Ahhhh Estonia. Totally ended up here by accident. One night we’re having drinks in Helsinki at the NBE Finland farewell party, the next morning I’m with a group of friends on the ferry from Helsinki to Tallinn, the capital of Estonia. Best decision ever! There are so many things you don’t know about Estonia. Plus it turns out that Tallinn is one of the most amazing cities I have ever visited.
So there I am, 10am on a Saturday morning on a cruise ship-sized ferry crossing the Baltic Sea. Apparently it did not take much convincing to get me to stowaway aboard. “Hey Derek, want to visit a new country?” “Sure!” Did I mention that I was preciously carrying a kilo of Åland Islands cheese like it was my baby? Never mind, not important yet.
After a surprisingly fast two hour ferry ride we stepped foot upon Estonian soil without so much as a single immigration officer or security check. Got to love traveling the Schengen countries. 🙂 And here is where the learning begins!
22 Things You Don’t Know About Estonia
1) The entire Old Town dates back to the 13th century and is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The buildings, walkways and scenic views within are protected by law, ensuring that historical authenticity is maintained and the skyline preserved. Nothing can be built higher than the 124 metre tall (407 feet) St. Olaf’s Church.
2) Tallinn was nearly bombed into oblivion by the Russians during World War II. In the far northeastern corner of Estonia lies the border town of Narva, gateway to Russia. In 1944 Russian airplanes destroyed the entire city as part of their invasion of Estonia. 98% of the city and buildings were leveled to the ground — and the same fate was in store for Tallinn. Thankfully the Russian air fleet was distracted by Finland and decided to bomb Helsinki instead. That is the only reason that Tallinn exists today as you see it here:
3) Estonia has only been a country for a quarter of a century. The region has long been fought over by Denmark, Sweden and Russia. Their constitution was originally signed in 1918, and Estonians did enjoy a brief period of independence between World War I and World Word II. However it was not until 1991 that Estonia finally re-gained their independence, this time for good. While this might not sound like much to you or me, but Estonians are quite proud. Cheers to 25 more years!
4) Yet it was the first country begin voting online. Take that all you old school governments stuck in the past!
5) And the birthplace of Skype. (And Hotmail. And Kazaa.) Estonians are also quite honored that a group of their technicians were pivotal to the creation of Skype. To this day a large number of Skype’s employees are still based in Tallinn. Some even like to joke that the blue in the flag is to symbolize Skype 😉
6) And the real birthplace of Christmas tree decorating. For as long as there have been decorated Christmas trees there have been Estonians and Latvians arguing over who first came up with the concept. Don’t tell any of my Latvian friends but I am going to have to side with Estonia on this one.
7) People here are great at wife carrying. Remember my last post on Finland where we played the less-funny-than-expected game of WTF: What The….Finland? and I talked about the Wife Carrying World Championships? (Take a minute to check it out, I’ll wait.) Turns out that Estonian couples have a habit of winning this Finnish competition, including an impressive 11-year streak from 1998-2008. There is even a technique called the “Estonian Carry.” (It is not the one pictured below.)
8) Estonia is mostly female. If you like blonde-haired blue-eyed women, visit Estonia. For every 100 women here there are only 84 men!
9) And #1 at producing peat cosmetics We went to Turbliss headquarters and created our own custom cosmetic mixtures, even received peat facial masks. The entire experience was so much fun that we shot a video on it 😀
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10) And #1 at producing supermodels Believe it or not, Estonia is the top nation per capita for the number of fashion models 😉
Ready to visit Estonia yet, or do you need more reasons?
11) Estonian folk tales, myths and legends are wildly entertaining. From stories of throwing dead cats into wells to bless the water, national heroes who talk to hedgehogs and of course the almighty fable of the man who sneezed himself to death ???? you simply cannot make this stuff up. Stay awesome, Estonia!
12) Craft beer is EVERYWHERE. Less than a decade ago you would have been lucky to find more than two different types of beer at a restaurant or bar in Estonia. However the beer revolution has been underway for the last few years and new craft brewers are constantly popping up, turning their home-brewing hobby into a full-fledged business. Thanks to this ever-increasing number of craft breweries, more new brews hitting the Estonian market every month, as are restaurants that do their own brewing. Because of the cheap cost of alcohol in Estonia compared to its Scandinavian neighbors, people flock here simply for the beer. Now that’s a winning tourism strategy!
Given how far and how fast Estonia has come with their craft beer production, expect amazing things from the brewers of this tiny nation ????
13) Saying “cheers” in Estonian — Terviseks — either sounds like “terrible sex” or “there will be sex” depending upon how you pronounce it. One I’m happy to cheers to but the other….well, the other is just rough.
14) It is illegal to be out after dark in Estonia without wearing a reflective badge. Apparently people in Estonia have a habit of, ummm, being hit by moving vehicles at night. In the Old Town this is a result of narrow roads and drunk folks, but in the countryside of Estonia this is due to the absence of streetlights. As a result, legally you are obligated to wear a reflector at night. (If you get stopped by police without one as a foreigner, most likely this will result in a warning and the gift of a new reflector….but you may be fined €20.) As a result these reflectors have become a customized fashion accessory like any other. Unfortunately the ones we were given were rather bland.
15) Religion is not popular here. Despite the numerous historic churches and cathedrals visible in the Tallinn skyline, only 16% of the population describe themselves as religious according to a Gallup poll — other sources put that number even lower. Estonia is definitely one of the least religious countries in the world, if not the least.
16) Neither are cities. Given that Estonia’s population is only 1.3 million and that a half million live in Tallinn, there is not much else out there except forests, fields and villages. The major Estonia-Russia border town of Narva — yes, the same Narva that was wiped off the face of the earth in 1944 thanks to Russian bombs (see #2) — has sprung back to life with a population of 58,000. And the 6th biggest city in Estonia has a whopping population of 17,000. Beyond that it is all small towns, the smallest of which (that I could find) is home to just 60 people.
17) The world’s slowest escalators are in Estonia. Know how sometimes it is faster to take the stairs than the escalator? Well in Estonia it is always faster to take the stairs. Don’t know why, but their escalators creep at a snail’s pace.
18) Space food was developed in Estonia. Originally sealed in airtight tin-packaging, space food began at a factory in Põltsamaa in 1962. The food and packaging was produced specifically for the emerging space travel market.
19) Estonia is one of Europe‘s top three greenest countries. Over 50% of its land is covered in forest and although logging is big industry here, people like to say that it is “controlled” (whatever that means). Only Sweden and Finland have a higher percentage of surface forest coverage.
20) People in Estonia are not very touchy-feely. In many European countries hugs and/or kisses are obligatory pleasantries, but much like their Scandinavian neighbors to the north, Estonia people are quite reserved. They very much like their personal space. In the words of my Estonian host, “Maybe after the third meeting it is okay to give a slight tap on the shoulder or a light hug.”
21) You can drink in a 15th century pub. Located in Old Town Square right next to St. Olaf’s is a pub and inn that has been serving weary travelers since the 1400’s. Although it no longer operates as an inn, you can still come here for some authentic period brew and snacks. But be warned: the ladies working here act like they are in the 1400’s and don’t take no shit. Truly a place that has to be seen to be believed. (This video is also in the works….be done soon!)
22) Estonians invented their own sport. As a kid, remember swinging as high as possible on the swings, to that point where the chains loosen and you just hang there for a split second until gravity takes back over and sends you swinging down again? Remember wishing you could swing all the way around in a full 360°? Well that my friends is now known as a sport calling kiiking and we have Estonia to thank for that. Using a metal frame instead of flimsy chain links they reinforced the traditional swing-set design and made it so much cooler!
BONUS 23) Estonia has the highest adult literacy rate in the world. They are tied for first with their neighbor, Latvia, and Cuba, believe it or not.