Difference between revisions of "Estonia"
Revision as of 08:22, 25 April 2012
Estonia  is a Baltic state in northern Europe. It has land borders with Latvia and Russia. With a coastline on the Baltic Sea and Gulf of Finland, Estonia also has sea borders with Finland and Sweden.
Estonia is a Baltic gem offering visitors the chance to see an ex-Soviet occupied country that is now part of the European Union. Traces of the Soviet era are still there to be seen — e.g. Paldiski, a deserted Soviet army base that was once off-limits to Estonians themselves, can easily be visited on a day trip from the capital, Tallinn. Tallinn's medieval old town was built by the Germans in Middle Ages and is in magnificent condition, with the medieval city walls and towers almost completely intact and it rates as one of Europe's best medieval old towns. Glorious beaches pepper the extensive coastline, although the swimming season is short. After all, the Baltics are not renowned for warm weather - something that any visitor to Estonia must be aware of — the summer is short and the winter is severe.
After 7 centuries of German, Danish, Swedish, Polish and Russian rule, Estonia attained independence in 1918. Incorporated into the USSR in 1940, it re-gained independence in 1991 through its Singing Revolution , a non-violent revolution that overthrew an initially violent occupation. Since the last Russian troops left in 1994, Estonia moved to promote economic and political ties with Western Europe. It is now one of the more-prosperous former Communist states, enjoying a high-tech environment, an open and liberal economy and a transparent government system. On the other hand, it is faced with a fairly low (but growing) GDP per capita (in a European Union context), as well as a very low birth rate, which is creating a population decline. Between 1991-2007, the country saw rapid economic expansion, leading it to be among one of the wealthiest and the most developed of the former Soviet Republics. However, it's economy was badly damaged during the ongoing Global recession. In 2011, the Euro was adopted as the official currency.
Since accession to the EU, Estonia is becoming one of the most popular destinations in North-Eastern Europe with (EU highest) 30% growth in the number of visitors in 2004, according to Eurostat.
Estonia itself is divided into 15 counties (or maakonnad, singular - maakond). However, to bring out the unique characteristics of Estonia, we use 4 distinctive regions in this guide. As the country is small, most destinations can be reached within a couple of hours from Tallinn.
Estonians have a special love for nature, and many will tell you that they would rather sit under a tree in an empty forest or hike in a national park than almost anything else. Estonia's tranquil, laidback and unspoiled Baltic islands provide a splendid getaway to nature.
Estonia is a member of the Schengen Agreement.
There are no border controls between countries that have signed and implemented this treaty - the European Union (except Bulgaria, Croatia, Cyprus, Ireland, Romania and the United Kingdom), Iceland, Liechtenstein, Norway and Switzerland. Likewise, a visa granted for any Schengen member is valid in all other countries that have signed and implemented the treaty. But be careful: not all EU members have signed the Schengen treaty, and not all Schengen members are part of the European Union. This means that there may be spot customs checks but no immigration checks (travelling within Schengen but to/from a non-EU country) or you may have to clear immigration but not customs (travelling within the EU but to/from a non-Schengen country).
Please see the article Travel in the Schengen Zone for more information about how the scheme works and what entry requirements are.
A growing number of foreign visitors have been traveling to Estonia in recent years. According to Statistics Estonia  the nation's statistics agency, 1.3 million foreigners visited the country in 2000, and that number climbed 38 percent to 1.8 million foreigners by 2005.
Tallinn is Estonia's main international gateway. In addition to direct daily flights to/from all major Scandinavian (Stockholm, Copenhagen, and Oslo) and Baltic cities (Riga and Vilnius), there are direct flights from all major European hubs like London, Paris, Frankfurt, Brussels and Amsterdam and regional hubs like Prague and Warsaw. Eastward connections are from Moscow, ([St. Petersburg]) and Kiev. Local carrier Estonian Air  provides half of the services and the rest is provided by Finnair, SAS, Lufthansa, LOT, CSA, Air Baltic, Ryanair and others. Easyjet is one of a few low-cost carriers that provide service between Tallinn and major European cities. Travelers can pay as little as EUR 120 (US$160) or £80 Sterling to fly roundtrip from London to Tallinn.
From London's Stansted Airport, Easyjet provides nonstop service to Tallinn. From Frankfurt, choose from Lufthansa and Estonian Air. From Brussels, select from KLM, Estonian Air, Finnair, SAS, RyanAir, Lufthansa and Czech Airlines. From Amsterdam, choose from KLM, Lufthansa, SAS, Czech Airlines, Finnair, LOT Polish, Estonian Air and Northwest. From Rome's Fiumicino Airport, select from Alitalia, Czech Airlines, Estonia Air, KLM and Finnair. From Helsinki Vantaa airport select from Estonian Air, Finnair, FlyBE.
Close proximity and excellent ferry services with Helsinki allow for combination of open-jaw air travel.
Tartu is Estonia's oldest city and a key to South-Eastern regions of Estonia, ancient Russian Pskov or further to Latvia. Flights map of the local airport includes Helsinki by FlyBE airline and Tallinn by Estonian Air, which makes a roundtrip Helsinki-Tallinn-Tartu very easy in any combination.
International train services are to/from Russia, Moscow. Domestic services  connect Tallinn with Narva in the east and Viljandi in the south, Pärnu in the south-west, Tartu and Valga in the south-east.
Lots of good and cheap connections from Moscow, Saint Petersburg, Kiev, Kaliningrad, Warsaw, and all larger Baltic and German cities. The most popular regular service provider is Luxexpress Group , others include Ecolines  and Hansabuss .
Domestic coach companies offer services nationwide. A schedule is available at Bussireisid . The most popular route is Tallinn-Tartu, where busses depart at least hourly.
Ferry lines connect Tallinn with Sweden (Stockholm), Finland (Helsinki, Mariehamn) and also with Germany (Rostock) during the summer months. Tallinn-Helsinki is one of the busiest searoutes in Europe and has daily 20 ferry crossings and nearly 30 different fast-boat and hydrofoil crossings (the latter do not operate during winter). For details see Port of Tallinn passenger schedules .
In Estonia, the public transport system is well-developed and it is preferable to walk, cycle or use public transport, given the local Eastern European style driving culture may be dangerous for unexperienced.
Estonia's train network does not cover the whole country. The quality of services has suffered considerably from privatisation and the main means of local transport is now the bus. Tallinn has three frequently-going local train lines (Tallinn-Keila-Paldiski/Riisipere and Tallinn-Aegviidu) see: .
The Tartu-Tallinn train route is good, fast and offers wireless internet access.
Domestic routes are operated by Edelaraudtee .
Estonia has a comprehensive bus network all over the country. All bigger cities like Tartu, Pärnu, Viljandi and Narva are accessible by bus. There is a journey planner called peatus.ee, in Estonian, English and Russian. There is also a timetable search at bussireisid.ee. But also check  (only between bigger cities and to outside Estonia).
The international bicycle project BaltiCCycle  may provide you with a lot of information and help.
Hitchhiking in Estonia is generally good. The Baltic countries have a strong hitchhiking culture.
The road system is quite extensive although road quality varies. The speed limit in the countryside is 90 km/h and 50 km/h in the cities unless specified otherwise. Passengers are expected to wear seat belts. Lights must always be switched on.
In the central areas of bigger cities, a fee is levied on parking cars, but finding a provider of tickets is sometimes difficult as mobile parking is widespread.
Estonia has lots of car rental companies and the level of English spoken by their representatives is generally very high. If you go to Level 0 of Tallinn international airport, there are several car rental agency counters.
Car rental in Estonia is very cheap compared to Western Europe. You can get a decent car shared between two people for approximately 150EEK/person/day e.g. a 2004 Fiat Punto.
An excellent day trip is to drive from Tallinn to Tartu. It takes about 2.5 hours each direction.
As of September 3, 2006, the drive from Tallinn to Tartu has been much improved. Outside of Tallinn, it is a two lane paved road with some construction ongoing to upgrade it. It takes two to two and a half hours. There are few sights of interest along the way. The terrain is flat and most of the road is bracketed by a birch tree and a few pines. Sam's grill is recommended; about 1/2 way between Tallinn and Tartu as a place to stop. There is a gas station next door.
Driving in Estonia can be more dangerous than in much of the Europe and United States. Some drivers can be aggressive, recklessly overtaking vehicles and traveling at high speed, even in crowed urban areas. Estonian laws against driving under the influence of alcohol are strict and follow a policy of zero tolerance. Unfortunately, accidents involving intoxicated drivers are distressingly frequent. You should always remain alert to the possibility of drunk drivers and drunken pedestrians. Standards of driving can range from bad to down-right lethal. The best advice is to drive defensively: don’t assume your fellow drivers will do what you expect them to do, like avoiding overtaking in poor visibility or signal before they merge into your lane. If you can avoid it, it’s probably best not to drive on inter-city highways.
The official language is Estonian which is linguistically very closely related to Finnish. At the same time many in urban areas (especially younger people) speak English well. According to the Eurobarometer poll of 2005, 66% of Estonians can speak some Russian. This does not include native-language speakers. Russian is often described as Estonia's unofficial second language and 50% of Tallinn natives speak Russian as their native language. Thanks to heavy tourism and TV broadcasts from the other side of the gulf, Finnish is also spoken quite well by many people in Tallinn, the capital. German is taught at school in Estonia and a large number of people can speak some (22% according to Eurobarometer).
There is a large Slavic minority, particularly Russian and Ukrainians (some 25%).
Medieval History & Manors
The main reason most people first come to Estonia is to see the best protected and intact medieval city in Europe - Tallinn. The unique value of Tallinn's Old Town lies first and foremost in the well-preserved (intact) nature of its medieval milieu and structure, which has been lost in most of the capitals of northern Europe. Since 1997, the Old Town of Tallinn has been on UNESCO's World Heritage list.
Living under the rule of Scandinavian kings, Russian empire and Teutonic Knights has left Estonia with unique and rich blend of historic landmarks. Over one thousand manors were built across Estonia from the 13th century onwards. Some of the manors have perished or fallen into ruins but a lot have been reconstructed and now are favourite attractions with tourists. Nowadays there are about 200 manor houses  under state protection as architectural monuments and 100 in active use.
Islands & Coastline
Estonia has over 1,500 islands. The nature is essentially untouched and offers quite a different beach experience with their remoter rustic feel. Most of the public beaches are sandy and the average water temperature is 18°C in summer. Inland waters and some shallow bays' waters are even warmer.
The largest island is Saaremaa with an intact and well-restored medieval castle in its only city, Kuressaare. Stone fences, thatched roofs, working windmills and home made beer are all distinctive to Saaremaa. Hiiumaa, on the other hand, is well known for its lighthouses, unspoilt nature, the Hill of Crosses and the sense of humour of its inhabitants. Both islands have an airport so they can be quickly reached from Tallinn.
Other important islands include Kihnu, Ruhnu (with its "singing sand" beach), Muhu and Vormsi, each with its own unique characteristics. Most of the other tiny Estonian islands don't carry much cultural significance, but can be appealing for bird watching, canoeing, sailing or fishing etc.
In July and August, Pärnu, Estonia's summer capital, is the main attraction. The coastline itself has loads of untouched beaches and a tour from Narva-Jõesuu (in the East) towards Tallinn is great for exploring the coastline. Some of the well known places include Toila, Võsu, Käsmu and Kaberneeme.
There's quite a good list of various events in Estonia at Visitestonia.com .
Self Guided Tours
There are a number of private companies who offer walking tours and day trips from Tallinn.
Estonia has the euro (€) as its sole currency along with 24 other countries that use this common European money. These 24 countries are: Austria, Belgium, Cyprus, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Ireland, Italy, Latvia, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Malta, the Netherlands, Portugal, Slovakia, Slovenia and Spain (official euro members which are all European Union member states) as well as Andorra, Kosovo, Monaco, Montenegro, San Marino and the Vatican which use it without having a say in eurozone affairs and without being European Union members. Together, these countries have a population of more than 330 million.
One euro is divided into 100 cents. While each official euro member (as well as Monaco, San Marino and Vatican) issues its own coins with a unique obverse, the reverse, as well as all bank notes, look the same throughout the eurozone. Every coin is legal tender in any of the eurozone countries.
ATMs and currency exchange offices (valuutavahetus) are widely available. You will get the best rates by exchanging only after arrival in Estonia. Avoid changing money in the airport or port as the rates are lower.
Estonia remains cheaper than Western Europe, but it is no longer the bargain basement it used to be; and in touristy areas (say Tallinn's Old Town), prices are almost at Scandinavian levels.
Estonian food draws heavily from German and Scandinavian cuisine. The closest thing to a national dish is verivorst, black pudding, served with mulgikapsad, which is basically sauerkraut stew.
Many types of food are close to Russian and have their equivalents almost exclusively in the former USSR, such as hapukoor, smetana in Russian, a sour 20%-fat milk dressing for salads, especially "kartulisalat" or "potato salad".
As Estonia used to be a food mass-production powerhouse in the times of the USSR, some of its foods, unknown to Westerners, are still well-recognized in the lands of the CIS.
Among other everyday food, some game products are offered in food stores in Estonia, mostly wild boar, elk sausages and deer grill. Some restaurants also offer bear meat.
For those with a sweet tooth, the national chocolate manufacturer is "Kalev", with many specialist stores around the country as well as supermarkets retailing the product.
The more adventurous may want to try "kohuke", a flavoured milk-curd sweet covered with chocolate and available at every supermarket.
Like their neighbours the Finns and the Russians, the Estonians know their alcohol. Favorite tipples include the local beer Saku  or A. Le Coq , the local vodka Viru Valge (Vironian White)  and the surprisingly smooth and tasty rum-like herbal liquor Vana Tallinn (Old Tallinn) , famous in the countries of former USSR.
A local soft drink is "Kali" (the Estonian equivalent of "kvass"), made from fermented brown bread. It can be described as an acquired taste.
Many locals also swear by "keefir", a fermented milk concoction.
Number of hotels has exploded from few to tens and hundreds after Estonia restored independence. In 2004, Tallinn achieved first place among the Baltic Sea cities in the number of overnight stays in hotels, though still behind Stockholm and Helsinki in the number of total overnight stays. A list of bigger hotels as well as some restaurants and nightclubs could be found at Estonian Hotel and Restaurant Association .
As Soviet collective farms were disbanded, many farmers switched to running "turismitalud," or tourism farms, which are inexpensive and indispensable places for spending holidays in the nature, usually in a former farm house. A site on Estonian Rural Tourism  provides information on the tourism farms in Estonia. Hostels are a another popular option for budget-sensitive travellers; see the website of the Estonian Youth Hostel Association: .
The official tourism site Visitestonia.com  also has information and listings about B&B accommodation, youth hostels, camping and caravan sites etc.
Estonia has a fair amount of foreign students studying in its universities, especially from Nordic countries, as Estonian diplomas are recognized throughout the EU. See the articles for university town Tartu and capital Tallinn for details.
No obstacles exist to citizens of EU countries to come to invest and work in Estonia. Citizens of developed non-EU countries are exempt from short-term tourist visas. Swedes and Finns have by far the largest working community of post-Soviet foreigners in Estonia. Estonia may have had rocketlike growth in recent years, but only from a very low base as a former Soviet republic, and average local monthly salary (4th quarter 2007) is around 800 EUR.
Considerable investments and some workers are constantly coming from CIS countries, though significant legal restrictions are imposed.
Citizenship and Migration Board  is the authority responsible for dealing with the paperwork.
CV Online  is one of the oldest Estonian recruitement and HR services operating in 9 countries (as of 2005).
The published crime rate increased dramatically in 1991-1994 after democratic freedoms were introduced. In a large part, this is due to the fact that crime was a taboo subject before 1991, as Soviet propaganda needed to show how safe and otherwise good it was. However, it is still a significant problem in Estonia. The murder rate per 100,000 inhabitants, as of 2000, was some 4-5 times higher than in Sweden and Finland, although still significantly lower than in its biggest neighbour, Russia.
Today, the official sources claim that the country has achieved a considerable reduction in crime in the recent years. According to Overseas Security Advisory Council crime rate in 2007 was quite comparable to the other European states including Scandinavia. Criminal activities are distributed unevenly across the territory with almost no crime in the island areas and a considerable rate of drug dealing in the predominantly Russian-speaking industrial area of North-East. In Tallinn, petty crime is a problem and there are some incidents involving tourists, mainly pickpocketing (especially in the markets). Tallinn Old City and other main tourist attractions are closely watched by local police and private security companies.
Many Estonians drive carelessly, with about 80-110 people killed and 1300 people injured per year. Estonia has strict drink-driving laws with a policy of zero tolerance, but accidents involving intoxicated drivers are nevertheless a major problem. Estonian traffic laws requires headlight use at all times while driving and use of a seatbelts by all passengers is mandatory. In practice, these laws are widely ignored.
The police are very effective and they are not corrupt as opposed to neighboring Russia.
The main advice to anyone worried about personal security is to stay reasonably sober despite tempting alcohol prices. When driving, make sure you have had absolutely no alcohol beforehand.
For police, dial 110; for other emergencies like fires and the like, call 112.
It has been mentioned that ordinary Estonians are unlikely to approach a complete stranger or a tourist on their own. If somebody suddenly turns to you in the street (with questions or matters of small business) keeping a cautious eye on your belongings would be wise.
Open homosexuality may be met with stares, although violence is very rare.
For an Estonian, it is considered "mauvais ton" not to criticize the Estonian healthcare system. Recent EU studies showed, however, that Estonia occupies a healthy 4th place in the block by the basic public health service indicators, on the same level as Sweden. In fact, around 1998-2000, the Estonian healthcare system was remodeled from the obsolete USSR model, directed to coping with disastrous consequences of large-scale war and made more up-to-date by the experts from Sweden. Estonia has harmonized its rules on travelers' health insurance with EU requirements.
For fast aid or rescue, dial 112.
Estonia has Europe's second highest rate of adult HIV/AIDS infections, currently over 1.3% or 1 in 77 adults. Generally, the rate is much higher in Russian-speaking regions like Narva or Sillamäe. Don't make the situation worse by not protecting yourself and others.
Information about health care in Estonia is provided by the government agency Eesti Haigekassa.
The most common way of greeting is to shake hands. If there is a "long time - no see" situation, then a hug may be suitable.
Do not raise your voice in a conversation. A decent silent conversation is the Estonian way of doing business and is much appreciated.
Be aware that camping on private lands is not allowed unless you ask for permission (which you will most likely get). Forest lands and riparians on the other hand are open for everyone and anytime.
Estonians are usually proud of their nation and their country because as a small nation they have managed to gain independence and survived all the rough times that centuries of history filled with wars has served them.
Around 25% of Estonia's population is Russian. Any negative talk about the former USSR is not going to be understood in most cases. However, any positive talk of USSR around Estonians is not advised either - the Soviet occupation of Estonia is still fresh in the minds of Estonians.