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Located in Northern Europe, Estonia consists of over 2,220 islands and a mainland. To the north of the country lies the Gulf of Finland, to the east is Russia, to the west is the Baltic Sea and the south of country boarders Latvia.
As one of Europe’s least populated countries, Estonia is bursting with charm and unique character and steeped in history, this is perhaps why this culturally distinct country continues to grow in popularity as a tourist destination. Inhabited since around 9,000 B.C, after centuries of war and many countries laying claim to Estonia, the country finally became independent for the second time in 1991.
The pristine landscapes in Estonia are mostly picturesque flat marshlands and dense forests, home to some of Europe’s most endangered species, making it a haven for nature-lovers.
Estonia offers a temperate climate, with four distinct seasons. On the mainland you can expect beautifully warm summers and harsh, usually snowy winters and as you might expect, climate conditions on the islands naturally differ.
In the spring, temperatures on the mainland begin to climb to between 20-30°C, with the warmest temperatures of this season seen in the month of May. The landscape begins to burst into life with colourful berries, fruits and delicate flowers, this is the perfect time to explore Estonia’s’ vibrant habitats.
Transitioning to summer, temperatures continue to range between 20-30°C but can reach highs of up to 35°C in July. The longest day of the year, with 19 hours of daylight, is 21st June.
The shift into autumn brings wet and windy conditions and the occasional thunderstorm. However, this is the season which offers stunning colour variations in the surrounding landscapes. In early September it remains relatively warm, with snow usually arriving late October or November.
Winters in Estonia are extremely cold, dark and snowy – with average temperatures of between -2°C and -4°C, although slightly warmer conditions can be experienced in the coastal regions. December’s days are short with around 6 hours of daylight. In the coldest month of February, night time temperatures can be as low as -35°C.
Due to the country’s distinguished political history and geographic location, Estonia’s cultural influences are diverse – from Swedish, Finnish, German, Danish and Russia. However, true Estonian culture is best described as a type of folk culture, the heart of which is still very much alive today.
The country’s heritage and cultural identity include traditional Estonian costumes, folk singing and dancing which are practiced and celebrated during festive occasions. Although historically there have been many religious impositions, today most Estonians don’t practice any specific religion.
Moreover, deeply embedded into Estonian culture is a strong resonant connection to their environment, valuing the natural world in all its glory. In particular, ancestral Estonian’s treasured trees and forests as these were viewed as sacred places.
Estonia suffered greatly through many wars, with an estimated 7.3 per cent of the population killed during the Second World War and later during the Soviet War, around 10 per cent were later deported to Soviet labour camps.
In 1918, shortly after World War I, Estonia declared their independence – 24th February is the official Estonian Independence Day. However, in 1940 the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany occupied Estonia for short periods, yet Estonia triumphed, regaining their independence in 1991. It is believed that Estonians sung their way to freedom and perhaps this portends to why folk music has remained so cherished in the culture – Estonia is thought to have the world’s largest folk song collection.
Despite their tragic past, more recently, in 2004, Estonia joined the European Union and NATO. Shortly after, Estonia became the first country to implement online voting and gave rise to the virtual technology that is Skype. Modern Estonia is flourishing, whilst keeping its roots heavily grounded in tradition.
In general, Estonians are quiet, reserved and softly spoken. Although initially they may seem aloof, once acquainted, locals will warmly welcome you into their community, openly sharing their culture and traditional way of life.
Lifestyles are varied across the country and range from well serviced cities and towns to very small villages with little in the way of amenities.
In the spring and summer season, there are plethora of traditional folk festivals and events across the country, where communities come together and enjoy good company, food, music and dancing.
Estonia’s official language is Estonian which has close links and similarities with Finnish and is spoken widely throughout the country, although more commonly in the north. In the south, other dialects include Võro, Tartu and Mulgi.
Furthermore, there are a few minority languages – Russian, German and Swedish.
There are many ways to travel around Estonia. A popular choice is by taking a bus or coach, due to the regular coach network connecting most of the major cities and towns across the country. To ensure a seat, it’s advisable to book your ticket online in advance of travel.
Railway links connect Tallinn to a large number of the towns, including Narva, Tartu, Valga and Viljandi. However, whilst the more remote areas and rural villages aren’t accessible by train, they can be reached by bus – although most operate less frequently than in the larger towns.
Within major cities, it’s easy to get around on foot but you can also utilise their well-established public transport systems – bus routes, trams and trolley buses, depending on the city. In Tallinn, if you’re a resident of the city you can get use all public transport services for free! This is also something that is becoming more available across the 15 counties. Unfortunately this doesn’t currently apply to non-residents. However, if you’re planning on visiting or staying in Tallinn for a while, you can purchase a Tallinn Card which is a discount card for visitors – providing free admission to top attractions in the city and unlimited free use of Tallinn’s public transport.
Estonia has a good network of roads, although there are few major highways. Overall, roads are of good quality and considered safe. Car hire is accessible throughout the country as long as you meet the standard EU regulations. In Estonia they drive on the right-hand side of the road.
If you do decide to hire a vehicle, it’s important to familiarise yourself with Estonian driving rules. These are not dissimilar to most other European countries, with the exception that car headlights must be used 24 hours a day. There is also a zero tolerance to drink-driving. Moreover, be sure to take care at night when road signs may not be illuminated and remember to be mindful of the rather large native wildlife – namely deer and moose.
You can also hire taxis to get around. Most firms have set prices for specific journeys and its best to agree fares upfront and book in advance, rather than on the street.
Overall Healthcare in Estonia is not dissimilar to the rest of Europe. Residents of the country can access free healthcare via the Estonian Health Insurance Fund (EHIF), which is similar to the UK’s NHS whereby it is funded by taxpayers.
In the world of healthcare, Estonia is certainly seen as digitally advanced. In 2008, Estonia was the first country in the world to pioneer the use of electronic health records which centralised patient data from the various providers. More recently, the country has also introduced an e-Prescription service. It is clear these digitalised systems add value to and support an effective and efficient healthcare service across the country, allowing easy access of medical records for both patients and healthcare professionals.
If you are working for an Estonia-based employer, as long as you’re paying taxes you can receive health insurance from the Estonian Health Insurance Fund (EHIF). Working expats will require an Estonian ID number together with a residence permit for employment. Your employer will liaise directly with EHIF to confirm your employment status.
For those visiting from EU member states, as long as you have a European Health Insurance Card (EHIC), you will be able to access health services in Estonia at a reduced cost and in some circumstances for free.
If you’re travelling in more remote areas, be sure to confirm if the clinics are private as you will not be covered by an EHIC card for private treatment. It is always advisable to get health insurance prior to travelling to ensure you are covered in case of an emergency situation where private treatment is the only option. In cases of emergency, if you require an ambulance this is usually free of charge.
Estonia’s national currency is the Euro. Prior to its introduction in 2011, the country’s currency was the kroon.
Euros are accepted and available all over the country in banks and ATMs. You can also exchange currency at Tavid, Monex and Eurex or at banks Swedbank, SEB or Luminor.
Hotel chains, larger shops and restaurants usually accept payment in the form of Visa, MasterCard, Eurocard and American Express, debit and credit cards. However, it is always worthwhile bringing some cash with you, especially if you plan to travel into more remote areas.
For individuals requiring an Estonian bank account, it may surprise you that you don’t have to be an Estonian resident to do so! Whilst this is the case for many other EU countries, Estonia is one of a few countries in Europe which allow foreign nationals to open a bank account without being a citizen. However, you will need to provide evidence of a job or property ownership.
To open a new bank account you will need to visit a branch in person. The major international banks in Estonia include – Swedbank, SEB Bank, Nordea Bank and Danske Bank. After providing the required documentation, your application will be processed and you will be advised of the outcome via phone or email. Required documentation includes:
If your application is successful, you’ll then need to visit the same branch to officially open your account and pay the relevant fees. There are no fees for EU citizens.
Estonia’s education system differs slightly from the UK in that it consists of four levels – pre-school, basic, secondary and higher education – which can be state, municipal, public or private. This comprises of a minimum of nine years compulsory educational for Estonian citizens. The country has over 589 schools and 15 public universities, with Tartu being the largest
Estonia’s pre-schools educate to the state curriculum, with a focus on supporting a child’s growth, whilst maintaining their individuality. Secondary school curriculum is intended to nurture student’s creativity with the aim of assisting them to become talented, socially mature and reliable citizens.
Overall, the school system in Estonia is well established and performance is generally high. Moreover, the performance of Estonia’s secondary level students is said to be among the best in Europe.
Expat families looking to continue a more familiar educational structure and allow an easier transition for their children, have a few International schools to choose from – namely located in Tallinn and Tartu. These institutes typically follow a UK, US or French model and studies are usually taught in multiple languages which include English and French.
In Tallinn, there is the International School of Estonia which offers education for students aged 3 to 19 years, delivered in the English language and Tartu International School provides education in English to students between the ages of 6 and 15 years.
Estonian cuisine is not dissimilar to the types of foods you would associate with countries like Germany, Scandinavia and Russia. This is because these countries have had such a strong influence over the decades. Namely, the food is pure and simplistic.
With four seasons, Estonians also utilise the varied local produce within their gastronomy. With forests covering most the country, mushrooms and wild berries are in plentiful supply in the summer and autumn months, making great condiments.
Historically, inhabitants would forage for wild fruits, herbs and vegetables in the surrounding forests, in order to conserve them in preparation for the winter period. This is still the case in some rural areas, but less common across the remainder of the country.
Inland, meals typically contain meat and potatoes and in coastal regions and islands, fish is the firm favourite. Rye bread, sausage, pork, potato salad, sauerkraut, pickles and preserves are all frequently consumed by residents, as are dairy products such as cottage cheese – soured cream is served on the side of almost every Estonia dish!
Restaurants in the main cities are varied and cater for most diets, including popular vegan restaurants in the capital city, Tallinn. However, head to more traditional eateries to enjoy iconic Estonian savoury dishes such as, Mulgipuder – made from potatoes and groat, Hernetatrapuder – pea and buckwheat porridge, Kiluvõileib – sprat sandwich and Aspic or ‘head cheese’ – meat terrine, which is popular during the festive season.
Estonian sweet treats include Kissel – a type of fruit jelly and Kama – a mixture of roasted barley, rye, oat and pea flour. Vastlakukkel, which is a type of cream filled bun, can be enjoyed in most bakeries throughout the year.
An historical favourite non-alcoholic beverage of Estonia was Milk, usually accompanying a main meal. However, this is seen less often in recent times and apple or berry juices are now favoured.
Estonia is best known for its alcoholic liqueur – Vana Tallinn which is a must try when visiting the country. It is typically drunk alongside coffee or used to flavour desserts. Beer has long been a favoured drink among Estonians, giving rise to microbreweries across many of the towns which feature a wide variety of tastes and flavours. There are also a range of fruit and berry wines and liqueurs.
Overall, Estonia can be characterised as a safe place to visit. Crime is relatively low in Estonia but as you might expect from the location, there are a few organised criminal gangs undertaking activities such as drug trafficking, car theft and prostitution. These are usually more prominent in the capital city, Tallinn and other larger city areas and rarely affect tourists.
As with most other countries in Europe, tourists can be targets for petty crimes such as pick pocketing. Therefore, it is always advisable to take sensible precautions, be aware and keep belongings safe and secure, especially in the large cities and towns. Like most major cities, Tallinn can get rowdy at night and Viru Street is thought to be a prime spot for pickpocketing so worth avoiding if you’re travelling alone.
If you’re visiting Estonia in the winter season and plan to drive, it’s important to take extra care on the roads and adhere to Estonian driving regulations.
Estonia offers visitors a plethora of opportunities to experience raw natural beauty and ancient culture at its best. Each season brings an array of exciting attractions, activities and events to enjoy, many of which are unique to this truly inspiring country.
The capital city of Estonia is one of the country’s most popular places to visit and once you arrive you’ll quickly see why. The city is teeming with history from cobblestone streets to medieval architecture – the Old Town is one of the world’s best preserved Hanseatic town centres.
The city is easy to get around on foot and provides the perfect mix of old meets new, with 15th Century historical buildings serving 21st Century culinary delights; it’s easy to see why so many fall in love with the charm of this unique capital city.
Located in the Pärnu and Viljandi County, Soomaa National Park is best known for its flooded forests when the snowmelt and heavy rains flood the lower forests.
This is one of Estonia purest nature havens, providing home to the vast array of indigenous wildlife species – in the waterways live cranes and families of beavers, which can be spotted via the Beaver Trail. The forests are home to lynx, elks, deer, wild boars, wolves and bears. The open mash fields are alive with woodpeckers, golden eagles, black grouses, to name a few.
Visitors can enjoy a range of hikes on root or by canoe with different trails taking you into the depths of this enchanting landscape.
Many Estonians spend their summer holidays here and as a result, Pärnu is often referred to as the summer capital of Estonia. Pärnu’s biggest draw is its white sandy beach and glorious sand dunes. The vibrant beach promenade which runs along the seafront offers the perfect bike riding opportunity or if you prefer a slower pace, choose from a range of inviting restaurants offering al fresco dining. This quaint beachside resort is the perfect place to relax and unwind amongst charming surroundings.
Considered the intellectual hub of Estonia – in part due to it being home to the most prestigious university in the country – the provincial city of Tartu offers visitors of all ages a unique experience. Next to the Emajõgi River, which runs through the city, you’ll find Tartu’s quirky ‘soup neighbourhood’, where you’ll find streets lined with old wooden houses, all named after soup ingredients!
Awaiting you in the cobblestone streets of the town square are 18th century buildings, market stalls and the iconic kissing-students statue. In the evenings, Tartu comes alive with a range of interesting and vibrant eateries and bars to enjoy
Located in the in the northern coast of the country, Lahemaa is Estonia’s largest national park, containing vast expanses of some of country’s most iconic landscapes – beaches, bogs, pine forests and rivers. Stroll along winding boardwalks amongst the peat bogs, explore the primeval forests where wolves, lynxes and bears hide in plain sight and enjoy the serenity of Jägala waterfall and Hauaneeme Bay.
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