Why the EU has put Estonia’s second city in the spotlight

This year Tartu is the European Capital of Culture
This year Tartu is the European Capital of Culture - Getty

Driving out of Tallinn into the wild Estonian countryside, through snowy fields and thick dark forest, I’m reminded why I love coming here, to a land that remains untamed, where the past feels so close at hand.

Estonia is only a short flight from London, and Tallinn, its dynamic capital, has all the mod cons you’d expect to find in any major European city. Yet you only need to drive a short way out of town to enter another world. There are wolves and bears in these endless woods, and moose and wild boar, and the landscape is littered with the desolate ruins of collective farms – a reminder that, until 1991, Estonia was part of the USSR. Despite its dramatic transformation since independence (it’s now a member of NATO, the EU and the eurozone), travelling here still feels rather daring, and though the roads are good, the two-hour drive from Tallinn to Tartu is an adventure in itself.

Tartu is Estonia’s second biggest city, with a rich heritage and a proud history, but for Britons it’s never been an obvious holiday destination. A little over 100 miles from Tallinn, it’s just 35 miles from the Russian border, and Putin’s invasion of Ukraine hasn’t helped its tourist trade. Yet this year Tartu is the European Capital of Culture (www.tartu2024.ee), and if the experiences of previous host cities are anything to go by, its year-long season of artistic events should attract lots of foreign sightseers. So what will you find if you decide to come here? And is it worth the trek?

A river view of Tartu, Estonia
A river view of Tartu, Estonia - Alexander Makarov / Alamy

Tartu is renowned throughout eastern Europe for its ancient, illustrious university. Founded in 1632, its history reflects the history of Estonia itself. Established by Swedish invaders and then revived by Russian colonists, after the First World War it became a bastion of Estonia’s new-found, hard-won independence – only to be swallowed up by the Soviets (along with the rest of Estonia) at the end of the Second World War. When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991 it became Estonian again, attracting students from all over Europe. Today it’s widely regarded as the leading university in the Baltic States.

Tartu’s academic status gives it a stature quite out of keeping with its compact size. Its neoclassical college buildings dominate the city centre, and its big student population (about 15,000, out of a general population of 100,000) lends it a lively, youthful buzz. The most atmospheric student bar is Püssirohu (www.pyss.ee), housed in a cavernous old arsenal, with bench seats and trestle tables, and lots of tasty local beers on tap. If you’d prefer somewhere a bit more debonair, Werner (www.werner.ee) is an elegant, old-fashioned café, serving aromatic coffee and seductive cream cakes.

The Town Hall Square in Tartu, Estonia
The Town Hall Square in Tartu, Estonia - Peter Forsberg / Alamy

The antique city centre is charming, but there’s not a great deal of it. If you’re here for a few days, you’ll want to head a bit further afield. The rest of the city isn’t so picturesque, but even the bleaker bits are full of interest – a hotchpotch of architectural styles from Tartu’s long periods of foreign occupation, and its shorter periods of independence. There are lots of traditional wooden houses from the Tsarist era – some of them dilapidated, others lovingly restored.

Most of the Soviet buildings are pretty grim, but intriguing nonetheless. The most interesting (and harrowing) site is the KGB Museum (www.muuseum.tartu.ee), housed in the basement of the ‘Grey House’ (as locals called it, euphemistically) where so many Estonian victims of the Soviet regime were interrogated and tortured.

It’s not all doom and gloom. Tartu is a bustling little city, full of busy shops and cafés. It’s hard to believe that barely 30 years ago, all private enterprise was forbidden. Window shopping in the city centre, it feels as if the Soviet occupation never happened. There are lots of good places to eat and drink.

Estonia has always been one of my favourite destinations, and now we’re in a new Cold War, with a new Iron Curtain along Estonia’s eastern frontier, I relish coming here even more. It’s sad to see how much Tartu lost under the Soviets, but it’s inspiring to witness how much has been restored since independence. Europe’s latest cultural capital is a city on the up, and I reckon this is the best year to pay a visit.

Tartu is a bustling little city, full of busy shops and cafés
Tartu is a bustling little city, full of busy shops and cafés - Julius Jansson / Alamy

Coolest corner

The hippest place to hang out in Tartu is a former factory called Aparaaditehas (www.aparaaditehas.ee), which now houses a range of trendy bars, boutiques and restaurants. Drop into Typa (www.typa.ee), an old printworks, now converted into a quaint workshop and museum (I had terrific fun printing my own postcards and even making my own paper).

Refuel at Resto Aparaat (www.aparaadiresto.ee), with its nourishing soups and draught ales – A. Le Coq (www.alecoq.ee) is the local brew. Next door is Fahrenheit 451, a cosy second-hand bookshop named after Ray Bradbury’s dystopian novel about governmental book-burning. In a place where, not so long ago, so many books were banned, it still feels like a privilege to read whatever you want – a privilege that we in the West take for granted.

Children’s corner

If you’re coming here with youngsters, or you’re simply young at heart, don’t miss Tartu’s magical Toy Museum (www.mm.ee). Located in an old, brightly painted wooden house, like a forest hideaway in a Grimm’s fairytale, it’s an enchanting collection, a window on a lost world.

Must-see sight

In leafy parkland on the edge of town (a military base during the Cold War), the Estonian National Museum (www.erm.ee) is a dramatic time tunnel through the turbulent story of Estonia, from prehistory to independence. The airy, futuristic building is an attraction in its own right.

Signature dish

Classic Estonian food is hale and hearty rather than haute cuisine, and the best place to shop for local produce – bread and cheese, fruit and veg, jam and mustard – is the handsome Art Deco Market Hall (www.visitestonia.com). Look out for the photos of old Tartu on the walls.

Tartu attractions include The Upside Down House
Tartu attractions include The Upside Down House - Kumar Sriskandan / Alamy

Greatest export

Kalev (www.kalev.eu) is familiar throughout the Baltic States as Estonia’s finest chocolatier. There are two factory outlets in Tartu where you can buy chocolates at bargain prices, one right opposite the Market Hall.

Fun fact

Tartu University (www.ut.ee) used to have its own jail, where disobedient students were imprisoned, often for several weeks at a time. Sadly, this fine tradition ended over a century ago, but you can still visit the attic cells, adorned with the vintage graffiti of these unruly undergraduates.

Getting there

Fly direct to Tallinn with Air Baltic (www.airbaltic.com), Ryanair (www.ryanair), or Wizz Air (www.wizzair.com) from as little as £32 return. Tartu can be reached by road or rail.

Where to stay

Stay at Hotell Lydia (www.lydia.ee), a smart modern hotel in the heart of the old town with a stylish spa and one of Tartu’s best restaurants, Holm (www.holmrestoran.ee) – the buckwheat blinis are delicious. Doubles, including breakfast, from €115 per night.

William Cook travelled to Tartu as a guest of Baltic Holidays (www.balticholidays.com), a British-based travel company with a passion for the Baltic States. Its tailor-made tours, with friendly local guides, take you off the beaten track and reveal the sights most tourists miss.

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