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Thursday, November 1, 2012
The Top 15 Travel Destinations in Estonia
Estonia is a nation of intriguing contrasts for the discerning traveller to explore. While sitting in Tallinn's main square the atmosphere and architecture feels downright Central European; visit some of the islands off the west coast and the impression is distinctly Scandinavian; if you are in Narva or the industrial towns of the north-east you could be mistaken for thinking you were on the opposite side of the nearby Russian frontier. A complex history of occupations has left the country with a fascinating mix of architectural styles, including Swedish wooden churches, Czarist Russian palaces, Danish castles, Germanic burgher houses and Soviet monuments. All of these historical features are mixed in with the wi-fi world that is technology-driven modern Estonia, making it a place that really does have something to offer for everyone. From Narva in the east to Kuressaare in the west, here are the top 15 attractions to go and seek out in this progressive northern land. The pictures used in this article show, from top to bottom, Tallinn old town, Pärnu and Tartu.
1. Tallinn - Possibly the most impressive of the three Baltic capital cities, Tallinn boasts a superb old town with two sections, the lower town of cobbled streets encircling the Town Hall Square, and the upper town placed on Toompea hill. All of this is surrounded by an intact set of medieval stone defensive towers and fortifications, which give the city an extremely impressive skyline when viewed from a distance. The Kadriorg palace and the KUMU art gallery to the east of the old town are also well worth visiting.
2. Saaremaa Island - The largest of Estonia's islands is perfect for a multi-day cycling trip, with castles, windmills, lighthouses, Soviet relics and a meteorite crater to check out. The coastal scenery is wilder and more remote at the western end of the island, especially on the Sorve peninsula and to the north-west from Kuressaare.
3. Tartu - Estonia's second city features some impressive architecture in its old town and has a large university student population. Be sure to look for the tilting building on the main square which is the city's art museum. Tartu also makes a good base for day trips into the rural south-eastern corner of Estonia.
4. Pärnu - The country's top beach resort has a relaxed summer vibe while also being the base for trips to several nearby attractions such as Kihnu island. There is also a pleasant old town area and a number of historic villas along the beachfront.
5. Lahemaa National Park - The closest national park to the capital, with long stretches of boulder-strewn coastline and an interior region of lakes, rivers and bogs. Hiking the series of trails and canoe trips along the rivers are popular activities, and the villages of Käsmu and Vosu have quiet laneways and pretty wooden houses to stroll among.
6. Kihnu Island - A small island off the coast near Pärnu which has well-preserved folk traditions and is renowned for its colourful folk costumes. The locals speak a unique dialect of Estonian which is difficult for those on the mainland to fully understand.
7. Narva castle - This huge castle faces Ivangorod castle in Russia across the river, creating an impressive view from either side of the border. Originally built by Danes, the castle's history is mostly associated with the German Teutonic Knights. Today it sits on the eastern border of the European Union, directly above the border crossing point.
8. Hiiumaa Island - This peaceful western island is a relaxing place to cycle and hike, with several lighthouses and a nature reserve with extensive bird habitat.
9. Obinitsa - A small village in the south-east corner of the country which is a centre of Setu culture and folk traditions.
10. Viinistu - A small fishing village on the northern shore to the east of Tallinn which has an impressive art gallery amid the coastal scenery.
11. Otepää - A town among the hills of the south-east, with several historical museums and the Holy Lake among its key attractions.
12. Viljandi - A pretty little town between Tartu and Pärnu with castle ruins and extensive parks.
13. Soomaa National Park - A protected landscape of bogs and rivers (the name "Soomaa" means land of bogs), with many nature trails along boardwalks above the swamps.
14. Ruhnu Island - Inhabited by Swedes until World War II, this remote island features a historic wooden church and is a great place to seek solitude for a few days.
15. Kuressaare Castle - The Bishop's Castle in Kuressaare is one of the finest medieval castles in the Baltic countries; today it houses the Saaremaa regional museum and hosts jousting tournaments and other events in the summer.