Estonia seems to be popping up more and more as a destination worth visiting on any European travel route, however, there is very little published about the country beyond the medieval charms of Tallinn’s Old Town. While we have already made the case for visiting Tallinn for longer than a day trip and venturing beyond the city walls, we also have developed a substantial argument for exploring outside of the city entirely.
Keen as we always are to see any country beyond its capital city, we set our sites on Estonia’s second-largest city of Tartu and we weren’t disappointed.
Often lauded as the intellectual capital of Estonia, Tartu is home to the country’s largest university (which happens to also be one of Europe’s oldest!) and is a thriving cultural hub — packed to the brim with a young and lively population, a vibrant arts and alternative scene, and a fascinating history.
Though it is, without a doubt, outshined by Tallinn, there are numerous fun and interesting things to do in Tartu, world-class restaurants, a killer craft beer scene, and an altogether more laid-back vibe compared to the Estonian capital. Tartu is a city of surprises and is a must-see destination on any Baltics itinerary!
Getting To and Around Tartu
Tartu is located about 185 kilometres southeast of Tallinn and, because it is the second-largest city in Estonia, connections between the two cities are frequent. If you are planning on visiting Tartu from Tallinn via public transport, the bus is your best option. While there are trains available, they are less frequent and more expensive than buses (which is generally the case in all three Baltic States).
Buses bound for Tartu from Tallinn’s main station take roughly 2.5 hours and leave every 15-30 minutes, so there is little need to book in advance if you want to travel more spontaneously. However, it is often cheaper to book bus tickets in advance online. Though there are a few different bus companies you could take, we like Lux Express as their coaches are comfortable, reliable, have free wifi, and entertainment units on each seat! Their fares are also very affordable, averaging about €10, but can be significantly cheaper if booked in advance.
Tartu is also very accessible from other major cities in Estonia and other surrounding countries. There is also a small airport in Tartu but as of writing in September of 2018, it only serves FinnAir from a very limited list of destinations.
Once you have arrived in Tartu, the best way to get around is on foot. The city itself isn’t all that large and most places of interest are located within walking distance of each other. However, if there is a place that interests you that isn’t within easy walking distance or you have mobility problems, there is an extensive and easy-to-use bus system in Tartu. You can purchase tickets on the bus for €1.50, however, if you get a travel card (easiest place to purchase one of these is at the main coach station) a single journey is €o.83. It is also possible to top up your transport card online or on your mobile phone.
If neither walking or public transport are good options for you, there are taxis in Tartu as well and they are very affordable. While there isn’t Uber operating in the city, you can hail a taxi in almost exactly the same way using the Taxify app, which is also used is every other major Baltic city. It is not customary to hail a cab from the street, so Taxify can be an easier option than calling a taxi.
Things To Do In Tartu
Though it may not seem like it due to its small size, there are plenty of fun and interesting things to do in Tartu, especially if you set your sites beyond the Old Town. Though very few tourists visit this Estonian city and most of those who do are only there for a short day trip, we would recommend spending at least two full days in Tartu. This will give you enough time to get a good feel of the city and enjoy some of its unique culture and atmosphere.
Tartu Itinerary: Day One
Spend your first day in Tartu exploring the main attractions and learning a bit about the culture of Estonia’s intellectual capital. Everything on this day can easily be reached on foot with nothing more than a twenty-minute walk between sites and activities.
The best place to begin exploring Tartu is its charming main square or Raekoja Plats. The small square is lined with a number of cafes and restaurants, beautiful cobbled streets, and the iconic Kissing Students fountain in front of the Town Hall (which also doubles as the tourist information centre!). Though the fountain has been there since 1948, the statue that is here currently has only been in place since 1998. It symbolises the tradition for newlyweds and their guests to visit the fountain in order to ensure good luck in their marriage.
On the end opposite the town hall, there is a yellow National Geographic frame, one of 21 such frames in Southern Estonia. It was erected as part of the “Living on the Edge” campaign in order to strengthen the identity of the region and to attract tourists.
There are also a number of interesting monuments and statues scattered around Tartu’s Old Town. One thing we loved about the city was that the plaques describing their significance were not only written in Estonian, but also in English. If you would learn more about the history of the Old Town in Tartu, then click here to book a guided walking tour in Tartu!
St John’s Church
This gothic brick Lutheran church in the Old Town may not be all that spectacular inside but it is one of the highest buildings in Tartu and it is possible to climb up the tower for great views over the city. There aren’t a lot of stairs and even those who aren’t all that physically fit should be able to climb up, but the starts can be narrow and dark in some places, so proceed with caution. The fee for entry is €3 for adults and €1.50 for students and other concessions.
The church has existed in some form or another since the 14th century when it was originally erected as a Catholic Church but it later shifted to being part of the Estonian Evangelical Lutheran Church when the nation ceased widely practising Catholicism.
University of Tartu Botanical Garden
If the weather is fine and you fancy strolling around some beautiful gardens for an hour or two, the Tartu Botanical Gardens are one of the best things to do in Tartu! Part of the university’s school of botany, these gardens are massive and incredibly peaceful to wander through. There are a number of different gardens to explore plus a lovely duck pond. It is free to enter the outdoor gardens, but the greenhouses do charge an entry fee of €3 adults and €2 for concessions.
The Emajogi River, which runs through Tartu between Lake Vortsjarv and Lake Peipsi, is the only navigable river in Estonia and had shaped Tartu through history into the city it is today. While it is obviously not the only thing that connects Tartu with neighbouring towns and countries these days, there is a lovely riverside to stroll along with many cafes and trendy bars, bench swings, and a lovely park. It is definitely worth taking a stroll along the river and maybe popping in for a drink at one of the numerous cafes along the banks.
After a stroll along the river, it is time to head out of the Old Town and explore Tartu’s cool and trendy Karlova neighbourhood. This is the epicentre of most of Tartu’s awesome street art and where the annual Stencibility Street Art Festival takes place. This street art festival is becoming quite famous with hundreds of artists applying each year.
Exploring Karlova was our favourite part of Tartu and if you’re keen to learn more about this alternative area of the city, then we highly recommend taking a Karlova Street Art & History tour with Tartu Pseudo Tours. We learned way more about the area, the art, and the people who live there from our guide, Maarja, than we would have done had we just wandered around on our own. The tour costs €10 for adults and €8 for students and they require a minimum of five people. Their prices do increase if there are fewer than five on the tour.
Tartu Itinerary: Day Two
On your second day in Tartu, take the time to go beyond the main sites of the Old Town and explore some more offbeat attractions in the city. Spend this day digging deeper and visiting a couple of the interesting museums that Tartu has to offer.
The KGB Cells Museum
The KGB Cells Museum is situated a bit outside of the Old Town and is very much worth visiting, especially if you are interested in learning about life in Tartu and Estonia in general during both the Nazi and Soviet occupations. The museum is located in a building known as the “Grey House” which was the former KGB headquarters in Tartu in the 1940s and 1950s.
Though the museum itself isn’t large, it is quite well-curated with a lot of information so I would recommend planning to spend at least one hour here. While the information on the plaques in the museum is printed in Estonian, there are translations available in English and a few other languages so it can be enjoyed by international visitors.
Entry to the museum is €4 for adults and €2 for students and other concessions.
Estonian Printing & Paper Museum
If the KGB Cells Museum was a bit too heavy for you, then a visit to the Estonian Printing & Paper Museum will be the perfect thing to cheer you up. This unique museum is one of the only of its kind in this area of Europe and really encapsulated the artistic nature of Tartu.
The €5 entrance fee (€2 for students) includes a 60-minute tour of the museum where you learn how to make paper (and make it yourself!) and also see and learn about their massive collection of printing presses and make some of your own prints as well. The museum also gives you a great insight into how the nature of printing had changed in Estonia in the past couple of decades, especially when compared to the antiquated means used by the Soviet Union.
After spending the majority of your day in museums, take the time to explore the hip and new creative complex of Aparaaditehas. Similar to the Telliskivi Creative City in Tallinn (they share an owner), this trendy area has a number of cool restaurants, shops, and cafes with a very artistic vibe. It is housed in a former Soviet Widget factory and the building was abandoned and dodgy until the complex was built there a couple of years ago. Since then, it has made the area surrounding more desirable to live in and given locals a number of more restaurant and hang out options than before.
Because of the popularity of Aparaaditehas, there are talks of creating more such creative complexes in Tartu. As of right now in 2018, the reaction by the public to this complex has been generally positive as it has boosted the economy and desirability of this area of Tartu and so far there haven’t been noticeable negative effects of gentrification.
Aparaaditehas is a favourite haunt for young locals to hang out, so follow their lead and browse some of the shops or kick back at a cafe with an excellent Estonian craft beer.
Tartu Restaurants, Bars, and Cafes
Unsurprisingly, due to both its artistic reputation and large student population, Tartu has a number of great places to eat and drink. While there are definitely some options for those on a shoestring budget (it is a student city, after all), there are also some great high end and inventive restaurants. One thing is certain, it is very hard to eat poorly in Tartu. Here are some of our suggestions for the best places to eat and drink in the city:
A modern, hip cafe in the Old Town, Krempel Khovik is a great option for a filling but healthy breakfast. They have an extensive menu and serve all three meals per day along with some great coffee. Prices are affordable and it also has a chilled-out atmosphere and fast wifi.
If you are a coffee enthusiast, then Tartu Coffeeling is the place for you. Located in the Aparaaditehas complex, this hip coffee shop roasts its own beans and has a simple menu of some basic espresso drinks and pour over coffee. They don’t have a kitchen, but they do sell some pastries from a local bakery so it can be an option if you’re after a lighter breakfast.
If you are looking for the best place to sample Estonian craft beer while chilling out in a cool and relaxing atmosphere, then look no further than Barlova. Located in the trendy Karlova neighbourhood of Tartu, this is one of the best places to grab a beer if you want to experience the true, laid-back culture of Tartu.
Located in the Aparaaditehas complex, Trikster Tihane is a great option if you’re looking for a healthy lunch, dinner, or snack after spending your day wandering around Tartu. Also, like most everywhere else, they have a wide range of Estonian craft beers to enjoy.
There are a lot of Estonian chefs doing very cool things with their local produce throughout the country, and one of the best places to experience the Estonian food revolution in Tartu is at Umb Roht. While this restaurant is definitely more of the high-end side, it maintains a casual atmosphere and agreeable prices for the quality of food and service you receive. If you are at all interested in food or unique dining experiences, don’t pass up a meal here.
Another great restaurant located in the Aparaaditehas complex, Aparaat is a fantastic option for both lunch or dinner. They offer an affordable set lunch menu and their dinner menu is extensive and tasty. This was one of the first restaurants that opened in the creative complex and is perennially popular amongst locals.
Where to Stay in Tartu
Even though Tartu doesn’t have nearly the amount of tourists as Tallinn, that doesn’t mean there aren’t a number of great accommodation options to choose from. Here are some of our top picks:
Hotel London – This cool boutique hotel is located in the heart of Tartu’s Old Town and is a good option for those travelling on a mid-range budget. They have a range of rooms available and also offer breakfasts included in the room rate. Click here to view their latest prices!
Looming Hostel – If you are travelling on a budget, then Looming Hostel is a great accommodation option in Tartu. This small, environmentally-friendly hostel has a couple of dorm and private rooms on offer, good common areas, and a nice roof terrace. It is also possible to purchase breakfast at an extra cost. Click here to view their latest prices on Hostelworld or Booking.com!
If you’re not keen to stay in traditional accommodation, then Airbnb can be a great option. Not only is it usually quite affordable, it also gives you some insight on how locals live in the city. If you’re new to Airbnb, click here to get up to $40 off of your first stay!
Not quite what you’re looking for? Click here to browse other accommodation options in Tartu!
Tartu is a fascinating city filled with interesting and unique things to do. While two days here will give you a good feel for Estonia’s second-largest city, you could easily spend a few more days soaking up the arts and culture of this intellectual capital.
Are you planning on visiting Tartu? Have you been? Let us know in the comments!