THE ROMANTIC WEST COAST
Drive your fingers into the finely grained sand of a beach on Estonia's west coast, look up to see other people laughing or playing volleyball around you, and you'll understand why this is where many Estonians themselves go to unwind and have fun. With its lovely coastline and hundreds of islands offshore, it's no wonder why it's so widely beloved.
The regional hub is Pärnu, the largest town in western Estonia. It's long been celebrated all around the Baltic Sea as the most delightful of resorts, featuring attractions from the sublime to the quirky, like mud-bath spas. Pärnu's also celebrated for its network of meticulously well-kept parks and for its inviting architectural landscape.
A smaller but equally inviting town along the west coast is Haapsalu, distinguished by its 19th-century town feel. It, like Pärnu, also has a fine beach and several health spas, which were once frequented by the Russian royal family. Another star attraction here is the town-center's 13th century castle—once the seat of a medieval bishopric.
The islands off the coast are virtual dreamlands, unlike anything in Europe. The two largest islands are Saaremaa and Hiiumaa, which are both retreats from faced-paced city life. The islands, which also include the smaller Muhu, Kihnu and Ruhnu, have a laid-back, friendly air about them. And the landscape is considered quintessentially Estonian, with many windmills, thatched cottages and sleepy fishing villages.
SOUTH-ESTONIA: FOREST AND FOLKLORE
Storks tending to their young atop log cabins and dark, deep pine-tree forests are images associated with fairy tales by Hans Christian Andersen or the Brothers Grimm. But they're the real life scenery of the countryside in southern Estonia. With its seemingly endless forests and rolling hills, the area invites visitors to cast off the worries of everyday life and delight in the unspoiled nature. Fish on a quiet river, go horseback riding through birch-tree woods or take an invigorating sauna on a lakefront farm.
Southern Estonia is also home to Estonia's second city, Tartu. Tartuans, who host the country's main liberal arts university, have the reputation of being more contemplative, more prone to sitting back over a cup of tea or a glass of beer and philosophizing with a visitor. Tartu has impressive old quarter, featuring the red-bricked St. John's Church, the oldest church in Estonia, fortification walls built by invading Russians and Swedes, and many other sights.
Tartu is a good launching point for exploring the whole of southern Estonia. Any tour should also include the areas in and around Põlva and Võru, home of the Estonian Setus. These ancient peoples have retained their unique language and culture throughout the ages. They're famed for their colorful folk dress and also for their haunting, chanting runic-style of singing. The close-knit Setu villages, with their wooden huts and small, neatly kept farmyards, can feel like a wondrous step back in time.
NORTH-ESTONIA: WHERE TWO CULTURES MEET
Northern Estonia stands out in the diversity of its landscape and history. Dramatic cliffs uniquely line parts of this Baltic Sea coast region, which hugs the Gulf of Finland nearly equidistant between Helsinki and St. Petersburg. The area also features one of Estonia's most popular nature reserves, Lahemaa National Park; with its jagged coasts, vast forests, wetlands and many hiking trails, it is a nature enthusiast’s dream.
Medieval-era castles, elegantly restored manor estates and beautiful waterfalls dot this 200-kilometer-long swath of territory running from Tallinn to Narva, the country's most easterly city. This ancient outpost, which skirts the river border between Estonia and Russia, is a place where two cultures meet and mingle--creating a fascinating mix of East and West. The gorgeous Narva Castle, which straddles the winding river, is a hallmark of the region. it is an impressive monument to northern Estonia's rich and sometimes tragic history
Tallinn: Medieval Capital
Little known gems are often the most precious and alluring. Estonia's ancient seacoast capital is just that kind of jewel. Tallinn, which at one time or another has fallen under Danish, German, Swedish or Czarist Russian rule, has retained more remnants of its past and in a more complete state than most other cities in Europe. The old city's inclusion on UNESCO's prestigious World Heritage List was dramatic acknowledgment of that.
You can see, feel and touch history everywhere in this overwhelmingly romantic city: it's in candlelight casting shadows on a cavernous stone wall in an old town merchant house, it's in the tree-lined parks that were once the strolling grounds for the aristocracy, and in a Baltic Sea breeze slapping waves at your feet along a shorefront promenade.
This is also a city that has won worldwide acclaim for its forward-thinking, state-of-the-art services. A thriving nightlife has also sprung up in Tallinn, the center of economic and cultural activity in the country; it's also a hub for major festivals and concerts throughout the year. Amid all the advances, this inspiring city also hasn't become overly developed or refined: there's a touching genuineness to Tallinn.