Estonia is a Baltic state in Northern Europe. It has land borders with Latvia and Russia. With a coastline on the Baltic Sea and Gulf of Finland, Estonia also has sea borders with Finland and Sweden.
Estonia is a Baltic gem offering visitors the chance to see an ex-Soviet occupied country that is now proudly part of the European Union. Traces of the Soviet era are still there to be seen — e.g. Paldiski, a deserted Soviet army base that was once off-limits to Estonians themselves, can easily be visited on a day trip from the capital, Tallinn. Tallinn's medieval old town was built by the Germans in Middle Ages and is in magnificent condition, with the medieval city walls and towers almost completely intact and it rates as one of Europe's best medieval old towns. Glorious beaches pepper the extensive coastline, although the swimming season is short. After all, the Baltics are not renowned for warm weather - something that any visitor to Estonia must be aware of — the summer is short and the winter is severe.
After 7 centuries of German, Danish, Swedish, Polish and Russian rule, Estonia attained independence in 1918. Incorporated into the USSR in 1940, it re-gained independence in 1991 through its Singing Revolution , a non-violent revolution that overthrew an initially violent occupation. Since the last Russian troops left in 1994, Estonia moved to promote economic and political ties with Western Europe. It is now one of the more-prosperous former Communist states, enjoying a high-tech environment, an open and liberal economy and a transparent government system. On the other hand, it is faced with a fairly low (but growing) GDP per capita (in a European Union context), as well as a very low birth rate, which is creating a population decline.
Since accession to the EU, Estonia is becoming one of the most popular destinations in North-Eastern Europe with (EU highest) 30% growth in the number of visitors in 2004, according to Eurostat.
Estonia itself is divided into 15 counties (or maakonnad, singular - maakond). However, to bring out the unique characteristics of Estonia, we use 4 distinctive regions in this guide. As the country is small, most destinations can be reached within a couple of hours from Tallinn.
Estonians have a special love for nature, and many will tell you that they would rather sit under a tree in an empty forest or hike in a national park than almost anything else. Estonia's tranquil, laidback and unspoiled Baltic islands provide a splendid getaway to nature.
Estonia is a member of the Schengen Agreement. For EU and EFTA (Iceland, Liechtenstein, Norway, Switzerland) citizens, an officially approved ID card (or a passport) is sufficient for entry. In no case will they need a visa for a stay of any length. Others will generally need a passport for entry.
There are no border controls between countries that have signed and implemented the treaty - the European Union (except Bulgaria, Cyprus, Ireland, Romania and the United Kingdom), Iceland, Norway and Switzerland. Likewise, a visa granted for any Schengen member is valid in all other countries that have signed and implemented the treaty. But be careful: Not all EU members have signed the Schengen treaty, and not all Schengen members are part of the European Union.
Airports in Europe are thus divided into "Schengen" and "non-Schengen" sections, which effectively act like "domestic" and "international" sections elsewhere. If you are flying from outside Europe into one Schengen country and continuing to another, you will clear Immigration and Customs at the first country and then continue to your destination with no further checks. Travel between a Schengen member and a non-Schengen country will result in the normal border checks. Note that regardless of whether you travelling within the Schengen area or not, some airlines will still insist on seeing your ID card or passport.
Keep in mind that the counter begins once you enter any country in the Schengen Area and is not reset by leaving a specific Schengen country for another Schengen country, or vice-versa.
As of January 2011 only the nationals of the following non-EU/EFTA countries do not need a visa for entry into the Schengen Area: Albania*, Andorra, Antigua and Barbuda, Argentina, Australia, Bahamas, Barbados, Bosnia and Herzegovina*, Brazil, Brunei, Canada, Chile, Costa Rica, Croatia, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Israel, Japan, Macedonia*, Malaysia, Mauritius, Mexico, Monaco, Montenegro*, New Zealand, Nicaragua, Panama, Paraguay, Saint Kitts and Nevis, San Marino, Serbia*/**, Seychelles, Singapore, South Korea, Taiwan*** (Republic of China), United States, Uruguay, Vatican City, Venezuela, additionally persons holding British National (Overseas), Hong Kong SAR or Macau SAR passports. These visa-free visitors may not stay more than three months in half a year and may not work while in the EU.
However, all British Overseas Territories citizens except those solely connected to the Cyprus Sovereign Base Areas are eligible for British citizenship and thereafter unlimited access to the Schengen Area.
Further note that
(*) nationals of Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Macedonia, Montenegro and Serbia need a biometric passport to enjoy visa-free travel,
(**) Serbian nationals with passports issued by the Serbian Coordination Directorate (Serbs residing in Kosovo) still do need a visa and
(***) Taiwanese nationals need their ID number to be stipulated in their passport to enjoy visa-free travel.
A growing number of foreign visitors have been traveling to Estonia in recent years. According to Statistics Estonia the nation's statistics agency, 1.3 million foreigners visited the country in 2000, and that number climbed 38 percent to 1.8 million foreigners by 2005.
Tallinn is Estonia's international gateway. In addition to direct daily flights to/from all major Scandinavian (Stockholm, Copenhagen, and Oslo) and Baltic cities (Riga and Vilnius), there are direct flights from all major European hubs like London, Paris, Frankfurt and Amsterdam and regional hubs like Prague and Warsaw. Eastward connections are from Moscow and Kiev. Local carrier Estonian Air provides half of the services and the rest is provided by Finnair, SAS, Lufthansa, LOT, CSA, Air Baltic, Ryanair and others. Easyjet is one of a few low-cost carriers that provide service between Tallinn and major European cities. Travelers can pay as little as EUR 120 (US$160) or £80 Sterling to fly roundtrip from London to Tallinn.
From London's Stansted Airport, Easyjet provides nonstop service to Tallinn. From Frankfurt, choose from Lufthansa and Estonian Air. From Brussels, select from KLM, Estonian Air, Finnair, SAS, Lufthansa and Czech Airlines. From Amsterdam, choose from KLM, Lufthansa, SAS, Czech Airlines, Finnair, LOT Polish, and Northwest. From Rome's Fiumicino Airport, select from Alitalia, Czech Airlines, Estonia Air, KLM and Finnair.
Close proximity and excellent ferry services with Helsinki allow for combination of open-jaw air travel.
Daily domestic flights are from Tallinn to the islands of Hiiumaa (Kärdla) and Saaremaa (Kuressaare).
International train services are to/from Russia, Moscow. Domestic services connect Tallinn with Narva in the east and Viljandi in the south, Pärnu in the south-west, Tartu and Valga in the south-east.
Good road connections are to the south (Via Baltica routing Tallinn-Riga-Kaunas-Warsaw) and east (Tallinn-Saint Petersburg). Domestic road network is dense and covers all regions of the country.
Lots of good and cheap connections from Moscow, Saint Petersburg, Kiev, Kaliningrad, Warsaw, and all larger Baltic and German cities. The most popular service provider is Eurolines , others include Ecolines , BalticShuttle and Hansabuss .
Eurolines can provide visa services to Russia, however it takes two weeks (one week rush).
Ferry lines connect Tallinn with Sweden (Stockholm), Finland (Helsinki, Mariehamn) and also with Germany (Rostock) during the summer months. Tallinn-Helsinki is one of the busiest searoutes in Europe and has daily 20 ferry crossings and nearly 30 different fast-boat and hydrofoil crossings (the latter do not operate during winter). For details see Port of Tallinn passenger schedules .
Minor international routes include recently re-established connection between Latvia port of Ventspils and the island of Saaremaa and Paldiski - Kapellskär (Sweden) with two different operators.
In Estonia the public transport system is well-developed and it is preferable to walk, cycle or use public transport, given the local Eastern European style driving culture may be dangerous for unexperienced.
Estonia's train network does not cover the whole country. The quality of services has suffered considerably from privatisation and the main means of local transport is now bus. Tallinn has three frequently-going local train lines (Tallinn-Keila-Paldiski/Riisipere and Tallinn-Aegviidu) see: .
Domestic routes are operated by Edelaraudtee .
The Tartu-Tallinn train route is good, fast and offers wireless internet access.
Estonia has a comprehensive bus network all over the country. All bigger cities like Tartu, Pärnu, Viljandi and Narva are accessible by bus. There is a journey planner peatus.ee, in Estonian, English and Russian. There is also a timetable search at bussireisid.ee. But check also (only between bigger cities and to outside Estonia).
The international bicycle project BaltiCCycle may provide you with a lot of information and help.
Hitchhiking in Estonia is generally good. The Baltic countries have a strong hitchhiking culture.
The road system is quite extensive although road quality varies. The speed limit in countryside is 90 km/h and 50 km/h in the cities unless specified otherwise. Passengers are expected to wear seat belts. Lights must always be switched on.
In the central areas of bigger cities a fee is levied on parking cars, but finding a provider of tickets is sometimes difficult as mobile parking is widespread.
Estonia has lots of car rental companies and the level of English spoken by their representatives is generally very high. If you go to Level 0 of Tallinn international airport, there are several car rental agency counters.
Car rental in Estonia is very cheap compared to Western Europe. You can get a decent car shared between two people for approximately 150EEK/person/day e.g. a 2004 Fiat Punto.
An excellent day trip is to drive from Tallinn to Tartu. It takes about 2.5 hours each direction.
As of September 3, 2006 the drive from Tallinn to Tartu has been much improved. Outside of Tallinn it is a 2 lane paved road with some construction ongoing to upgrade it. It takes 2 to 2 1/2 hours. There are few sights of interest along the way. The terrain is flat and most of the road is bracketed by birch tree and a few pines. I can recommend Sam's grill about 1/2 way between Tallinn and Tartu as a place to stop. There is a gas station next door.
Driving in Estonia can be more dangerous than in much of the Europe and United States. Some drivers can be aggressive, recklessly overtaking vehicles and traveling at high speed, even in crowed urban areas. Estonian laws against driving under the influence of alcohol are strict and follow a policy of zero tolerance. Unfortunately, accidents involving intoxicated drivers are distressingly frequent. You should always remain alert to the possibility of drunk drivers and drunken pedestrians. Standards of driving can range from bad to down-right lethal. The best advice is to drive defensively: don’t assume your fellow drivers will do what you expect them to do, like avoiding overtaking in poor visibility or signal before they merge into your lane. If you can avoid it, it’s probably best not to drive on inter-city highways.
Estonia's top tourist attractions
The main reason most people first come to Estonia is to see the best protected and intact medieval city in Europe - Tallinn. The unique value of Tallinn's Old Town lies first and foremost in the well-preserved (intact) nature of its medieval milieu and structure, which has been lost in most of the capitals of northern Europe. Since 1997, the Old Town of Tallinn has been on UNESCO's World Heritage list.
Living under the rule of Scandinavian kings, Russian empire and Teutonic Knights has left Estonia with unique and rich blend of historic landmarks. Over one thousand manors were built across Estonia from the 13th century onwards. Some of the manors have perished or fallen into ruins but a lot have been reconstructed and now are favourite attractions with tourists. Nowadays there are about 200 manor houses under state protection as architectural monuments and 100 in active use.
Estonia has over 1500 islands. The nature is essentially untouched and offers quite a different beach experience with their remoter rustic feel. Most of the public beaches are sandy and the average water temperature is 18°C in summer. Inland waters and some shallow bays' water are even warmer.
The largest island is Saaremaa with an intact and well-restored medieval castle in its only city, Kuressaare. Stone fences, thatched roofs, working windmills and home made beer are all distinctive to Saaremaa. Hiiumaa on the other hand is well known for its lighthouses, unspoilt nature, Hill of crosses and the sense of humour of its inhabitants. Both islands have an airport so they can be quickly reached from Tallinn.
Other important islands include Kihnu, Ruhnu (with its "singing sand" beach), Muhu and Vormsi, each with its own unique characteristics. Most of the other tiny Estonian islands don't carry much cultural significance but can be appealing for bird watching, canoeing, sailing or fishing etc.
In July and August Pärnu, Estonia's summer capital, is the main attraction. The coastline itself has loads of untouched beaches and a tour from Narva-Jõesuu (in the East) towards Tallinn is great for exploring the coastline. Some of the well known places include Toila, Võsu, Käsmu and Kaberneeme.
The official language is Estonian which is linguistically very closely related to Finnish. At the same time many in urban areas (especially younger people) speak English well. According to the Eurobarometer poll of 2005, 66% of Estonians can speak some Russian. This does not include native-language speakers. Thanks to heavy tourism and TV broadcasts from the other side of the gulf, Finnish is also spoken quite well by many people in Tallinn, the capital. German is taught at school in Estonia and a large number of people can speak some (22% according to Eurobarometer).
There is a large Slavic minority, particularly Russian and Ukrainians (some 25%).
Tickets for events can be bought online via Piletilevi.ee or the lately established Ticketpro.ee .
There's quite a good list of various events in Estonia at Visitestonia.com .
Self guided tours are a good way to discover Estonia by yourself. For more information please visit the self-guided tours and interactive maps sections on the official tourism website.
Estonia has the euro (EUR, €) as its currency. Therewith, Estonia belongs to the 23 European countries that use the common European money. These 23 countries are: Austria, Belgium, Cyprus, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Ireland, Italy, Luxembourg, Malta, the Netherlands, Portugal, Slovakia, Slovenia and Spain (official euro members which are all European Union member states) as well as Andorra, Kosovo, Monaco, Montenegro, San Marino and Vatican which use it without having a say in eurozone affairs and without being European Union members. These countries together have a population of 327 million.
One euro is divided into 100 cents. While each official euro member (as well as Monaco, San Marino and Vatican) issues its own coins with a unique obverse, the reverse as well as all bills look the same throughout the eurozone. Nonetheless, every coin is legal tender in any of the eurozone countries.
The Estonian kroon (EEK) ceased to be legal tender on January 15, 2011, but any kroons you have left over can be changed into euros at any Estonian bank until the end of 2011 and indefinitely at the Bank of Estonia at a fixed rate of 15.6466 kroon to €1.
ATMs and currency exchange offices (valuutavahetus) are widely available. You will get the best rates by exchanging only after arrival in Estonia. Avoid changing money in the airport or port as the rates are lower.
Estonia remains cheaper than Western Europe, but it is no longer the bargain basement it used to be and in touristy areas (say Tallinn's Old Town) prices are almost at Scandinavian levels.
Estonian food draws heavily from German and Scandinavian cuisine. The closest thing to a national dish is verivorst, black pudding, served with mulgikapsad, which is basically sauerkraut stew.
Many types of food are close to Russian and have their equivalents almost exclusively in former USSR, such as hapukoor, smetana in Russian, a sour 20%-fat milk dressing for salads, especially "kartulisalat" or "potato salad".
As Estonia used to be a food mass-production powerhouse in the times of USSR, some of its foods, unknown to Westerners, are still well-recognized in the lands of the CIS.
Among other everyday food, some game products are offered in food stores in Estonia, mostly wild boar, elk sausages and deer grill. Some restaurants also offer bear meat.
For those with a sweet tooth, the national chocolate manufacturer is "Kalev", with many specialist stores around the country as well as supermarkets retailing the product.
The more adventurous may want to try "kohuke", a flavoured milk-curd sweet covered with chocolate and available at every supermarket.
Like their neighbours the Finns and the Russians, the Estonians know their alcohol. Favorite tipples include the local beer Saku or A. Le Coq , the local vodka Viru Valge (Vironian White) and the surprisingly smooth and tasty rum-like herbal liquor Vana Tallinn (Old Tallinn) , famous in the countries of former USSR.
A local soft drink is "Kali" (the Estonian equivalent of "kvass"), made from fermented brown bread. It can be described as an acquired taste.
Many locals also swear by "keefir", a fermented milk concoction.
Number of hotels has exploded from few to tens and hundreds after Estonia restored independence. In 2004 Tallinn achieved first place among the Baltic Sea cities in the number of overnight stays in hotels, though still behind Stockholm and Helsinki in the number of total overnight stays. A list of bigger hotels as well as some restaurants and nightclubs could be found at Estonian Hotel and Restaurant Association .
As Soviet collective farms were disbanded many farmers switched to running "turismitalu" or tourism farms which are inexpensive and indispensable places for spending holidays in the nature, usually in former farm house. Site on Estonian Rural Tourism provides information on the tourism farms in Estonia. Hostels are a another popular option for budget-sensitive travellers, see website of the Estonian Youth Hostel Association .
The official tourism site Visitestonia.com also has information and listings about B&B accommodation, youth hostels, camping and caravan sites etc.
Estonia has a fair amount of foreign students studying in its universities, especially from Nordic countries, as Estonian diplomas are recognized throughout the EU. See the articles for university town Tartu and capital Tallinn for details.
No obstacles exist to citizens of EU countries to come to invest and work in Estonia. Citizens of developed non-EU countries are exempt from short-term tourist visas. Swedes and Finns have by far the largest working community of post-Soviet foreigners in Estonia. Estonia may have had rocketlike growth in recent years, but only from a very low base as a former Soviet republic, and average local monthly salary (4th quarter 2007) is around 800 EUR.
Education is highly valued in Estonia because as a small nation with no exceptional natural resources, they believe that the only way to be competitive is to absorb knowledge. There are so many highly educated people in Estonia that it is a problem in the labour market - there aren't enough workers for jobs that requiring minimal education.
Considerable investments and some workers are constantly coming from CIS countries, though significant legal restrictions are imposed.
Citizenship and Migration Board is the authority responsible for dealing with the paperwork.
CV Online is one of the oldest Estonian recruitement and HR services operating in 9 countries (as of 2005).
Risks in Estonia
Crime/violence: Low - Moderate
Petty crime in Tallinn and at Russian border
High rate of HIV/AIDS
The published crime rate increased dramatically in 1991-1994 after democratic freedoms were introduced. In large part this is due to the fact that crime was a taboo subject before 1991, as Soviet propaganda needed to show how safe and otherwise good place it was. However it is still a significant problem in Estonia. The murder rate per 100,000 inhabitants, as of 2000, was some 4-5 times higher than in Sweden and Finland, although still significantly lower than in its biggest neighbour, Russia.
Today, the official sources claim achieving considerable reduction in crime statistics in the recent years. According to Overseas Security Advisory Council crime rate in 2007 was quite comparable to the other European states including Scandinavia. Criminal activities are distributed unevenly across the territory with almost no crime in the island areas and a considerable rate of drug dealing in predominantly Russian-speaking industrial area of North-East. In Tallinn petty crime is a problem and there are some incidents involving tourists, mainly pickpocketing (especially in the markets). Tallinn Old City and other main tourist attractions are closely watched by local police and private security companies.
The main advice to anyone worried about personal security is to stay reasonably sober despite tempting alcohol prices. When driving, make sure you have had absolutely no alcohol beforehand.
For police dial 110, for other emergencies like fires and so, call 112.
It has been mentioned that ordinary Estonians are unlikely to approach a complete stranger or a tourist on their own. If somebody suddenly turns to you in the street (with questions or matters of small business) keeping a cautious eye on your belongings would be wise.
Open homosexuality may be met with stares although violence is very rare.
For an Estonian it is considered "mauvais ton" not to criticize Estonian healthcare system. Recent EU study showed however that Estonia occupies a healthy 4th place in the block by the basic public health service indicators, on the same level as Sweden. In fact, around 1998-2000 the Estonian healthcare system was remodeled from the obsolete USSR model, directed to coping with disastrous consequences of large-scale war to more up-to-date by the experts from Sweden. Estonia has harmonized its rules on travelers' health insurance with EU requirements. For fast aid or rescue dial 112.
Estonia has Europe's second highest rate of adult HIV/AIDS infections, currently over 1.3% or 1 in 77 adults. Generally the rate is much higher in Russian-speaking regions like Narva or Sillamäe. Don't make the situation worse by not protecting yourself and others.
The most common way of greeting is to shake hands. If there is a "long time - no see" situation, then a hug may be suitable.
Do not raise your voice in a conversation. A decent silent conversation is the Estonian way of doing business and is much appreciated.
Be aware that camping on private lands is not allowed unless you ask for permission (which you will most likely get). Forest lands and riparians on the other hand are open for everyone and anytime.
Estonians are usually proud of their nation and their country because as a small nation they have managed to gain independence and survived all the rough times that centuries of history filled with wars has served them.
Be careful when mentioning Estonia in the context of the former USSR. Any praising of Soviet practices is very unlikely to be understood or appreciated by the Estonians, although over 25% of Estonia's population are Russian.