Otepää Estonia: a travel guide
Otepää is a small town near Tartu in the rolling hills of southern Estonia. It’s famous for being the winter capital of the country. However, Otepää’s natural beauty makes it a year round destination.
Why visit Otepää?
Estonia has incredible nature and Otepää is in the midst of it. Surrounded by hills, forests and lakes it is prime hiking territory.
A number of hiking trails start from Otepää itself. If you have your own car there are even more possibilities in the vicinity.
As most of Estonia is flat, the hills offer a different landscape from the rest of the country. Although the highest point near Otepää is only 211 meters high, it is enough for some beautiful panorama views.
In winter, Otepää is the place to be for winter sports. Cross country and downhill skiing, kicksledding, snowboarding and snow tubing. It’s all possible in Otepää.
Otepää is already a very popular destination for Estonians themselves, but is still relatively unknown among foreign travellers.
Things to do in Otepää
Hiking in Otepää
Apteekrimagi forest trail
4 kilometers, 2 hours
The Apteekrimägi forest trail is an easy 4 kilometer loop in the forest around Apothecary’s hill. This hiking trail is very close to Otepää and starts at the energy pillar (on google maps you can find this under otepää energiasammas).
Locals believe that there is a positive energy field here and that it is a good place to connect to nature. It looks like a totem pole with small wood carved animals on them.
Here you can enter the forest. When I did the hike in winter, the forest trail was snowed in and we simply followed the main road which was still really beautiful.
Murrumetsa hiking trail
3.5 kilometers, 2 hours
The Murrumetsa hiking trail at lake Pühajärv is a very easy loop that takes in several sights near the lake.
It starts at the Pühajärve spa hotel and runs through the Pühajärv park, the forest and along the lake. The park is home to the old Pühajärv manor and the War Oak. This oak is 400 years old. Nearby is a memorial for the workers of the manor that went into protest and were punished because of that
This trail is suitable for families with children. Even in winter the trails were well maintained.
Lake Pühajärv hiking trail
14 kilometer, 5 hours
For a more challenging hike and to be really in nature I can recommend the 14 kilometer hiking loop that circles around the lake.
Large parts go through the forest where you can see traces of beavers. In winter you can also see lots of wildlife footprints of deer and rabbits. The path is popular enough that even if there is snow you can follow the trail easily.
The trail starts at the information center south of Otepää.
Even if you do not plan to hike, lake Pühajärv is well worth a visit. In winter time you can rent kick sleds and join the locals on the ice.
The beach area is quite popular among the locals and people swim in the lake throughout the year. Yes, even when temperatures are well below zero.
On Pühajärv beach is a memorial to the visit of the Dalai lama. He came to Tartu and Otepää in 1991 and blessed the lake.
Otepää hill fort
The main reason to visit Otepää is nature, but there is some history too. Otepää is an ancient town and used to have a large medieval castle. In the 12th century it was one of the strongest military strongholds in Estonia.
In 1396 the Teutonic knights destroyed the castle. By that time Tartu had become a more important trade city and the castle was never rebuilt.
The ruins are still on Otepää hill fort, but there is honestly not much left. The view towards Otepää church is a better reason to come here.
The St Mary Lutheran church is an ordinary 19th century church. Nothing special, except that it was here that the Estonian national flag was consecrated in 1991.
If you are interested in the story of Estonia’s flag you can visit the flag museum.
Otepää town hall
The Otepää town hall stands out as one of the largest buildings in the city. It looks quite similar to the town halls in Narva and Tartu, but it is a relatively new building from 1957.
Tehvandi ski jump hill
The Tehvandi sports center and ski jump hill are the place to be if you come for winter sports.
Some famous Estonian winter sport athletes practised at Tehvandi and their achievements are displayed in the adjacent winter sports museum
Things to do near Otepää
Besides the buslines to Tartu, public transport is infrequent around Otepää. Having your own car gives you the best chance to explore the countryside of southern Estonia.
That said, it is not impossible to get out of Otepää on your own.
Kääriku is not as famous as Otepää, but this small town is also surrounded by natural beauty, a lake and an active winter sports centre.
In that sense, the two towns are quite similar. Kääriku lake is a bit smaller than Pühajärv, but it offers the same opportunities for swimming and hiking.
How to get there: having your own transport is best, but bus number 71, 77 and 73 run a few times a day between Otepää and Kääriku. The journey takes about 40 minutes. Bus tickets are free but you need a bus card that you can buy for 2 euros at the tourist information center in Tartu
Kekkonen hiking trail
15 kilometer, 6 hours
The Kekkonen hiking trail, or Kekkose matkarada, is a great hike that starts at Kääriku. This 15 kilometer loop goes through forests and brings you to the Harimäe observation tower on Härimagi hill.
The Härimagi hill at 211 meters height is the highest point near Otepää and the observation tower offers sweeping panorama views over the area.
Kääriku lakeside circuit
For a more easy hike at Kääriku you can also hike around the lake. Because the lake is much smaller than Pühajärv, the loop is less than 3 kilometers
Otepää travel tips
Where to eat in Otepää
A cheap bistro with friendly ladies that hardly speak any english. With this setting I was surprised by how good the food actually was. Because it is such good value for money I came here twice.
I can really recommend the salmon with cream sauce.
For a more fine dining experience in Otepää head to Ugandi resto. A really nice restaurant and an extensive menu with things like duck breast, pork tenderloin and trout. Prices are still very reasonable too.
I tried the local Karilatsi trout and it was very delicious.
GMP club hotel
There are not a lot of restaurants around lake Pühajärv open in winter, so after the hike around the lake I ended up at the GMP club hotel.
This is probably the best restaurant for fine dining near Otepää. The chef uses local ingredients and the menu includes things like elk, deer and duck.
I tried the Siberian dumplings in oxtail broth which was really good.
Where to sleep in Otepää
Reede villa: I slept at Reede villa. They have nice clean rooms and the people are very friendly. They also rent out ski equipment.
How to get to Otepää
The best way to reach Otepää by public transport is from Tartu. Go Bus number 71 and 357 run a few times a day between Otepää bus station (busijaam) and Tärtu bus station.
The journey takes about an hour. Bus tickets are free but you need a bus card that you can buy for 2 euros at the tourist information center in Tartu.
From Tartu there are frequent trains and buses to Tallinn, Pärnu and Narva. 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. For example to get from Narva to Tartu
To get between Tartu and Tallinn you can also take the train. Trains are very modern and it is a comfortable 3 hour journey. You can check the timetable and book tickets at Elron.
How to get around
Otepää is not very big so it is easy to explore on foot. Lake Pühajärv is 2.5 kilometers south of the city center, but it is a scenic walk.
When to visit
Otepää is famous for being the winter capital of Estonia. When I was there I was lucky and there was more than enough snow. At night there was even a proper snow storm dumping another 20 centimeters of snow in one night.
Otepää is not just a winter destination though. Its natural beauty delights visitors throughout the year and every season has its own charms. Spring and summer will be lush and green and I can imagine that autumn with its autumn colours is also quite spectacular.
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