Tartu, Cradle of Estonian Culture

Tartu, Cradle of Estonian Culture

Published: December 19, 2012 (Issue # 1740)


Tartu’s ruined red-brick Dome Cathedral dates back to the late 13th century. The city is the oldest in the Baltics, having first been mentioned in documents dating back to 1030.

It takes only a two-and-a-half-hour smooth drive (185 kilometers) to get from Estonia’s capital Tallinn to the town of Tartu, even though the south-east route crosses almost all of this small Baltic country.

The bus speeds past the country’s timeless landscapes of snow-covered forests and fields, with the occasional wooden house to be spied.

Based around Tartu University, with a large proportion of its population being students and teachers, the town is seen as the nation’s intellectual capital. In winter, the large number of young people makes the town perhaps more vibrant and full than in summer, when many are on holiday elsewhere.


Located on the banks of the Emajogi River (Mother River), Tartu is Estonia’s second largest city and the Baltics’ oldest, being first mentioned in historical documents dating back to 1030. It is the cradle of Estonian culture, where the country’s song festivals — an important tradition that played a major role in uniting the nation — were born. Tartu is also the home of Estonian theater and to some extent, the Estonian state.

The main building of Tartu University, a six-columned, classical affair, is located on Ülikooli (University Street) in the town’s center. Founded in 1632 by Swedish king Gustavus Adolphus, it’s the country oldest. Now one of the world’s top 400 universities, it effectively connects the past and future, as well as Tartu and the rest of the world.

Town Hall Square (Raekoja plats) is Tartu’s center, having historically been the main trading area of the settlement between the castle on Toome Hill and the riverside port on the Emajogi. The buildings in the center mostly date back to the 18th century, older constructions having been destroyed by the wars and fires that swept the town from time to time.

Since 2008, Town Hall Square has been adorned by the Kissing Students fountain, which stands right in front of the Town Hall building and depicts the figures of a young man and woman embracing. Sculptor Mati Karmin was reportedly inspired by the sight of his nephew kissing a girl in the rain.

Although it might not seem like the first choice for a new installation on the medieval town’s main square, it has become a modern symbol of Tartu and one of its main attractions, judging by the groups of tourists having their photo taken in front of it at any time of the day.

The Town Square, with its cafeterias and souvenir shops, has a Christmas tree and a large snow mound, which is popular among children who clamber up it and ride down it on boards or simply crawl over it.


The restaurant in the historic Pohjaka manor halfway between Tartu and Tallinn was named the 5th best in Estonia last year.

Toome Hill, located directly behind the Town Hall, is home to a number of monuments, including one to King Adolphus that was destroyed by the Soviets in 1950 and restored after Estonia regained independence, the ruined red-brick Dome Cathedral dating back to the late 13th century and the university-related installations and museums such as the History Museum of Tartu University, the old Tartu Observatory and the Old Anatomical Theater.

Back in town, an interesting piece of art is “Father and Son,” a sculpture group showing nude, same-sized models of its author, Tartu-born sculptor Ulo Ouna (1940-1988) and his 18-month-old son Kristjan. Located right on the sidewalk, just a brief walk from the Town Hall Square, the sculpture looks unlikely in the summertime, and completely surreal when seen amid snow in winter.

Conceived in 1977 and cast in bronze ten years later, the sculpture was installed on Tartu on Child Protection Day on June 1, 2004 on Küüni, the city’s main shopping street.


The futuristic 7,000-square-meter Scientific Center AHHAA cannot fail to impress visitors, offering them the chance to ride a bike suspended high above the ground, as well as elevators simulating journeys to the center of the Earth. Its cozy Planetarium chamber is capable of showing over five million stars.

These are just a few of the center’s dozens of installations, which also include a mirror maze and thermal camera — all of which allow visitors to touch and participate — and a “science shop.” According to AHHAA, the center aims to introduce science to everyone.

“Using interactive and entertaining methods and the scientific excellence of the 380-year-old Tartu University, we try to overcome fear and prejudice toward learning,” it says on its website.

AHHAA began with a laser show in front of Tartu Observatory in 1997 as a special project of the Department of Research and Institutional Development of the University of Tartu, but has since become independent.

The new center, the biggest in the Baltic states, opened in May 2011, and has become one of the most popular local attractions for children and adults alike, drawing over 10,000 visitors a month.

In addition to the main building, the center runs a 4D adventure cinema in the Lounakeskus shopping center on the outskirts of Tartu, as well as an exhibition center in Tallinn (1 Sadama, tel: +372 745 6789, www.ahhaa.ee.)


Electric cabs are now a common sight on the streets of high-tech Tartu.

Fifteen kilometers from Tartu, on the shore of Lake Saadjärv next to the forest, is the fantastic new environmental Ice Age Center, which combines scientific and popular approaches, throwing in some entertainment.

Launched in July, the state-of-the art center dedicates its 2,200 square meters of exhibition space — with a mammoth replica as the central exhibit — to the multiple Ice Ages and how they formed the landscapes and environment of Estonia.

When visited earlier this month, the tour ended in a room criticizing today’s consumerist society, with the guide passionately arguing against the use of non-renewable sources of energy such as oil in Russia and oil shale in Estonia, Chinese synthetic toys and plastic packaging, with one wall showing a photo of a supermarket packed with various kinds of excessively packaged items.

As a positive example, there is a display showing footage from what looks like a textile shop in Soviet-era Estonia in the 1960s. In it, women are buying pieces of cloth and a shop assistant wraps them in coarse brown recycled paper. (20 Saadjärve, Äksi alevik, Tartumaa, tel: + 372 59 113 318, www.jaaaeg.ee)

From hi-tech scientific centers to real life, Estonia practices what it preaches, and it is no longer unusual to get an electric cab in Tartu, with the company Elektritakso launching its first electricity-powered vehicle on the roads of the town back in September.

The first charging station opened in Tallinn in June, and 140 stations are due to be operating across Estonia by the end of the year.

Launched in June with only one vehicle, Elektritakso expanded its fleet up to five electric cars in September and plans to double that number by the end of the year. The electric cabs are slightly cheaper than ordinary, gasoline-powered taxis, charging 2.4 euros at the start of the ride and then 50 cents per kilometer.


Estonia is a land rich in historic manor houses, about 100 of which have been renovated and converted to luxury hotels.

According to the website www.mois.ee, devoted to Estonian manors, some of them date to the Middle Ages, but the mass construction of manor complexes began to a wide extent in the 1760s and lasted for more than a century and a half until World War I.


Alatskivi Castle, originally built in the 16th century and reconstructed 300 years later, houses history expositions.

In the early 20th century, there were 1,250 manors in Estonia, but by 2005 this number had dropped to 414. According to the Estonian Tourist Board, nowadays there are about 200 manor houses under state protection as architectural monuments and 100 in active use.

Estonian manors are where closeness to nature is combined with luxury appropriate to the aristocrats who once owned them. During the Soviet era many of the manors fell into disrepair or were used as schools or workers’ hostels.

Kau Manor is located some 40 minutes from Tallinn, 6 kilometers off the highway to Tartu. Located in the Koue parish and first mentioned in 1241, it is one of the oldest Estonian manors, whose first known owner was a vassal of the Danish King Gerhardus de Kouwe (Gerhard from Kau). In the early 19th century Kau was home to the world famous explorer Otto von Kotzebue.

Owned by the Estonia-based award-winning filmmaker Mary Jordan since 2007, the manor has undergone extensive restoration and retains many of its original features. It now houses a boutique hotel, a restaurant and spa, as well as a ballroom in the manor’s coach house. Kau also hosts drama performances and music concerts.

In 2011, Jordan established the Kau Arts Academy with the goal of supporting established and emerging artists working in a variety of media. Every year, the Kau Arts Academy invites between 10 and 15 artists to come to Estonia to devote two to six weeks to creative projects.

Currently, there are plans are to convert four hectares of surrounding land into a sculpture park. In December, visitors were greeted by “Black Object” (a tank on grand piano legs by Estonian sculptor Kirke Kangro), brought there from an exhibition in Riga, Latvia late last month. (Triigi, Koue, tel: +372 644 1411, www.kau.ee)

Halfway between Tallinn and Tartu lies Pohjaka Manor, whose restaurant is famous for its fantastic Estonian food.

Established in 1813 by its first Baltic-German owner Paul Gotthard von Dücker, the one-story manor, which greeted the new millennium in an extremely poor state, was renovated by a team of enthusiasts and reopened in 2010, after more than three years of hard work.

The restaurant at Pohjaka is keen on using local raw ingredients, and has a cellar full of natural items such as genuine brown apple juice and rowan berries in glass jars.

Pohjaka restaurant was rated the fifth finest in the country in Estonia’s annual top 50 restaurants rating conducted by the Flavours of Estonia program in October. (Pohjaka Mois, Mäeküla, Paide vald , Järvamaa, tel: +372 5267795, www.pohjaka.ee)

Alatskivi Castle, a gothic-style manor castle set in a 130-hectare dense forest park, is located 42 kilometers northeast of Tartu, close to Lake Peipus, the biggest transboundary lake in Europe, which lies on the border between Estonia and Russia.


Visitors to the Scientific Center can ride a bike suspended high above the ground.

Originally built in the late 16th century but rebuilt in 1880-1885, Alatskivi Castle is said to resemble the royal residence of Balmoral in Scotland, albeit smaller. This is possibly where the inspiration for the Scottish cuisine served in the manor’s restaurant comes from, although Estonian and German dishes are also available.

Alatskivi offers guided tours, describing the life in the manor as it once was. The expositions present an overview of the manor’s history and renovation process, while the cellar exhibition with wax statues of the manor’s workers explains how things were run there. The small Eduard Tubin Museum pays homage to the famous Estonian composer, who lived in the neighborhood.

When attended earlier this month, the museum was hosting a small but lively fair, with local people selling woolen clothing items, handmade souvenirs, and apples and onions, the area’s most famous agricultural product.

(Alatskivi Loss, Alatskivi vald, Tartumaa, tel: +372 745 3816; +372 528 6598, www.alatskiviloss.ee)

The St. Petersburg Times was a guest of the Estonian Tourist Board, Enterprise Estonia (2 Lasnamäe, 11412 Tallinn, Estonia. Tel: +372 6279 770). www.eas.ee, www.visitestonia.com.

Where To Eat

Meat Market Steak Cocktail

3 Küütri, Tel: +372 653 3455,



Tartu-born sculptor Ulo Ouna’s surreal sculpture ‘Father and Son,’ located on Kuuni, the city’s main shopping street.

Launched earlier this year in the former premises of a butcher’s shop, the restaurant’s specialty is solid roast beefs roasted to a choice of three degrees according to the customer’s wish and an array of starters titled “Symphony of Meat” served on a wooden board.

But true to its name, it also promises a range of quality cocktails.


3 Küütri, Tel: +372 744 2085,


Located in the same building as Meat Market Steak Cocktail, the new Moka café/restaurant creatively combines Estonian cuisine with international dishes. A large selection of wines is available.

How To Get There

From St. Petersburg, a direct Lux Express bus departs for Tartu four times a day (www.luxexpress.eu). Tartu can be also reached via Tallinn, from where there are many regular buses. Estonian Air will stop its flights to Tartu and a number of other destinations this week, with the last flight on Dec. 21.

Where To Stay

Antonius Hotel

15 Ülikooli, Tel: +372 737 0377,


A luxury five-star hotel right across the street from the University of Tartu’s main building. First mentioned in 16th-century historical records, the building was completed in its present structure in 1811 and has been carefully preserved. The hotel’s 18 rooms and library are highly individual and fitted out with antique furniture. A 40-seat restaurant is housed in the cellar.

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