Want to see more of Estonia than cities like Tallinn and Tartu? Not far from Tartu you’ll find the region of Lake Peipsi. Located on the West coast of Lake Peipus, the largest lake of Estonia, which also borders Russia. Via the Onion Route, you travel past small villages, get to know the culture and traditions of the Old Believers, a group of Eastern Orthodox Christians, and enjoy specialties such as smoked fish, onion cake, tea and locally produced wines. In Peipsi time seems to stand still for a moment and you become completely immersed in the daily life of the locals. In this article you will read more about the Peipsi area, the Onion Route and why it is worth visiting this region when you are in South Estonia.
- Tips for Lake Peipsi and the Onion Route in South Estonia
- Meet the Old Believers
- Kolkja, located at Lake Peipus
- Experience a traditional Ivan Chai Tea ceremony
- Varnja, on Lake Peipsi in Estonia
- Lake Peipsi in Estonia
- Meet Kalevipoeg
- Take pictures at the National Geographic windows in Southern Estonia
- 4 tips for food and restaurants around Lake Peipsi in Estonia
- Hotels around Lake Peipsi and the Onion Route in Estonia
- How to reach Lake Peipus and the Onion Route in South Estonia
- Summary about the Onion Route and Lake Peipsi in Estonia
- More about Estonia
Tips for Lake Peipsi and the Onion Route in South Estonia
Meet the Old Believers
When the Russian Church reformed in the 17th century and the Russian Orthodox faith took hold, many people fled from Russia to neighboring countries. They wanted to hold on to the pre-reform faith and opposed the new rulers of the Russian Orthodox Church. They are therefore also called the Old Believers. Many Old Believers settled around Lake Peipsi in towns such as Varnja, Kasepää and Kolkja in Estonia and built their own churches here. Still today they live according to their own traditions and customs. Old Believers are known as hard-working fishermen and skilled onion growers. And that is what the region is still known for. As a visitor, you can get a glimpse of the life and culture of Old Believers and in this article, I’ll tell you how you can best experience this.
Interestinng to know: An estimated 10,000 Old Believers currently live in South Estonia. They have a special passport to be able to cross the border with Russia
Kolkja, located at Lake Peipus
Kolkja is a small municipality, located on Lake Peipsi. Interesting sights are the Peipsima Visitor Centre and the famous onion farms, among others.
Peipsima Visitor Centre
Peipsima Vistor Centre is a small museum with background information about the Old Believers and the Lake Peipsi region in Estonia. I get a private tour from a sweet lady who works at the museum. There are old pictures to look at and traditional costumes of the Old Believers to see, which I find very beautiful. Downstairs is a room explaining the chichory plant, from which the traditional Old Believers “Ivan Chai tea” is made from. Something I get to enjoy a lot during my stay in the region. You’ll read more about my tea ceremony later in this article.
There is also a small exhibition on comics by the Old Believers and on the second floor you can join a workshop on tie dye and fabric printing, a technique the Old Believers used a lot. I get to print my own bag.
Visit an onion farm in Kolkja
At Kostja’s Onion farm you can tour the farm and learn about the onion growing methods of the Old Believers. Since I visited this farm myself in the off-season, there wasn’t much to see on the land (mid-August is the time to stock up on onions). But I enjoyed visiting and meeting host Konstantin. By the way, his wife makes the most delicious onion cakes! Yes really, a cake made of onions! That’s already a good reason to visit.
Experience a traditional Ivan Chai Tea ceremony
At the Peipsima Museum, I get to experience a traditional Ivan Chai tea ceremony! I love to drink tea and nothing makes me more happy than a tea ceremony.
Tea plays an important role in Russian culture. There are hundreds of varieties, as well as drinking habits. But today we are talking about the traditional samovar (later I’ll tell you more about a samovar) ceremony, consisting of the herbaceous plant called the fireweed. I learn that this is a medicinal plant and that you must slurp the tea from a plate in the traditional way to best experience the flavor. Also served are barankas, cookies and boiled sugar. It is very sweet but along with the tea, it gets a different and delicious flavor. The lady that is doing the ceremony grew up among the Old Believers, and even though she is not part of the community herself, she knows all about it. She has been running the museum for a few years and has been also responsible for the adjacent theater. It’s a nice and interesting hour!
Lake Peipus and the Onion Route are part of Peipsiääre Municipality, located in Tartumaa County. The capital of Tartumaa Province is Tartu. Võromaa is another province in Southern Estonia which borders Russia to the East, and Latvia to the South. The province consists of municipalities including Setomaa and Võru, with their own characteristics and atmosphere. Do you want to discover more in Southern Estonia? Then read my article about the best sights and things to do in Southern Estonia.
Varnja, on Lake Peipsi in Estonia
Varnja is a village with a few hundred inhabitants, located on Lake Peipus. It is nice to stroll around the village, look at the houses and enjoy the pieceful environment. These are some of the sights in Varnja, that are worth visiting.
If you are in Varnja you should definitely visit the Voronja gallery, an old fishing boat shed that has been transformed into a house for modern art. Especially the setting makes it a nice place to visit. There is a house with several rooms and a large garden with sculptures and street art. Concerts, dinners and theater performances take place there on a regular base! It is a popular place for hipsters from Tartu, who hang out here on the weekends. By the way, Voronja Gallery is only open in the summer!
Tartu is the second largest city in Estonia and is considered the intellectual cultural capital of the country. It is bursting with concert halls, theaters, exhibitions and trendy neighborhoods with bars. In the following article you can read all about what to do in Tartu, with great attractions and useful tips for your visit.
Mesi Tare Home Accommodation
Curious about how the Old Believers lived? In Varnja you can stay in a traditional Old Believers house, Mesi Tare Home Accommodation, with authentic furnishings. You could stay here up to 10 people but it is also cozy with just the two of you! There is a large garden and a private smoke sauna! Varnja is a cute village with wooden houses and a good base to further explore the region.
On the same street as the Mesi Tare Home Accommodation, in Varnja you will find the Samovar House. I myself had never heard of a samovar. But you learn that quickly in Peipsi, because you see them everywhere. A samovar is a traditional Russian kettle, which consists of a kettle with a tap, which you place on the fire. In the Samovar House, the owner exhibits her private collection, which includes countless samovars and plates and cups with polka dots. Because the collection is so huge, it’s nice to look around.
The village of Alatskivi is called the heart of the Onion Route around Lake Peipsi in Estonia and is easily accessible from Tartu city. It is known for its beautiful Alatskivi Castle and is a good startingpoint for exploring the Peipsi region.
The Alatskivi Castle
Out of nowhere, you come across a white castle, built in Gothic style, located at an idyllic lake in Alatskivi. The Alatskivi Castle dates back to the 17th century but was remodeled in the 19th century to resemble the royal Balmoral residence in Scotland. The castle offers guided tours about the life and history of the wealthy family that lived here. But even if you don’t feel like going on a tour, the castle is definitely worth visiting from the outside as well. Even if it’s only to take a picture. Nowadays you can also spend the night and dine in the castle.
Onion Route tip: From the Alatskivi castle, there is hiking trail of about 5 km, taking you around the Lossijärv lake in Estonia. I have not walked the trail myself but the area invites you to do so!
Experience a wine tasting at Alatskivi Manor Flavors
Did you know that Estonia produces several different wines? I had no idea. At Alatskvi Manor you can do a wine tasting, with only wines coming from Estonia. Most of the wines are made from fruits and berries. That may not sound very appealing to the wine expert at first but believe me, they are delicious and have nothing to do with fruit juice. Whereas the best restaurants in Estonia swore by the well-known traditional wines, fruit wines are now served at several places.
The tasting includes 5 different wines and I have to guess which fruit they are made from. I don’t recognize any of them, until the lady reveals the ingredients. I taste the honey and berry wine, a dry red wine that goes well with smoked fish and meat, apple berry wine, a wine made from rhubarb and strawberries and a sparkling wine made from apple and quince, a tree species from the rose family. There are 20 wines that the owner makes in her own wine cellar. You can sit comfortably inside and, if the weather is nice, take a seat on the outdoor terrace! Highly recommended!
Lake Peipsi in Estonia
At different places along Lake Peipus you can get off and walk along the lake. There are also several sandy beaches, such as in Kallaste and Mustvee, where you can go for a swim with the locals in the summer. Kallaste is known for the longest sandstone from the Devonian period, an outcrop of 930 meters long and 8 meters high. Lake Peispi is also a unique destination in winter. If the ice is frozen, it is possible to go for a sleigh ride on the ice. A popular activity for the residents in the region!
Every country has its own national hero. Estonia is no exception. These are often stories that you, as a foreigner, have never heard of. I personally like to immerse myself in them and learn more about a country and its culture that way. In the village of Kääpa there is the Kalevipoeg museum. Every child in Estonia grows up with this national hero and countless books have been published.
The museum is dedicated to Kalevipoeg, because he struck his last blow in this region and left his sword in the Kääpa river. Interesting is the alternation between information, video and interactive areas. In the video, the story of Kalevipoeg, is told through animation. In 20 minutes you understand more about who he is and what he means for Estonia. For a remote place like this, the museum is beautifully and modernly designed. I wish that this place will receive a lot of visitors, interested in learning more about this national hero.
There was an oral tradition in ancient Estonia of legends that explained the creation of the world. Kalevipoeg is a poem written by Friedrich Reinhold Kreutzwald and is considered the national epic of Estonia. It consists of about 19,000 verses, and is based on Estonian legends. Most of it, is about the great hero Kalevipoeg.
Take pictures at the National Geographic windows in Southern Estonia
In South Estonia you can’t miss the yellow National Geographic windows, that are located throughout the region. These were placed to promote the nature, culture and history of the area. When you take a picture through the windows you immediately get a nice photo angle. Most windows are clearly placed, sometimes you have to look a little longer. There are windows in Tartu, at the Alatskivi castle, the Kalevipoeg museum, Suur Munamägi tower and Lake Peipus in Mustvee among others. Want to discover more windows? Find an overview here.
The project is called “Living on the Edge” and refers to the border location between South Estonia and Russia. In 2013, 21 locations were selected that told the story of South Estonia but by now there are 30.
4 tips for food and restaurants around Lake Peipsi in Estonia
Lunch in Kivi tavern – Alatskivi
Kivi Tavern in Alatskivi is a simple traditional eatery, where many locals come. When I go to eat here, I find out that it is run by a Dutchman (my home country). The wife of the owner comes to say hi. She is from South-Estonia but speaks a good word of Dutch. Kivi tavern is a cozy place where you can enjoy local dishes, including the famous smoked fish.
Peipsi Fish shop – Kallaste
This store specializes in fish, which is smoked in the backyard. During the day you can take a seat on the small terrace. But for special occasions you can have romantic dinner in the barn of the courtyard garden of this sweet couple. And what’s on the table is really too much to mention. I really don’t know where to start with all these amazing dishes: Fish bread, 2 kinds of giant smoked fish, the berry pie, tea, local beer, fresh fruit juice and much more. If you like fish, you really don’t want to miss this place!
Peipsi Tea House teemaja – Lake Peipsi
In Teemaja, you want to stop for lunch. They have nice and fresh meals (think of a cantharelle lasagna) but you can also buy different handmade products, made of wood. It is nicely decorated with flowers everywhere.
Siiraku fish farm shop – Lake Peipus
I could sit here for hours. Not because there is so much happening but to take in the special atmosphere. The pieceful surroundings, the people, the sound of the car that passes by once every half hour: Everything here is different from the busy city life! This small fish shop is located along the main road on Lake Peipus and attracts several locals. From truck drivers who enjoy their break here to stylish ladies who quickly get in and buy something.
Do you love good food and are you planning to visit Tallinn? Tallinn has nice restaurants in the center but also hotspots in creative neighborhoods like Telliskivi and culinary experiences in Kadriorg and Noblessner port. In the following article I tell you all about my favorite restaurants for lunch, dinner, tasting menus, tea and cakes in Tallinn Estonia.
Hotels around Lake Peipsi and the Onion Route in Estonia
If you are looking for special overnight locations, you can stay in Varnja in an Old Believers house, Mesi Tare Home Accommodation and in Alatskivi in the Alatskivi castle. Another recommended place is Kadrina Manor Guesthouse. It is located above the town of Kallaste in Kadrina, in a green setting, within walking distance of a small beach. The building is cozy and stylishly decorated. The rooms are simple but nice and the owner does everything to make your stay as perfect as possible, such as a delicious breakfast in the morning. You can also book a traditional smoke sauna.
How to reach Lake Peipus and the Onion Route in South Estonia
Alatskivi is called the heart of the Onion Route and is less than a 30 minutes’ drive from Tartu, Estonia’s second city. From here you can easily move on to the different villages around Peipsi Lake. The best way to explore the area is by car. The roads are good and the routes clear. But it is also recommened to explore the region by bike on a nice day. Good cycle routes are Alatskivi – Varnja – Kolkja – Alatskivi and the route Alatskivi- Kallaste – Kodavere. Per route you will need a day. From Tartu it is also easy to reach other parts of South Estonia such as Setomaa, the country of the Seto and Voru county. In the next article you’ll find many tips for things to do in South Estonia.
Tartu is the second city of Estonia and is considered the intellectual cultural capital of the country. It is bursting with concert halls, theaters, exhibitions and trendy neighborhoods with numerous bars. In the following article you can read all about what to do in Tartu, with great attractions and useful tips for your visit.
Summary about the Onion Route and Lake Peipsi in Estonia
We are all looking for authentic experiences. What I can say is that while visiting Lake Peipus in South Estonia, you experience the real local life. And only a handful of people know their way to this region.
Are they wow moments that you experience here? No! But wow is not only about spectacular tours but can also be found in little experiences. People here are working hard to promote their crafts, knowledge or specialties. And that is what makes a visit so special. The best thing is to rent a car, drive via the Onion Route along Lake Peipus and stop along the way for a walk, museum or farm visit. I really enjoyed immersing myself in this region of South Estonia.
I visited different provinces and places in South Estonia and created a comprehensive guide. In the next article you’ll find my many tips and things to do for discovering South Estonia.
More about Estonia
I hope I’ve inspired you to visit Lake Peipus and the Onion Route when you’re in Estonia! Curious to know more about Estonia? Then check out the Estonia archive with an extensive guide to Tartu, Estonia’s second city, a travel guide to the capital Tallinn with numerous sights, tips and things to do to discover South Estonia, and my favorite restaurants in Tallinn for lunch, dinner, tea and cake. Curious about other European destinations and great Passport the World tips? Make sure to check out my Europe archive.