First mentioned in the history books by Roman author Tacitus, Estonia was once dominated by clans led by elders. Yet much of the country’s written history is characterised by foreign domination, beginning with the Vikings who arrived from the mid-9th century.
After the Russians took over Estonia under Peter the Great, Estonia largely followed Russia’s trajectory, including revolution in 1917. Unfortunately, this also meant after a short interwar period of independence, Estonia would become occupied by the USSR in 1940 until the union fell in 1990.
Reflecting this colourful history of Estonia are a variety of fantastic historic sites to visit, ranging from Danish castles to Baltic German manor houses and Russian palaces.
1. Tallinn City Walls
With almost 2 kilometres of its original city wall and 20 defensive towers wall still standing, Tallinn City Walls are one of Europe’s best preserved medieval fortifications. In fact, what gives Tallinn’s Old Town its fairytale-like charm is the system of 13th century walls and towers that encircle it.
Today, roughly half of the original towers still watch over Old Town, evoking images of heroic armour-clad knights.
2. Kuressaare Castle
Located on the Estonian island of Saaremaa, the 14th century castle is one of the best preserved Medieval fortifications in the country. It was modernised under the Danes and Swedes following the Livonia War, with impressive ramparts being added around the original stone structure.
Kuressaare Castle remains one of the most popular destinations, with its simplistic Gothic architecture charming visitors of all ages. The fortification is also the home of the Kuressaare Opera Festival, which takes place during the summer months.
3. Tartu Old Town
The second largest city of Estonia is the home to the most prestigious university of the region – the University of Tartu. Sometimes referred to as the Oxford of the Baltics, it is one of the cultural and academic hearts of the Northern European state.
The old town of Tartu is incredibly charming, with colourful neoclassical buildings occupying the heart of the city. Rüütli Street is particularly popular with University students thanks to a multitude of bars, cafes and restaurants that can be found there. One of the highlights of the old town is the Brick Gothic Jaani church with its terracotta figurines.
4. Rakvere Castle
This imposing fortification is one of the main symbols of the city of Rakvere, bringing medieval splendour to the small Estonian settlement.
Work on the stone castle began soon after the Danish conquest of Northern Estonia in the 13th century. The Scandinavian rulers did not stay for too long, selling their territories to the Livonian Order in the 14th century. The defensive complex became a ruin following the Swedish-Polish War of 1600-1629.
The castle is open to visitors and offers many fun activities ranging from archery to exploring medieval torture chambers.
5. St. Olaf's Church
The medieval stone church dominates the skyline of Tallinn Old Town, becoming one of the most recognisable symbols of the capital city. It is the tallest religious building in Northern Europe, with its spire reaching a height of 123.7 metres.
Explorers who are not afraid of heights can climb up to the viewing platform on top of the roof and catch one of the best views of Tallinn.
6. Sagadi Manor
Estonia is dotted with dozens of manor houses that served as the homes of the mostly Baltic German nobility. Sagadi, located in the Lahemaa National Park, is a popular site for both foreign and domestic tourists. First mentioned in 1490, the current building was erected between 1749 and 1753 by the von Fock family. These days the manor is the home of a hotel, restaurant and museum.
7. Tallinn Song Festival Grounds
The Estonian Song Festival is one of the most important cultural events in the small Baltic country. Held every five years, it brings together more than 100,000 people. The current stage was built in 1959, during the Soviet occupation of Estonia and was designed accommodate 15,000 performers.
In 1988, the Tallinn Song Festival Grounds became the site of the Singing Revolution, when over 300,000 Estonians came together and sang patriotic hymns, demanding independence from the USSR.
8. Haapsalu Castle
Haapsalu Castle was the former medieval seat of the Bishopric of Ösel-Wiek, which was officially a member state of the Holy Roman Empire. During the Livonian War between the forces of Muscovy, Sweden, Poland-Lithuania and Denmark, the fortification was heavily damaged. It seized having strategic significance during the Swedish period, being partially demolished by the Russian following the Great Northern War .
The castle is also one of the spookiest places in Estonia. According to legend, during full moons in August, an image of a maiden, The White Lady, appears on the inner wall of the chapel.
9. Kadriorg Palace
The baroque palace was built by Peter the Great for his wife and later Russian Empress Catherine I. Located in the Kadriorg district of Tallinn, the building was later visited by Catherine the Great before being used by the civilian governor of the Governorate of Estonia.
Following extensive restoration works, the palace was opened up in 2000, displaying a collection of foreign artwork.