If you’re seeking the spirit of a new frontier, head for Estonia—it won’t be a secret for long.
Estonia re-emerged from behind the Soviet Iron Curtain as an independent nation in 1991, and has only recently joined the EU. Back on the European map and relatively undiscovered, the picturesque Estonian cities still retain the old-world feel of Prague without the hordes of tourists, while a youthful energy spices up the central squares – cafés, bars and clubs are springing up everywhere. You’ll also find a wealth of proud, beautiful architecture remarkably unscathed by war – Estonia’s capital, Tallinn, has a medieval old town unrivaled by any in Europe.
For a change of pace, the naturally flat, lush countryside makes the Baltic region a popular place for bike touring, and the tree-lined seaside, once the favored vacation spot of well-to-do Russians, offers miles of natural beauty. As the new gateway linking Scandinavia to the rest of Eastern Europe, the Baltic region holds many unique and unprecedented delights.
Estonia’s second largest city is a colorful university hub brimming with culture. Estonians have a name for its vitality — Tartu vaim, or “Tartu spirit.” A stroll though the city takes you through leafy, wooded parks, over pedestrian bridges, and through ruins. You’ll find wine bars and beer terraces tucked into old subterranean armories and spontaneous music can be heard from art students on Rüütli Street, off the beaten path. Estonia’s National Museum is here (free on Fridays), and from the Stone Bridge over the Emajogi River, the tops of red and yellow Art Nouveau buildings resemble layer cakes with ornate plaster “frosting” accents. At night it’s easy to find local live music, popular nightclubs, and fun, campy student hangouts. Pick up a copy of Tartu This Week for listings. To see/do: Gunpowder Wine Cellar pub, literary cafés, walking trails.
Saaremaa Island, Estonia
Saaremaa, Estonia’s largest island just two hours southwest of Tallinn, provides a peaceful, idyllic overnight retreat on the way to Latvia. Buses leave frequently from the mainland and board the ferry for Kuressaare (the main town), where lively taverns, cafés and fresh-air markets draw Estonians and foreigners alike. Rent a bike to tour the green, scenic island with its castles, churches and Dutch-style windmills, climb the defense tower of Kuressaare’s 14th-century castle for a view of the Baltic Sea, or row a boat in the moat that surrounds it. To see/do: Kuressaare Episcopal Castle, Angla Windmills, traditional Estonian food, Saaremaa vodka.