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Located on a river, leafy Tartu is Estonia’s second largest city and a lively, cosmopolitan university town, with students making up one-fifth of the population. Considered to be the spiritual and intellectual capital of the country, Tartu’s history of learning dates back to 1632 when Tartu University was established by Swedish King Gustaf II Adolf. Take an amble around the university grounds to admire the imposing buildings (most date to the 1800s), and don’t miss the Student’s Lock-up that occurred in the 19th century Tartu’s students were held in solitary confinement for anything from two days to three weeks and for everything from returning library books late to insulting a cloakroom attendant.
Tartu’s old-world atmosphere, elegant 18th century buildings, colourful wooden houses, cobblestone streets all belie its sophistication and creativity. Expect vibrant theatre and music scenes, and excellent art galleries, cultural centres and museums, such as Tartu Art House, which shows contemporary art, predominantly from the Baltic States.
Tartu also makes a terrific base for exploring the surrounding countryside: crystal clear lakes, meandering rivers, thick forests, boggy wetlands and pristine nature reserves. Lahemaa National Park boasts verdant woods, lush meadows, and an abundance of trails, which are wonderful for walking, bird watching and horse riding. Haanja and Karula National Parks are also popular, while Lake Peipsi, one of Europe’s largest, draws locals for its sandy beaches, swimming, boating and fishing. South of Tartu, hilltop Otepää, which means ‘bear’s head’ – is a popular base for hiking in summer, although it’s best known as Estonia’s winter capital, with plenty of opportunities for skiing, especially cross country, snow shoeing and ice fishing.
Whatever you do, you need to do as the locals do and finish the day with a smoky Estonian sauna followed by a dip in an icy lake.