Estonia in winter: a travel guide

This post is about the best things to do in Estonia in winter. Estonia is the most northern country of the Baltic states. Located on the gulf of Finland and the Eastern sea it has a long sea shore and many scenic islands.

Estonia is a small country that has lots to offer in any season. While summer is the most popular time, people should not underestimate the beauty of Estonia in winter. 

If you are looking for a budget friendly winter holiday, Estonia is definitely a destination worth considering. 

Estonia in winter
Estonia in winter

Why visit Estonia in winter

So why visit Estonia in winter? The answer is simple. Estonia is stunningly beautiful in winter. It offers the same natural beauty as its Scandinavian neighbors but at a much lower price.

With its vast evergreen forests and its bogs, Estonia is a great country for those that love the outdoors, even in the cold winter months. 

Estonia is more or less on the same latitude as Southern Sweden and Norway. Due to climate change, frost is no longer a guarantee when you visit Estonia in winter. Still, temperatures often drop well below zero. Chances are high that you will see the country covered in a thick blanket of snow, making it even more picturesque. 

There will be grayish days when the morning starts with an ethereal mist. Other days welcome you with a clear blue sky while the winter sun warms your face. And yet, despite all this beauty, you will meet very few other travelers. Estonia in winter is quiet and peaceful. 

I visited Estonia twice. Once in summer and now also in winter. Personally, I can say that I prefer Estonia in winter. 

Tallinn in winter
Tallinn in winter

Things to do in Estonia in winter

Tallin’s old town

Tallins medieval old town only gets more beautiful once snow arrives. The cobbled stone streets with its ancient merchant homes are quiet in winter making it a joy to wander around.

Most people seem to gather around the Christmas tree and market at Raekoja plats square. Tallinn claims they were the first city in Europe to put up a christmas tree in their public square. It’s a yearly tradition that Tallinn is proud of.

Tallinn in winter
Tallinn in winter

Visiting Estonia’s bogs

Estonia is a country of bogs. Bogs are the oldest landscapes in the country and some are up to 10000 years old.

They formed in the last ice age when glacial melt water collected in depressions. Dead plant materials accumulated into layers of peat. In most bogs the layer of peat is up to 7 meters thick.

Bogs in Estonia are shrouded in myths and legends. People used to be afraid of the bogs and they were associated with supernatural events. Winter turns the bogs into a frozen winter Wonderland. The Viru bog trail is well marked and still accessible in winter. The view tower offers wonderful views. 

Viru bog trail in winter
Viru bog trail

See frozen waterfalls

In the coldest months even the waterfalls freeze up. What are unremarkable small streams of water in summer, become spectacular frozen falls in winter. 

The Jagala waterfall is only 8 meters high in summer. In winter it becomes a wall of icicles that come down from a fifty meter wide rock crest. 

Jagala waterfall
Jagala waterfall

Visit castles

Estonia has several medieval castles. Estonia was often on the frontline of conflicts between the Livonian order, the Danes, the Swedes, the Lithuanians and the Russians.

One of the largest and best preserved castles is in the border town of Narva. This castle started as a Danish wooden military fort. Then the German Livonian Order and the Teutonic knights bought it in the 14th century. They built a strong stone castle known as the Hermann castle. 

The Russians got nervous and in 1492 Ivan the third built his own castle on the other side of the river as a response. In turn, the Livonians added a large tower on top of the Hermann castle so they could see what was happening inside the Ivangorod castle.

In winter the river is frozen and the castles covered in snow. It’s a cold but beautiful time to visit the castle. 

Narva castle
Narva castle

Explore the student city of Tartu

Tartu is the second biggest city in Estonia and home to one of the oldest universities in Northern Europe. As a result, It’s a young and vibrant student city with a cozy atmosphere. 

Because it is not as big as Tallinn you can easily explore the center on foot. In winter there is an ice skating rink on the main square and the Emajogi river that runs through the city will be frozen

When it gets too cold outside there are also plenty of things to do inside. Tartu has the best museums in the country. And there are plenty of cafes and restaurants to try Estonian food.

Tartu
Tartu

Winter sports at Otepaa

Otepaa is the winter capital of Estonia. Not because it is a big city, but because it is the center for winter outdoor sports. Otepaa itself is just a small village, but it is surrounded by beautiful forests, lakes and hills.

Among Estonians otepaa is the place to be for cross country skiing, snowboarding, kick sledding or even ice swimming. It’s also a great place for hiking and the trail around lake Puhajarv is still accessible in winter. 

Lake Puhajarv
Lake Puhajärv

Ice fishing on a frozen lake

Ice fishing is a popular activity in Estonia, particularly during the winter months when the lakes and rivers freeze over. Anglers drill holes in the ice and drop their lines to catch fish such as perch, pike, and bream.

It is already impressive enough to see the locals in the middle of the frozen lakes, waiting patiently to catch something. If you want to join them, inform yourself about  the weather conditions and the thickness of the ice.

Pärnu’s frozen sea

As the winter in Estonia progresses even the sea freezes over. Pärnu is a popular beach destination in summer. Less people visit Pärnu in winter, but it is a great place to see the frozen sea. 

In winter you can still go for a long beach walk and enjoy the sea views. It’s a white winter wonderland and when there is snow you can hardly see where the beach ends and the ice of the sea begins. 

Parnu beach
Pärnu beach

Hiking through the snow

Estonia is a great place for hiking, with a diverse landscape of forests, lakes, rivers, and coastal areas that offer a variety of hiking trails. Some trails are still open in winter and hiking through the snow is a wonderful experience. 

Some of the trails that are still safe and easy during the winter include the Viru bog trail or the trail around lake Puhajärv in Otepää. Most National parks have a few short hiking trails that are good to go in winter. 

Hiking Estonia in winter
Hiking Estonia in winter

Estonian sauna experience

Estonia in winter offers plenty of outdoor activities. If you want to warm up you can visit the sauna. The sauna ritual is an important part of Estonian culture, and has been a traditional practice for centuries.

Many hotels and guesthouses in Estonia have saunas, either on-site or nearby. These can be booked through the hotel or guesthouse directly. Otherwise you can visit a sauna complex. Almost every city has a public sauna. 

Some towns, such as Pärnu, Narva-Jõesuu and Võru are even famous for their spa and wellness resorts

Estonia’s excellent museums

If it gets too cold outside there are enough indoor things to do in Estonia in winter. Both Tallinn and Tartu have a number of interesting museums to visit. Don’t miss the Seaplane harbor museum or the Estonian National Museum. 

seaplane harbour museum
Seaplane harbour museum

Try Estonian food

Estonian cuisine is a mixture of Scandinavian, German, Russian, and Baltic influences.There is a big emphasis on seasonal and local ingredients, and many traditional dishes are made with wild game, mushrooms, and berries.

Tallinn is the best place to try Estonian food and you can even try things like elk meat. 

Estonian food pelmeni
Pelmeni in Tallinn

Estonia in winter travel tips

How cold is Estonia in winter

Estonia’s climate is classified as temperate, with cold winters and warm summers. The average temperature in Estonia during the winter months, which are December to February, ranges from -5 to -10 degrees Celsius (23-14 Fahrenheit). 

The coldest temperatures usually occur in January and February, with the possibility of temperatures dropping below -20 degrees Celsius (-4 Fahrenheit) in some parts of the country.

It’s important to note that temperatures can drop even more with the wind chill, so it’s always better to dress warmly and in layers, and be prepared for the cold weather. 

Safety of Estonia in winter

In general, Estonia is a safe country for travellers, including solo female travellers. Like everwhere in the world the biggest thing to look out for is pickpocketing and petty theft. If you use your common sense it will be easy to prevent any problems.

In winter though, ice becomes another danger. As amazed as I was by the beauty of Estonia and Tallinn I was as well by the people who walk through the streets as if nothing is wrong. Meanwhile I am carefully navigating the ice below and above me. 

Coming from Holland, real cold winters are something from the past. I am obviously not used to ice and I sometimes had a hard time walking on the sidewalks that can be very slippery. The most tricky is when there is fresh snow and you can’t see the ice underneath. But trust me, it is there.  

Watching the sidewalks carefully for slippery parts is important, but it is also a good idea to look up once in a while. Icicles hanging from the roofs of buildings occasionally fall down.

The weather conditions in estonia can be harsh, with cold temperatures, snow, and ice. When I visited in January temperatures were between -5 and +1 degrees celsius. On a windy day it can feel much colder though.

My biggest advice is to dress warm and bring enough warm clothes. At least a good windproof jacket, a woollen hat and warm gloves.

At last, keep in mind that days are short. To make the most out of daylight hours requires a bit of planning.

How to get around

Estonia has an excellent public transport system between the bigger cities. Buses are a reliable way to discover the country. You can check the bus times on T pillet. I would recommend Lux express. Lux express has very comfortable buses that I used on a number of occasions in Estonia. 

Trains run between Tallinn, Narva, Tartu and Pärnu. You can check the timetable and book tickets at Elron.

You can also rent a car in Estonia. This gives you more freedom to visit more off the beaten path places that are difficult to reach. Generally, the main roads and highways in Estonia are well-maintained and cleared of snow and ice in winter. That said, some smaller roads in rural areas can be slippery and dangerous. It is important to drive carefully and at a slower speed.

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