10 Reasons Why You Will Absolutely Love Estonia in Winter
As I found out on a recent trip to the Baltic region, visiting off-season has some surprising upsides, so here are 10 reasons why you will simply fall in love with Estonia in winter.
It is no longer a secret that with its medieval walls, stone towers, and cobbled streets, Tallinn – the capital of Estonia and a historic port on the Baltic Sea, is a beautiful city with ageless charm. The UNESCO-protected Old Town is still surrounded by much of its original stone wall and many bastions and visiting there is like stepping back in time — narrow alleys lined with medieval buildings lead to even narrower lanes which in turn end with cloistered yards.
Estonia is a relatively inexpensive country, especially when compared with some of its neighbors like Sweden, Denmark, or Finland. Tallinn is a popular port of call on many Baltic cruises and is served by lots of European (including several low-cost) airlines. All this means that in the summer months, the crowds descend en masse upon the gorgeous medieval Old Town during the day and fill the restaurants and bars after dark.
All this changes dramatically when in late fall the last cruise ship leaves port and the mass tourists pack their souvenirs and head back home. In November – December, with its slanted red roofs, rocket-like spires, and cobblestone alleys, the Old Town turns into a snow-muffled fairytale.
Need more reasons to start planning a trip to Estonia in winter? Here they are:
1. Navigating and appreciating the historic Old City without the crowds is a bliss.
In winter, it becomes wonderfully quiet, at times even deserted, so the main sights suddenly become accessible without having to wait in lines or to elbow your way through crowds of selfie-stick holding tourists. This is a great time of year to wander around and allow yourself to get lost in the maze of narrow cobblestone lanes. No worries; just keep going and you will eventually come back to one of the main streets or squares.
2. In off-season, the restaurants and cafes are busy with locals, not with tourists.
Travel to Estonia in winter, and you will see that cafes and restaurants are filled not with pub-crawlers and stag / hen parties, but with Tallinners relaxing over mulled wine, hot chocolate, or enjoying traditional hearty winter dishes. This will give you a chance to actually hear Estonian, but do not expect to be able to pick up much. It is a Finno-Ugric language which is somewhat similar to Finnish and Hungarian and sounds quite melodic because of its numerous vowels, but for a foreigner, it is grammatically almost impossible to learn.
3. You can experience the traditional Christmas Market in Tallinn’s Old Town.
If you are in Tallinn from the last week of November to the first week of January, you will get a chance to soak in the ambiance of the cute albeit charmingly clichéd Christmas market held annually in the Town Hall Square where a decorated tree was first erected here in the 15th This is a great way to rub shoulders with the locals and sample traditional season favorites like mulled wine, gingerbread, and sausages with sauerkraut.
4. Enjoy holiday choir and organ concerts with the locals.
In December, festive choir concerts often take place in the dimly lit historic churches of the Old Town. In addition, organ concerts are currently held at St. Mary’s Cathedral (also called the Dome Church) every Saturday at noon and at the Nicholas Church (which is now a museum) every Saturday and Sunday at 4 PM.
5. Get great views over the historic walls and bastions without the crowds.
For a great vantage point over Tallinn’s tiled roofs and medieval towers and walls, bundle up and brave the 150+ steps up the Toompea Hill to the Kohtuotsa or Patkuli viewing platforms. As an added bonus, try to get up there at sunrise (which in winter is not too early anyway) when the Estonian flag is hoisted up the Tall Hermann tower under the sounds of the national anthem.
6. For even more peace and quiet, stroll beyond the walls and explore the Kadriorg neighborhood.
Once you have taken in the Old Town, venture a couple of miles outside and through some residential neighborhoods to the nearby Kadriorg park which was commissioned in the 17th century by the Russian tsar Peter the Great. He also had a Baroque summer residence built there – the Kadriorg Palace, which now houses some of the collections of the Estonian Art Museum.
7. Have a world-class art museum almost to yourself.
Also nearby, the KUMU art museum is truly a pleasant surprise definitely worth a stop. Estonia’s largest art museum, it was opened in 2006 in a massive, cutting-edge-design structure built into a limestone cliff. The KUMU exhibits works from Estonian artists dating from the 18th Century through the end of World War II, as well as a permanent exhibition of Estonian contemporary art.
8. Just outside the city, explore an enormous national park and its nature and cultural heritage.
For a day-trip outside of Tallinn, head east along the Baltic coast to the Lahemaa National Park – the oldest and largest in the country and a true nature-lover’s paradise. It covers an area of over 280 square miles including lakes, rivers, forests, and marshes teeming with wildlife. Several villages are scattered throughout the park and offer an insight into the region’s history, culture and traditions.
9. Escape from it all on one of Estonia’s most beautiful islands.
Looking to escape the city? Did you know that Estonia has over 2,000 islands and islets of all shapes and sizes!? My favorite is Muhu Island – a hidden gem which the traditional local trades of fishing and shepherding have left largely untouched by large-scale farming and where you can still catch glimpses of wild goat, fox, deer, or moose. Explore some of the small charming villages with wooden houses and reed roofs or the tiny but rather unique fishing museum housed in a former fishnet shed.
10. Spend a night or more at a gorgeous historic manor.
Incidentally, Muhu island is where the exceptional Padaste Manor – one of Estonia’s most luxurious hotels, is located in a centuries-old country estate. After a long and painstaking restoration, the manor and the estate’s buildings now house exquisite rooms and suites, a spa, an award-winning restaurant, and a wine cellar. There is a variety of seasonal activities and tours you can enjoy like horseback riding, snowshoeing, and traditional cooking classes.
If you are looking to plan a winter holiday in a beautiful medieval city, Estonia’s capital Tallinn is perfect. Just keep in mind that temperatures can drop to 0°F and even lower during winters, so check the weather report before packing your suitcase. If you really want to fall in love with Estonia in winter, make sure to get a warm jacket, good boots, long johns, and woolen socks.
Need help planning a trip to the Baltics? I would love to hear from you!
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