A sustainable seven-day tour of Estonia

Source: Marleen Valdmaa

A sustainable seven-day tour of Estonia

As one of the greenest countries in Europe, anyone looking for a sustainable travel experience can find a huge range of options in Estonia. With more than 50% of the country covered by forest and nature, the country is a paradise for the green-minded traveller.

A sustainable tour around Estonia gives you the chance to experience nature up-close. Hike through the expansive forests or traverse the wetlands with bog-shoes. Estonia is a prime location for birdwatching, and its forests are also home to lynxes, wolves, and brown bears, so keep your eyes peeled and your binoculars ready!

Take in thatched roofs, wooden windmills, and quaint fishing villages while you enjoy the seaside landscapes and islands off the coast. And whether you prefer to unwind in nature, relax in a sauna, or discover the rich history of Estonia, you will find sustainable destinations to enjoy all around the country.

Getting Around

Due to Estonia's compact size, you won't have to worry about spending too much time on transport. The country has a large network of bike trails as well as affordable trains and buses. For nature-lovers, most national parks and green spaces can be reached by bus. And of course, you need a ferry to reach any of the islands.

Day 1: Lahemaa

The first stop in touring sustainable Estonia is Lahemaa National Park in North Estonia. Lahemaa is one of Europe's largest national parks. Founded in 1971, it is also the oldest national park in the area that was once the former Soviet Union. During its 50 year history, Lahemaa has always been managed with sustainability in mind. As a result, it's held the EUROPARC certificate for sustainable tourism since 2019.

Lahemaa has the perfect infrastructure for nature tourism and is known for its wilderness, and beautiful landscapes covered in wetlands, forests, preserved flora and fauna as well as some of Estonia's most impressive manor houses.

You can take a number of different trails to explore the park. One of the main highlights and top recommendations is Viru Bog where you can walk 3.5 km to reach an observation tower to get a bird's-eye view of the marshes and wetlands.

There are also four manor houses in the area that you can visit - Palmse Manor, Vihula Manor, Kolga Manor, and Sagadi Manor. The easiest to visit is Kolga Manor, which will be the closest to the bus station that brings you to Lahemaa.

You can also take another bus and in less than an hour from Kolga, you will reach other points of interest in the region, such as Sagadi Manor or the small fishing village of Altja with its wooden houses perched along the beach on the Gulf of Finland.

How to get there

Coming from Tallinn, you can take a bus to different spots according to your interests.

Peatus Estonia or Gobus AS or SEBE : Tallinn (Kivisilla) – Kolga
Duration: 1h
Approximate cost: 2€ – 5€

Day 2: Rakvere

Heading east from Lahemaa National Park, the second stop on our sustainable journey is Rakvere, a smart city where you can enjoy different aspects of Estonian culture, history, and nature.

The city of Rakvere strives for climate neutrality. In fact, it's at the forefront of Estonia's energy-efficient renovation for multi-storey buildings. Reflecting the city's commitment to sustainability, the Rakvere Government is located in a Smart House, which is Estonia's first near-zero energy public building.

Walking through Rakvere, you're sure to end up on Pikk Street. The name is Estonian for long street, and the road earns its name as the city's longest street. In 2021, the renovation of Pikk Street was completed, so that today it's a modern pedestrian-friendly promenade that showcases some of the best sites in Rakvere. Here you'll find a space that invites pedestrians with special street furniture, shops, and plenty of greenery. Walking a bit more in the city, you'll certainly spot the sculpture 'Young man on bicycle listening to music' in Central Square. The sculpture was erected in honour of Arvo Pärt, the Estonian composer who created the tintinnabuli style of music.

Rakvere Castle

Visit Rakvere's castle to get an feeling for the city's history

Photo by Simo Sepp, Visit Estonia

In the city centre, you can see Rakvere Castle, a circular fortress from the 14th century. Inside you'll be immersed in the lives of the Knights of the Livonian Order. This includes games, performances, and activities at the medieval smithy and an old-style carpenter's workshop and clay chamber. You'll even see sheep and goats wandering about the grounds, just as they would have in the past. Climb to the top of the castle for a great view of the city and the surrounding countryside.

Not far from the castle, you can see the largest open-air museum in Estonia, the Rakvere Vallmägi Open Air Centre. Located on nearly 7 hectares in the heart of the city, this has been the traditional venue for concerts, Midsummer events, and song and dance festivals. The surrounding environment has more than 17,000 plants. This includes 85 types of trees, shrubs, and perennials that have been selected with the specific function of reducing urban noise.

Although Rakvere is a city, it has natural protected areas known as Rakvere Tammik. The intention behind the protected area is to preserve biological diversity and the natural landscape with numerous protected, rare and endangered species growing in the area. These spaces include the Palermo Forest where you'll find health trails that are great for recharging yourself in the surrounding nature. Manor Park is also located not far away with its ancient lime sedge ponds.

How to get there
Gobus AS : Altja – Rakvere (Teater)
Duration: 45mins
Approximate cost: 1€ – 3€

Day 3: Järvamaa

The next destination is Järvamaa, a county sitting in the middle of Estonia. Järvamaa is rich in nature with 14 nature reserves and 10 conservation areas. As such, you can explore the open fields, wild bogs, and old-style villages to bring you a sense of calm and relaxation.

The main town in Järva county is Paide and makes for a pleasant lunch stop and a great jumping-off point to see nearby nature. Take a walk through the town's central square, which has largely remained intact since the Middle Ages. There you'll find the ruins of a castle and an impressive former rampart tower. Since all the most important historical buildings have a plaque with some information, photos, and QR codes, you can be your own guide while strolling through Old Town and learning about the local history.

If you want to learn more about local culture, check out the Paide Handicraft Shop to discover folk costumes, sheepskin, or other traditional products. For a bite to eat, Paide's best-known café, Wabakohvik will serve you a vegetarian lunch and some heavenly cakes. If you come by in August, you can see the Opinion Festival, which is dedicated to fostering a public debate culture and civic education. As such, it's known in Estonia as the benchmark event for opening discussion on environmentally friendly policies.

Kakerdaja bog in winter

Photo by Kaupo Kalda

Outside of Paide there's plenty to see, do, and experience. After boarding the local bus 10 in front of the Holy Cross Church on Paide's main square, you can see Kirna Manor in about 10 minutes. Known for its park and tulip fields, Kirna Manor is considered among the top places in the world with a connection to 'ancient power.' After a healing walk in the park, you can enjoy the atmosphere at the manor café, which serves mostly plant-based food from locally grown ingredients.

Proudly carrying the title of Estonia's spring capital, Türi features countless beautiful gardens. Naturally, the locals are proud of their green thumbs. Every spring, the town hosts the Türi Flower Fair, which is renowned throughout the country and gathers schools, gardeners, and plant lovers from far and wide.

You can travel between Paide and Türi by bike. This will take you off the main road and through the rolling hills.

How to get there

The calming and rustic heart of Estonia is a perfect destination to explore by bike. Although if you only have one day to spare, it's best to come by bus.

Long-distance bus: Rakvere bussijaam – Paide bussijaam
Duration: 1h 30
Approximate cost: 4€ – 9€

Day 4: Tartu

Taking a bus for just an hour and a half, you will arrive in the creative and vibrant city of Tartu. Tartu is the second-largest city in Estonia and has a reputation as the nation's intellectual and cultural capital as well as a technology hub and a "smart city." Maintaining a clean environment and green city standards have been Tartu's focus for decades, as the city has always tried to make environmentally conscious decisions regarding its nature, industry, infrastructure, and the health of its citizens.

Tartu is indeed the historic and cultural heart of the country that values traditions and heritage. Many historically and culturally important landmarks and events have been, and continue to be, created and initiated in Tartu. For example, the University of Tartu (Estonia's first university) was founded in the city in 1632. Likewise, Tartu is also home to the National Theatre of Estonia, the first Estonian song festival, and the Estonian National Museum.

Tartu Old Town

Enjoy a smart city by the riverside

Photo by Tarmo Haud, Visit Estonia

In terms of architecture, Tartu is very diverse with each of its districts having a different feeling and style. For example, the historic and majestic Old Town stands out with eye-catching historic architecture. At the same time, you should see the districts of Karlova and Supilinn (Soup Town), which have their own wooden houses with a bohemian vibe. If you're looking to experience some of Tartu's culture for yourself, you can check out some of the exhibitions at the Estonian National Museum or one of the many music festivals.

One of the best and greenest ways to explore Tartu is by walking along the Emajõgi River and through the city's streets. However, if you want to move more quickly, you can try out any of the public buses which are all fueled by locally produced green gas or the Smart Bike Share. The system has 93 stations all over the city, 750 bicycles, of which around 500 are electric. In fact, Tartu Smart Bike Share and biogas buses got second place at the Green Destinations Stories Awards 2020 in the Environment and Climate category. You can even combine bus travel and Smart Bike Share by using the same card.

Biking in Tartu

One of the best and greenest ways to see the city

Photo by Mana Kaasik, Visit Estonia

Another way to get around is the Emajõgi River which snakes through the city. Enjoy a one-of-a-kind opportunity by sailing on a wooden trading barge, called the Jõmmu. In Estonia, these kinds of wooden riverboats were used to sail the inland waters from the 14th until the middle of the 20th century. The Jõmmu was built according to the historic barges that sailed in the region and is now the only example of its kind in the world. To get to know its history, you should visit the Barge House (Lodjakoda) that opened in October 2020. Here visitors can see how the barges were built and what they were used for, try out old-fashioned barge work firsthand, and craft a barge model for yourself.

No matter how you explore Tartu, you may notice that the city is like a canvas with different stories told via street art. Tartu is one of the few cities in Europe where street art is created in cooperation with city authorities. One great way to discover the city's street art is to have a stroll in the Smartovkas district, which was built in the 1960s and today ​​has the most energy-efficient reconstructed buildings in Estonia. Another piece of advice is to check out art spots under bridges.

Tartu is going to be the European Capital of Culture in 2024 with the main topic being "Arts of Survival" where the programme focuses on sustainability by actively promoting biodiversity, organic food, and handicraft culture, as well as re- and upcycling. The main goal is to clean up the land and water and to empower people with the means of nature education and urban gardening.

If you're looking for some green space, visit Toome Hill and the Tartu Botanical Garden situated in the city centre. There are also numerous parks where special attention is put on increasing biodiversity. This all enriches urban nature in Tartu and offers possibilities to enjoy a green holiday without even leaving the city.

How to get there

M.K. Reis-X : Paide – Tartu (Pauluse)
Duration: 1h30
Approximate cost: 6€ – 11€

Day 5: Pärnu

Our fifth stop on this sustainable tour is the seaside city of Pärnu in southwest Estonia. Green Destinations, an international organisation focusing on sustainable tourism, featured Pärnu on its list of top 100 sustainable destinations in the world. In Estonia, Pärnu is known as the summer capital, due to its numerous events and festivals, especially in the summer. For example, you can check out music at Häädemeeste Hää and the Kabli Sunset Festival as well as many other music festivals in July.

Of course, Pärnu offers options to forest lovers. From the city, you can easily reach two national parks, Sooma and Matsalu. Both have numerous hiking trails and towers for bird-watching.

If you're feeling extra adventurous, the island of Kihnu is only a ferry ride away. The island of Kihnu has been part of the UNESCO Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity List since 2003.

The Pärnu Promenade 

Renovated and ready, the beach promenade is a summer hotspot.

Photo by Visit Estonia

It's worth noting that Pärnu holds the title of summer capital for a reason. With all the festivals, events, and the great climate, the city can be crowded during the warmer months. If you want to get away from the crowd and find some alone-time, visit Pärnu outside of summer. Aside from peak season, the seaside city gives you the chance to walk along 1.5 km of uninterrupted coastline. Let your feet carry you to Pärnu Jetty which has always been one of the city's most popular spots or walk the Pärnu coastal meadow hiking trail. You just might see the urban cows grazing by the sea!

How to get there

Luxexpress or Gobus AS or SEBE : Tartu – Pärnu
Duration: 2h40
Approximate cost: 7€ – 12€

Days 6 & 7: Saaremaa and Hiiumaa

For the last destination, you can choose to visit the islands of Saaremaa and Hiiumaa if you want to keep exploring green Estonia. Both are true gems waiting to be discovered.

Saaremaa is the biggest island in Estonia. The island of Saaremaa and other West Estonian islands belong to the UNESCO biosphere program area MAB (Man and the Biosphere).

The ferry ride from the mainland to the island takes about 28 minutes, giving you enough time to relax and enjoy the trip. Keeping sustainable travel in mind, one of the two ferries that run between Muhumaa and the mainland is a hybrid ferry. This is estimated to reduce diesel fuel by 20% and CO2 emissions by 1,600 tonnes. In addition, the amount of underwater noise and vibration is reduced in order to create a better living environment for seals and fish.

You will drive through Muhumaa, the third biggest island of Estonia, before entering Saaremaa. Your final destination is the island's largest town, Kuressaare.

There you can visit the island's 14th-century castle and stroll around the city. You will probably be surprised by street performances or shows of folk dancers dressed in traditional clothing.

To see more of the island's impressive and diverse nature you can take local transportation. Local buses are free for everyone to use, including tourists, and 80% of these buses run on CNG. Take a hike on some of the island's 35 kilometers of trails and discover it for yourself.

Saaremaa is particularly well known for its home-brewed beers and smoked fish. The forest and sea play an important role in the diet of the islanders, and the food of many cafes and restaurants comes from local farms. Usually, the name of the farm where the raw ingredients come from is named on the menu. When you stop by to eat somewhere, you can recognise local products and services by the label saying Ehtne, the Estonian word for authentic. This guarantees that a product has been entirely or largely produced and/or grown on the islands.

How to get there

Gobus AS : Pärnu – Kuressaare
Duration: 3h
Approximate cost: 7€ – 11€

Kuressaare's medieval castle

Photo by Priidu Saart, Visit Estonia

From Saaremaa, you can stop over at Estonia's second-largest island, Hiiumaa. It's a bit quieter with more of an island culture than Saaremaa, so you can find plenty of solitude here. Due to the island's inhabitants knowing how to live in harmony with the environment, Hiiumaa's nature is well-preserved. In terms of sustainability, Hiiumaa is on the 2020 list of the 100 most sustainable destinations in the world. 

Hiiumaa has several landscapes to enjoy, from beaches to forests. Along the coastline, you can visit beaches such as Tõrvanina and Luidja. For an experience with nature, we recommend Sääretirp on the Kassari Peninsula which remains an ideal spot for bird watchers. Aside from nature, Hiiumaa has numerous historical lighthouses, such as Tahkuna, Ristna, and Kõpu.

Coming to Hiiumaa in the winter provides a different way of travel since you can take the ice road via car, rather than the ferry.

How to get there

Kihnu Veeteed: Triigi – Sõru
Duration: 2h
Approximate cost: 2€ – 4€

Sääretirp on Hiiumaa

Photo by: Priidu Saart

If you have additional time to explore Estonia or are looking for more stops to add to the itinerary, then check out these other sustainable destinations recommended by Green Traveler