Located in the south of Estonia, Tartu – its second largest city in size – has a whimsical appeal to it drawing you in with its pastel-coloured buildings, overflowing flower beds and cosy cafes that invite you to spend a few hours in the sun slowly sipping a cup of tea in pure, undiluted peace.
Tartu is best known as Estonia’s student capital thanks to the University of Tartu, which was established in 1632 and is one of the oldest universities in Europe. In 2024, Tartu together with southern Estonia will be the European Capital of Culture. The first part of the 2024 main programme was introduced in February and if you wish to attend, you can already choose from several different events.
Visual art lovers will find Surrealism 100 which offers four art projects on surrealism and literature enthusiasts will be able to explore the modern meaning of utopias and dystopias in the artistic form at the Literary festival Prima Vista 2024 ”Futures Better and Worse.”
Are you interested in visiting Estonia’s second city and looking for things to do in Tartu? The town has an exciting mix of sights and activities, whether you’re spending a few hours here or a few days. You’ll find plenty of things related to its history, culture, university, and famous people.
How Many Days You Should Spend In Tartu?
Sure, you can spend just one day in Tartu and have just enough time to see the most important tourist attractions and must-see sights, but why settle for that? There are so many things to do in Tartu, and cramming them all into one day would just be a shame. A few months ago, we spent two days in Tartu and could have easily spent a few more.
See, it’s not only what you can see and do in Tartu it’s also how incredibly cool this city is. It’s about how much you relax when you sit in a bar with a cold Estonian beer in your hand overlooking the Emajõgi river. it’s about how content you feel with life when you take a stroll in one of the small streets and hear people laughing and talking.
If you want to see Tartu: Yes, you can do it in a day, but if you want to truly experience Tartu, then you have to spend at least a few days in the city.
Walk Around The Raekoja Square and Stop By The Town Hall
The central heart of Tartu is the Raekoja Plats, which is built in the shape of a trapezium, and located a short walk away from the Emajõgi River. It is a cosy and beautiful square lined with pastel-coloured buildings where there is always something going on. It is a venue for numerous festivals like Tartu Hanseatic Days and A Free Film Festival which we were lucky to attend during our visit and in the wintertime, it’s where you can find an ice skating rink.
One of the important symbols of the city is the Town Hall itself, located on the square, which was designed in 1789 by the town’s master builder, Rostock-born Johann Heinrich Bartholomaus Walter. It is the third town hall to have stood there – the previous two were destroyed by fire.
In its day, the cellar and the ground floor on the left side housed a prison, while the upper floors were for the Town Council. Today, the building still serves as the city’s administrative centre and the Town Halls 34-bells can be heard every day at 9;00, 12;00, 15;00, 18;00 and 21;00.
Did you know: a clock was added to the Town Square Hall to encourage students to be punctual for classes.
See The Kissing Students fountain
Located in front of the Town Hall, the Kissing Students fountain is the most recognizable symbol in Tartu and it has stood in the same place since 1948. It is a must for lovers who are in the city, to visit the statue of two kissing students under the umbrella as it is considered to be a sign of everlasting love!
Since 1948, newlyweds looking for good luck have visited the fountain and its kissing statues. The sculpture itself was erected in 1998 by Mati Karmin, one of Estonia’s most renowned contemporary sculptors, but the fountain in which it stands dates as far back as 1948.
Besides the snogging students in front of the Town Hall, Tartu has various statues scattered about. These include Oscar Wilde and Estonian writer Eduard Vilde who besides sharing a surname, are both sharing a park bench in front of Vallikraavi.
Walk Across Its Many Bridges
Tartu’s bridges carry as much history as they do foot traffic. They have been burnt down, blown up, sung upon, and in one rather newsworthy case, had led public acts of procreation performed on them. Two of the most significant ones don’t even span water. You’ll find them at the top of Tartu’s Toome Hill.
The Arch Bridge or Kaarsild, the pedestrian walkway that spans the Emajõgi river from the Town Hall Square was built in the middle of the 20th century. It’s somewhat of a student ritual to walk across the high arch of the bridge, particularly at night and among some students, it is believed that your time in Tartu is incomplete until you have gone “üle Kaarsilla” (“over the Arched Bridge”).
The Devil’s Bridge dates from 1913 and serves as a counterpart to the Angel’s Bridge. Devil’s Bridge is a unique structure because it is one of the last remaining examples of its kind constructed at the beginning of the 1900s. The bridge served as a tribute to the 300th anniversary of the Romanov empire’s rule in 1913. The name “Devil’s Bridge” comes from a play of words – the bridge was built under the supervision of professor Mannteuffel, whose name in German translates to ‘man-devil’.
The Angle’s Bridge | The yellow and white classical bridge is Toome Hill’s largest bridge. Built in 1838, the Angel’s Bridge which stretches over Lossi Street was dedicated to Tartu university’s first rector. Locals like to hold their breaths when crossing it and make a wish.
Stop By The Tartu Cathedral
One of the landmarks worth visiting in the city of Tartu is Tartu Cathedral. It is a massive, red-brick Gothic-style church founded between the 13th and 16th centuries located northwest of the hill and overlooking Old Tartu. The cathedral is now in ruins, but you can still see how grand it must have been back in the day when Tartu was a bishopric.
The cathedral was heavily damaged during the Livonian War and later by fire. Part of it has been reconstructed and now houses the University of Tartu Museum. You can take a stroll through the cathedral’s columns or attend open-air exhibitions, but what really makes these ruins unique is the possibility to o explore the upper floors, which you can easily reach after climbing 100 stairs.
Take a Stroll Along The Emajõgi Riverside
The Emajõgi River runs right through the heart of Tartu. On a sunny day, there is nothing better than to stroll along this river in Tartu! Regularly there are events, concerts, bars and markets.
In summer, you can enjoy the sun with the locals on the small sandy beaches, located on both sides of the river (1 km northwest of the Kroonuaia Bridge). And in winter, when the river is frozen you can walk across the ice to the other side. Don’t forget to look under the bridges for hidden street art and take a boat ride across the river.
If you don’t feel like walking, you can climb aboard the Jõmmu barge, a replica of the wooden trade vessels that plied local waterways from Hanseatic times right up to the 20th century, in order to admire the river’s picturesque landscape. The boat ride will take you along the river in both directions providing unique perspectives of Tartu and the rustic landscapes of southern Estonia.
Visit One of the Many Tartu Museums
The National Museum of Tartu | One of the best things to do in Tartu is to visit the National Museum of Estonia. First of all, because of the impressive building! The National Museum comprises 6000 square meters of exhibition space and is built over a bridge, on a former Soviet military base.
TYPA Centre | TYPA is a surprisingly cool museum and design centre, focusing on print and paper art. You are taken back in time to old letterpress machines, (from Soviet times), traditional paper techniques and fonts in all shapes and sizes.
Tarty Art Museum | It’s a rather small museum but the variety of exposure is impressive. This museum combines both classic and modern art from Estonian and international artists. It’s a great place to pay a visit while visiting the city centre.
The Tartu City Museum | If you want to know more about the history of Tartu in Estonia, you can visit the city museum. I didn’t have the time for this myself but if I had stayed longer in Tartu, I would definitely have taken a look. Not only because of the history but also because of the building and original interior from the 18th century.
The Leaning House | 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.
Lookout For Street Art
Like many university cities, in Tartu, you’ll find the creative spirit alive and kicking. One of the more noticeable aspects of this is the strong street art culture. From large murals adorning the sides of buildings and museums to little portraits popping up in shuttered windows of old buildings, there are plenty of fun and detailed pieces to find.
There is a range of street-art styles too, some are playful and others are political or based on satire. You’ll find some created from Stencils, some are lifelike, and others are cartoonish. Sometimes tiny, other times are giant murals.
The best thing is – you won’t have to walk far or look too hard to find graffiti in Tartu, it adorns nearly every doorway, bridge, wall, abandoned building, power box and archway imaginable.
Despite street graffiti being an illegal activity in Estonia, Tartu plays host to Stencibility Festival. The annual street art festival held each year in the city has just celebrated its 10 anniversary.
Go On a Day Trip
Traditional Estonian attractions may be plentiful within Tartu, but there is much to see outside of the city’s boundaries, with many appealing towns just a short drive away.
You could escape to the small and charming town of Elva which is located around 26 km to the southwest of Tartu. Despite its small size, Elva is home to an impressive selection of attractions and experiences, making it well worth a visit. You could also consider checking out Otepaa located just 42 km to the southwest of Tartu or even travel to the town of Voru whose main attraction is Lake Tamula beach.
My suggestion would be to stop by one of its many bogs. Visiting Estonia’s fascinating peat bogs is an absolute must for nature lovers. These protected areas can be toured via wooden plank trails or by wearing specially-developed “bog shoes” to tread atop the moss. The most popular hikes for Tartu conference-goers are the Valgesoo nature study trail, the Meenikunno bog, Männikjärve bog.
How to Get to Tartu from Tallinn
Tartu is located in the southeastern part of Tallinn at a distance of 186 km and the at northeastern part of Riga at a distance of 245 km.
Tartu is very well connected by public transport and can be reached from Tallinn either by bus or train. Buses tend to be a better option since they are not only cheaper but also more frequent, departing from Tallinn’s central bus station every 15-30 minutes. The trip lasts around 2 and a half hours.
Getting to Tartu from Tallinn will take between 2 and 2.5 hours and the bus schedule can be accessed from the website. Tartu is also connected by bus with other major Estonian cities such as Kuressaare, Otepää, Pärnu and Viljandi.
From the main train station in Tallinn, you can also take an express train between the two cities. The Tartu train station is pretty close to the centre 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.
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Now, over to you!
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