Estonia is one of those countries that is often missed on European travel itineraries. Dwarfed next to its giant Russian neighbor to the east, and forgotten next to its more well-known Finnish counterpart to the north, Estonia tourism has often been overlooked. But those that venture off the usual tourist trail have an incredible reward waiting for them when they arrive in Estonia. Aside from the historical wonders of the capital city Tallinn, Estonia is full of hidden attractions that warrant at least a week or two of exploring.
Traveling to Estonia is perfect for all types of outdoor lovers. Slower paced travelers will adore the incredibly well maintained nature preserves throughout the country. Adrenaline junkies have a plethora of adventure activities to get their heart racing. But no matter the pace, every traveler will enjoy getting a deeper sense of Estonia’s people. Especially how their unique history has played a part in preserving the local culture, which they so passionately enjoy showing off to their guests.
Although traveling through Estonia would be fantastic with any mode of transportation, we highly recommend renting a car, as some of the highlights were really far off the beaten track. Not only does a car allow you to reach the more rural attractions, but it also gives you the freedom to spontaneously venture off the main road to hidden spots along the way. As a jumping off point, the following here are our favorite highlights from our weeklong Estonia road trip. We zipped through these places in just 5 days, but given the time we’d recommend slowing down a bit to have some more down time.
Estonia Road Trip Day 1
We kicked off our wild Estonia travel itinerary with an adrenaline-pumping balloon ride that jolted our sleepy selves wide-awake. Balloon Tallinn offers rides in their helium balloon that rises 120 meters into the air, giving you the perfect view of Tallinn city and the Baltic Sea. 120 meters might not sound high from the ground, but once we started going up it became apparent just how far we were going. We’re not the biggest fan of heights, so after a few minutes into our ride Jules and I were already getting jumpy. We asked the guide if we were at the top yet, to which he replied “no, we’re only one third up.” Yikes!
Once you get settled at the top you start to forget about the height and start enjoying the views. From the balloon you overlook the Baltic Sea and can see the historical buildings of Old Town in the distance. It’s pretty windy and cold up top, but they give you a blanket to stay warm. For those that are interested in a hot air balloon ride, this experience is the perfect precursor because it isn’t quite as scary. Even for the daredevils, it’s definitely worth a peek to see Tallinn from above and only takes about 15 minutes for the whole ride.
One of the best parts of traveling in Estonia is that there is so much wilderness that surrounds you. And wilderness means plenty of space for wild animals like bears, moose, lynxes, boars and the odd wolverine. With this in mind we decided to head into the forest for a chance to spot some of Estonia’s finest wild animals!
We met our guide in Alutaguse, located in northeast Estonia, and from a small roadside stop walked about a mile to our official bear watching hut. The shelter is a basic wooden hut with bunk beds, sleeping bags and a compost toilet. Although we were told that bears are mostly likely to come out around 8:30pm, we spotted our first one around 7pm when it was still light out. We were in absolute awe of this huge, magnificent animal lumbering around the trees that we were frozen, unable to look away.
Unfortunately that meant we failed to capture any photo or videos of the bear, but believe us, they’re out there. We also saw bears later in the evening around 9:30pm, but the dim lighting meant we could only make out an outline of the animals. We did see other animals, including the local raccoon dogs and, we think, a wolverine, which is very rare!
The whole bear watching process felt very meditative, with nothing to do but sit and look out into the gorgeous forest ahead. It was a perfect time to disconnect from our devices and enjoy the serenity of the Estonian nature.
Where to Stay
Because bear watching is best at nightfall, you have to sleep in the hut overnight. It’s simple living, but it does the job for a night. Trust us, you don’t want to go trekking back to your car at night, risking seeing the bears a bit too close up.
Where to Eat
Bring your own food to the hut for dinner and an early breakfast the next morning. It’s important not to bring alcohol, smoke cigarettes or walk around the area because the scent can deter the bears.
Kivioli Adventure Center Zipline
About 90mins west of Tallinn is the Kivioli Adventure Center. This ski and snowboard resort is in a prime position during the winter, but also boasts a number of adventure activities during other seasons. One of those activities is Estonia’s longest zipline, which runs 600 meters in length and reaches speeds of up to 80 km/hr. Although the ride only lasts about 40 seconds, it is a real rush. It’s a bit daunting standing at the platform looking out over the drop. But you won’t find a better view than looking out over one of the highest points in Estonia. The adventure center also offers a quad bike track and motocross trails.
Where to Eat
The Hill Café on site has delicious food if you work up an appetite after your adrenaline rush. During the winter when the spot has snow you can ski or board all day, sip beers at night and then sleep at the hostel that is only a 1 minute walk from the center.
Heinrich Lukk’s Sleddog Center
One of the most unique experiences during our Estonia trip was hanging out with the Alaskan Malamute’s at Heinrich Lukk’s Sleddog Center, about half an hour from the city of Tartu. Dog sledding in Estonia was definitely at the top of our list of adventure activities and we not disappointed. The dogs, which look more like wolves than your average house dog, can be a bit intimidating at first. Upon driving up to the center, the dogs went nuts barking and jumping around. And we soon understood why, they love to get out and run! Whenever their owner (and alpha dog) Heinrich brings out the sleds, the dogs know it’s their chance to get out and move, so they bark like mad yelling “Pick me! Pick me!”
Normally the sled dogs pull snow-sleds, but in the warmer months they are hooked up to a cart with wheels to pull guests along trails. Heinrich picks the lineup, 8 dogs per cart matched in pairs based off strength and endurance. You lead the dogs to the cart and attach their harnesses, which is an interesting task in itself to restrain the energy of the dogs. After you’re all buckled up, you lift up the break and the dogs are off! With an incredible spurt of energy the cart goes flying down the trails, zooming past the Estonian forest. After some time the dogs slow down and take periodic breaks to rest and drink water. By the end the pups are tuckered out and very happy to give sleepy cuddles and kisses when returning to the kennel. Watching Heinrich’s affection for these dogs and his passion for the sport made the whole experience feel like we were part of an age old tradition native to Estonia.
Where to Eat
Pahupidi Kohvik is a vegan cafe in Tartu has a great plant-based selection including some delicious gluten-free beers and yummy desserts.
Where to Stay
Peramaa Puhkekeskus is a beautiful wooden house set in a gorgeous rural area of Estonia. It’s the perfect place to stay after an evening of dogsledding. With several smoke saunas on site and a beautiful lake in the middle of the property, it’s definitely worth setting aside some time to enjoy the serene setting.
Driving through the rural roads of Estonia, you’ll start to feel like you’ve left civilization and are driving in an endless sea of forest. Being surrounded by nature it can be easy to forget to get out and actually enjoy it. There’s no better place to do that than the Jarvselja Forest. This nature reserve is a primeval forest, meaning it has grown without human interference all throughout history to the present day. There are a number of hiking trails you can explore, walking on wooden planks lifted above the ground so as to not disturb the growth. The Jarvselja is home to some of Estonia’s tallest and oldest trees, including the 360 year Kuningamänd pine tree.
The Jarvselja is also home to SMEAR, the Station for Measuring Ecosystem-Atmosphere Relations. During our visit we were accompanied by a local scientist who studies the reserve ecosystem, giving us invaluable information about the forest and all it’s inhabitants.
Kayak Vohandu River with Matkajuht Osauhing
Compared to dogsledding and bear watching, kayaking may not seem like the most unique activity offered in Estonia, but wait till you check out the Vohandu River. This river flowing through southeast Estonia is incredibly picturesque. The calm water flows under wooden bridges and past small farmhouses, past limestone rock walls and under canopies of trees. But don’t get too relaxed, because just as you start to kick back and admire your surroundings, you’ll need to grab that oar and navigate through some small rapids! The whole trip lasts about 2 hours and you do get a bit wet. Overall it was a perfect combination of relaxation, thrill and a bit of exercise, all in a serene setting.
Where to Eat
Mooste Viinavabrik – This vodka distillery is a great place to stop for lunch after your hike. The historical building has an event hall, restaurant and even accommodation if you’d like to stay over.
Where to Stay
Taevaskoja Turismi- ja Puhkekeskus: This beautiful inn next to the forest is a gorgeous place to rest and explore after a big day kayaking. They have food on site so you can easily grab dinner or breakfast the next morning.
Kicksledding in the Forest
When we first heard about kicksledding, we couldn’t figure out what it was. There was no snow on the ground, so we knew it wouldn’t be sledding. It was described to us as a bicycle with no seat, which was no less confusing. When the day finally came, we finally figured out what we were doing… riding off-road scooters through the forest! Using designated trails, we zipped through the trees, past an old town abandoned after WWII and down to the Ahja River.
Along the trails you also go past the famous Heaven’s Hall, an important spiritual site for ancient Estonian folklore. Legend has it that anyone who dares to enter the cave will either go insane or blind. We’re not sure about all that, but the incredible limestone walls along the river are truly spellbinding. You can opt for a 5km or 7km trip, but don’t let the scooters fool you. This isn’t a walk in the park. Uphill inclines will give your thighs a workout and the downhill will have you soaring down the paths. For those that find hiking a bit boring, you’ll love this extra dose of adventure.
Mooska Farm Smoke Sauna
While we really enjoyed every activity we participated in during our road trip through Estonia, the our time at Mooska Farm Smoke Sauna was definitely the most memorable. Forget everything you know about saunas, this is a far cry from the steam room at your local gym. In Estonia, people take saunas very seriously. Perhaps no one more than our gracious host, Eda Veeroja. After all, she spent a 10 years working to get the Estonia smoke sauna added to the UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage list.
We did half a day in the traditional black smoke sauna, which get its name from the lack of chimney causing the smoke to circulate through the room, and the experience is not for the faint hearted. Firstly, you strip down to your birthday suit, jump into a 100+ degree room and get whisked with dried bundles of leaves. There are salt and honey scrubs, chanting and lots more!
If you’re really adventurous you can jump into a freezing cold lake in the middle of the property to jumpstart your system. The whole experience was one of a kind and gave us a much deeper understanding of the local history and culture. Estonian black saunas have been central to local life for centuries, used to mark special occasions like weddings, deaths and the end of the year. At the end of the ceremony we gave thanks to our bodies, to the sauna and let go of something negative we’ve been holding onto. We left feeling lighter, possibly because we just sweated a few kilos, and much more connected to Estonian culture.
Where to Eat
Eda and her husband graciously offer dinner to guests after an evening in the sauna. There’s nothing better than a hot home cooked meal and some local cider to replenish your nutrients after the sauna.
Where to Stay
Greete Motell is a gorgeous hotel easily accessible from the highway. The classic wooden rooms are a fantastic way to rest your bones and the breakfast buffet is great to fill up before a big day ahead.
The last stop on our Estonia holiday was an explore through Soomaa National park and a hike in the Toonoja bog. Not sure what a bog is? Neither did we! But we planned the adventure anyway and found ourselves hiking through a sort of swampy wetland that spans out as far as the eye can see. Because of the water underneath the thin soil feels like a massive sponge and it’s easy to sink through the ground, ending up knee deep in the bog.
Our guides offered us bog shoes, similar to snow shoes, that distributed our weight to keep from sinking in. Those proved to be tricky though and we had some funny moments tripping and getting a face full of bog moss. But beside our less than graceful falls, we had a fantastic time exploring the bog. Although the terrain stays pretty much the same throughout the hike, there is a plethora of plants and wildlife to explore. A highlight was coming across the remnants of a plane crash from WWII that our guides had heard was somewhere in the bog but had never seen it before. The local bogs play a bigger role than just a beautiful place to hike, however. To many Estonians they are spiritual locations. The moss and plants have medicinal properties, which was especially helpful when a blister formed from my boots.
As we circled back to the entrance of the bog, we kicked off our bog shoes and hiked through the much firmer forest area, picking berries off the vine and nibbling on them on the way. As our road trip came to the close, we thanked our guides and hopped in the car to head back to Tallinn. The entire trip was jam packed with activities and we finally had a moment to digest our experiences. From the balloon ride to the bog hike, we felt like we truly covered Estonia from top to bottom.
The variety in landscape and commitment to environmental preservation makes Estonia an outdoors lover’s dream. Whether you prefer a quiet stroll through the Jervselja forest or a thrill seeking zipline, there’s an endless amount of activities to keep you captivated with this beautiful country.