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Avoid the crowds and the high prices in Europe’s most popular destinations and opt instead for Estonia, for Medieval old town centers, old-fashioned seaside towns and a modern, cosmopolitan vibe.

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Estonia, bordered on the north by Finland (across the Gulf of Finland), to the west by Russia, to the south by Latvia, and to the east by Baltic Sea, has a rich, multi-cultural history. It was an important center of trading for the German-based Hanseatic League, which dominated European commerce between the 1400s and 1800s, and became part of the Russian Empire in the 1700s. Many historic buildings from both periods remain. It was invaded by Germany in WWI, and gained independence in 1918, until it was invaded again in WWII, this time by the USSR. Estonia also likes to be known for its peaceful “Singing Revolution”, in which more than a million Estonians held hands and sang protest songs against Soviet occupation, regaining independence in 1991. Here are ten reasons to visit Estonia now:

Also: 10 reasons tovisitLatvia now

Tallinn

Old Town Dating from the 1100s, this is one of Europe’s best-preserved walled cities and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. At its center are the 600-year-old Town Hall and its bustling square, ringed with modern art galleries and street vendors selling jewelry of Baltic amber, which many consider the best in the world. Colors range from pale yellow to deep gold.

Churches and Squares Centrally located Castle Square is dominated by the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral, an ornate Russian Orthodox church from the early 1900s. The altar wall of gold-trimmed icons is astounding. Nearby is St. Nicholas Church. Built by wealthy German merchants in the 1300s, it’s now a museum of Medieval art. St. Olaf’s Church, built starting in 1549, was once the tallest building in the world. Now its spire offers a panoramic view of the city and Baltic Sea beyond. Also, take flight aboard Balloon Tallinn, a tethered hot air balloon that rises 400 feet above the city between May and September.

Kalev Chocolate Shop

Kalev Chocolate Shop | Flickr CC: Maria Morri

Rotermann Quarter This area of centuries-old warehouses is Tallinn’s hipster district, with modern boutiques, restaurants and a farmer’s market.  Take a hands-on marzipanworkshop at Kalev Chocolate Shop (Estonia claims to have invented the almond-paste confection in the 1400s) and learn to form animals, flowers and landscapes, and paint them with vegetable dyes.

Seaplane Harbour This is one of the most popular museums in all of Europe, housed in huge hangars built as naval fortifications in WWI. Architects will appreciate that this is one of the largest column-free buildings in the world. Everybody else will enjoy the museum’s 1937 submarine (including touring the cramped inside), WWII torpedoes, a vintage icebreaker and the remains of a 16th century sailing ship.

Song Festival Grounds Estonians want to be known for their peaceful “Singing Revolution,” in which more than a million citizens held hands and sang protest songs against Soviet occupation, regaining independence in 1991. That event is celebrated at the annual Estonian Song Festival at this huge outdoor amphitheater, where Elton John, the Rolling Stones, Tina Turner, Madonna and others have performed.

Soomaa National Park Just over half of Estonia is covered by forest, wetland and bogs (soomaa is Estonian for “land of bogs”), and this park has examples of all.  Trails go from landscapes dotted with birch, alder and pine to squishy, mossy, water-soaked land. If you make a misstep off one of the wooden walkways, you could be ankle deep. Ponds invite a picnic or cooling swim, and there are observation towers for bird-watching, including golden eagles.

Beyond Tallinn

Parnu This seaside town is popular with Estonian families, and features rides for the kids and a casino for the grown-ups. Parnu is also the hometown of the Faberge family, which lived here for 300 years before moving to St. Petersburg to create baubles for Russian royalty. A Faberge Festival is held annuallyhere each January. Stay in Villa Ammende, built in 1905 by a wealthy Baltic businessman as a wedding gift for his daughter. It’s filled with antique furniture, hand-stenciled walls, intricate parquet floors and stuffed deer and boar from nearby forests shot by hunters, including guests who stay here for just that reason.

Kihnu Island A 30-minute ferry trip from Parnu transports you back to another century. At this UNESCO Living Heritage site, residents speak their own dialect and dress only in colorful, traditional, hand-woven and hand-knitted clothing. There are no locks on the doors of the neat wooden houses, because everybody either knows one another or is related to one another. The Kihnu Museum, a clapboard building across the road from the island’s only church, is covered outside with paintings by the island’s school children. Inside you’ll learn about their culture, including music and crafts, and the more recent history that includesescaping the deportation of thousands of Estonians to Siberia by the Soviets in WWII. Kihnu islanders are farmers and fishermen, and a tour includes a lunch of fresh-baked bread, pickled vegetables, salted fish with potatoes and cubes of thick, crispy bacon. These days, many of the residents commute to work in Parnu on the same ferry.

Windmills on Saremaa Island

Windmills on Saremaa Island | Flickr CC: Eesti.pl

Saremaa Island Estonia’s largest island, also in the Gulf of Riga justeast of Parnu, has been inhabited for more than 8,000 years.  Accessible only by plane or ferry, you’ll still find ancient windmills grinding grain for the local sourdough bread and dark, home-brewed beer. Visit the 800-year-old Church of Valjala and the Citadel of Kuressaare, the best-preserved medieval fort in the Baltics. The highlight of the island’s Vilsandi National Park is a 300-foot crater, formed when a meteorite fell on the spot around 3,000 years ago.

What to drink The national beverage is Vana Tallinn, a strong rum-based liqueur laced with botanicals that’s said to have mystical powers, including the ability to prevent a cold. But not the ability to prevent a bad hangover.

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Tagged: Europe, Top 10 Lists

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Evelyn Kanter

Evelyn Kanter

Evelyn is an NYC-based travel writer who would rather ride a chairlift, river raft or zipline than the subway. She's a regular contributor to major publications, including airline inflights, and has written more than a dozen travel guidebooks. Evelyn's website is www.ecoxplorer.com
Evelyn Kanter

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