Before traveling to Estonia, learn a bit about the history, religion, geography, climate, and local traditions so you are fully prepared for your journey abroad. Within this article, we provide the best overview of Estonia plus some first-hand travel tips along the way!
Welcome aboard to our Globally Educated Series where we focus on one nation at a time to give you the most comprehensive overview of each country before embarking on your journey. We look forward to helping you prepare for your trip to Estonia, where charming, medieval cities meet a tech savvy and digitized economy.
Imagine it... An enchanting fairytale-like capital, a beautiful position in Northern Europe on the Baltic Sea, and nearly 50% of the country covered in forests help make Estonia an all-around enticing destination. So, let’s get globally educated with the top Estonia travel tips and everything you need to know before traveling to Estonia. Let’s go!
A Brief History of EstoniaOk, first off, you may be wondering, “Where is Estonia located?” Before getting into history, this country’s location is very significant. Estonia is in Northern Europe, bordered by Russia to the west, Finland lies a short distance across the Baltic Sea to the north, and Latvia is to the south. Ok, we got it. Now, here’s a brief history of Estonia to know before traveling!
Early History & Estonian Vikings
The first Estonian ancestors settled along the Baltic coast in 9000 BC after the last Ice Age ended. Then, by roughly 800 AD, Estonian villages had already formed throughout parts of Estonia. In fact, many of these historical villages are still inhabited today. During these times, Estonians developed Pagan rituals and formed a bond with trees and forests.
From 800-1200 AD, Viking raids were commonplace in Estonia. However, Estonia's largest island of Saaremaa (or Oeselians as it was previously known), had formed a mighty naval force on the Baltic coast. Battles and unrest were so chaotic during this time that Estonians even managed to kidnap Norwegian Queen Astrid and her son (and future King) named Olaf Trygvesson.
Christianity arrived in Estonia in the 13th century. During this time, Germany had a major influence over Estonia for the next 700 years. Estonia and Latvia became known as Livonia. Later, Sweden got its hand on the land after the Livonian War in the late 1500s.
During Swedish rule, the University of Tartu was established, one of the oldest universities in Northern and Eastern Europe. It was founded by Swedish king Gustav II Adolf. The university, in fact, played a significant role in Estonia's national awakening, as here is where the blue, black and white tricolor was consecrated. When Estonia was no longer ruled by another country, these colors formed the striped flag of the independent Republic of Estonia in 1918.
However, if we flashback before 1918, Livonia was claimed by Russian after the Second Northern War. This means in 1918, Estonia became independent from Russia. So, let’s get things straight. Germany, Sweden, and Russia, and now all three ruled Estonia.
Though Estonia became an independent country in 1918, it was later claimed by the Soviet Union (USSR) in a pact between Nazi Germany and the USSR following WWII. Estonia saw 50 years of Soviet rulings. Estonians began to be fed up and demanded freedom. This mainly kicked off in 1986. This time period became known as The Singing Revolution, up until 1991 when the Soviet Union collapsed. Today, many buildings from the Soviet era still exist, but not much else is widely evident today. However, as mentioned, many Russians do still – welcomingly – live in Estonia.
Today Estonia thrives as a forward-thinking and tech-savvy country. Estonia is also a member of both the European Union and NATO. It is startup and business-friendly, with major corporations like Skye and Wise (previously Transferwise) located in the country.
Languages in Estonia
While you will find a beautiful mix of languages in Estonia, the country’s official language is Estonian. Estonian is a Finnic language, written in the Latin script we English speakers are familiar with. Finnic languages are spoken around parts of Northern Europe along the Baltic Sea. The two predominant Finnic languages are Finnish and Estonian. Roughly 1.1 million people speak Estonian in Estonia, over 900,000 people in Estonian, and around 160,000 outside of the country.
When visiting Estonia, it is common to hear other languages – especially in the idyllic capital city of Tallinn. Expect to hear a mix of English, Finnish, Russian, Estonian, and other languages from around the world while exploring the capital. Many Estonians across the country are bilingual and can conversate with others in English with ease.
With Russians making up roughly 25% of the population, many signs, food labels, and informational pieces are often written in both Estonian and Russian. However, when dining at restaurants, there is almost always a menu in English. At least in Tallinn and other major cities, there is largely no stress about needing to speak or understand the official language. In particular, numerous expats and immigrants speak very little Estonian, if any at all.
Here’s a tiny Estonian lesson: “Tere” means “hello” in Estonian. You’ll quickly learn this one as locals will greet you or others with this word. Then, “Aitäh” (Ay-teh) is one of the most common ways to say “thank you.”
Demographics of Estonia
Thanks to Estonia’s location and high quality of life, it draws in a lot of residents from other countries. As mentioned, 25% of the population is Russian, and currently 69% is Estonian. This, nonetheless, is largely because Estonia was once part of the Soviet Union. The country’s demographics are then followed by 2% Ukrainian, 1% Belarusians, 0.8% Finnish, and 1.6% other.
Plus, the country’s startup culture, incentives, and low tax rates also make it a thriving place for internationals looking to open a business or upgrade their quality of life. There are many opportunities for the Estonian population to continue to diversity and most of it aligns with startups and businesses.
Cities in Estonia
People mainly come to Estonia – not for its heaps of forestland (Fresh air? Yes please) – but for its fairytale capital city that dates back more than 800 years. We’re talking about Tallinn. This is Estonia’s main city, but there are a few more to highlight as well.
The other cities you should know about before visiting Estonia are Tartu, Narva, and Parnu. Tartu is the second largest city with a population of just over 100,000. The city boasts one of the oldest universities in Northern Europe and numerous worthwhile museums. As for Narva, most of the buildings in this eastern Estonian city were built during the Soviet regime, and it is located closest to the Russian border. Lastly, Parnu flaunts stunning seaside views and sustainability in southwestern Estonia.
What are some things to know about Tallinn before visiting?
Tallinn is a unique mix of new world technologies and old and medieval history, a historic past that is very evident when you walk the cobbled streets of its vibrant Old Town. Despite being such an old capital, when you step outside of the Old Town, many of its new roots shine through. Take the neighborhood of Ülemiste, for instance. This is a very modern area boasting shopping malls, tall buildings, and its very own business park full of startups and larger corporations alike. With a population of around 400,000 it is the largest city in Estonia, yet still a smaller city on a wider European scale. Stick around because we have some handy Estonia and Tallinn travel tips for you at the bottom.
Geography of Estonia
Let’s be real – we should know where we are on a map before we visit somewhere, and since Estonia still flies under the radar, a lot of people do not know where to find it on a map. If you’re in that boat, don’t worry; we are coming to rescue you.
So, Estonia is located in northeastern Europe. It’s bordered by Latvia to the south, Russia to the east, and the Baltic Sea and Gulf of Finland to the north and west. Finland is conveniently accessible by a two-hour ferry across the gulf.
You might also be surprised to learn that Estonia has more than 2,200 islands. Estonian islands offer ancient history and natural charm at every corner. The largest or most popular Estonian islands are Saaremaa, Hiiumaa, Kihnu, Ruhnu and Vormsi.
As for Estonia’s landscapes, it is a rather flat country with more than 50% of the land covered in forests. Most commonly, pine, birch, spruce, and aspen trees sprawl across Estonia’s rich land. Suur Munamägi (Great Egg Hill) is the highest point in Estonia at 1,043 feet (318 meters) and is located in the southeast.
Let’s talk about Estonia’s climate.
Here’s some fun stuff! Estonia’s climate is, let’s say, interesting. Long, cold, snowy, and dark winters combined with long and bright summers mean life in Estonia can be quite different depending on the season.
Estonia has a Baltic climate that is considered both temperate and cold, characterized by its fairly warm summers and freezing cold winters. The weather in Estonia is often humid due to its proximity to the Baltic Sea. So, let’s get into the details.
Winter in Estonia can be brutal with temperatures often below freezing, snow-covered streets, and breezy weather. The sun will rise around 9 a.m. and set after 3 p.m. during most of the winter months. As for specific winter temperatures in Estonia, The average temperature in January and February is around 30 °F (-1 °C) on the two main islands (Hiiumaa, Saaremaa), around 25.5 °F (-3.5 °C) in Tallinn and Parnu averages 25 °F (-4 °C) in the inland northeastern areas.
Summer is usually very pleasant in Estonia, despite rain being common. However, temperatures are mild, and the days are long. Estonia gets up to 19 hours of sunlight in summer. As for average summer temperatures in Estonia, 68/72 °F (20/22 °C) are the averages. These temperatures do drop at night to around 54/55 °F (12/13 °C).
In fact, summer comes with celebrating the long days! The longest day of the year is a big deal for Estonians. It’s the summer solstice, and on this day you’ll see locals and visitors soaking up what’s called “White Nights”, where there is almost no darkness at all.
Transition Season is arguably, the least pleasant seasons in Estonia are fall and spring. These months are greeted with muggy, grey, rainy, and windy days. In fall the temperatures are dropping and in spring they are, of course, going up. However, these months are still quite dull and rainy. In terms of daylight, fall is darker than spring.
Estonia gets up to 19 hours of sunlight in summer.
The sun will rise around 9 a.m. and set after 3 p.m. during most winter months.
68/72 °F (20/22 °C) but these temperatures do drop at night to around 54/55 °F (12/13 °C).
30 °F (-1 °C) on the islands, around 25.5 °F (-3.5 °C) in the coastal mainland and 25 °F (-4 °C) in the inland northeastern areas.
Peak Summer Months are from June-August
Peak Winter months are from December-February
Religion in Estonia
Estonia is often considered one of the least religious countries in the world. Most of the population either does not consider themselves religious or identify as atheists. Among those who are religious in Estonia, most are Christians who do not affiliate themselves with any specific church.
Despite being largely non-religious, Estonia flaunts many mesmerizing churches like St. Olaf’s Church and Alexander Nevsky Cathedral, both in Tallinn. Additionally, Estonians are big on Christmas celebrations, with lively Christmas markets and dazzling decorations flaunting its snowy streets around the holidays.
Economy & Major Exports
During Estonia’s years in the Soviet Union, it strongly had an industrial economy, where agriculture played a secondary position. However, industrial work and agriculture do still play a major role in independent Estonia’s economy as well.
Estonia’s economy is supported by oil shales, power plants, and forestry, with forestry being one of the country’s oldest thriving industries. Much of Estonia’s industrial economy comes from food-processing, forestry industries, and machine building.
Estonia's economy has also been cited as one of the most liberal in Europe. That is combined with a balanced national budget, flat-rate income tax of 20%, and very few customs tariffs. Estonia is also very digitized. Locals can do practically anything online, whether that is setting up a bank account or voting in an election.
Its digital mindset then goes along with its incentives to startups and businesses, bringing in residents from around the world. One of the reasons for this success is Estonia’s E-Residency which enables digital entrepreneurs to start and manage an EU-based company online. Though these individuals cannot live in Estonia, they will pay Estonia’s flat rate tax and are, in a sense, investing in Estonia.
Beyond that, Estonia is also the first country to offer a Digital Nomad Visa to those able to live and work anywhere in the world (aka remote workers).
What is Estonia known for making?
When visiting Estonia, you will likely spot a lot of handcrafted pieces, particularly made from local wood or amber. These items are often seen as a symbol of the country. Walking the streets of Tallinn, you’ll see amber jewelry stores and woodcarvers selling beautifully crafted bowls, decor, and jewelry.
Something else Estonia is known for making, and something a visitor will quickly notice, is knitwear. Estonians design exquisite winter wear like knitted sweaters, mittens, hats, scarves, and more. Of course, its cold weather makes items like these necessary for much of the year. With knitwear being so predominant, local wool from sheep and alpaca are easy to find here too – a perfect souvenir for the knitter in your life!
And let’s not forget things like jams, chocolate, marzipan, and Vana Tallinn liqueur. These are widely popular Estonian products that are enjoyed by both locals and visitors alike. Give them a try or pack them away as souvenirs.
Now that we’ve brought up food, let's really sink our teeth into some essential things to know about cuisine in Estonia.
Firstly, it’s good to know that traditional Estonian food is not widely available in restaurants across Estonia. There will be some in the main cities, like the famous Olde Hansa in Tallinn (this spot is all about those medieval vibes). You see, a lot of traditional Estonian food does indeed date back to the Middle Ages. Modernly, a lot of Estonians do not regularly eat traditional meals. Below you’ll see a mix of modern and traditional food to try in Estonia.
This bread is something many Estonians miss when they are outside of Estonia. Rye bread is a big deal. Bread, in general, is a beloved thing in Estonia, but rye bread really takes the cake. Visit Rukis or Kalamaja Bakery in Tallinn for some of the best local rye bread.
Baltic Herring w/ tomato sauce
Baltic herring is Estonia’s national fish, and locals tend to enjoy it with tomato sauce for whatever reason. If you eat fish, Baltic herring is worth a try when visiting Estonia.
This is a warm and hearty soup that includes mainly meat and pickled vegetables (particularly pickles). However, you can also find fish seljanka in Estonia. These soups are a bit sour from the pickled vegetables, but filling and delicious for many!
Estonian Potato Salad
Estonian potato salad or Esti Kartulisalat is one of the best foods to try in Estonia! This dish involves potatoes, diced carrots, grated boiled egg, cucumber, sausage, plus sour cream, mayonnaise, and apple for cream and sweetness. This dish can also easily be made vegetarian by removing the sausage. Then, local vegan restaurants like Vegan Inspiratsioon often serve vegan Estonian potato salad.
Essential Travel Tips for Estonia & Tallinn
Before you venture off to this dreamy Baltic country, there are a few more things to know before visiting Estonia… Let’s get into it.
- It is illegal to walk around Estonia at night without a reflector. You need something that reflects car lights clipped onto your clothing or bag, and it needs to be around the height of a car's headlights. You can purchase one before you visit Estonia or wait and buy one from a shop here. They are available in many shops and supermarkets for a euro or two.
- Estonia uses the euro (€) and most purchases can be made by card – even on buses. This is all thanks to the country’s digitized system.
- Layer up! A warm hat that covers your ears, mittens, and a long water-repellent coat are musts during the coldest months.
- Tap water is completely safe to drink. There is no need to waste money (or plastic for that matter) on water bottles. We recommend bringing a reusable water bottle and filling it up before you leave your accommodation and at restaurants throughout the day.
- Tipping in Estonia is very casual and not usually necessary. If your experience was exceptional, you can leave a cash tip of 10 percent. Nonetheless, tipping is always appreciated.
- Estonia is known for having fast and reliable WiFi and it's commonly available in bars and restaurants.
- You will need a standard EU adapter to charge your devices such as your phone, laptop, etc while visiting Estonia. It’s not recommended to bring a blowdryer or other hair tools unless you also have a voltage converter, as the voltage is also different in Europe.
- Food prices are comparable to many other European cities, and it is not considered “cheap” in the way food in places like Poland or the Czech Republic often is. You can get an inexpensive meal for around €10-€15, and a mid-range meal for two is around €50.
- Expect to pay €3.50 or €4 for a cappuccino and around €4 for a local beer.
- Estonians can sometimes seem cold and direct, but do not take offense. This is simply the culture and not necessarily the norm for everyone you meet.
- Call 112 in the case of an emergency!