If you’re longing to see another side of Estonia while in Tallinn, why not consider a trip to Tartu, famous for its university? If you’ve already exhausted your list of things to do in Tallinn, it may be a good idea. Tartu is only two hours away from the capital city by express train, making it easy to get to even if you don’t have a car.
What do you need to know about travel to Estonia’s second-largest city? And what things to do in Tartu can you plan to enjoy?
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What to Know
Tartu is Estonia’s second city in terms of size, but it doesn’t feel anything like a city at all. In fact, it’s so cozy and charming, you’ll feel that your heart has been stolen by its shade-cooled parks, historic architecture, sweet wooden houses, and commitment to science and education. Tartu has a sweetness to it that may be best embodied by the Kissing Students statue in the fountain in front of the lovely town tall.
Located on the Emajõgi River, Tartu has long been considered the intellectual center of Estonia. In addition to the University of Tartu (the oldest in Estonia), it is also home to the Tartu University of Life Sciences, the Estonian Aviation Academy, the Estonian Historical Archives, and the Estonian Ministry of Education and Research.
From this list alone, it’s clear that Tartu’s tradition of cultivating thinkers and encouraging research and curiosity is well-entrenched. In addition, it’s also the location of the Supreme Court of Estonia.
You’ll find plenty of things to do in Tartu related to its history, culture, university, and famous people. In addition, a calendar of events increases visitors’ opportunity to make the most of their stay.
Things to Do in Tartu
Are you looking for things to do in Tartu, Estonia? The town has an interesting mix of sights and activities, whether you’re spending a few hours here or a couple of days.
1. Kissing Students
This symbol of Tartu is located in front of the Town Hall. Though the fountain dates from the middle of the 20th century, the sculpture–of two students kissing underneath an umbrella– dates from 1998.
2. Town Hall
The star of Town Hall Square, the pink and red of the Classicist Town Hall building makes for pretty pictures. The current building dates from the late 18th century, though a town hall building has been standing on the site since the Middle Ages. Heading to this square is one of the first things to do in Tartu that you’ll want to check off your list.
3. Emajõgi Riverside
Strolling along the banks of the river in Tartu is pleasant. Grand old trees provide shade, and benches, some of them swings, allow you to take a load off, breathe in the fresh air, and enjoy a moment of stillness. This is one of the most relaxing things to do in Tartu.
The ruins of the Dome Church or Tartu Cathedral are supremely romantic. Well-maintained, they beckon sightseers with a penchant for the dramatic. The sky peeks through the ribbed arches, creating interesting shapes of light and shadow. This is one of the things to do in Tartu you can’t miss.
The former Catholic church occupies a sight originally designated for pagan worship. The main part of the church dates to the late 15th century and was designed in Gothic style, but the church suffered both intentional and natural damage, the latter to fire, in the seventeenth century.
Today, part of the church contains the historical museum of the University of Tartu. While you’ll have to pay to see the museum, the church’s ruins are free to explore. Also be sure to take a stroll in the surrounding park. It’s one of the loveliest things to do in Tartu!
The town has a handful of bridges with historical or legendary significance. You’re sure to see them on your tour of the city.
The Angel’s Bridge was built in 1836 and bears the name and face of the first rector of the University of Tartu along with the Latin motto Otium reficit vires, which means “Repose restores strength.”
The Devil’s Bridge dates from 1913 and serves as a counterpart to the Angel’s Bridge. It was built in honor of the anniversary of the Romanovs, a family that ruled Russia for three centuries.
The Arch Bridge, or Kaarsild,was built in the middle of the 20th century. Legend says that prospective students who wanted to be accepted into the University of Tartu had to use the arch of the bridge to cross the river (source).
Supilinn, or Soup Town, was a former slum that housed brewery workers and was separate from Tartu, but it has been revitalized and incorporated into the municipality. It has many wooden houses, much like Vilnius’s Zverynas, and when you go there, you’ll find street art, rustic architecture, and quiet streets. A visit to Supilinn is one of the quirkier things to do in Tallinn.
7. Monuments and Sculptures
Like most historic towns, Tartu has its share of monuments and sculptures to notable figures.
For example, on Vallikraavi Street, you’ll find a grouping of two individuals: Oscar Wilde and Estonia’s Eduard Vilde. These two writers were from the same time period, and the sculpture links them in bronze even though they were never linked in life.
The statue of Kristjan Jaak Peterson, who believed in the project of creating Estonian national literature, is located in the park near the Dome Cathedral. Though he died at age 21 and was never published in his lifetime, the discovery of his works in the 20th century led his birthday, March 14, to be named the day of the Estonian Mother Tongue.
The statue of Karl Ernst von Baer is also found in the park near the cathedral. This 19th-century scientist-of-all-trades had his fingers in the pies of biology, geology, meteorology, geography, and embryology. He is a fitting symbol of a city that prides itself on education and learning.
8. Train Station
The pretty train station is a wooden construction with gingerbread elements. This charming building opened in 1877.
9. Leaning House
The Leaning House is most known for being the “leaning tower of Pisa” of Tartu, but it is home to an exhibition of Estonian art and was once owned by a princess. Over the years, due to Tartu having been built on logs and its proximity to the river, one side of it has sunk considerably more than the other. However, rest assured that the building is now propped up due to restoration the latter half of the last century.
10. Botanical Garden
The University of Tartu Botanical Gardens is the oldest of its kind in the Baltic countries. While the greenhouses require an entry fee, the outdoor gardens are free for guests to enjoy.
11. KGB Cells Museum
Learn about the terror of the Soviet regime when you visit this museum, which preserves cells where prisoners were held when the building housed the region’s unit of the KGB in the middle of the 20th century. You’ll also see exhibitions about returning deportees from Siberian camps and the partisan resistance force.
12. Estonian National Museum
Love folk art and want to know more about Estonian folk culture? This museum may be the one for you. Learn about Estonian traditional crafts and costumes as well as minority groups in Estonia.
13. Tartu Art House
Three art galleries are located within this building, which presents dozens of exhibitions a year. A stop by is bound to offer an interesting visual display or a thought-provoking collection of works.
14. Song Festival Sights
Those interested in the tradition of song festivals and folk songs in Estonia should pay a visit to the Song Festival Museum. You’ll learn about the importance of local song festivals and the birth of the Estonian national theater.
The Song Festival Grounds are a symbol of this tradition, which started in Tartu. While the grounds are used for other types of events and concerts, the Tartu Song Festival is, obviously, one of the most important. A part of the larger Estonian Song Festival tradition, shared with Tallinn, the Tartu Song Festival is held intermittently.
15. Christmas Market
Christmas in Tartu is, as you might imagine, a pretty affair, with the Christmas tree placed in the main square. One of Estonia’s Christmas markets also pops up here, showcasing the best Estonian Christmas treats and souvenirs.
16. Food and Wine Festivals
The Food and Wine Festival is a summertime adventure in local Estonian food and wine. Tasting dinners, gastronomic events, presentations by sommeliers, and pop-up restaurants make it one of the best things to do in Tartu for food and wine connoisseurs.
The Tasty Tartu festival is a wintertime opportunity to dine at the city’s restaurants, which develop menus especially for the event.
17. Tartuff Film Festival
If your visit to Tartu coincides with Tartuff, a late summer outdoor film festival, you’re in for a treat. An open-air screen on Town Hall Square draws a crowd each year with its lineup of films from around the world.
18. Hanseatic Days
Cities that were members of the Hanseatic League, an association of trade cities, often continue to celebrate that heritage. Tartu is no different. The summertime festival brings the medieval era into the present with reenactments, food stalls, and an open-air market.
19. City Day
Each City Day has a special theme, with 2021’s focusing on opera. This day of celebration enjoys a lineup of events that highlight local culture.
20. Car-Free Avenue
Vabaduse Puiestee closes to car traffic for a summertime festival that seeks to attract visitors to the historic center. Outdoor concerts, an open-air market, activity areas, and workshops create a lively atmosphere for both Estonians and tourists.
21. Street Art
Tartu has a rich street art scene. You’ll notice examples–from small pieces of graffiti to large murals and even full buildings decorated in fanciful ways.
One of the most obvious things to do in Tartu is to take a tour. Types of tours you can take include a river boat tour, which is especially nice in the summer. Also consider a tour of the university, which will introduce you to this important institution. Of course, various themed walking tours are popular and will allow you to see significant sights of the city as you learn about its culture and history.
How Much Time to Spend
It’s best to plan what things to do in Tartu you would most like to do in order to know how much time to spend there and how to prioritize.
If you plan to take a day trip from Tallinn to Tartu, you’ll have to consider in the four hours it will take in total to get from Tallinn to Tartu and back in addition to the sights you want to see.
If you’d like to take a walk around town without incorporating events or museum visits, about four hours will suffice, and you’ll have time to get lunch while you’re there. Plan for more time and earlier arrival/later departure if your plans include more rigorous discovery of Tartu.
How to Get to Tartu from Tallinn
Getting to Tartu will take between 2 and 2.5 hours.
From the main train station in Tallinn, you can take an express train between the two cities. The Tartu train station is pretty close to the center of Tartu, so if the weather is nice, it makes a pleasant walk.
By car, you can follow Route 2/E263 southeast down to Tartu.
Local bus services, as well as bus services such as Lux Express, also serve the Tallinn-Tartu route.