Tartu is a city in eastern Estonia. It’s known for the prestigious, 17th-century University of Tartu. Estonia’s spiritual capital, with locals talking about a special Tartu vaim (spirit), created by the time-stands-still feel of its wooden houses and stately buildings, and by the beauty of its parks and riverfront. Aside from its own attractions – including some interesting galleries and museums – Tartu is a convenient gateway to exploring southern Estonia.
Best Time to Visit
The best times to visit Tartu for ideal weather are from May to August based on average temperature and humidity.
Top Places to Visit Tartu
1. Tartu University
Fronted by six Doric columns, the impressive main building of Tartu University was built between 1803 and 1809. The university itself was founded in 1632 by the Swedish king Gustaf II Adolf (Gustavus Adolphus) to train Lutheran clergy and government officials.
2. Estonian National Museum
This immense, low-slung, architectural showcase is a striking sight and had both Estonian patriots and architecture-lovers purring when it opened in late 2016. The permanent exhibition covers national prehistory and history in some detail. Fittingly, for a museum built over a former Soviet airstrip, the Russian occupation is given in-depth treatment, while the ‘Echo of the Urals’ exhibition gives an overview of the various peoples speaking tongues in the Estonian language family. There’s also a restaurant and cafe.
3. Tartu Toy Museum
A big hit with the under-eight crowd (and you won’t see too many adults anxious to leave), this is a great place to while away a few rainy hours. Set in a late-18th-century building, this excellent museum showcases dolls, model trains, rocking horses, toy soldiers and tons of other desirables. It’s all geared to be nicely interactive, with exhibits in pull-out drawers and a kids’ playroom. The adjacent courtyard house is home to characters and props from Estonian animated films and TV shows. Also included in the admission price is the small museum in the basement of the Theatre House, two doors down, showcasing theatre puppets.
4. Raadi Manor Park
On the main road heading north out of town stands the sad remains of Raadi Manor. It was once a beautiful baroque-style building but WWII bombing has left only a red-brick shell. In the 19th century the manor grounds were considered to be one of Estonia’s most beautiful parks and, while they’re a shadow of their former selves, locals still come to stroll around and swim in the lake.
5. St John’s Lutheran Church
Dating to at least 1323, this imposing red-brick church is unique for the rare terracotta sculptures placed in niches around its exterior and interior (look up). It lay in ruins and was left derelict following a Soviet bombing raid in 1944 and wasn’t fully restored until 2005. Climb the 135 steps of the 30m steeple for a bird’s-eye view of Tartu.
6. Tartu University Botanical Gardens
Founded in 1803, these gardens nurture 6500 species of plants including a large collection of palms in the greenhouse. In summer it’s always full of local families wandering the paths and strolling around the ornamental lake.