Things to Do in Estonia
The Russian Orthodox Alexander Nevsky Cathedral is situated on the hill of Toompea, opposite the Estonian parliament buildings and Toompea Castle. The cathedral is as popular with visiting tourists as it is with people of Orthodox faith. It is dedicated to the Russian hero St. Alexander Nevsky, Prince of Novgorod, who saw off German invaders at the 13th-century Battle of the Ice at Lake Peipus.
The cathedral, which is Tallinn’s largest, was built in a classical Russian Revival style by Mikhail Preobrazhensky between 1894 and 1900 – a period when Estonia was part of the tsarist Russian Empire – and strategically placed on the former site of a statue of Martin Luther. As a result, the cathedral is the subject of controversy with some Estonian nationalists calling for its destruction. The cathedral features the onion domes, typical of Russian Orthodox churches, and the interior is filled with mosaics, icons, paintings and ornate gold leaf decorations.
Kadriorg Park is a 173-acre area that was built in 1718 under the orders of Russian tsar Peter I, with additional sections having been designed and created over the past few centuries. Within the park you will find Kadriorg Palace, which was originally built as a summer home for the tsar and his family and now serves as the presidential palace and a branch of the Art Museum of Estonia. While the palace was being built, Peter I, also known as Peter the Great, lived in a cottage on the property, which is now a museum. The rooms are furnished with items from that era, and some of his personal belongings are on display as well.
The area near the flower beds surrounding Swan Pond, as well as the promenade leading from the pond to the palace, are popular routes for a stroll through the park. There is also a newly added Japanese garden designed with plants that were chosen to fit with Estonia's colder climate.
The Tallinn Song Festival Grounds (Lauluvӓljak) was the site of one of the most stirring events in Estonian history. Here, in September of 1988, 300,000 people (more than a quarter of the country’s population) filled the grounds for the Song of Estonia festival. Together they sang patriotic hymns and demanded independence in what later became known as the Singing Revolution. Two years later, half a million people came to the festival grounds for the Estonian Song Festival, which was the last major event before Estonia finally gained its independence.
The open-air amphitheater has an official capacity of around 100,000 and hosts the Estonian Song Festival every five years in July, as well as regular rock concerts. The festival was established in 1869, along with the Estonian National Awakening, a period when the country was still under the rule of the Russian Empire. The festival is one of the world’s largest amateur choral events.
More Things to Do in Estonia
In 1718, Peter the Great, the Russian tsar at the time, ordered a palace to be built in the then-newly designed Kadriorg Park. The palace, designed by Italian architect Niccolo Michetti, was originally built to be the summer home for Peter I, Catherine I and their family. The baroque palace is surrounded by manicured gardens, houses a branch of the Art Museum of Estonia called the Kadriorg Art Museum and today serves as the presidential palace. The museum has hundreds of 16th- to 20th-century paintings by Western and Russian artists on display.
Several interesting side buildings surround the palace, including a restored kitchen building that is now the Mikkel Museum. Peter the Great's cottage is also on the property and is now a museum where visitors can see some of his belongings and what the rooms might have looked like at the time. The palace governor’s house is now home to the Kastellaanimaja Gallery and the Eduard Vilde House Museum.
The Tallinn Botanic Gardens (Tallinna Botaanikaaed) lie a little over six miles outside of Tallinn’s city center in the quiet and picturesque valley of River Pirita. The gardens cover an area of 123 hectares that face the river and are surrounded by lush woodland.
The gardens boast 8,000 species of plants throughout a series of large modern greenhouses along a 2.5-mile (4-kilometer) trail. You will find displays of tropical, subtropical and desert plants, from Estonia and abroad, in specialized exhibits that change almost every month. One of the highlights is the rose garden, although you should visit in late spring or summer to see it at its best.
Freedom Square (or Vabaduse valjak in Estonian) is at the southern end of Tallinn's Old Town. Throughout history, the square has been called the Straw Market, Peter's Square and Victory Square. Construction and redesigns of the historic area began in 2008, and a year later on Victory Day (June 23) the new Freedom Square was opened. As part of the new features, the Victory Column monument was unveiled as a memorial to the 1918-1920 War of Independence.
Today the square is lined with benches, cafes and two art galleries. It's a popular gathering place and is also a good place to see evidence of the city's 1930s-era building boom. You'll see art-deco and functionalist buildings on two sides of the square. Tallinn's older history can be seen here as well. There is a glass panel in the street on the northwest corner where you can look down and see the foundation and stairs of the Harju Gate tower that stood here in Medieval times.
Estonia’s biggest national park covers 72,500 hectares of wetlands, pine forests and seashore on the Baltic Sea. The crenellated coastline wends its way around horseshoe-shaped bays and finger-like peninsulas, while inland forest, lakes, waterfalls and peat bogs are interspersed with tracts of rocky soil scattered with erratic boulders dumped at the end of the last Ice Age.
Much of Lahemaa has been protected from development as it was classed as military land during Russian occupation of Estonia; there are abandoned Soviet submarine stations still to be seen across the park, slowly falling into dilapidation. Today tourism is king and accommodation in the park varies from campsites to historic manor houses found along the 40 km (25 miles) of cycling and hiking trails. Thanks to the lack of development in the area, Lahemaa is home to many species of birds and several mammals very rarely seen in Europe.
A European Capital of Culture in 2011, Tallinn is increasingly a destination of choice for short weekend getaways or day trips from Helsinki, just a 90-minute ferry ride across the Baltic Sea. The Port of Tallinn is a busy one, welcoming over 300 cruise calls per season, as well as regular ferries from Helsinki, Stockholm and St. Petersburg. With an Old Town dating back over 600 years, Tallinn’s medieval charm is undeniable.
Lucky for you, you’re almost there. Whether you are visiting as part of your Baltic cruise or by ferry, you likely will arrive at one of the passenger terminals in the Old City Harbor, just 1 kilometer from Tallinn’s Great Coast Gate – the medieval entrance to the Old Town area. If you aren’t up for walking, Bus No. 2 departs regularly from Passenger Terminals A and D from 7am until midnight. Taxis are also readily available, as are velo-taxis in the summer months.
Historians visiting Tallinn have several opportunities to catch a glimpse into Estonia’s communist past. The former KGB headquarters on Pikk Street have welcomed visitors for several years now, and the KGB Museum, on the top floor of the Hotel Viru on Viru Valjak, opened early in 2011. The museum, which can only hold 25 people at a time, occupies a hotel room that began to be used by the KGB in the 1970s and had been closed and untouched ever since the Iron Curtain fell. The museum preserves the room exactly how it was left when the organization fled at the end of the Cold War. The equipment used to spy on people remains in place, and informative displays offer insight into Estonia’s time under Soviet rule. You can only visit the museum if accompanied by a local guide. Tours run roughly every hour throughout the week; they should be booked in advance (through the hotel’s website), and cost around seven Euros – guests staying at Hotel Viru are offered a discounted rate.
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