spending holidays in nature, usually in a former farm house. A site on Estonian Rural Tourism provides information on the tourism farms in Estonia.
Money and banking
Estonia is part of the European Union and the Eurozone. Because of this Euro have replaced the local currency. If you want to exchange money, you can do so at any bank where you can also cash in your traveller's cheques. Currency exchanges, once a common sight, have all but disappeared since the introduction of the Euro. Credit cards are well accepted in Portugal. Most ATMs will allow you to withdraw money with your credit card, but you'll need to know your card's PIN for that. To authorize your payment with a credit card, you are frequently presented a device with a keypad where you should type PIN code and also confirm amount--even for Visa Classic or MasterCard.
Estonia is generally cheaper than Western Europe, but it is no longer the bargain basement it used to be in 1990s; and in touristy areas (say Tallinn's Old Town), prices may be at Scandinavian levels.
Vaccine and health
For an Estonian, it is considered "mauvais ton" not to criticize the Estonian healthcare system. Recent EU studies showed, however, that Estonia occupies a healthy 4th place in the block by the basic public health service indicators, on the same level as Sweden. In fact, around 1998-2000, the Estonian healthcare system was remodeled from the obsolete USSR model, directed to coping with disastrous consequences of large-scale war and made more up-to-date by the experts from Sweden. Estonia has harmonized its rules on travelers' health insurance with EU requirements.
For fast aid or rescue, dial 112.
Estonia has Europe's highest rate of adult HIV/AIDS infections, currently over 1.3% or 1 in 77 adults. Generally, the rate is much higher in Russian-speaking regions. Information about health care in Estonia is provided by the government agency Eesti Haigekassa.
Estonia is a member the European Union and the Schengen Agreement. Because of this there are no border controls between countries that have signed and implemented this treaty - the European Union, a visa granted for any Schengen member is valid in all other countries that have signed and implemented the treaty. But be careful: not all EU members have signed the Schengen treaty, and not all Schengen members are part of the European Union. This means that there may be spot customs checks but no immigration checks (travelling within Schengen but to/from a non-EU country) or you may have to clear immigration but not customs (travelling within the EU but to/from a non-Schengen country).
A growing number of foreign visitors have been travelling to Estonia in recent years. According to Statistics Estonia the nation's statistics agency, 1.3 million foreigners visited the country in 2000, and that number climbed 38 percent to 1.8 million foreigners by 2005.
The published crime rate increased dramatically in 1991-1994 after democratic freedoms were introduced. In a large part, this is due to the fact that crime was a taboo subject before 1991, as Soviet propaganda needed to show how safe and otherwise good it was. However, it is still a significant problem in Estonia. The murder rate per 100,000 inhabitants, as of 2000, was some 4-5 times higher than in Sweden and Finland, although still significantly lower than in its biggest neighbour, Russia.
Today, the official sources claim that the country has achieved a considerable reduction in crime in the recent years. According to Overseas Security Advisory Council crime rate in 2007 was quite comparable to the other European states including Scandinavia. Criminal activities are distributed unevenly across the territory with almost no crime in the island areas and a considerable rate of drug dealing in the predominantly Russian-speaking industrial area of North-East. In Tallinn, petty crime is a problem and there are some incidents involving tourists, mainly pickpocketing (especially in the markets). Tallinn Old City and other main tourist attractions are closely watched by local police and private security companies.
Many Estonians drive carelessly, with about 80-110 people killed and 1300 people injured per year. Number of deaths in traffic related accidents per 100 000 people are similar to South-European countries like Portugal or Italy. Estonia has strict drink-driving laws with a policy of zero tolerance, but accidents involving intoxicated drivers are nevertheless a major problem. Estonian traffic laws requires headlight use at all times while driving and use of a seatbelts by all passengers is mandatory.
Recently, Estonia enforced a new law requiring pedestrians to wear small reflectors, which people generally pin to their coats or handbags. Although this law is rarely enforced in cities, reflectors are very important in rural areas where it may be difficult for motorists to see pedestrians, especially in winter months. Violators of this law may be subject to a fine of around €30-50, or a higher fine up to around €400-500 if the pedestrian is under the influence of alcohol. Reflectors are inexpensive and you should be able to find them at many supermarkets, kiosks, and other shops.
The main advice to anyone worried about personal security is to stay reasonably sober despite tempting alcohol prices. When driving, make sure you have had absolutely no alcohol beforehand.
For emergencies call 112.
It has been mentioned that ordinary Estonians are unlikely to approach a complete stranger or a tourist on their own. If somebody suddenly turns to you in the street (with questions or matters of small business) keeping a cautious eye on your belongings would be wise.
Open homosexuality may be met with stares. The civil partnership act was adopted in 2016.
Cuisine and drink
Traditional Estonian cuisine has substantially been based on meat and potatoes, and on fish in coastal and lakeside areas, but now bears influence from many other cuisines, including a variety of international foods and dishes, with a number of contributions from the traditions of nearby countries. Scandinavian, German, Russian, Latvian, Lithuanian and other influences have played their part. The most typical foods in Estonia have been rye bread, pork, potatoes and dairy products. Estonian eating habits have historically been closely linked to the seasons. In terms of staples, Estonia belongs firmly to the beer, vodka, rye bread and pork "belt" of Europe.
Like their neighbours the Finns and the Russians, the Estonians know their alcohol. The two largest breweries are Saku and A. Le Coq, which both offer a variety of different beers. Recent years have seen a surge in local micro-breweries, the products of which are becoming more and more available in larger shops. Baltic Porters (Põhjala öö, Saku Porter) are strong and heavy dark beers with a touch of caramel to be had in winter. The best-known local vodka is Viru Valge (Vironian White)and then there's the surprisingly smooth and tasty rum-like herbal liquor Vana Tallinn (Old Tallinn), famous in the countries of former USSR.
A local soft drink is "Kali" (the Estonian equivalent of "kvass"), made from fermented brown bread. It can be described as an acquired taste. Many locals also swear by "keefir", a fermented milk concoction.
Estonian food draws heavily from German and Scandinavian cuisine. The closest thing to a national dish is verivorst, black pudding, served with mulgikapsad, which is basically sauerkraut stew.
Many types of food are close to Russian and have their equivalents almost exclusively in the former USSR, such as sour cream hapukoor, smetana in Russian, a sour 20%-fat milk dressing for salads, especially "kartulisalat" or "potato salad", which isn't that rare anywhere else either.
As Estonia used to be a food mass-production powerhouse in the times of the USSR, some of its foods, unknown to Westerners, are still well-recognized in the lands of the CIS.
Among other everyday food, some game products are offered in food stores in Estonia, mostly wild boar, elk sausages and deer grill. Some restaurants also offer bear meat.
For those with a sweet tooth, the national chocolate manufacturer is "Kalev", with many specialist stores around the country as well as supermarkets retailing the product.
The more adventurous may want to try "kohuke", a flavoured milk-curd sweet covered with chocolate and available at every supermarket.
Places I have been to in Estonia
Tallinn lies on the southern coast of the Gulf of Finland, only 70 km (43 mi) south of Helsinki. At the historical and medieval heart of the city is the hill of Toompea, covered in cobbled streets and filled with medieval houses and alleyways. The lower town spreads out from the foot of the hill, still protected by the remnants of a city wall. Around the city wall is a series of well-maintained green parks, great for strolling. The Old City is best navigated on foot. A network of buses, trams and trolleybuses covers the rest of the city.
The city's old town has been astonishingly well preserved and was inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List in 1997, it is now in better shape than ever, with the bigger roads converted into fashionable shopping streets reminiscent of Zürich or Geneva. Especially in summer, the Old Town is packed with tourists, with the traditional daytrippers from Helsinki increasingly supplemented by other Europeans taking advantage of cheap flights.
Even though you don't stay there you should visit a hotell named Viru.The infamous KGB occupied the top floor and left much of their stuff when the Soviets left Estonia. Today it is an interesting museum.