We departed Pärnu in the morning, riding through rain for most of the journey. It was a three-hour trek but again, very comfortable in the Lux Express coach. We reached our next Airbnb just before the rain arrived in Tartu, giving us time to relax and unpack before heading out for the evening. Our Airbnb was located a street away from the Town Hall Square in Tartu’s Old Town and from our perch on the third floor, we had somewhat of a view of the surrounding rooftops. (We reached our floor via a rather small, winding staircase that gave me a bit of anxiety.) Our apartment was spacious and arranged thoughtfully to offer an inviting respite from the city.
Though it isn’t always a priority, if we have the time, we like to seek out independent cinemas when we travel. We didn’t have the opportunity to do so in Tallinn, so I did a quick internet search to see if Tartu had one. We were in luck! Tartu’s Elektriteater was nearby and had a showing of Elvis (the Baz Luhrmann production) that evening. There were a few other films that looked intriguing, but sadly they were scheduled after our departure from Tartu. We decided to have dinner before the film. A small food hall – Kampus – was near our apartment and had both Kauss and Uulits as options. Tempted once more by the duck bowl, I decided to be adventurous and order something else. But now that I knew it was an option, it remained in my mind for the future.
The Elektriteater is housed in an old church on the University of Tartu campus. Its single screen sits on the third floor and spans nearly the entire width of the room, offering an intimate and immersive setting. We chose our seats when purchasing our tickets and didn’t realize that the first row would not be right up against the screen. The rows of seats are set at a comfortable distance, with the first row offering comfortable sofas and easy chairs as options. There is also a self-service concession area behind the seats with snacks and hot drinks. It was fitting that we saw a film in Tartu as it was the home to the first permanent cinema building in Estonia in 1908 called Elektriteater Illusioon. The current cinema borrows part of its name to pay homage.
After the film, it was still light out so we opted to walk toward the Emajõgi River and enjoy an evening stroll. We found ourselves in front of the Tartu Statue of Liberty, a copy of the original statue that was destroyed by the Soviets during their occupation. The man is Kalevipoeg, the hero of the Estonian national epic of the same name, and the statue commemorates those who died in the Estonian War of Independence between 1918 and 1920. From the path alongside the river, we went toward the Bridge of Liberty. A sign noted that the site of the bridge has been a popular point of crossing the river for hundreds of years. The original Bridge of Liberty was built in 1926 but was destroyed twice during World War II (WWII). It was first blown up by the Russians, then rebuilt by the Germans who blew it up again during their retreat. The present bridge was completed in 2009.
We crossed the Bridge of Liberty to follow the path on the opposite bank, stopping first to admire the copious amount of street art littering the bridge’s foundations. We even spotted a beaver in the river and stopped to observe its trail of bubbles as it surfaced then disappeared into the murky river only to resurface farther down. The path eventually brought us to a pedestrian bridge. Arch Bridge (Kaarsild) was also built to replace a bridge destroyed during WWII. In the years before it was built in the late 1950s, a long rowboat transported people across the river. The Arch Bridge offers a beautiful complement to the Old Town, lit at night, it appears to cascade into the plaza.
The next morning we made the trek across town to Karlova, a neighborhood south of the Old Town, for coffee. Tired of the weak espresso drinks that seemed to dominate every cafe, we did a little research and found Karlova Kohv, a small artisanal coffee shop where they roast their own beans. It was worth the 30-minute walk. The interior was small and cozy, dominated by their gleaming roaster, and the air was layered with the aroma of coffee. We chose cardamom and poppyseed buns to accompany our exceptional coffees. It was a revelation!
Tartu is Estonia’s second-largest city and the oldest town in the Baltic States with written records making note of it in 1030. Tartu has been controlled by many different kingdoms and empires over its history including Russia, Germany, Poland, and Sweden, and as such has been known by many different names – Tarbatu, Dorpat, Dorpt, Dörpt, Derpt, and Yuryev. It has also been destroyed numerous times – most emphatically in 1708 by Peter the Great when the city’s population was reduced to 21! – leaving few buildings older than the late 18th century. Tartu was also part of the Hanseatic League beginning in the 1280s and had an important role in trade due to its position along the Emajõgi River and along the route from St. Petersburg to Riga. Under Swedish rule, the University of Tartu was established in 1632, originally called Academia Gustaviana after the Swedish King Gustav II Adolf. It had a rocky history throughout the many regime changes and closed for a period, ultimately reopening in 1802. Tartu serves as the intellectual and cultural center of Estonia; the first newspapers, national theater, national song festival, and intellectual class all originated in Tartu.
We planned to spend the day doing a walking tour of Tartu’s main spots of interest. Since we were in Karlova, we started off by walking back to the river to peruse the Tartu Market where I was interested in buying some cherries. Just a short walk away, farther down the river, we also stopped by the Tartu Turuhoone (market hall), an indoor market with fish, meat, and specialty foods. Zach bought some macaroni salad while I chose some jerky.
We circled back to Town Hall Square and popped into a couple of the shops before resuming our tour. The square is so charming and festive with its al fresco dining and flapping bunting that it’s difficult to imagine a time when it was called Adolf Hitler Platz (under German occupation) or Soviet Square. We dropped off our purchases before beginning the climb to Toome Hill, passing Pirogov’s Park and a mural of the university as it was in the 1860s. We walked under the Angel’s Bridge and then scaled the stairs up to the park level.
Toome Hill was given to the university by Russian Emperor Paul I (Catherine the Great’s son) and was transformed into a public park in the early 19th century. I fell in love with the park. It’s an oasis in the heart of the city with beautiful tree-lined walkways and shaded benches for contemplation. We followed the path to several statues and arrived at the ruins of the Tartu Cathedral. The cathedral was begun in the 13th century but wasn’t fully completed until the 16th. Its twin spires make it the only medieval church with two. Destroyed during the Livonian War (in the mid to late 16th century when the Russian Empire battled Poland, Lithuania, and Sweden for control of greater Livonia – present-day Latvia and Estonia), it has remained in ruins. Today, it houses the University of Tartu Museum, and visitors can also pay to climb to the top of the spires. We continued through the park, passing the Supreme Court of Estonia, crossing over the Devil’s Bridge, reading about the anatomical theater, and eventually finding our way back down through Pirogov’s Park.
We continued in the direction of St. John’s Church, passing the main building of the University of Tartu along the way. St. John’s is an imposing Gothic-style church somewhat obstructed from view until you are right in front of it. The church has a long, harried history with little documentation to point to the date of its construction or its original layout. The church was damaged many times over the centuries, including during WWII, and was nearly torn down. Restoration began in 1989 and wasn’t completed until 2005. St. John’s is best known for the terracotta figures that were placed on both the interior and exterior of the building. 1,000 remain and have been restored and preserved, and replicas now sit in their original places.
We left St. John’s with the aim of checking out the nearby Botanical Garden of the University of Tartu. The interior greenhouses were closing for the day, but the outdoor paths remained upon until well into the evening. We decided to buy ice cream cones and stroll the gardens. We were both really impressed with the gardens; it was delightful and tranquil to weave through the various areas of the gardens, all arranged by climate or region. The gardens were so much larger than we expected with a creative layout. It was a lovely place to unwind after a long day of walking around town.
We had one final stop in mind after leaving the botanical garden: Tartu Uspenski Cathedral. We made a quick pit stop to check out the only remaining city wall remnant and then continued toward the church. Surrounded by a black, wrought-iron fence, the cathedral was closed to the public for a much-needed renovation. Even as we walked along the side of the church, it was evident that it had fallen into disrepair. Hopefully, the restoration will give it the proper attention.
Since we were near the river, I wanted to rest and check out one of the riverside bars. We chose Naiiv, a docked barge with a floating patio. We caught the last rays of the sunlight on the patio before the trees cast their shadows instead. I took the time to catch up on my notes, and we enjoyed the gentle sway of the river.
Zach had noticed a restaurant on our way to Karlova Kohv in the morning – Nokk (beak in Estonian). After perusing their menu, we decided to walk back over. We were surprised to find ourselves as the only in-person diners, although we noticed throughout our meal that they were busy with takeout orders. We ordered a whole Piri-Piri spiced chicken with Asian cucumbers and a salad. The chicken was incredible – not so spicy that it blunted your taste buds, but oh, so flavorful. We even treated ourselves to cocktails. It was a great cap to a very full day.
While we were in Pärnu we decided we wanted to make a day trip to Riga, so we purchased bus tickets for our third day in Tartu.
To commence our last full day in Tartu, we walked to Karlova Kohv. It was a beautiful day and we were able to secure a spot on their patio this time. Zach had their breakfast porridge and I savored a cardamom bun. It was cooler out than the previous two days – which had been the hottest of our trip with temperatures in the low 80s – and the breeze was almost chilly in the shade.
Our main plan for the day was a visit to the Estonian National Museum (Eesti Rahva Muuseum). We decided to walk because we didn’t think it was very far from the city center. I’m not sure why we thought that because it turned out to be a rather long walk after all – 2.4 miles from Karlova Kohv, after the mile we walked to Karlova Kohv. So we should have taken a bus… The first Estonian National Museum opened in 1923 in the Raadi Manor House (which can be found on the grounds of the present museum). The collection remained undamaged under the Soviets from 1940-1941 and under the Germans from 1941-1944 but was prudently divided and kept in cellars throughout Tartu before the 1944 bombing that damaged Raadi Manor. On our way to the museum, we passed two aircraft hangers and learned that the Raadi Airport – which had humble beginnings as a field and the site of the first airplane flight in Estonia in 1912 – became an important military base under the Germans during WWII. The Germans expanded the military airport that was built during the Estonian War for Independence (1918-1920) and built the first concrete runway. After WWII, the Soviets used the base for long-distance bombers, and it became the largest military airfield in the Baltic States. As a result, Tartu was closed to foreigners between 1944 and 1991.
The present museum opened in 2016 at the end of the obsolete runway. It’s bold and modern in design with an innovative approach to exhibitions. When we arrived, we were hot from our trek, so the first order of business was a cold drink and a snack at the cafe. Then we proceeded to a temporary exhibition of art from the Golden Age of Estonian Art (1900-1945) from the Enn Kunila Collection. Enn Kunila is an Estonian entrepreneur who began collecting Estonian art in the mid-1990s and has contributed to the preservation and prominence of Estonian art, in many cases returning artworks to Estonia that have been outside of the country for decades. The exhibition – Beauty of Colors – was vibrant and rich, offering a nice complement to the exhibitions we saw at Kumu. Konrad Mägi emerged as a great favorite of mine.
The main exhibition at the museum is massive with a loosely structured layout that uses a lot of dynamic and interactive exhibits to immerse visitors in an array of topics, ranging from personal narratives and artifacts to traditional folk costumes. The exhibition felt like it was telling a collective, personal history of Estonia, starting with the Stone Age and running up through the modern era. When visitors purchase admission tickets, the staff asks for the preferred language and then programs your ticket with that language. Most of the objects within the exhibition have a digital display, and when a particular symbol is displayed, the ticket can be tapped to change the language. I haven’t experienced that at any museum, and it was SO COOL! Some of my favorite areas were: the Soviet occupation and life behind the Iron Curtain; the Baltic Chain – which spanned all three Baltic States – with photos from the day and the ability to submit your own personal photos; the regional folk costumes used by Estonia’s many distinct rural cultures; and the creation of the Estonian flag and national colors. We popped through the other permanent exhibition about the diaspora of the peoples from the Urals, which centered on four main groups of people to have descended from that region and how the language cultures were formed. All in all, we spent four hours at the museum, and by the end, my head was swimming with an abundance of knowledge.
We learned from our mistake and figured out how to take the bus back to town and then ran a few errands before taking a break at a local brewery just around the corner from our apartment – Pühaste Brewery. We sat on the terrace in the middle of the pedestrian street and enjoyed the shade and cool breeze. We probably should have had plans for dinner beforehand because a couple of beers on a mostly empty stomach is never a good idea. We ended up getting rice bowls at our standby, Kampus. We went for a walk along the river afterward, first following the concrete sidewalk and then a gravel path through imposing Linden trees. It was a lovely walk and reinforced how intertwined Tartu is with the nature around it.
We woke up to a day of travel. We were leaving Tartu for Tallinn, then boarding a ferry bound for Helsinki in the evening. We were up early after a fairly sleepless night. The only downside to being right near Town Hall Square is the weekend revelers who stay out until early in the morning. We attempted to keep our windows open for the cooler air but eventually had to forfeit the breeze for some quiet. We had breakfast at the cafe downstairs and, after packing up, made our way toward the train station. It was a bit of an uphill journey, and we arrived slightly clammy.
We were both a bit sad to be leaving Tartu; the city surprised us with its blend of urban modernity and historical roots. What we cherished most was its connection to nature and the ability to escape to one of its many parks or riverside paths. Tartu is also known for its street art, and it lent a tone and voice to the city that we loved too.