Things are changing fast in the Baltic country of Estonia, which regained independence from Soviet rule almost 20 years ago. With its historic capital Tallinn having served as a European Capital of Culture a few years back and with several low-cost flights now serving the country from the UK and Ireland, this is a prime time to discover this increasingly popular destination that, abounding with forests and open spaces – including some splendid beaches – is a great setting for outdoor family adventures.
Things to do with kids in Estonia
Discover the capital, Tallinn. Its UNESCO World Heritage listed Old Town, a maze of cobbled streets and tall medieval buildings, rises to the Toompea Hill with its great views over the new and old cities. In high summer the Toomas train trundles its way through the Old Town. The Kalev Waterpark (see also Where to Stay) and the hands-on Children's Museum are both popular with kids, or for outdoors fun, Stroomi beach has five playgrounds on the edge of a wood, and Harjumägi Hill in the heart of the Old Town is an ice-skating area in winter and a playground in summer. There’s also a city zoo.
Head to the Estonian Open Air Museum, 15 minutes from the centre of Tallinn, for a hands-on glimpse of local rural and village life through reconstructed buildings that include a school, farms, dwellings and small museum.
Take the train from Tallinn to the family adventure park at Vembu-Tembumaa 27km away, with go-karts, pools, waterslides, Tarzan trails, mini-golf, air-pads and bumper cars (it’s open June–Aug)
Venture to the wide open sandy beaches at the historical seaside resort of Pärnu on Estonia's west coast, just under 2hrs south of Tallinn, and on its many islands, including Saaremaa with its working windmills – perfect for family holidays. Don’t miss the chance to spend a few hours up in the trees at the region’s Valgeranna Adventure Park.
Explore the Museum of Toys in Estonia’s second city Tartu nearly 220km south-east of Tallinn, then head on to Otepää Seikluspark Adventure Park for high-ropes courses, a climbing wall, and a viewing point (with a catapult to propel participants up!).
Commune with nature as the Estonians themselves love to do in some of the country’s National Parks, including Karula in the south, Lahemaa 50km east of Tallinn, Matsalu about 100km west of Tallinn, Vilsandi, covering both land and sea and including the island of Saaremaa (see above), and Soomaa in the south-west. Swimming in clean bogs is a popular pastime here!
Ski – Otepää in the south attracts skiers (both downhill and cross-country) and snowmobile riders, as well as ice-fishers. In summer, these uplands host the Leigo Lake Music Festival, with lots of open-air concerts.
Russian, German and Scandinavian influences can all be felt in Estonian cuisine, which boasts as its national dish blood sausage (verivorst) with sauerkraut stew (mulgikapsad) and includes other such hearty fare as potato salad (kartulisalat), marinated eel (marineeritud angerjas) and tongue with horseradish (keel hernestega), plus wild boar, elk, deer and sometimes also bear, and freshwater fish including salmon. Vegetarians may struggle.
Tallinn, however, has an increasing number of Western offerings, making life a bit easier on family holidays. In its main piazza, you can enjoy everything from steaks or pizza to curry. Several restaurants in the Old Town afford themed medieval experiences, with costumed staff and minstrels, that may prove entertaining to children. Alternatively, Tallinn has a few French and Italian restaurants, plus ‘ethnic’ offerings ranging from Greek to Middle Eastern, African and Chinese.
Don’t leave the city without a visit to Anneli Viik’s chocolate café in the Old Town. The cakes are great in Estonia, too, as are the pancakes.
Sledging in Tallinn
When to go to Estonia
Go in summer if you want to swim in the Baltic, make the most of the great outdoors, and enjoy Tallinn’s traditional street market with its authentic medieval food and drink stalls, street entertainers, folk music and traditional dancing.
Alternatively, Estonia is a great destination at Christmas, when festive markets featuring Santa Claus and his elves, illuminations, decorated trees and traditional entertainment are hosted in the snowy streets of Tallinn.
Estonia's adoption of the Euro made it more expensive to visitors from the UK. Prices have also risen slowly as the country has been ‘discovered’ by tourism. For all that, it remains a very affordable destination for family holidays, especially outside the touristy areas (most notably, Tallinn’s Old Town).
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Flying time3hrs All flight times are based on flights from UK London airports, to the capital or nearest destination airport.
Carbon footprint CO2 Estimated tonnes of CO2 produced for return flights for a family of four.
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