As someone who has spent most of her life on the road, it’s often hard for new destinations to surprise me. But Estonia did just that.
It’s been 27 years since the Soviet Union fully controlled Estonia and, while many countries would shy away from including “former Soviet” as part of their story, Estonia leans into it. The country seems to recognize the true power of that history and how it played a huge role in the cultural revolution that has taken place there over the last few decades.
A few days was all it took for me to fall in love, and I plan to go back and explore different corners and new cities that I didn’t get the chance to visit the first time around.
The five days I spent in Estonia were enough to make me appreciate the sights, sounds, and saunas. And because five days is never enough to explore an entire country, I decided on focus on just two cities in order to get a better sense of what each had to offer — Tartu and Tallinn.
I started off in Tartu, a city in the eastern part of the country. Tartu is not only home to one of Northern Europe’s oldest universities, but it also features a treasure trove of museums (such as the Estonian National Museum) and a bustling nightlife scene (the hallmark of a great university town). I explored a small, up-and-coming brewery, took a local street art tour through Supilinn, learned the history of bookmaking at the Printing and Paper Museum, and admired the magnificence of brickwork at Toomemäe Cathedral Ruins.
Tartu is magical in a way that only cities with a university-aged population and an abundance of young, raw energy and idealism can be. There’s a sense of ease that’s hard to put into words, one that needs to be explored for much longer than three days to be truly understood.
Tallinn, on the other hand, has a richer history of Soviet influence that is still very apparent today. The city was only a short ferry ride away from Western Europe, so the notes of affluence are a lot more apparent, yet they are interwoven more intimately with the realities of a former Soviet-controlled state.
The juxtaposition of old and new has never been clearer for me than it was in Estonia, and in Tallinn in particular. It is a city comprised of a UNESCO-protected Old Town that kings and queens once frequented, a New Town where a thriving tech sector is leading the way in innovation for all of Europe, and where companies like Skype were born, all woven together by a population who have a sense of immense pride in their past and a clear excitement for their future.
It’s hard to describe the magic of Tallinn with words, or even pictures. Its essence lives in the cobbled stones streets of the Old Town, in the traditional multi-course meals, in the former KGB museum located on the top of one of the the city’s nicest hotels. Tallinn’s spirit also abides in the generation that lived through during the Soviet occupancy, their stories making time blend together in a way that’s must be felt, not explained.
Estonia is a place I’ll visit over and over just so I experience that magic in person again.