Estonia has so much more to offer than just the capital Tallinn. If you are planning to visit Estonia, make sure to check out South Estonia and add this to your itinerary. A new world will open up for you, where you walk through forested areas, pick mushrooms and berries, learn about traditions and customs of the Seto people and Old Believers, visit small villages around Lake Peipus, enjoy delicious local dishes and meet many friendly people who are ready to offer a glimpse into their lives. But also the second city of Estonia, Tartu, is worth discovering. In this article you’ll find tips for things to do in South Estonia and understand why you should definitely visit this region.
- Things to do in Setomaa, South Estonia
- Learn more about the Setos at the Värska Farm Museum
- Get to know the Setos
- Enjoy a Seto lunch at Café Tsäimaja
- Discover Seto jewelry and art
- Saatse boat border route – one of the special sights in South Estonia
- Visit a farm in Saabolda and make a local dish
- Special accommodation in Setomaa: Meremäe Kirsi Talo
- God Hill store with handmade soa
- Things to do in Võru in South Estonia
- Things to do around Lake Peipus and the Onion Route in South Estonia
- Things to do in Tartu in South Estonia
- How to reach South Estonia
- More about Estonia
Things to do in Setomaa, South Estonia
Setomaa is a special municipality, located in Võrumaa Province, south of Lake Peipus, in South Estonia. The area borders Russia and is known for its Seto inhabitants, a special tribe, or ethnic minority that still lives according to its own traditions and customs. Seto people are known for their singing, food and traditional clothes. I still can’t believe I had never heard of this population. Of course, you can’t know the whole world but because of my specific interest in tribes and cultures, I felt a bit embarrassed. Therefore I am happy to share more about my visit to Setomaa, including interesting things to do in this part of South Estonia.
Learn more about the Setos at the Värska Farm Museum
At the Värska Farm Museum, you’ll gain more insight into the lives of the Seto people. A lovely lady dressed in traditional costume proudly tells about her life, traditions and customs. Fortunately, guide Helen is there to translate everything, as the lady only speaks the Seto language, a dialect that is similar to the South Estonian language.
Because it is so pieceful in this area, I can take in the scenery and stories well and I find it a special experience to learn more about this ethnic minority. And although dressing up could feel a bit touristy, I wanted to make it work to honor this culture. There are different outfits for married men, married women and unmarried people, which I wear. You can see the result below.
Get to know the Setos
- Setos have lived on the border of Russia and Estonia, the eastern and western cultures, for centuries. Most Seto people in Estonia live in Setomaa in Vöru Province.
- The Seto dialect is a variant of South Estonian but is hard to understand for Northern Estonians.
- Setos are famous for their silver jewellery and singing. Seto Leelo is a singing method wich is more than 1000 years old. It has been included in the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Unesco.
- Setos are of Orthodox religion.
- The traditional costume of the Seto woman is a combination of white, black and red. Married women also wear a head set, covered with a belt and decorated with bands.
- Seto have their own curreny, the Seto kroon. It can be used in Setomaa as an equal payment alongside with the euro.
- Every year durirng the first Saturday in August, Seto Kingdom takes place, a celebration with singing competitions, parades and the election of the new regent.
Want to learn more about the Setos when you are in Setomaa? Make sure to contract guide Helen. She knows the area very well and speaks English fluently. She also wrote an interesting travel guide about Setomaa,
Enjoy a Seto lunch at Café Tsäimaja
You can enjoy a traditional Seto lunch at the adjacent Café Tsäimaja restaurant. The menu consists of various plates, including cold soup of pickle, sour cream, tomato and cabbage, sõir, a type of quark cheese with caraway seeds, mushed potatoes with canterelles and meat, and hansa, a homemade rye vodka. The famous Seto songs are played in the background and the staff walks around in traditional costumes. It is another lovely place to get a glimpse of Seto culture!
Seto food culture is mainly influenced by nature and Estonian and Russian cuisine. People eat a lot of mushrooms and fish, as well as dairy products. What is important in Seto cuisine is to preserve the pure and raw taste and texture of the ingredients in the food.
Discover Seto jewelry and art
Being a true jewelry lover, I wanted to make a stop at an artist who still makes the famous Seto jewelry: Evar Riitsaar of Seto Gallery at Obinitsa. Many local people come to Evar to buy Seto art. Even though the jewelry is mostly worn on holidays and birthdays these days, many people still have a collection at home.
The jewelry is made by hand and it can sometimes take up to 50 days to complete a piece. Evar works with existing patterns but also gives them his own twist. The patterns consist of many geometric figures, recognizable from the Egyptians but also from the Incas and the Maya. Wearing jewelry was formerly not only a sign of wealth but also a way to protect your soul. The jewelry can sometimes weigh up to 5 kilos. I think it’s beautiful and would love to add it to my own jewelry collection. Who knows in the future! Besides jewelry, you can take a look at the paintings, photographs and other Seto objects.
Saatse boat border route – one of the special sights in South Estonia
Since you are so close to the border with Russia, it is possible to take a special route in Setomaa, where you drive through Estonia, Russia and Estonia on one road. It is the Saatse route. A road of less than 800 meters, but still you notice that the atmosphere changes. Because halfway the route you are on Russian territory. It is therefore strictly forbidden to get out of the car. If you do, you will be fined and if you are unlucky, you will even be stopped by the Russian authorities. You are allowed to take photos, as long as it is not of the border posts themselves.
The route ends in the village of Saatse, with a small museum about the region. Here it is possible to take some pictures with the border posts, ( the same ones that are located at the actual border, only there you are not allowed to get out of the car). If you want to take a picture with a border post, this is the place!
Tip: It is recommended to walk from the Saatse museum through the forest upwards. Here you approach the official border, an area with poles where it is made clear that you are near the border. I am fascinated by borders so I found this very interesting!
Visit a farm in Saabolda and make a local dish
If you are in South Estonia you have to get acquainted with sõir, a kind of cottage cheese made with whole milk, butter, eggs, salt and caraway seeds. Several places in Setomaa (including the Seto museum in Värska) serve this dish, but even better is it to make it yourself. I visited Sirje, a friendly lady who runs a farm and home restaurant calld Maagõkõnõ (which means poppy). Something that strikes me in this region is that all these farms look so beautiful. Everything is well maintained and there are flowers all over.
I get to work in the kitchen. I’m not much of a kitchen person myself, but the nice setting makes me want to fully go for it. Everything is ready: eggs, salt, a pan with milk, water and caraway seeds. My main task is to stir the ingredients in the pan so that it becomes a solid mass. But when Sirje takes over from me, I can see that she is an expert. She knows what she does.
Then a delicious lunch of fresh fish, canterelles, potatoes and vegetables is waiting for me. Everything is fresh from the garden. Sirje also makes her own ice cream from berries, wich is served as a dessert. And of course we taste our homemade sõir. What a nice afternoon!
Special accommodation in Setomaa: Meremäe Kirsi Talo
If you’re looking for a special overnight location, where you can learn even more about Seto culture and traditions. Then you want to stay at Kursi Tala, the cherry farm. This farm is run by Kaidi and her husband Reimo. To honor their ancestors and to keep the Seto traditions alive, Kaidi opened up her beautiful surroundings to visitors.
Traditionally, we are welcomed with a glass of snaps, with live accordion music in the background. Host Kaidi tells me that I can spend the night in a family cottage, but it is also possible to get acquainted with the way the Setos used to sleep: One entire family spends the night all together in one room. And I decide to go for it ( we are only with two people, wich makes it even more accesible). On both sides of the room there ate beds lined up. It looks nice and I have a great night!
Kirsi Talo also offers a traditional smoke sauna, a sauna that is heated by lighting a fire inside it. The smoke is let out later, which is when you take a seat in it. It is a rather hot sauna but nice experience.
Dinner at Kirsi Talo
Dinner at Kirsi Talo is prepared as well, and consists of different local dishes and these in abundance. Kaidi explains that it is important to always make as much food as possible, even if there are only 2 guests. This is a sign of hospitality. The leftover food is distributed among the neighbours or made into savory pies for the next day. We enjoy (of course) the sõir, canterelles, homemade bread (which Estonia is famous for), local cheeses, potatoes and a dessert of chocolate and berries. Also, Kaidi works as a sommelier so wines can’t be missed here. Kirsi Talo is a really lovely place and a good startingpoint to explore the area and differentt things to do in South Estonia.
God Hill store with handmade soa
If you have the time, try to make a stop at Silver’s soap shop. Silver decided to change his life, after being seriously ill. He realized that he had a dream and wanted to start his own business, producing his own soaps, using natural products from the area. People in this region had always made their own soap, but only for personal use.
Currently, he sells different soaps in his small home store. Where in many places in the world you feel like you’ve landed in a commercial place, this has a very different character. The store is small and cute. There are funny soaps called Kamasutra, Sputnik, a nod to the Russians, but the best one is the bog soap, made from bog water. A recipe Silver worked on for years!
Things to do in Võru in South Estonia
Võru is another municipality in the province of Võrumaa in South Estonia. More than half of Estonia consists of forests and that is something visible in this region. From the first moment I arrive, I notice the tall trees. Beautiful!
People in South Estonia live close to nature and regularly go out to look for mushrooms and pick berries, something I also get to experience during my visit to South Estonia. Võru county is great for hiking and for visiting local farms to learn more about herbs and plants. These are my tips for things to do in Võru in South Estonia.
Võromaa is one of Estonia’s fifteen provinces and is located in the Southeast of the country. The province borders Russia to the East, Latvia to the South and consists of municipalities, including Setomaa and Võru. The capital is the town of Võru.
Forest trail – beautiful hiking trail in South Estonia
One of the best trails for hiking is the Forest Trail. This 1060 kilometer route starts in Riga and ends in Tallinn, taking you through the forested areas of both Latvia and Estonia and crossing three National Parks, including the beautiful Gauja National Park. The whole trail takes 50 days and is divided into parts of about 20 kilometers per day. It is therefore easy to just hike a part of the Forest Trail. I made a nice and relaxed walk of about 2 hours, along the Piusa River, which separates the provinces Setomaa and Võrumaa.
We walked through forests with tall trees and along green fields with a farm here and there. Also, the views of the Piusa River are worth checking out. I loved the trees, greenery and the many frogs jumping around. I also understand that this area is the habitat of the brown bear and local people regularly notice them. It would have been great to see one, but I didn’t.
Good to know: the Forest Trail is part of a European long distance hiking route, the E11. If you are up for some more hiking in the Baltics, it is also possible to start the above route at the Polish – Lithuanian border, near the village Lazdijai. More information about the Forest Trail can be found here. I would love to experience more of this trail in the future.
Suur Munamägi observation tower
Looking for a nice 360 degree view? Then make sure to visit the Suur Munamägi observation tower. This tower is located on the highest mountain in Estonia, at a height of 318 meters. In fact, it is the highest mountain in the Baltic States. Latvia is even dissappointed because their highest point is only 6 meters lower, located at 312 meters. From the top, you have a great view of the surroundings. Here you really realize how forested Estonia is.
From the parking lot, it is a short walk towards the tower. After that, it’s an easy climb up. You can take the stairs (which I always find to be a nice work-out) but if you want to take it easier, there is also an elevator. Keep your eyes open for cute squirrels jumping through the trees.
Visit a farm and learn all about herbs and mushrooms
One of my favorite things to do in South Estonia was visiting a family on a farm to learn more about local herbs and plants. Ene Sprenc lives with her husband, dogs and cats on Roobi Talu. The most perfect farm with countless flowers, surrounded by almost 25 acres of forest. Ene believes that if you live in the same place for a long time, you automatically become one with your surroundings. Nature brings you everything you need. That’s why she started to work with herbs and plants and develop her own specialties. But what became normal to her, is still special to others. That’s why her daughters started a publicity program, so that nowadays she and more local people working on a farm, receive visitors.
We take a walk through the woods, without meeting anyone. Along the way, there are numerous mushrooms that we pick up, the light and smaller ones are the ones we are looking for, but I am distracted by the boletuses and the typical red and white mushrooms. There are perfect and so big! There are also many berries to be found: Blueberries and common berries.
After our walk, lunch is served. We have a drink of mushrooms, a shot of vodka and different herbal teas. Then we start with the specialties: Pancakes with fruit and homemade jam. It’s like a full high tea.
Restaurant tip – Suur Muna café in Haanja
One of the nicest lunch spots is without a doubt Suur Muna. A place where you want to linger because of the nice atmosphere, cool instagrammable decor and delicious food. I would take my laptop out and sit there for a whole day. When the weather is nice you can also sit outside. Everything on the menu is delicious. From fresh ravioli, soups and salads to delicious cakes.
Tip: Don’t forget to visit the upstairs restrooms. I’d rather not tell this to maintain the surprise, but I’m going to do it anyway. As soon as you turn on the lights, tunes of Abba along with many disco lights will overwhelm you! Super fun!
Spend the night in Vöru
Looking for a hotel in Võrumaa to explore the area? I stayed at Hotel Georgi, a nice and centrally located hotel in the town of Vöru. And perfect place to discover the many things to do in South Estonia.
Things to do around Lake Peipus and the Onion Route in South Estonia
Not far from Tartu you’ll find the region Peipsi. Located on the West coast of Lake Peipus, Estonia’s largest lake, which also borders Russia. Via the Onion Route you travel along 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 fully immersed in the daily life of the locals. Below are some of my tips for the best things to do in Peipsi in South Estonia.
I visited the region for two days and wrote different travelguides. Check out the next article with 20 tips and things to do around Lake Peipsi and the Onion Road 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 from Russia fled 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. Old Believers still live according to their own traditions and customs, around Lake Peipsi. As a visitor, you can get a glimpse of the life and culture of Old Believers and visit a number of interesting attractions.
For example, at the Peipsima Vistors Center you can learn more about local Old Believers customs. In Varnja you can spend the night in an Old Believers House and there are several Old Believers churches to visit. Also, don’t miss a traditional samovar Ivan Chai tea ceremony. A samovar is a traditional Russian kettle in which tea is prepared, from the herbaceous plant, the willow herb. And of course, this is accompanied by sweet snacks. As the ultimate tea lover, I cannot recommend this enough.
Discover the local specialties of Lake Peipsi
Old Believers are known as hard-working fishermen and skilled onion growers. And that’s what the Lake Peipsi region is still known for. It is recommended to visit an onion farm such as Kostja’s Onion farm and learn about the onion growing methods of the Old Believers. But most of all to taste the onion pie of the woman of the house. Yes really, a pie made of onions! And it tastes so good!
You will also find many fish dishes in the Peipsi region, with the specialty being smoked fish. At Peipsi fish store in Kallaste, I was completely pampered by an amazing dinner in the courtyard of these lovely owners. And what was placed on the table is really too much to mention: Fish bread, 2 kinds of giant smoked fish, berry pie, tea, local beer, fresh fruit juice and so much more. If you love fish, you really don’t want to miss this place!
Alatskivi castle, one of the sights in South Estonia
Alatskivi Castle is a white castle, built in Gothic style, located at an idyllic lake in Alatskivi. The castle offers a guided tour where you get to understand more about the life and history of the rich family that lived here. But even if you don’t feel like going on a guided tour, the castle is worth a visit. Even if it is just to take a picture! Nowadays you can also stay overnight and dine in the castle.
Wine tasting at Alatskivi Manor Flavors
Did you know that Estonia produces a variety of wines? I had no idea. In Alatskvi 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. While the best restaurants in Estonia swore by the well-known traditional wines, fruit wines are now served at several places. During a wine tasting you get to know different kinds of wine and get an explanation about the fruit and the process. A must for the wine drinker!
Things to do in Tartu in South Estonia
Tartu is the second city of Estonia and a nice city to discover. The city has 100,000 inhabitants and is known as a real university city. Tartu is also the oldest city in the Baltic States and is considered the intellectual cultural capital of the country. Tartu is bursting with concert halls, theaters, exhibitions and trendy neighborhoods with bars. Below are some highlights of things to do in Tartu in South Estonia. And if you want to read more, make sure to take a look at my comprehensive Tartu travel guide in the following article.
Discover the central square and sights in the center of Tartu, South Estonia
The central heart of Tartu is the Raekoja Plats, a beautiful square, which is built in the shape of a trapezium, located on the Emajõgi River, where there is always something going on. Immediately catching the eye is the pastel pink and red-colored town hall from the 18th century, which is still in use. The square is a great place to take pictures and a good base from which to explore Tartu.
National Museum of Estonia
Want to learn more about the history of Estonia? The National Museum of Estonia is a place you shouldn’t miss. Built on a former Soviet military base, it consists of 6,000 square meters of exhibition space. The permanent collection is made up of a timeline, which runs from a number of archaeological finds to Soviet times and present-day Estonia. In a short time you will get a good impression of the history and life in Estonia throughout the years. There are also temporary exhibitions, so it is worth to keep an eye on it.
Karlova and Soup Town
Karlova is the bohemian district of Tartu, because of its creative atmosphere. Another interesting district to explore is Supilinn, or Soup town, where many streets bear a vegetable or soup name. Both districts are nice to stroll around, spot beautiful houses, view street art and settle down in one of the nice coffee shops and bars.
Tour along street art sights in Tartu South Estonia
Tartu is known for its street art. Local authorities and artists work closely together and that is clearly visible in the city. In neighborhoods like Karlova and Soup Town, as well as in the center you can find great works. I went on a tour with a guide and an e-bike to hear more about the thoughts behind the artworks. Recommended!
In the following article you will read everything you want to know about Tartu in Estonia, with nice attractions, hotels, restaurants and useful tips for your visit.
How to reach South Estonia
Tartu is a good starting point if you want to explore South Estonia. Tartu, has its own airport but there are few direct flights. It’s best to fly to Tallinn and travel on from there. Since you can discover South Estonia best by car, it’s convenient to rent a car in Tallinn and drive to Tartu (about 2 hours). From here the distances towards the Onion Route, Setomaa and Voru are not far. Within half an hour you are in Alatskivi, and within an hour and a half in Setomaa. The roads are good and the routes clear. You can also go out and explore the area around Lake Peipsi by bike.
More about Estonia
In collaboration with VisitEstonia I made a fantastic trip through Estonia, visiting different sides of the country. On Passport the World you’ll find travel tips and inspiration for discovering Estonia. Have a look in the Estonia archive with an extensive travel guide for Tallinn, the capital of Estonia, my favorite restaurants in Tallinn for lunch, dinner, tea and cake, a guide for Tartu, with numerous sights and an article with 20 tips and things to do aroud Lake Peipsi and the Onion Route in South Estonia.