The smallest ex-Soviet republic is now the little nation that could – an entertaining, joyous destination with one foot in the Middle Ages and another in the 21st Century. By Neil Taylor
Where – and why?
Squeezed into the eastern Baltic, between Latvia and Russia, Estonia was until 1991 the smallest Soviet republic. Since regaining independence, the nation has blossomed into a "boutique destination": doing a number of things very well, while steering clear of anything mass market. Royalty seems to favour it: the Queen, the Emperor of Japan and the King of Belgium have all dropped in over the last two years, not to mention a selection of US presidents, British prime ministers and David Beckham.
Estonia has been fought over for centuries, but luckily these battles have taken place in the countryside rather than in city centres; each of its occupiers has therefore left a legacy that remains for visitors to enjoy. The Teutonic knights, who conquered Estonia in the 13th century, combined their religious fervour and military prowess by building brick fortresses all over Estonia. The one at Kuressaare, on Saaremaa Island (00 37 2 45 57 556; www.saaremaamuuseum.ee), remains largely intact. It opens 10am-7pm daily (though the staff make visitors extremely unwelcome from around 6.30pm). Admission is 50 Estonian krooni (£2.50). The ruins at Narva (00 372 35 99 230; www.narvamuuseum.ee) are extensive enough to show how serious the knights were about staying in Estonia. They open Wednesday-Sunday 10am-6pm; admission K50 (£2.50); groups can prebook for Monday and Tuesday.
The Swedes took the ruins over in the 17th century and added bastions, with tunnels to ensure storage space and further safety. Feeling sure of their legacy, the Swedes founded Tartu University, which fortunately survived when the Russians overran them early in the 18th century. Today you can visit the Bastion Tunnels (00 372 644 6686; www.linnamuuseum.ee/kok) in Tallinn that failed to halt the Russian invasion; guided tours (K50/£2.50) take place at 1pm daily except Monday.
Peter the Great could think artistically, too, and Kadriorg Palace (00 372 602 6001; www.ekm.ee), with its gardens outside Tallinn, is the result. The location is a joy year-round, with cherry blossom in the spring, concerts in the summer, the blend of red and gold in the trees during the long autumn and regular coats of snow in the winter. Peter decreed that the gardens should be always open to the public, and they still are. The palace is open Tuesday-Sunday 10am-5pm; admission K55 (£2.75).
Peter and his successors were happy to let the Baltic Germans continue running the country; churches, townhouses and country estates remain as their legacy. It is relatively straightforward to travel around the country to see these buildings. The main roads are wide, and often have cycle tracks; many of the hotels have spas; international cuisine has spread; English is one of several languages now widely spoken. Tallinn, the capital, has preserved its medieval town centre, and Tartu, the university city, has kept its 19th-century one. The islands still have a 1930s flavour, as very little building took place there in Soviet times. Today, though the majority concentrate on the capital, some British visitors are being somewhat more adventurous: island-hopping, cycling, indulging in mud baths and staying in restored manor houses.
Back in the USSR?
The Soviets were despised more vehemently than any of their predecessors. They left behind a seafront prison (00 372 50 46 536; www.patarei.com) in Tallinn harbour, open for those who like "shock tourism". The tight security was strengthened further in 1980 to ensure that nobody escaped while the Olympic sailing events took place nearby. It is open Wednesday-Sunday noon-6pm; admission K30 (£1.50). To see what they did outside prisons in Estonia, visit the Occupation Museum in Tallinn (00 37 2 66 80 250; www.okupatsioon.ee), open Tuesday-Sunday 11am-6pm; admission K20 (£1). The most moving items here are the small suitcases, all that the thousands of deportees were allowed to take with them to Siberia. Statues of famous Soviets that used to adorn town squares all over Estonia have been assembled in the basement. Only Stalin is missing: at four metres tall, he was too big to fit into the building.
The USSR was also responsible for acres of dreary tower blocks in the suburbs. However, the Kremlin can perhaps be thanked for Estonia's wide, well-maintained roads, built to prepare for a possible NATO attack.
Who goes to Estonia?
Finns once dominated the tourist centres. They have been replaced by Italians and Spaniards escaping the summer sun. Swedes and Germans are eager to see outposts of their former empires, and Russians come for the same reason – in Soviet times Estonia was the nearest experience to the West that any were likely to have. Brits are very welcome: the only time we interfered in Estonia was in 1918-20, when the Royal Navy helped to keep the Bolsheviks out of the country. Stag parties used to plague Tallinn every weekend, but higher taxes on drink have driven them from the Baltics to the Balkans.
I like solitude
So do Estonians, who take full advantage of their open spaces. With a population of just 1.5m (a figure that is slowly declining), plus only a few thousand tourists at any one time, finding a place to be alone is no problem. Try the riverside below Narva Castle: the occasional fisherman will likely be the only other person along the shore. Russia is 100 yards away on the other bank, but the peace and quiet on the EU and NATO front line is reassuring. Nearer to Tallinn, Lahemaa National Park is best known for its manor houses, but walk a few hundred yards away from them and solitude is guaranteed. Or hop on a bike. There is hardly a hill in the country, let alone a mountain, and 100ft counts as serious elevation. Most towns allocate quite a large chunk of pavement to cyclists, and there are tracks across much of the countryside. If you prefer company, City Bike in Tallinn (33 Uus; 00 372 511 1819; www.citybike.ee) runs trips in Tallinn and elsewhere around the country.
How do I get around?
Buses reach even the smallest villages, and to get to the larger islands they board the ferries. You can cross the whole country in four hours; the maximum fare you'll pay is around K200 (£10). Buses also go to Russia and Latvia.u
oNeglected during the 1990s, trains are being rejuvenated – and are speeding up. You can travel first class by rail from Tallinn to Tartu, in just over two hours, for K140 (£7). This fare includes free coffee and tea, as well as on-board Wi-Fi. No need to book in advance; just buy a ticket at the station before leaving.
Where can I stay?
Tallinn became serious about tourism almost immediately after Estonia regained independence in 1991. The capital is extremely enticing: a juxtaposition of the Middle Ages and the 21st century, with hardly anything in between. Expect plenty of cobblestones, spires and candle-lit churches, along with Wi-Fi and cutting-edge bars. The fortified inner city, Toompea, rises above the outer layer of mercantile Tallinn. Navigational landmarks include the onion domes of the Alexander Nevski Cathedral and the spires of St Olav's and Niguliste (St Nicholas) churches. They are rivalled by newly built hotel and bank towers near the harbour. The city's hotels were refurbished once the Soviet era ended, and many new ones have been constructed. All prices quoted here are for the summer; they drop by about one-fifth in autumn and then further for much of the winter.
A good three-star choice is the Uniquestay Hotel Tallinn (00 372 660 0709; www.uniquestay.com), which took over a sturdy limestone office block close to the Old Town and converted it. Doubles start at K1,800 (£90) a night; there is a computer terminal and complimentary tea and coffee in every room.
The four-star Savoy (00 372 680 6600; www.savoyhotel.ee) is in the heart of the Old Town. Wooden shutters ensure that the 4am summer sunrise causes no bother, and the curtain rails, hand-made from iron, provide a reminder of Estonia's handicraft tradition. Doubles cost K2,800 (£140), including breakfast.
The tallest building in low-rise Tallinn is the 30-storey Swissôtel (00 372 624 0000; www.tallinn.swissotel.com), which opened last year. When there is not a conference around, expect to pay about K2,200 (£110) per double, room only.
Baltic Holidays (0845 070 5711; www.balticholidays.com) has a wide range of city breaks to Tallinn costing between £300 and £400 for three nights during the peak season, including flights on Estonian Air from Gatwick.
And beyond the capital?
Tartu should be on every visitor's itinerary – within one square kilometre, it combines Italy, Germany and Sweden. Its main square has the grace of a piazza, and the university the façade of a Roman temple. The Swedes provided the baroque houses and the Germans the formidable Gothic Cathedral Jaani Kirik (St John's: www.jaanikirik.ee); open Tuesday-Sunday 10am-7pm. This church was badly damaged during the Second World War and subsequently abandoned during Soviet times, but has now been fully restored. Note the 1,000 terracotta statues that adorn both the inside and the outside. Basic admission is free but it is well worth paying K25 (£1.25) to climb the tower for views of both the church interior and over the town and university.
Nearby is the Toy Museum (00 372 746 1777; www.mm.ee), which usually has more adult visitors than children, happy to remember the days when electricity had no role in the playroom. There are even trains that run on clockwork. Estonians were just as sexist in the pre-computer era as Westerners, with guns for boys and dolls for girls. The museum is open from Wednesday-Sunday, 11am-6pm; admission K30 (£1.50). Also in the town centre is the Sport Museum (00 372 730 0750; www.spordimuuseum.ee), with films and displays linked to Estonian Olympic victories. It is amply provided with exercise bikes for visitors keen to test their own athletic stamina. It opens Wednesday-Sunday 11am-6pm; admission K35 (£1.75).
Foreigners were largely banned from Tartu in Soviet times, nominally because of an air base there, but more probably because of Moscow's fear they might intellectually contaminate the students. Jean-Paul Sartre, however, was invited, along with Simone de Beauvoir. They stayed at the Park (00 372 742 7000; www.parkhotell.ee), which De Beauvoir found "très élégant", the rooms "modernes et gaies". With double rooms costing K1,000 (£50) and a location on campus, many tourists are still happy here, even if 40 years has taken its toll on the structure. A more conventional hotel is the London (00 372 730 5555; www.londonhotel.ee) in the town centre, quiet in the summer when only tourists are around but boisterous when the students arrive and liven up the surrounding streets. A double costs K1,900 (£95), with breakfast included.
Narva, right on the Russian frontier, is a quirky town. It is totally Russian-speaking, though most of the signs are in Estonian (and a few in English). Its castle and town hall are memories from the 17th century, when it might have become a joint capital of the Swedish empire. Its extension by the sea, Narva-Jõessu, used to be one of the prime resorts of the tsarist empire, particularly in the late 19th century when it was just over an hour's journey by train from St Petersburg.
Narva's hotels are often used by visitors avoiding high St Petersburg prices. A double at the 50-room Narva Hotel (00 372 359 9600; www.narvahotell.ee) costs K800 (£40), including breakfast; there is no extra charge for a room with a view across the river to Russia.
A place in the country
Lakeside manor houses, which the Baltic Germans had to abandon in 1939, are coming back to life as spa centres. In Lahemaa National Park, an hour's drive from Tallinn, Vihula Manor, (00 372 322 6985; www.vihulamanor.com) has just opened as a four-star hotel. The stressed-out can be pampered in the spa centre; the active can set off on treks through the woods, cycle around the park or brave a swim in the sea. Doubles cost a very reasonable K2,000 (£100), room only.
How do I get there?
Estonian Air (020-7333 0196; www.estonian-air.com) flies daily from Gatwick; easyJet (0905 821 0905; www.easyjet.com) leaves daily at the crack of dawn from Stansted.
Where can I find out more?
Your first port of call should be www.visitestonia.com, the Estonian Tourist Board, for general planning. Online information on Estonian towns, parks and islands can often be found by simply adding the prefix .ee to their names: www.tallinn.ee, www.tartu.ee, etc. These provide links to more specific ones on, say, individual museums. For information on Estonian music (in the broadest sense of the word) try www.concert.ee.
Neil Taylor is author of 'Estonia: The Bradt Travel Guide' (£13.99)
Mind your language
As long as you talk to an Estonian under 35, you are likely to be understood; they will have studied English for years at school. Most older people were taught Russian.
The steady improvement in comprehension is welcome because Estonian defeats all but the most dedicated student. Don't worry about seeing the word "toad" in a hotel brochure; this is the plural of the word for "room". Equally, vegetarians need not order a "pea road" rather than an "eel road" on a menu since the latter simply means "main dish" as opposed to "starter". As for "jäääär", it is just as well that this is the name of a jazz group, and means ice-edge so is not a crucial menu item.
A trip is worth a thousand islands
Geography and politics have endowed Estonia with 1,000 islands, while the Latvians and the Lithuanians are bereft. The biggest island is Saaremaa, whose capital is Kuressaare.
High-spending visitors take a helicopter from Tallinn to Pädaste Manor (00 372 454 8800; www.padaste.ee) where double rooms cost around EEK2,800 (£140). It is equally possible to arrive there by bus, and to stay more modestly in Kuressaare at say the Arensburg (00 372 452 4700; www.arensburg.eu) for EEK1,800 (£90).
Regent Holidays (0845 277 3317 www.regent-holidays.co.uk) offer a six-day tour for £785, divided between Tallinn and Padaste Manor, including flights from London.