30 Things Estonia is Known and Famous For

Estonia is famous for its historic capital city of Tallinn, its lush forests, and its sauna culture. A technologically advanced country, Estonia is also known for its strong family values.

But we’re just getting started.

In fact, if you’re looking for a Baltic escape, don’t look further than this magnificent country that has it all: nature, architecture and quirky traditions.

Talinn at sunset

Let’s find out more, shall we?

1. Tallinn

Tallinn

Estonia is famous for its glorious, medieval capital, Tallinn. If you ask me, Tallinn should be nicknamed The City of Light because it always seems to be bathed in a reddish, sunset tinge thanks to the terracotta roofs.

But it’s not just its beauty that makes it a worthy travel destination.

Tallinn is a harbor city teeming with museums and history. In fact, the city of Tallinn is one of two of Estonia’s UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Ferries link Tallinn to neighboring countries, Finland, Latvia and Lithuania but also Scandinavia. 

It also offers free public transport to residents and has a network of 17th-century underground tunnels which were used as bomb shelters during WWII.

2. It has over 2,000 islands

Islands in Estonia

It might sound surprising, but the coast of Estonia has an archipelago containing just over 2,000 islands. Saaremaa and Hiiumaa are the two largest islands that are both inhabited and welcome tourists.

Saaremaa is the largest island and is an optimal destination for nature lovers. In 2020, Saaremaa was named in the top 100 of the Sustainable Destination List due to its total ban on single-use plastics at festivals. It is also home to plenty of birdlife and nature reserves that are open to the public.

Something about Hiiumaa that might surprise you is that Sweden, Denmark, Germany, Finland and Russia all have their own names for it: Dagö, Dagø, Dagden, Hiidenmaa and Hijumaa (Хийумаа) respectively. In Germanic languages, the name can roughly be translated as “day island”.

3. Technological democracy

The word vote

Estonia is famous for being the first nation to use online voting (also known as “e-voting”).

In the 2007 Estonian parliamentary election, Estonians had the opportunity to cast their vote online. This was made possible by Estonia’s forward-thinking digital presence and the use of ID cards, which are mandatory in Estonia. 

Since then, using digital ID authenticators has grown in the rest of Northern Europe, where most people use ID numbers to log into banks, make secure transactions or even sign documents.

4. Linguistic prowess

Group of people in tallinn

Estonia is famous for being a nation of linguists, but you’ll never hear Estonians brag about it. In fact, an Estonian’s seamless transition from speaking Estonian to English, Finnish, or even German or Russian is mesmerizing.

Most schools in Estonia offer English as the second language for Estonian kids to learn. After that, they have the option to add another to their repertoire, meaning many children graduate with extraordinary linguistic capabilities.

There are also minority languages that are spoken in Estonia, including Võro, Seto, Russian, and Swedish.

5. Nature

Forest in Estonia

Estonia is known for its rich and abundant forests which cover about 50% of Estonia’s surface. As a result, Estonia is also famous for having some of the cleanest air in the world.

Forests are sacred in Estonian culture. For hundreds of years, Estonians offered gifts to the forest, a practice that continues to this day. The Estonian, pagan religion of Maausk reveres forests as sacred sites.

At the beginning of spring, thousands of Estonians flock to the forests to tap birch trees, draining them of some of their sap. This is then drunk and is said to aid everything from muscle spasms to fatigue, stress and headaches.

6. Christmas markets

Estonia Christmas Market

It’s not just birch trees that Estonia is known for, though. In fact, we’re betting you didn’t know that Estonia is famous for being the first country to publicly display a decorated Christmas tree!

Despite being one of the least religious countries in the world, Christmas continues to be a big deal in Estonia. The first Christmas tree was decorated and displayed in Tallinn, erected by the Brotherhood of The Blackheads Guild in 1441.

These days, Estonia’s cities hold award-winning Christmas markets where you can buy local handcrafted souvenirs, gingerbread cookies and mulled wine.

7. Small but tall population

Tall woman in forest

Estonia is famous for having the third-smallest population in Europe. But what they lack in numbers they more than make up for in other areas.

For instance, did you know that Estonians are the 3rd tallest population on earth? The average Estonian is 175.13cm (5 feet 8.94 inches) tall, making them almost two inches taller than the average American.

8. Most supermodels per capita

Supermodel shopping

Estonia is famous for having the most supermodels per capita in the world. While you might not recognize many Estonian names from the catwalk, you’ll certainly have seen them on billboards or in magazines.

The most famous Estonian supermodels include Carmen Kass, Elisabeth Arm and Kätlin Aas.

9. Smoke saunas

Woman in traditional estonian sauna

When you live close to the Arctic circle, you need a way to warm up. And while you’re on vacation, you might as well experience a relaxing form of Estonian culture – with positive physical and mental benefits as a bonus!

Saunas have been used, in various forms, in Estonia for thousands of years. Perhaps the most iconic Estonian sauna is the smoke sauna from Võromaa, which is on the UNESCO list of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.

The major difference between this and other saunas is that there is no chimney, meaning that the smoke from the burning wood circulates in the room. Don’t worry though, the smoke disappears before you get your chance to bathe. The fire heats the stones for up to eight hours, by which time it will be toasty and warm.

10. Most spas per capita

Couple in an Estonian sauna

While saunas are a huge deal in Estonia, there’s more to the spa culture than just smoke and steam. Estonia is famous for having the most spas per capita in the world, which is certainly something you should take advantage of as a tourist.

In fact, the island of Saaremaa didn’t gain the nickname “spaaremaa” for nothing. There are over forty spas on the island using ancient and modern methods – think steam rooms, saunas, mud and salt baths, as well as massage facilities.

Check out the Estonia “spa trail” map here.

11. Education

Child with a backpack

Estonia is famous for having one of the best education systems in the world. In recent years, attention has turned towards Baltic countries to find out why kids are topping the global tables in school results.

That’s difficult to answer, but it seems it comes down to smaller socio-economic gaps between kids, equal funding for education nationwide, and increased opportunity for widespread learning as a result.

In other words, it doesn’t matter if child A has rich parents and child B has poor parents – they are both offered the same classes, extracurricular classes and tutoring. School lunches, transport to and from school and textbooks are free to all.

Even adults in Estonia are world-leading; Estonia is second in the world for adult literacy, where 99.8% of adults are able to both read and write.

12. More women than men

Estonian woman in traditional dress

Estonia is famous for being a nation where the number of women far outweighs men. There are roughly 84 men to every 100 women in Estonia, and Estonian women live up to eight years longer than Estonian men.

You might be wondering why this is the case, and sadly, it’s mainly a result of the recent Soviet history in the country. Estonia has been independent since 1991, and this gap has been slowly closing since – there are now more boys than girls enrolled in kindergarten in Tallinn, for instance.

13. Estonian words

Estonian language on signs

Estonia is famous for its unique and notoriously difficult-to-learn language. Estonian is a Uralic-Finnic language, and it has vague similarities to Finnish and Hungarian.

However, even Finns and Hungarians will struggle to learn Estonian. Not only is the pronunciation complicated, but its grammar is on a whole different level to English.

Usually in this segment, I tell you my favorite words in another language. This time, however, I am going to share words that I think sound hilarious when said out loud (with thanks to native Estonians who have shared them with me!).

So, “sole of the foot” in Estonian requires only one word: “jalalaba“. “Odds and ends” in English becomes “nipet-näpet” and the word for “head” is “pea“. You’re welcome!

14. Skype

Skype app

Estonia is famous for being the country where Skype was invented – but it wasn’t invented by Estonians. That honor belongs to a Swede and a Dane who invested in Estonian technology which went on to create the first video-calling app.

If you don’t already know, Skype was the forerunner of FaceTime, Microsoft Teams and Zoom (we’re sure you’re well-acquainted with them!). In March 2020, 100 million people were using Skype every month. In 2019, it was named the 6th most downloaded app of the decade (2010-2019).

15. Being the least religious country

Estonia church skyline

As we mentioned earlier, Estonia is known for having pagan rituals associated with forests and spirituality. What you might not know is that Estonia is the least religious nation in the world, with just 14% of citizens reported to be of faith.

The largest religion in Estonia is Lutheranism, a protestant form of Christianity brought to the country by German and Danish missionaries.

But Christianity never had the same impact that it did in the rest of Europe. This was in part due to a language barrier – the missionaries could not communicate with locals and they already had their own, pagan traditions.

Paganism still exists in Estonia, with roughly 4% of people on the census stating they identify as Maausk.

16. Pärnu

Pärnu sunset in Estonia

Pärnu is Estonia’s largest city by area, roughly the same size as Berlin. Despite its enormous size, it has a tiny population size most of the year – until it is transformed into the ultimate Estonian summer destination.

The Hanseatic town of Pärnu is where Estonians flock for the summer months. It’s known for spas, local fairs and medieval festivals. The first spa in Estonia was opened in Pärnu in 1838, and these days the city has a reputation as a place to rejuvenate, relax and get creative.

17. Marzipan

Marzipan in Tallinn
Editorial credit: Ija Reiman / Shutterstock.com

Estonia is famous for its sweet, nutty candy called marzipan. Made from a mixture of almonds and powdered sugar, marzipan was originally sold in Tallinn as a medicine.

The first record of marzipan being sold in Tallinn goes back to 1422, making it exactly 600 years old.

These days, doctors won’t tell you to take marzipan. A shame, because marzipan is so deliciously sweet that it feels like it should have some kind of healing benefit.

While it’s medically advisable to eat sweet treats in moderation, it’s almost considered a must-try in Estonia to this day!

18. Museums

Estonia Palace Museum

Estonia is famous for its many museums and excellent galleries. In fact, there are around 250 official museums in the country – ranging from local history to modern KGB history.

Some of the best museums for you to visit in Estonia include the Estonian Open Air Museum, which hosts a staggering 77,000 objects, photographs and artifacts for your perusal. It specializes in preserving Estonian cultural heritage and ways of life.

You should also check out the Kiek in de kök tower and museum and the Seaplane Harbor museum.

A fun fact about Estonia is that it has the largest number of museums per person in the world (roughly one for every 5,300 Estonians). You’re also likely to bump into locals on your visit, as Estonians visit museums twice a year on average.

19. Walpurgis Witches

Volbrioo Estonia bonfire

If you visit Estonia on the 30 April, you might be in for a surprise. Especially if you visit the college city of Tartu, where Walpurgis celebrations will be in full force as day meets night.

Walpurgis, or Volbriöö, as it’s known in Estonia, is a pagan tradition that can appear pretty whacky to the untrained eye. In old times, people dressed up as witches, lit bonfires and warded off bad spirits before the beginning of spring (1 May).

These days, people still dress up and light fires, but it’s more of an excuse to party. The fraternities and sororities of Tartu university parade down the city streets before visiting each other’s corporation houses.

20. Cycling

Cycling in Estonia

One of Estonia’s best-kept secrets is that it’s actually a cyclist’s paradise. Given that the landscape itself is relatively flat with sparse traffic and gorgeous scenery, you can expect privacy, spectacular views and plenty of space to roam.

Cycling vacations are becoming increasingly popular in Europe and Estonia has gone to great effort to accommodate tourists with bikes. There are pre-prepared routes for you to take, such as the Eurovelo route which starts at the Latvian border, or you can forge your own path.

21. Superstitions and folklore

Kingfisher bird in Estonia

Estonia is famous for having some quirky superstitions and, as a nature-loving nation, a lot of folklore still remains too. Did you know, for instance, that it’s considered unlucky to lie down naked in the forest before St. George’s Day (23 April)?

It’s also an old Estonian superstition that naming wild animals while in the forest gives them license to hunt you down. I’m sure the extensive wild birdlife won’t mind, though.

Legend also has it that planting a rowan tree next to your home will bring good luck, a practice that still occurs in Estonia to this day.

22. Award-winning trees

Cool tree in Estonia

You’ve probably realized by now that Estonia takes its forests very seriously. But they aren’t the only ones! Estonia is famous for having some of the tallest pine trees in the world, with the tallest being recorded at 46.6 meters (150ft) tall.

The fun doesn’t stop there, either. In 2015, an oak tree in Saaremaa was voted European Tree Of The Year by 200,000 Europeans. It sits right in the middle of a soccer field, and has since gained the nickname “the football tree“.

23. The Singing Revolution

Estonia folk dress

Estonia is famous for its love of song and traditional music, something which contributed to gaining independence in 1991. In the mid-1980s, small groups across occupied Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia began to rebel against the Soviet Union.

People gathered to sing folk songs that had been banned during the occupation, raising awareness of national pride and individuality. Eventually, these small groups turned into hundreds of thousands of people singing.

After Estonia gained independence in 1991, the songs became a unique symbol of Estonian freedom and resilience. The tradition of choral music in Estonia goes back to the 12th century and continues to this day.

24. Having two Independence Days

Estonia flag

Estonia is known for having two independence days, both of which are crucial to understanding Estonian history.

The first, and most-celebrated, Estonian Independence Day occurs on 24 February, which marks the first day Estonia declared itself independent.

The second occurs on 20 August, which is when the Soviet Union’s control in Estonia fell and independence was restored. These independence days are celebrated by waving an abundance of flags, concerts and fireworks.

25. It’s bigger than you thought

Drone view of Estonia

If you have never met an Estonian, you’re probably in the majority. The population size is small and it’s only in recent years that Estonia has made a name for itself on the world stage.

But you might be surprised to learn that Estonia is actually larger than both Denmark and The Netherlands.

Now, a few things to consider here: one, maps are notoriously deceptive. Second, Estonia is the 3rd most sparsely populated country in Europe, so it makes sense that they’ve gone under the radar for a while.

These days, it’s up there in the top lists of destinations for European city and weekend breaks, so get planning – there’s so much to see!

26. Rye bread

Estonian rye bread

Estonia is famous for its delicious rye bread, now a national symbol of the country. Rye bread customs in Estonia date back as far as a thousand years ago, when Estonia was the number one exporter of rye. Rye bread was both nutritious and affordable for most people at the time.

As a result, rye kept whole populations alive, so it’s no wonder that it was revered by farmers and peasants alike. The older recipes have a denser consistency – some people mistakenly think of rye bread as being quite chewy, but commercial rye bread in Estonia is fluffy and soft.

Bread containing rye is rich in fiber, and is still believed to be a health food. Estonians typically enjoy rye bread with traditional meals such as soup or as a meal on its own, with toppings such as salted fish.

27. Sports

Skiing in Estonia

Once again, Estonia proves itself to be a small but mighty nation. Since gaining independence, Estonia has won a total of 36 medals at the Olympics.

In particular, Estonian competitors tend to excel in wrestling, weight-lifting, cross-country skiing and athletics.

The most followed sports in Estonia are basketball, soccer and winter sports. Estonia also has its own, unique sport called Kiiking, which involves doing 360° turns on a giant swing.

28. Unusual laws

Car in Estonian forest

Every nation on earth has its quirks, and what better way is there to gain insight into a country’s peccadillos than to look at its laws?

Most Estonian laws make sense: it is a legal requirement for pedestrians and cyclists to wear reflectors when it’s dark. Similarly, cars must always have their headlights on (this isn’t so that the driver can see better, but other vehicles and people can see the car easier).

Other Estonian laws are just…unusual. Like the law that it is illegal to engage in sexual activity while playing chess. Let’s leave it there.

29. Lighthouses

kuressaare lighthouse in Estonia
View from Kuressaare lighthouse

Estonia is famous for being home to one of the oldest lighthouses in the world. The Kõpu lighthouse on the island of Hiiumaa has been in continuous use since 1531, and its unusual shape and history draw tourists from all over the world.

There are over 70 lighthouses in Estonia, some of which are open to the public where you can see some incredible views of Estonia’s coastline.

Check out the list of the best lighthouses to visit in Estonia here.

30. Being an awesome place to live

Tallinn from Toompea Hill

Estonia is famous for being a great place to live, whether as a digital nomad or a family.

Estonia was the first country to introduce the digital nomad visa, allowing anyone who works remotely to live and work in Estonia as a freelancer. There are of course rules and exceptions (you have to earn a certain sum, for example) but it was pretty groundbreaking for the many original work-from-home community.

Estonia also has the longest paid maternity leave in the world. Estonian moms can take 20 weeks of fully paid maternity leave followed by 62 weeks of the maximum paid parental leave. 

Aerial landscape Estonia

And there we have it, 30 things Estonia is known and famous for. Did anything surprise you? Or did we forget something? Let us know in the comments below!

Interested in the Baltics? Also read about what Finland is known for.

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