Although most visitors to Estonia keep to the capital, Tallinn, it’s not the only city worth exploring. The nation’s second city, Tartu, is a lively university city, home to its own compelling history. In fact, Tartu is actually the oldest city in Estonia and dates back to the 11th century. Found in the country’s southeast, the city presents a welcome contrast to the ever-popular capital. This means that Tartu is truly one of the most important destinations to visit in this Baltic nation. So to make the most of a visit here, make sure to include these best things to do in Tartu.
1. Raekoja Square
There’s no better place to start a visit to Tartu than with this scenic square in the centre of the city. Raekoja plats, which translates from Estonian to ‘Town Hall Square’, very much feels like the heart of the city. This wedge-shaped square runs from the city’s pretty town hall down towards the Emajõgi River that flows through Tartu.
Along each side of the square you’ll find pastel-colored neo-classical buildings that lend Tartu an air of elegance. One constant surprise throughout Estonia is its wealth of refined architecture, and Tartu is no exception. At the centre you’ll find the beloved Kissing Students Fountain, a symbol of Tartu. Since 1948, newlyweds looking for good luck have visited the fountain and its kissing statues. Regularly hosting concerts, markets, and festivals, Raekoja Square entertains every type of tourist.
2. Town Hall
Although the Town Hall Square is a pleasant place to explore, the Town Hall itself will immediately draw you in. This neoclassical gem, built in 1789, is the local seat of government. With its unusual color palette of pink and red, it’s quite a distinctive building. Built to replace the previous town hall that was destroyed in a fire, the design included space for the local prison. Home to a carillon that still chimes several times a day, you won’t want to miss a photo op at Tartu Town Hall.
3. St. John’s Church
Despite modern day Estonia being one of the least religious countries in the world, the country has some spectacular churches to admire. A particularly impressive one in the city centre is St. John’s Church. This Lutheran church is not only a long-standing landmark of the city, but it’s quite eye-catching with its beautiful brick design. Although it was severely damaged during WWII and had to be rebuilt, parts of the church date as far back as the 14th century. After admiring the nearly 1,000 terracotta sculptures dating back nearly 700 years, there’s no better place to finish a visit than on one of the viewing platforms overlooking Old Town.
4. Soup Town
One of the more unusually interesting neighborhoods to visit in Tartu is the Supilinn neighborhood. Affectionately known as Soup Town, this district, full of old wooden houses, has streets named after soup ingredients like Pea Street and Potato Street. One of the oldest parts of Tartu, it was once poor student housing for the university and many of these traditional houses remain intact. Soup Town is being rapidly renovated, but still offers an interesting look into Tartu pre-WWII, making it more than worth your time.
5. Toome Hill
Just behind the centre of Tartu sits Toome Hill, a small hill with strong ties to Tartu’s history. It was on Toome Hill that early settlers built fortifications in the 7th century. Today the hill is home to Toomemäe Park, a lovely green space filled with statues and beautiful monuments.
The park of Toome Hill is also home to two curiously named bridges that link up walking paths, the Angel’s Bridge and Devil’s Bridge. Two of the oldest in the city, it’s said that if you make a wish as you cross Angel’s Bridge for the first time it will come true.
6. Toomemäe Cathedral Ruins
At the centre of Toome Hill lies one of Tartu’s most important historic sites, Tartu Cathedral. These open-air ruins of the old cathedral certainly have a sense of mystery about them. Built between the 13th and 16th centuries, this large cathedral was destroyed not long after during the Livonian War. The intact part of the cathedral now houses the University of Tartu Museum. The museum is home to permanent and annual exhibitions detailing the history of science and university education. After checking out the museum, a climb up its towers will yield some of the best views Tartu has to offer.
7. University of Tartu
Established in 1632, Tartu University has been the beating heart of the city for centuries. As the oldest and most well-known university in Estonia, it has a great influence on the city of Tartu. Chances are as you explore Tartu you’re going to come across several of the University’s buildings. There’s the elegant neoclassical main university building in Old Town that you’ll definitely want to admire.
While exploring Toome Hill you’ll also come across a number of the University’s more noteworthy buildings. There’s the grand Old Anatomical Theatre, and the university’s Old Observatory, which was in operation in the 19th and 20th centuries, just to name a couple. With everything from the main building boasting impressive classicistic architecture to the Old Observatory housing the UNESCO World Heritage Struve Geodetic Arc, these buildings are truly some of the best gems in Tartu.
8. Local Street Art
Like many university cities, in Tartu you’ll find the creative spirit alive and kicking. One of the more noticeable aspects of this is the strong culture of street art. From large murals adorning the sides of buildings and museums, to little portraits popping up in shuttered windows of old buildings, there are plenty of fun and detailed pieces to find. Perhaps the most intricate though is the period piece of 19th-century life occurring in front of the University. Graffiti fans have even created a street art map so you can experience the best of Tartu’s graffiti.
9. Emajõgi Riverfront
Other than Toome Hill, the other defining feature of Tartu’s landscape is the gentle Emajõgi River. Translating from Estonian as “Mother River”, the Emajõgi is the only fully navigable river in the country. Passing by the centre of the city, the river is lined on either side with pleasant parks. A perfect place to take a rest from sightseeing and watch as boats float by on the light river current, locals and tourists alike know the riverfront highlights the best things to do in Tartu.
10. Monuments to Great Estonians
Thanks to Tartu’s pride in its university, many aspects of the city have academic ties. One particularly creative tie-in is the various statues scattered about that honor academics and scholars from Estonia. For instance, outside the Vilde Ja Vine Cafe you’ll find a statue of Eduard Vilde chatting with the acclaimed Oscar Wilde. Elsewhere, you’ll find wonderful monuments to poets, scientists and statesmen.
The city of Tartu is a welcome addition to any visit to Estonia. Our list of the best things to do in Tartu is just a start to the amazing experience you can have in this city. Its university spirit and historic legacy combine to make a memorable destination for visitors who are keen to delve deeper into everything Estonia has to offer.