Sadly, Estonia isn’t on the radar for most American travelers. In fact, according to a very scientific survey that I conducted, more than 90% couldn’t find it on a map if they tried. It’s a shame because the country is a place of beautiful and bold contradictions. Its people have embraced the convenience and ease of technology (for everything from election voting to healthcare), while maintaining a deep connection to nature.
The latter isn’t surprising. Estonia is home to some of Europe’s most breathtaking scenery. While the country is tiny relative to its neighbors, the diverse landscape stretches across more than 1,500 islands, beautiful forests, and pebble-covered beaches. Its long and dramatic history has left the countryside dotted with ancient castles, stunning churches, and hilltop fortresses. All of which is a goldmine for nature-loving, adventure travelers!
Lahemaa National Park
Seventy kilometers east of the capital city of Tallinn lies Lahemaa National Park — the country’s oldest park of its kind. Its massive size — 725 square kilometers including 250 square kilometers of sea — make it the largest in Estonia and one of the largest in all of Europe. This makes for a wide array of explorable terrains and an excellent variety of outdoor opportunities. To the north, the Gulf of Finland offers pristine space for kayakers and beach-goers; inland, even the most experienced hikers will find the wild, rugged terrain challenging; and the park is replete with wildlife including lynx, wolves, and bear.
Even among Estonia’s long list of islands, Vilsandi stands out. At just nine square kilometers, it’s hardly a blip on the country’s map, yet it’s fast becoming one of its most popular destinations. Accessible almost exclusively by boat or kayak (although some trucks are actually able to reach it too!), it’s a quiet, pristine place that’s changed little since Dutchman Johann Doll “discovered” the island after escaping his sinking ship off its rocky shores in 1703. In particular, the island is a popular spot for tens of thousands of migratory waterfowl and Baltic grey seals.
Hikers interested in “peak bagging” will find Estonia’s landscape less “mountainous and craggy” and more “slowly undulating”. The country’s highest peak, Suur Munamägi (literally “Big Egg Mountain”), stretches to a reasonable — and adorable — 318 meters (1,043 feet). While it won’t top anyone’s bucket list for “technical climbing”, it’s still a lovely setting to behold. Ask the locals about the folklore surrounding the series of five towers — one of which included a five-person bar — erected atop the peak’s summit during the last two centuries. Today, it’s capped with a 346-meter (1,137 feet) observation tower that provides unobstructed views of up to 50 kilometers in every direction.
Haapsalu Bishop’s Castle
Outdoor buffs that enjoy a bit of history with their exploring will love Haapsalu Bishop’s Castle. The stunning 13th-century structure is one of the best preserved castles in all of Estonia. While some of the installations — a children’s playground in the castle moat and a giant chessboard — may seem a bit hokey, the castle itself is stunning. Visitors can climb the 38-meter-tall bell tower which is said to be haunted by the White Lady, arguably the country’s most infamous ghost!
On the water in Riga
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