Sandwiched between Russia and Scandinavia on the shores of the Baltic Sea, Estonia seamlessly blends a high-tech vision for the future with nostalgia for its days of yore. Since throwing off the yoke of Soviet occupation and re-establishing independence in 1991, Estonia has been a darling of Europe and the poster child for post-Soviet success. Its capital and largest city, Tallinn, full of quaint cobblestone streets and picture-perfect squares, is one of the best-preserved medieval cities in Europe and a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
GOOD TO KNOW
Population: 1.3m (Estonia); 436k (Tallinn)
Language: Estonian is the official language, but English, German, Russian, and Finnish (which is linguistically related) are widely understood and spoken.
Getting Around: Estonia has a great public transportation system consisting mainly of buses and trams. Tallinn was the first city in the world to make public transport free for residents. As a visitor, however, you probably won't need it. The Old Town is fairly small and definitely walkable.
When to Go: June-August offers long days and summer festivals, but December is magical. The town looks even more like a storybook when it’s coated in snow and the Christmas market, candlelit restaurants, and mulled wine create the perfect recipe for a cozy winter evening.
Tallinn was a small port city when the Danes conquered it in 1219. They set up a castle on Toompea Hill (where the current seat of government remains) and the city, with its strategic location at the crossroads of east and west, prospered. The country fell under Hanseatic and Swedish rule for a time before it capitulated to the Russian empire in 1710.
Estonia finally declared independence from Russia on February 24, 1918, but celebrations were cut short when Germans occupied the city the following day. The Germans relinquished control on November 14, 1918, but by November 28 Estonia was attacked by Russia. They eventually emerged victorious from their war of independence and enjoyed a period of general peace and prosperity until World War II. The war, unfortunately, was a perfect storm for Estonia and the country suffered greatly at the nexus of German and Soviet aggression. While WWII doesn't conjure up images of Estonia for most, many estimate that Estonian losses were among some of the highest in Europe. When the occupying Nazis retreated in 1944, Estonia was quickly occupied and annexed by the USSR. It wasn’t until August 1991 that an independent Estonia was re-established.
Since independence, Estonia has become a leader in technology and something of a tech startup paradise. It was the first country in the world to have online elections and its illustrious resume includes Skype and Transferwise.