Tartu is the second city of Estonia and yet we know very little about it! Too bad, because it is a great city to discover. The city has 100,000 inhabitants and is known as a real university city. Tartu is the oldest city of the Baltic States and is often seen as the intellectual cultural capital of the country. And that is for a reason. Tartu is full of concert halls, theaters, exhibitions and trendy neighbourhoods with numerous bars. In this travel guide you will find the best things to do in Tartu Estonia, including great attractions, restaurants and useful tips for your visit.
- Raekoja Square and town hall
- The National Museum of Estonia – one of the best things to do in Tartu
- Things to do in Karlova – the nicest neighbourhood of Tartu
- Discover Tartu's street art- best things to do in Tartu
- Explore the Upside Down House
- Visit the University of Tartu in Estonia
- Stroll along Emajõgi rivier – one of the best things to do in Tartu on a sunny day
- Climb the top of the Jaani kirik church
- Walk through the botanical gardens
- Discover Supilinn (Soup town)
- Visit Toomemägi park
- Creative city Aparaaditehas – top things to do in Tartu Estonia
- Visit TYPA Centre
- Hop on the self-driving bus in Tartu in Estonia
- The Tartu city museum
- Tartu Art museum
- Prima Vista
- Tartu in Light
- Tartu Food and Wine Festival
- Street Art Festival Stencibility
- Christmas in Tartu
Discover the best things to do in Tartu in Estonia
Raekoja Square and town hall
The central heart of Tartu is the Raekoja Plats, which is built in the shape of a trapezium, located on the Emajõgi River. It is a cozy and beautiful square 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. Here you can see that Tart is a real student city. In front of the town hall there is a fountain with a statue of two students kissing under an umbrella. Also, a clock was attached to the tower to encourage students to arrive on time. This square is a great place to take pictures and a great base to explore the other sights in Tartu.
Tip: On Saturday there is a weekend market in the streets around Raekoja Square. A great way to get an impression of the different inhabitants of Tartu. Young and old come together here to shop and have a drink.
The National Museum of Estonia – one of the best things to do in 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 consists of 6000 square meters of exhibition space and is built over a bridge, on a former Soviet military base.
Today you will find numerous interesting exhibitions. The permanent collection is made up of a timeline, which runs from some archaeological finds to Soviet times and present-day Estonia. In a short amount of time you’ll get a good impression of the history and life in Estonia through the years.
Another permanent exhibition that impressed me was the one on Finno-Ugric peoples and languages called: The Echo of the Urals. These are indigenous groups without their own state, inhabiting an immense strip of land spread across Scandinavia, Hungary, the Baltic Sea and Siberia. In different rooms, which are dedicated to the four seasons, you will be taken on a journey to these peoples, their habitat, daily activities, rituals, languages and art. Audiovisual installations play a major role here. Beautifully done!
Tip: Make sure you have your admission ticket with you during your visit and keep it afterwards! If you find an interesting display with information, you can scan your ticket and save the information to it. With your personal url (mentioned on the card) you can retrieve this information later from your computer.
Things to do in Karlova – the nicest neighbourhood of Tartu
Karlova is without a doubt the nicest neighbourhood of Tartu. It is called the bohemian area of the city, because of the creative atmosphere, the colored wooden houses, the greenery and mix of people who live there. Make sure to schedule a couple of hours to stroll through this neighbourhood, look at the street art and settle down at one of the nice coffee shops and bars.
Among others you will find the popular bar Barlova, owned by the Italian Simone. Simone left sunny Bari in southern Italy in 2007 behind to build a new life with his pregnant girlfriend in northern Estonia. Quite a transition, as he calls it himself. “If I hadn’t ended up in Karlova, I would have felt lost. This neighbourhood, the creative people and nice atmosphere really pulled me through,”. The name Barlova is a nod to the neighborhood, its place of origin Bari and bar. Barlova started in 2015 and grew into a real hotspot where young, old, student and artist meet. For a drink at the beginning of the evening or parties at the weekend.
Tallinn is the capital of Estonia and is becoming very popular! Tallinn is known for its beautiful medieval center, where you can walk for hours through the narrow streets, hidden courtyards, along former city walls, churches and old merchants houses. But there are also hip neighborhoods like Telliskivi and Noblessner, former industrial areas transformed into creative places. In this article you’ll read everything you want to know about the best things to do in Tallinn in Estonia.
Discover Tartu’s street art– best things to do in Tartu
Tartu in Estonia embraces street art. Something you can tell, as soon as you walk into the main square. Historic buildings dominate the square, but if you look around a corner, you might just find a piece of street art on the walls. Tartu makes street art special, as artists work closely with the local authorities.
In the district Karlova, Soup town, in the center and along the river, you can find artworks of different artists. It is highly recommended to take a guided tour, as you will be able to observe hidden works and learn more about the thoughts behind the pieces. Street art tours are best done by bike (with an e-bike if you like), offered by Pseudotours. This way you will get a nice impression of the creative districts and street art in Tartu in a short amount of time.
Every year the Stencibility festival takes place in Tartu, where local and international artists are invited, to create new artworks. What’s special is that no agreements are made in advance or sketches are approved. Everything is created on the spot, so that artists experience maximum artistic freedom. The festivals includes lectures, workshops and tours to bring street art to the attention of a wide audience.
Explore the Upside Down House
Ever heard of an upside down house? A house in which you experience everything upside down? In other words, the floor is the ceiling and the ceiling is the floor you walk on. And all the interior that would normally be on the floor is now hanging from the ceilings. In Tartu in Estonia you will find one. By entering this house, you are experiencing a house upside down. It might sound confusing, and that’s exactly the reason why you should find out yourself. In any case, it provides the coolest pictures. Keep in mind that the floor of the house is not equal. Therefore it is important to take it easy, so you do not get nauseous. Check out the website for lots of funny picture inspiration. I also gave it a try (see the picture below!).
Visit the University of Tartu in Estonia
If you are in the city of Tartu, you should definitely pay a short visit to the university, even if it is only for a nice picture! It was built in the early 19th century in classicist style and is one of the most beautiful buildings in the city. It is also one of the oldest universities in Northern Europe. Because of its good acoustics, many concerts and conferences take place there. It is also possible to take a look inside and visit the central hall and attic.
Tip: On the left side of the university building you’ll find a beautiful mural. Absolutely worth a closer look and get a picture.
Stroll along Emajõgi rivier – one of the best things to do in Tartu on a sunny day
The Emajõgi River runs right through Tartu in Estonia. On a sunny day, it is so nice to stroll along this river in Tartu! Regularly there are events, concerts, pop up 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.
Climb the top of the Jaani kirik church
One of the typical things to do in Tartu is to visit the 14th century Jaani Kiriki, or St. John’s Church. It is one of the oldest churches in Estonia and known for its 1000 terracotta statues, which are located in the niches around the church (only part of them is visible today) and are almost 700 years old. Take some pictures and make sure to climb the 125 steps to the top of the church for a great view of Tartu in Estonia.
Walk through the botanical gardens
A nice place to unwind in Tartu are the botanical gardens. You’ll find 6500 different species of plants and trees in a well-maintained garden complex with walking paths, ponds and benches to sit on.
Discover Supilinn (Soup town)
Another interesting district to explore is Supilinn, or Soup town, where streets bear a vegetable name. Soup town was born in the 19th century out of necessity to house workers from the adjacent beer factory. It consisted of muddy streets and a maze of wooden houses. Over the years, the neighborhood transformed and students and creatives managed to find their way to Soup town. Today, it is a popular neighborhood to live in, with lovely houses and hidden street art. In particular, Herne street, which means pea is nice to explore. On one of the side streets you’ll also find the distinct blue house. No museum or company behind it but just a residential house which has become one of the landmarks in Tartu. The streets of Soup town are located behind the botanical gardens.
Visit Toomemägi park
Toomemagii, the cathedral hill, is a large park, right in the middle of the city. One of the best things to do in this green area of Tartu is to visit the ruins of the 13th century cathedral. Two centuries were spent building the cathedral, but it was destroyed by fire in the 17th century.
For a ruin, there is still a surprising amount left standing. Therefore, definitely worth a look. Today it is also home to the Tartu University Museum with regular exhibitions. It is a bit of a climb up but the views of the city and river during your hike make up for it. You walk over the hill past statues of Estonian scientists and prominent people, small bridges and places where you can sit on a bench. On the other side of the mountain you’ll will find a beautiful theater, built in classicist style (same architectural style as the university).
Creative city Aparaaditehas – top things to do in Tartu Estonia
Entering this place, made me feel happy. Aparaaditehas (the Widget Factory) is an old factory located on the corner of Riia and Kastani streets in Karlova in Tartu. During the Soviet era, the factory was used to produce cooling equipment and secret submarine parts. And to fool the outside world, umbrellas, zippers and other non-working products were manufactured there as well.
Today Aparaaditehas is a hip creative gathering place of boutique stores, co-working spaces, galleries and restaurants and you want nothing more than to walk around and explore. A bit similar to the Telliskivi cultural hub in Tallinn. There are a number of entrances from the outside and courtyard that leads to a complex of stores and spaces. Make sure to have a look at the Kogo and Ag47 galleries, buy a book at second-hand bookstore Fahrenheit or take a seat in the large courtyard Taskupark (the Pocket Park). Here you will find lunchrooms and restaurants where you even can sit outside if the weather allows it. There are also markets and events, such as the popular open-air cinema evenings. On the website, you will find an overview of things to do in Aparaaditehas Tartu.
Visit TYPA Centre
TYPA is a surprisingly cool museum and design center, 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. You can also follow paper and origami workshops and view works from a new generation of artists. TYPA is in fact an artist in residence, which means that there are regularly new works on display, with paper and print as subjects. Don’t forget to have a look into the store and buy a notebook, made of recycled paper with an Estonian or Russian book cover. TYPA won an award, for its innovative approach to highlighting cultural heritage.
Hop on the self-driving bus in Tartu in Estonia
For sure, one of the interesting things to do in Tartu is to use the self-driving bus. A new concept of the city! This bus runs from the City museum to the Estonian National museum and vice versa. Just stop the bus, get on and within 10 minutes you are at your new destination! Fun!
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.
Tartu Art museum
Curious about art and artists from Estonia and the other Baltic States? Then have a look in the Tartmus, the Tartu art museum in Estonia. I always enjoy visiting a gallery or museum of contemporary art to get to know more about a country and its culture. During my visit, there was also a special exhibition about Andy Warhol & Willard Maas, something that I always find interesting to see! Make sure to take a look at the outside of the building. Tartmus is called the Leaning House because the building began to tilt to one side, due to the different materials used in its foundations.
Where to stay in Tartu in Estonia
Looking for a place to stay? I stayed in Hotel Lydia in Tartu, centrally located at the Toomemägi park and around the corner from the City Hall and other attractions. Hotel Lydia is a nice hotel with spacious rooms, fashionable pictures in the hallways, the popular restaurant Holms and a spa that you can use for free when you stay here! Highly recommended!
Check availability and current rates for Hotel Lydia in Tartu here. Looking for more hotel options? Here you can find an overview of hotels in Tartu Estonia.
Restaurants in Tartu Estonia
Kampus is a great place for a nice lunch or drink. You’ll find several lunch options and a great cocktail bar. No availability in Kampus? In the same street of Kampus, called Rüütli, there are many restaurants and bars.
Looking for a fancy setting to have dinner? At restaurant Antonius you can dine romantically and top notch in the wine cellar of the 18th century building.
In the Karlova district, you’ll definitely want to grab a drink at Barlova, owned by Italian Simone. In the early evening it is a cozy drinking spot and in the late hours a place for a possible little party. And when the weather is nice, the terrace is the place-to-be.
The best cupcakes can be found at Tassikoogid. Inside you can sit at a small table in a cozy corner. My kinda place! But it is even nicer to sit outside and observe the inhabitants of Karlova from your table.
Other nice places in Karlova are coffee bar Karlova Kohv, Anna Edasi en restaurant/bar Jakobi Jalats.
In this creative factory there are several restaurants and bars. Highly recommended for good food and service is restaurant Aparaat, located in the courtyard. The most delicious ice cream you can eat at Külm jäätisekohvik.
Also, in Tallinn you’ll find many nice and good restaurants. From cozy restaurants in the center to hotspots in creative districts such as Telliskivi and culinary experiences in Kadriorg and Noblessner port. In this article you will find my favorite restaurants for lunch, dinner, tasting menus, teas and cakes in Tallinn Estonia.
What to do around Tartu
Visit the Onion Route and Lake Peipsi
Not far from Tartu you’ll find the region of 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 the next article you will read more about the Peipsi region, the Onion Route and why it is worth visiting this region when you are in South Estonia.
Meet the Seto’s in Setomaa
Setomaa is a special municipality in Võrumaa Province, south of Lake Peipus. 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. You can visit the Seto museum, enjoy traditional Seto meals and spend the night in Seto style. In the next article, I’ll tell you more about the Setos and things to do in Setomaa in South Estonia.
Spend time in nature in Võru county
Looking for beautiful hiking trails? Then make sure to visit Võru, a municipality in the province of Võrumaa. Here you can walk part of the Forest Trail, a 1060 kilometer long route that starts in Riga and ends in Tallinn. A nice and relaxing hike is the trail of about 2 hours, along the Piusa river. You can also visit a farm in this area and learn more about local herbs and plants. Curious about the province of Võrumaa in Southern Estonia? In the next article you can find tips for things to do in South Estonia.
Events and things to do in Tartu Estonia
In May the international literary festival Prima Vista takes place in Tartu. There are readings, presentations and workshops, with the aim to bring writers and readers together and exchange thoughts.
In August, one of the best things to do in Tartu Estonia is to attend Tartuff, an open-air film festival, focusing on the beauty of love and everything that goes with it. Tartuff is one of the nicest summer festivals in Tartu with the largest open-air cinema.
Tartu in Light
TAVA of Tartu in Light is an International festival, which is all about light art. Tartu city center is transformed into a world of light with installations, outdoor artworka and many things to do. The festival includes conferences, workshops and exhibitions.
Tartu Food and Wine Festival
Are you planning to visit Tartu in August? Then make sure you go on the first weekend. Then the Food & Wine festival takes place, with numerous pop up restaurants, garden cafes and wine tastings, all focusing on Estonian products and taste experiences. How lovely is that!
Street Art Festival Stencibility
One of the best things to do in Tartu if you are interested in street art, is to attend the Stencibility festival. This festival takes place on a yearly base and invites local and international artists, to create new artworks in the city. But not only is it all about the artists during this festival. Tartu offers documentaries, workshops, picture contests, lectures and street art tours. By doing this, Tartu wants to bring street art to the attention of a wide audience.
Christmas in Tartu
In Tartu, you can’t escape the Christmas atmosphere in the main square in December. Every year an ice rink is placed and Christmas markets and concerts take place.
Tartu – European Capital of Culture in 2024
In 2024 Tartu will be the Cultural Capital of Europe. Tartu and several municipalities in South Estonia offer an extensive program which is dedicated to the theme Arts of Survival. This program shows what kind of influence art can have on the future of Europe. With this program, Tartu wants to show her historical and cultural heritage but also the creative mentality and innovative projects that South Estonia has to offer!
If you are planning a trip to Estonia, make sure to check out South Estonia. A new world will open up with forested areas where you can walk, pick mushrooms and berries, traditions and customs of the Seto’s and Old Believers, small villages around Lake Peipus, delicious local dishes and many friendly people who are ready to offer you a glimpse into their lives. In the next article article you can read my tips for things to do in South Estonia, and why you should definitely visit this region.
How to get around in Tartu in Estonia
Tartu is easy to explore by foot. Also, within 20 minutes from the center, you will reach the district of Karlova and Soup town. Another great way to get around in Tartu is by e-bike. There are stands throughout the city and with the app you can find one in no time.
How to reach Tartu in Estonia
Tartu has its own airport but there are few direct flights. The best way is to fly to Tallinn and travel by train from there. There are several trains a day and it only takes you two hours. Or rent a car, like I did, so you can be independent and see more of South Estonia after your visit to Tartu. From March 2022 it is also possible to take a direct flight to Tartu from Helsinki, departing on a daily base!
Pin and save “Things to do in Tartu Estonia” for later
More about Estonia
Do you want to read more about Estonia? In collaboration with VisitEstonia I made a fantastic trip through Estonia where I got to visit different sides of the country. Have a look in Estonia archive for all articles, including a comprehensive guide to Tallinn with 35 things to do and see, tips for the Onion Route and Lake Peipsi, my favorite restaurants in Tallinn and a guide with things to do in South Estonia. Curious about other European destinations and Passport the World tips? check out my Europe archive. Want to learn more about the best things to do in Tartu in Estonia? Have a look at the VisitTartu website.