The A to Z JourneyVisiting every country in the world, one step at a time

Estonia: Adventures outside the capital

Fun Facts about Estonia

  • Having long left the days of Soviet rule, Estonia’s excellence in the digital sphere has earned it the nickname ‘e-Stonia’
  • The first software developers of Skype were Estonian
  • Bolt (formerly Taxify) was founded in Tallinn in 2013 and still is headquartered there
  • Public transport in Tallinn is free for all its residents

Viru Bog, Lahemaa National Park (Half-day trip)

Founded in 1971, Lahemaa is the oldest and biggest (74k hectares) national park in Estonia, with stunning coastal landscapes.

Since I was using public transport, I only managed to visit the Viru Bog Trail. There is a short stretch at the start through what looked like Christmas tree land (or more accurately a Scots Pine tree forest covered in snow). Fun fact: almost every third tree in Estonia is a Scots Pine.

At dawn on a summer morning is when I’d guess the bog would be at its most magical. The sun’s early morning rays penetrating a swirling mist that enrobes the bottom of the bog would be nothing short of breathtaking. However, in early December, with temperatures of -10C and continuous snowfall, most of the bog pools were frozen. Everything was covered in a sea of white.

Barely minutes later, I heard voices chattering in a familiar tongue. There was a group of retirees from Germany walking through the bog! Given the boardwalk is only wide enough for people to walk in single file, I patiently ambled along behind them. It wasn’t long before they noticed me and despite being polite I could sense the group was wondering what on earth I was doing there on my own. Their tour guide soon realised their walking speeds might be quite a bit slower than mine. “Young man, do you want to overtake us and move on ahead?” she asked kindly, while getting her whole group to step to one side. I gratefully accepted and jogged ahead of a line up of twenty retirees watching keenly, trying to work out what my backstory was 🙂

Despite my botanical knowledge not being strong enough to spot plants like the insectivorous Venus fly trap (Charles’ Darwin’s favourite plant), the wintry hike had its own monochrome charm. One spot where the murky black waters were visible did look like the scene of a zombie apocalypse. Plus, the panoramic views from the observation platform at the halfway point are definitely a treat.

Fun fact: bogs cover just under 8% of Estonia’s land. Bogs like this one were once lakes that then became overgrown with vegetation. Excessive rain water accumulated in bog pools where peat moss was the most important plant (its ability to use the sparse mineral matter available gave it an advantage). The peat deposits in Viru Bog are roughly around 3 metres deep, with mineral soil under the peat layer.

On the boardwalk of Viru Bog Trail
View from the observation point midway through the trail
View from the observation point midway through the trail
Some scenes looked similar to a zombie apocalypse
Christmas tree land?

Pärnu (day trip)

I read Pärnu’s description by one exuberant local as the “Miami” of Estonia. What he failed to mention was that unlike Miami, Pärnu is freezing in winter. I was greeted by strong sea winds, snow showers and -7C (probably more like -15C with wind chill) when I arrived. I made a beeline for the Pastoraat Cafe to dose up on caffeine and food (their warm quinoa, poached egg and salmon salad deserves a thumbs up) before braving the cold sea wind.

While holidaymakers from Germany, Sweden and Finland may flock to Pärnu’s beaches in summer, on the day I visited I saw only three other people. Only three on the entire strip. I certainly was the only one that determinedly walked the whole stretch of frozen beach, while being blasted with snow. Needless to say all the beachside cafés and surf shops were closed. At the start of the beach strip is the Pärnu Mole (Jetty of Pärnu) originally built to create an artificial harbour, helping ships steer closer to the port to improve trade. But this has become a popular attraction in the town now. Legend has it that if young lovers walk 1.5km to the slippery end and kiss it would bring them eternal love. Kudos to anyone brave enough to do that in winter.

After walking two kilometres my fingers and face were completely frozen. I dashed into the shelter of a public toilet near a surf shop (the irony) to warm up. To add further excitement, my phone had died in the cold – I had to rely on my gut to navigate. Thank goodness the town was small and well-signed.

With a past that involved fires, plagues, wars, and switches between German, Polish, Swedish and Russian rule, it was in the 19th century that Pärnu became popular for its beach and mud baths (which still draw the older generations from Finland and the ex-USSR). Today the town is very peaceful and leafy (though the parks and moat were covered in snow when I visited). Hints of a more glamorous past exist with fashionable 20th century villas dotted about town and of course the town’s famed spas stand ready to provide different therapeutic indulgences.

Despite being frozen to the core after walking along the beach, I wandered down Pärnu’s little high street (Rüütli Street). It felt like a scene from a children’s storybook –  snowflakes noiselessly falling from the sky, quaint wooden buildings painted in pastel-coloured tones, with old-world cafes and bars warming up people from the cold. Unable to withstand the cold for much longer, I went inside to warm up with a winter soup and black bread (a recurrent theme in my meals in Estonia). Recharged, I headed off into the evening in pursuit of Hedon Spa for an Estonian mud treatment – one of the most favoured parts of an excursion to Pärnu.

Pärnu’s little high street
Old world charms in Pärnu
Pärnu’s completely frozen beach in winter – I was one of just three people on the beach that afternoon
I ate many a soup with black bread while in Estonia to warm up after being frozen in the cold

Hedon Spa

Originally built in the 1920s to house the famous mud baths of Parnu, this neoclassical building has been lovingly restored and now functions as a spa. It also offers treatments with the famed Estonian mud.

The resort’s origins go back to the 1830s when it was a simple bathing house by the sea, offering warm and cold sea baths in summer and saunas in winter. That was a time when a collective desire for bathing was becoming popular in Europe. Sea walks and healing sea baths soon became part of the leisure routine of the elite, and Pärnu caught onto this trend.

A few decades later, it started offering mud baths to visiting holiday makers. After a stop-start journey which included coming back as a modern medical resort, being destroyed in a fire and rebuilt as a neoclassical building, being a popular summer destination drawing many from across the Soviet Union for not just healing treatments but a ‘taste of the west’, and then becoming a home for bohemian art and urban animals (!), glory finally returned in 2014 when the newly renovated extension opened as the Hedon Spa. It continues to honour the 180-year old traditions of Pärnu resort to this day.

Intrigued by Louis Litt’s obsession with mud baths in Suits (drama series), the moment I saw a Body Wrap with Estonian Mud at the Hedon Spa I knew I had to try it. With an individual sauna to yourself, you’re given a birch whisk to beat yourself with while in the sauna. “I’ve no idea why we do this,” the therapist laughed in response when I asked what the purpose of it was. I later found out it was believed to improve blood circulation.  

After 20 minutes of the sauna, warm mud from one of the Estonian islands is applied over you. “This is completely organic, no treatment at all to the mud,” the therapist added. Perhaps it was to assure me of the mud’s quality. What he didn’t realise was that for the next 40 minutes I could only think about whether tiny insects and worms (my sworn enemies) might be crawling around in the mud too. Luckily for me, I spied none. 

“My summer holiday is not complete if I have not been to Pärnu to prepare myself for the coming winter. Every time I leave here, I feel much fresher and healthier.”

Konstantin Pats, Estonian PM in 1936

Admin Info & Travel Tips

#1 Tallinn Airport

  • Very easy to get to the town centre by bus or tram (which I took). There’s a ticket machine in the airport (1.5€-2€), and the trams run fairly frequently and late to account for the last flight for the day. My journey to the city centre took no more than 20 mins. 
  • The airport is well worth its self-declared status as the cosiest in Europe. Apart from feeling like you’re in a large Scandinavian home with art exhibitions and plenty of wood surrounding you, there’s also a library which operates on a goodwill basis. People are encouraged to swap books here and leave little notes for the next reader 🙂 

#2 Viru Bog Trail, Lahemaa National Park 

Most of the national park is situated north of the highway, so to explore its beautiful nooks and crannies (e.g. Kasmu Hiking Trail), a vehicle is necessary. Without one, the most convenient option for a half-day trip from Tallinn is the Viru Bog Trail.

Multiple buses run daily in winter from Tallinn (~1 hr). The starting point of the trail is a 20 min walk from the bus stop Loksa Tee. The trail length makes it possible to complete the hike comfortably within shorter daylight hours in winter.

A one-way hike is 3.5km along the raised boardwalk that runs over the fragile bog ecosystem. It’s a very easy hike; no incline, no chance of getting lost. There is also an option to come back to the starting point (circular trail), which would mean a 6km hike. However this is on a less clear forest path rather than a visible boardwalk, and given everything was covered in snow, I didn’t want to risk getting lost / stepping into the bog waters by accident!

I took a GO bus from Tallinn Bus Station arriving at 09:48am at Loksa Tee bus stop. It was a 40 min journey; €4.70, bus equipped with toilets. I walked 20 mins to the start of the trail (it’s well-marked) and through the boardwalk across the bog. I came out the other end and walked to Ullialika (20 min from the trail end point) arriving at the bus stop at 11:50am. That was well in time for the 12:03pm local bus service back to Tallinn Train Station (€3, journey time approx 1h 15min, tickets purchased onboard – bring cash!)

Useful website for bus schedules: 

Email addresses to ask questions about logistics around hiking in the national park: [email protected], [email protected], [email protected] 

#3 Getting from Tallinn to Pärnu

There are regular buses from Tallinn Station; the express bus (e.g. Lux Express) costed ~7€, took 1h50min and had toilets on board.

I visited Estonia in November/December 2021

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