TARTU - ESTONIA’S OXFORD
By Tim Campbell
As soon as you arrive in Tartu you notice how diverse it is. Close to the Soviet border there is obviously a lot of Russian influence. Conversely, it is hi-tec and full of students. This is the Estonian equivalent of Oxford or Cambridge, University central.
It’s a very pretty city. Due to be European capital of culture in 2024 Tartu is becoming the Silicon Valley of Estonia. The wide river reminds you of the Avon as motorboats and small houseboats ply up and down with the current. Clean boulevards and cobbled streets make Tartu a picturesque destination.
Tartu doesn’t have the history of Tallinn but being only a couple of hours away from the capital this second city is a walkers paradise. Parks, a mall, the University, a science center, a national museum and the river will make up for castles and battlements. It even has an upside down house.
Tartu is easy to get round. You can walk most places or take public transport, just pay on the tram or bus. If you want a taxi there’s Bolt, like in Tallinn, which is almost as cheap as the bus. The Upside down house is next to the National Museum so it makes sense to see both of those at the same time.
The Science center is next to the Mall downtown and the University is on the other side of the old town square. Like most European cities there are pedestrian areas which are full of restaurants and outside seating to people watch. Don’t forget to buy ice cream from the sellers next to the park.
I stayed at the Hektor Hostel which was cheapish at 25 Euros per night but it’s a bit like sleeping in an Ikea. Lots of yellow paint with sparsely decorated rooms and plain beds. Not totally unlikeable, but there is better depending on your budget. I would make this one my low end choice.
For more upscale properties there is the Lydia Hotel, or the V Spa, or the Artemis which will run you about 90 Euros per night. Mid range try the Art Hotel Pallas or the Hotel Sophia, around 50 Euros.
MUST DO/DON’T MISS
The Science center. Every interactive toy you could think of. Adults and kids alike love it, and it’s very popular during the school holidays. Not cheap at 12 Euros per adult but less than half that for the children.
The Upside Down House. Weird but wonderful. The floors are sloped like the roof and everything is nailed to the ceiling. It costs 6 euros to go inside but it’s a bit of fun, and if you have kids something to keep them occupied for an hour.
The macabre KGB Torture cells. A stone grey building masks the entrance to a KGB torture chamber. Used as recently as the 1980’s by the Soviets, this is where the Russian NKVD and KGB coerced confessions from prisoners before sending them to the gulags in outer Siberia.
Original instruments of torture as well as photos of prisoners and the little they were allowed to keep with them before transportation to the labour camps. It is history, but a miserable history of Estonian life.
Try all the the food, it’s excellent. The multitude of restaurants cater to all tastes. I had Nepalese, Estonian and Burgers while there, so it is all very eclectic. Remember that the Town Hall Square has a bunch of higher end restaurants but they all charge reasonable prices. I can recommend a couple below. There are plenty of Pizza and burger joints for the student crowd as well as the high end for adults.
My favourite Estonian food was the Piruka. This is a type of pasty or empenada filled with different flavours, like minced beef, cabbage and carrots. The ice cream was great too.
Other Estonian foods I heard of but didn’t try are; Kama, a kind of porridge; Verivorst, a blood sausage and a winter favourite; and Mulgipuldur, another type of porridge made from potatoes and mashed Barley. Yummy!
The main beers, Saku and Le Cocq, dominate the local scene. It is good local craft ale though and, because of the student population, it is all reasonably priced. Other local beers are available and there are single breweries such as Pohjala and Lehe who make up the difference.
You’re going to hear a lot more about Tartu between now and 2024 because of its Capital of Culture status. This is a small market town trying to keep up with the Joneses. Students, Hi-Tec, a science center and a mall, but it never loses its small market town mentality.
Stay overnight, or two nights. The friendly Estonians welcome everyone, the food is good and the beer is cheap, and I for one will be back in the future. I’ve just got to try that Mulgipuldur!
Hektor Hostel - www.hektorhostels.com
Lydia Hotel - www.lydia.ee
Artemis Hotel - no website. Use Booking.com or Trip Advisor or Trivago
Art Hotel Pallas - www.pallas.tartuhotels.ee
Hotel Sophia - www.sophia.tartuhotels.ee
Science center - www.ahhaa.ee/en
Estonian National Museum - www.erm.ee
Upside down house (Tagurpidi Maja in Estonian) - www.tagurpidimaja.ee
KGB Cells Museum - https://linnamuuseum.tartu.ee/en/kgb-kongide-muuseum/
Restaurants (too many good ones to mention-these are just the ones I tried)
Spargel, Cafe Truffe, Aparaat, Pahad Poisid, Sheriff Saloon, Vilde Ja Vine
Crepp, Kolm Tilli (My favourite) Next to Hektor Hostel.