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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Estonia's Big Secret: Life Beyond Tallinn

I confess: It's taken me three trips to Estonia just to get beyond Tallinn's central square.

Everything has always been right there at my fingertips, never more than a kilometer away from the train station and set in a perfectly un-Soviet, fairy-tale spot: Quietdcobbled streets and squares, narrow alleyways, 14th-century guild houses, medieval fortification walls -- and, certainly not least, enough cheap food and drink to keep me in a state of mild euphoria until it's time to catch the dreaded train back. It's always seemed so unnecessary to venture out beyond the walls of Tallinn's Old Town.

Perhaps it's all a conspiracy on the part of the privacy-loving Estonians to confine tourists to the spectacular capital and keep all the charm of the countryside to themselves. Sound far-fetched? Judge for yourself. This writer witnessed two Germans walk into Tallinn's tourist office and ask about Saaremaa, a large island off the coast of Estonia.

"I wouldn't go to Saaremaa," the Estonian woman in the information office said. "It's full of factories. It's not very interesting."

Suspicious of her admonitions, we decided to check it out for ourselves. What we found was an unspoiled and beautiful island, where a dramatic 800-year-history of European war and conquest competed for our attention only with the island's fields of wildflowers. And mainland Estonia holds much of the same: quiet, rolling landscapes that now and again offer up signs of Estonia's long history of German, Swedish, Russian, Soviet, and now independent rule. Although the Estonians may strive to keep it hushed up, they can't hide the fact that there's life beyond Tallinn.


Saaremaa is the largest of some 500 islands off the coast of Estonia, and along with Hiiumaa and Vormsi, one the most noteworthy. Although Saaremaa can be reached from the mainland in less than an hour -- 30 minutes by ferry to the small island of Muhu, and another 30 minutes across Muhu and onto Saaremaa via a 4-kilometer-long causeway -- the distance was enough to keep industry away during the Soviet period. As a result, the island still retains its outpost feeling. As public transport is limited (we saw bus stops, but never a bus) the island is best seen by car or bicycle.

With a population of just 17,000, Kuressaare is the center of the island's population and the home of its best sight, the Kuressaare Bishop's Castle. This fortress, built in the middle of the 14th century and "updated" with defense walls and cannon towers in the 15th century, was the stronghold of the German bishops who ruled the island until 1559. It was subsequently used and improved by occupying Swedes and Russians, and has been passed down to modernity in nearly mint condition; indeed, it is the only surviving intact medieval fortress in the Baltic states.

You can describe the Bishop's Castle however you like -- magnificent, ponderous, labyrinthine, self-absorbed. But what it really is -- just ask any 9-year-old -- is cool. Leave plenty of time to run around through the dozens of rooms, the two high towers, and the rough stone stairways leading to closed-off passageways. You know you've wanted to do this since you were a kid, and now's your chance. Push against a heavy wooden door or two. You never know: Maybe it'll be locked, maybe it'll swing open to reveal a rare medieval crapper, hewn from dolomite and yawning into a dried-up moat far below.

Admission to the castle costs 20 Estonian kroon (20 EEK, or about $1.65). On the top floor of the defense castle is a cafe with cheap food and views over the castle grounds. A light lunch for two of two salads, two pieces of cake and four coffees set us back 50 EEK -- about $4.

Another of Saaremaa's star attractions has traditionally been the Veski restaurant at P?rna 19, housed inside an immense stone windmill. Don't make this the sole reason for your visit, though: It is closed for repairs, and judging by the depth of the rubble inside, it will not be open again in the near future.

Outside of Kuressaare, Saaremaa's landscape turns impossibly pastoral. Here are field after field of wildflowers, juniper groves, and real woods -- not just your local leafy repository for cans and broken glass. An occasional dwelling dots the interior landscape, but the shore is mostly undeveloped and lined with quiet pebble beaches. Now and again along this still landscape a monument to the past rises up: The imposing 14th century gothic church at Karja, a family of five disused windmills at Angla, and the now-abandoned village of Dejevo built for Soviet military families.

Although most guidebooks will tell you that the only way to leave Saaremaa is to head for the mainland via the Kuivastu ferry from Muhu, there is now a second way. From the middle of May to the end of September, there is a ferry service from the tiny port of Triigi in the north to Saaremaa's smaller and even quieter neighbor, Hiiumaa (140 EEK per car, 45 EEK per passenger, three trips daily). Since the ferry can only carry 16 cars, its operators suggest reserving early (tel. 73-203 from anywhere on Saaremaa). Luckily, if you're caught without a ferry, you can get reasonably priced lodging at the port (140 EEK per person). If you do decide to make a swing through Hiiumaa, there are plenty of ferries -- more than 10 on most days -- from the island back to the mainland.

Tartu and Southern Estonia

Estonia's second city, Tartu, maintains a mellow buzz as home to the country's largest university, and lies at the center of some of the area's most interesting countryside. Of interest in Tartu itself is the old part of the town that centers around the Raekoja Plats, or Town Hall Square, and the central Toomem?gi, or Toome hill.

The green hillside of Toomem?gi boasts a number of curious sights. The focal point here is the ruined Dome Church, which was by all accounts a builder's nightmare and now remains only a thought-provoking skeleton. Monuments to a poet, an embryologist and an anesthesiologist dot the hillside, along with the ancient stones that once formed a tower foundation. At the east end of the hill, look for a small viewpoint over the city's central square. From here, the real treasure lies underground, directly beneath your feet: the 18th-century P--ssirohukelder, or gunpowder cellar, an immense arched chamber set deep inside the Toome hillside.

You must wind your way down from the hillside to find the entry to the gunpowder cellar, but it is well worth the effort. Originally built as a powder magazine, with subsequent incarnations as a storehouse, brewery, and an underground seismological laboratory, the P--ssirohukelder is now Tartu's -- and perhaps Estonia's -- most unusual restaurant. It isn't exactly cozy: Its red-brick central vault measures over 10 meters high and its walls are 2 1/2 meters thick. But it is surprisingly inexpensive. Our lunch for three, including soup, salads, entrees and, drinks and dessert, cost us less than $25. The P--ssirohukelder was quiet at lunch, but is rumored to be more raucous on Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays when a troupe of local topless dancers give their show.

South of Tartu, the flat landscape characteristic of northern Estonia gives way to a more varied countryside, full of lakes and hillocks. Around Otep??, one reaches countryside hilly enough to serve as a sports wonderland in the winter months. With its stern 17th-century church and the adjacent hilltop containing ruins of Estonia's first stone castle, Otep?? is well worth a visit. Or at least the Dalai Lama, Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir all thought so. As did Alexander Solzhenitsyn, who worked on "The Gulag Archipelago" in the area.

There are good bed and breakfast options in Otep??, but for a more regal experience, head another 20 kilometers south to Sangaste. Barely warranting a dot on the map, the village has one big surprise up its sleeve: a 19th-century Tudor-style red-brick castle, the Sangaste Loss. The castle, built in 1881 by one Count Friedrich von Berg, was said to be inspired by England's Windsor Castle. For 5 EEK, you can tour the castle, and see if von Berg came anywhere near hitting his mark. But why pay to look around, when they'll let you spend the night? During the Soviet period the castle served as a Pioneer camp, and now it is open to the public as a hotel. Granted, it's a bit dreary inside: The rooms have a distinctly Soviet feel, and the bathrooms are down the hall. But on the bright side, there is a sauna in the basement, a putt-putt golf range in the back, and a huge yard with ponds and nature trails. And where else can you spent the night in a castle for just $17? The castle's staff told us that renovation plans are in the pipeline and prices could rise as rooms are updated to include toilets and showers. But judging from the general slow pace at the castle, the changes will not be implemented in the very near future.

Where to Stay

Tallinn. CDS Reisid, located on the central square (Raekoja Plats 17), arranges reasonably priced bed and breakfast stays throughout Estonia. (From Moscow, tel. (8-014) 2 445-262; in Tallinn, tel. 445-262. E-mail:

Tallinn's cheap and reliable youth hostel, The Barn, has moved to nicer digs a few blocks away from its old location. It is still centrally located, just two minutes' walk from the central square. (The Barn, Vaike-Karja 1, 150 EEK per person in dorm rooms, 400 EEK for a two-person room, 10 percent discount with an International Youth Hostel card. From Moscow, call (8-014) 2 443-465.

Saaremaa. Astra Valgma and her daughter, Maris, rent out a comfortable, clean and welcoming house near the sea in Nasva, about 15 kilometers southwest of Kuressaare, for 800 EEK a night. They also rent out a flat in Kuressaare for 450 EEK a night. Both include a generous breakfast of fresh bread, meats, cheeses, boiled eggs, home-preserved jams and salted fish, juice and coffee (From Moscow, tel. (8-014) 4 575-128).

Otep??. Ute Wohlrab and Meelis Linnamagi run a small, Laura Ashley-style guest cottage in town for just 100 EEK per person per night. Or, ask about a more rustic homestay at their farm. Both include breakfast with farm-fresh milk and eggs. Tel. (276) 5 40-26.

Sangaste. Sangaste Loss has room for 70 guests in 25 rooms at 195 EEK per person. Breakfast included. Bar, restaurant, sauna, mini golf, conference rooms and horse riding are available. Within Estonia, call (276) 9 13-43, fax (276) 9 13-35.

Getting There, Getting Around

Trains leave daily from Leningradsky Station in the early evening and arrive about 15 hours later in Tallinn. There is only one train back from Tallinn, which leaves at 6:27 p.m. and arrives in Moscow at 10:50 a.m. A round-trip ticket in a four-person compartment, available at Leningradsky Station, costs about 425,000 rubles ($85).

From Tallinn, Saaremaa is about a 4 1/2 hour bus trip (four buses daily, tickets are available at P?rnu Maantee 24), and Tartu can be reached by train in about three hours (seven or eight trains daily from the central station). Touring by car is more expensive, but opens up far more possibilities than can public transport. Avis and Hertz have offices in Tallinn, but the cheaper local option is Tulika Rent, with offices in Tallinn (552-553), Tartu (475-800), and P?rnu. Tulika's rental fees start at roughly $50 per day, varying depending on the type of car, the length of rental, and your ability to bargain.