Estonia’s capital, Tallinn, is widely toted as one of Europe’s most charming cities. But my first trip to Estonia would take me instead to the country’s second city: Tartu. It’s significantly smaller but what I found was a vibrant city filled with bars, cafés and greenery. There’s history (and wifi) on every corner. Two natural landmarks characterise the city: the Emajõgi River that flows through it and the Toomemägi hill that overlooks it. Sometimes, you won’t even feel as though you’re in an urban area. The presence of Tartu University is inescapable; whether you’re passing one of its impressive buildings or its frolicking student population.
I loved everything about Tartu, from its café culture to its green spaces, fascinating history to its friendly inhabitants. I was there for only 4 days during a work conference. In between listening to presentations at the university, I explored some of the city. Here are a few of my suggestions for what to do on a budget and a limited time frame.
Stroll through the Botanical Gardens
The University of Tartu Botanical Gardens, bordered by busy roads, is a green haven of tranquility in the middle of the city. During the week it’s filled with tourists and during the weekends the locals also come out to play, enjoying group activities and family picnics. The grounds are open between 7am and 7pm every day and are free to enter. When I visited, there were groups of people taking floristry classes on the grass, lovers cavorting on park benches by the water and lots of people like me simply wandering about and enjoying the sunshine and the sweet smell of pollen.
In the greenhouse, which costs about €3 to enter, plants from all over the world are on display. Turtles lounge by ponds, ignoring the fish darting beneath them. If you plan to visit the greenhouse, make note of the time, as it has shorter opening hours than the garden. It’s open 10am-5pm every day.
Keep your eyes peeled for street art
You’ll be sure to spot some street art as you wander around the streets of Tartu. I spent one afternoon wandering around Toomemägi Hill and got a bit lost in some nearby streets. I stumbled upon several works of street art, including this one pictured below. Tartu hosts the street art festival Stencibility in September, which involves street art tours of the city, talks, debates, movie screenings and hands-on workshops. So if you’re really keen on discovering some quirky street art, time your visit to coincide with the festival. Or simply do as I did and get intentionally lost – you’re sure to come across some murals sooner or later.
Visit Raekoja Plats
The town hall square (Raekoja Plats) is filled with people eating and drinking at the outdoor dining areas during the summer. Splendid architecture surrounds the square and at one end is a famous statue of two students kissing. Tartu is very much a student city and you’ll spot a lot of them out and about, lending the place a vibrant and happening atmosphere.
Walk over Angel’s Bridge
The Angel’s Bridge on Toomemägi Hill is a prime example of mistranslation. Its Estonian name, Inglisild, doesn’t mean Angel’s Bridge at all, it actually means ‘English Bridge.’ The Estonian word for English, inglise, was probably confused with the word for angel, ingel. Perhaps the fact that another bridge just up the road is named Devil’s Bridge also caused the name Angel’s Bridge to stick, as a contrast to its evil companion.
Apparently (and I was unaware of this when I walked over it), there’s a local superstition that says you should hold your breath and make a wish when you walk across it for the first time. I’m not sure what happens if you don’t do this, but I didn’t suffer any bad luck during the rest of my trip, so the repercussions can’t have been too severe…
Check out the Tartu University buildings
As I was attending a conference at Tartu University during my time in Tartu, this is where I spent the majority of my time. But even if you’re here for leisure, I would definitely recommend checking out the university as it’s pretty darn impressive. The main building (pictured below) is one of the standouts and others can be found throughout the city and on Toomemägi Hill.
Fun fact: the university was founded by Gustaf II Adolf, the king of Sweden, in 1632 and is modelled on the architectural style of Sweden’s Uppsala University. The founding of the university coincided with a peaceful period in Estonia’s history. Later, when Estonia was a part of the Soviet Union, the university flourished and became a centre of learning that produced many eminent scientists and philosophers.
Climb to the top of St John’s church
St John’s Church is a 14th century Gothic-style church, which is unique for the nearly 1000 original terracotta sculptures that adorn its exterior. The Soviets bombed the building in 1944 and it wasn’t fully restored until 2005. Today it’s free to enter but it’s worth paying a couple of euro to climb the stairs up to the viewing platform. Mind your step, as some of the staircases are narrow. If there’s not many people around you’ll also be asked to switch off all the lights on your way down. I noticed that in Tartu people are very concerned with saving electricity.
Stroll along the Emajõgi River
Tartu is a very green city, filled with parks and trees. Toomemägi Hill is a lovely area for a walk but I’d definitely recommend that you take some time to wander the banks of the Emajõgi River. It’s lined by park area on either side and you’ll find many quirky statues in these spaces and park benches where you can sit and think for a while.
Explore Tartu Cathedral
This was one of the highlights of my time in Tartu. Located on Toomemägi Hill, the cathedral is mainly in ruins, though parts of it have been restored and turned into a museum. The cathedral was originally constructed by German knights in the 13th century and since then has been used for a number of different purposes. Today, part of the cathedral houses the Museum of University History. It might sound dull but it’s actually one of the most fun museums I’ve visited in a long time. It only costs a couple of euros to enter and contains exhibitions documenting the university of Tartu’s traditions and some of its famous alumni (which include Karl Ernst von Baer, the founder of the theory of evolution and contemporary embryology, among many others).
When I visited, the museum was also showing an exhibition showcasing Estonian explorers who had ventured on expeditions all over the globe, including the Arctic and Antarctica. For a small country, Estonia has certainly produced its fair share of intrepid adventurers! There were loads of interactive displays that I had fun playing with (probably meant for those under 10 but hey, we’re all big kids right?) You can pay a little extra to ascend the viewing platform on the roof of the cathedral, which has a beautiful view of Toomemägi Hill.
Descend into the depths of the KGB Cells Museum
This one is sure to creep you out! It’s a little under the radar; even when you’re standing directly opposite the building, you may still be uncertain whether you’re in the right place, as it just looks like an ordinary building. You need to enter, open a door to your left and go down some stairs into the basement where the ticket office is located. Here, you’ll find the former KGB headquarters and former cells where prisoners were kept and interrogated. There are also exhibitions on deportations, life in the Gulags and the Estonian resistance movement.
The museum is dimly light and complete with spooky sound effects. I was the only visitor in the museum for a while and as I was wandering about a very lifelike Soviet soldier suddenly began yelling in Russian, causing me to jump out of my skin. You can walk to the museum from the city centre. It will take you a while, perhaps 20-30 minutes, but it means you won’t need to catch public transport and you’ll get a bit of exercise.
Of course there’s plenty more to see and do in Tartu, but I hope this has given you a few ideas for what to do if you’ve got a limited time in the city and don’t want to fork out too much money. Do you have any other favourite places to visit when in Tartu? Let me know in the comments.