Tartu is the second largest city in Estonia and the Culture Capital of Europe in 2024. This means an influx of art, performances, and activities in the town throughout the year, making it an even more attractive place to visit.
Tartu is also known as the student town – the oldest university of Estonia opened in 1632 and has been educating people ever since. The city is worth visiting any time of the year, with many activities year-round.
Be sure to visit www.tartu2024.ee/en/ for the most up-to-date information on the official cultural program for Tartu in 2024.
Getting to Tartu
Only 2.5 hours by train or bus from Tallinn, the town is worth visiting when you have more time and want to get out of the capital. The bus station in Tartu is conveniently in the city center, and the train station is a roughly 25-minute walk from the Old Town of Tartu. Buses and trains leave roughly once an hour. Book a bus beforehand to make sure there is space.
The train can be packed during weekends, but if you buy a first-class ticket with an assigned seat, you will not spend most of your journey standing up. These tickets are just a few euros more expensive than the regular ones.
Getting Around in Tartu
Almost everything is walkable in Tartu, and it is practically a matter of pride for the locals that they tend to walk everywhere. The city also has an electric and regular bicycle rental service that helps to cover longer distances. Bolt rental scooters are also a convenient way to get around. So take your time and discover the city on foot or bike. Bolt and Uber taxis also work very well.
Areas Worth Visiting in Tartu
The old town of Tartu is compact and easily walkable, scattered with cafes, restaurants, and bars. The old town is also where you will find the University of Tartu still in the exact location it was when it opened its doors in the 17th century.
Toome Hill Park, next to the old town, is one of the favorite places for locals to stroll or read a book on a sunny day. The ruins of the old Tartu cathedral are now sometimes used for performances and parties. You will also find the University of Tartu Museum here.
Pirogovi Park next to Toome Hill deserves its own mention. It is the only place in Estonia where you can consume alcohol in public – only light alcohol and only from March to October. This is because the park is frequented by students having a beer after classes. Numerous tries to change this law have all faced huge backlash and never worked.
Karlova area is known for its bohemian vibe and cute wooden houses. The locals have set up small cafes and bars amid the quiet streets, so there are things worth discovering for both architecture buffs and connoisseurs of hipster traveling.
Aparaaditehas is an old factory area outside of the old town. It was turned into a creative space with restaurants and shops and is often frequented by locals during weekends. It’s an excellent place to come for some food and activities with a small museum, some workshops, and concerts and performances often happening.
Museums & Experiences in Tartu
Almost all of the activities listed here can be done with kids (maybe except the KGB Cells Museum). However, some things are specifically meant for kids and adults alike to enjoy, and they are listed at the bottom of this list.
Estonian National Museum – ERM
The Estonian National Museum is possibly the best museum in all of Estonia. It’s a vast museum. Take your time, be prepared, and come with a full stomach. You can easily spend half a day looking at artifacts from different times of Estonian history. The museum combines history, ethnography, and modern solutions and is endlessly fascinating.
The gift shop at ERM is the best place to get unique souvenirs. They have local jewelry, handicrafts, and modern design that are difficult to find anywhere else.
ERM is situated outside of the city center but well worth the small effort of taking a taxi or bus. Buses nr 7, 8, and 25 get close to it – check Google Maps for accurate schedules.
Tartu Art Museum – Tartu Kunstimuuseum
Tartu Art Museum, located in the heart of the Old Town, is in a building that is a sight on its own. The house is called the “Leaning house”, and when you see it, you will understand why. The building started slanting after it was constructed in 1793 due to the whole old town being built on a soggy bank of the Tartu River. The slanting was stopped in the 1980s thanks to extensive works, and it is now stable at a 5.8-degree angle.
The museum has a revolving exhibit of Estonian artists. It has pop-up exhibitions in some rooms in this three-storied building.
Printing Museum TYPA
This little museum hidden away in an old factory’s backyard at Aparaaditehas offers an interactive journey through the history of printing. Every ticket comes with a free personal tour through the museum, sometimes accompanied by the resident museum cat. The whole place is so friendly and welcoming that you can’t help but fall in love with the place.
The KGB Cells Museum
This museum, a bit outside of the old town, takes you back in time and into a prison. These are actual prison cells used by the KGB to detain people, often before they were sent to Siberia. Personal stories mix with harsh facts in this museum. If you want to learn more about the complicated Soviet occupation period in Estonia, then this is the place to go.
University of Tartu Botanical Garden
A lovely botanical garden in the old town is an excellent place to stroll in exotic nature in the old town. With some indoor tropical areas and a vast garden outside, this is a wonderful place to visit if you have some time to spare and the weather is nice. An attentive eye will also notice turtles, fish, parrots, and crickets that live in the tropical area.
Kid-Friendly Things to Do in Tartu
Science Centre AHHAA
This science center offers discovery for the whole family. This massive building is full of technology and adventure. Most of the center is interactive, and exhibits can be played around with. The Hall of Nature and the Hall of Technology are permanent, and other exciting exhibitions rotate. The place is huge and takes some time to get through. It is entertaining for children and adults alike.
Aura Water Park
The largest water park in the area has water slides and other fun attractions in different pools that children love. Sauna culture is essential to Estonians, and thus, there are many different saunas to try out and find your favorite.
Lodjakoda / Barge Hall
On Saturdays from 12-17, you can visit the local Lodjakoda, where a large wooden barge is being built and will be finished in 2024. Here, you can see the shipbuilding and try your hand at easier woodwork. There is also a tour in English every Saturday at 3PM. The barge hall is fun for the whole family.
Tartu Toy Museum / Tartu Mänguasjamuuseum
This charming little museum in the old town exhibits old toys Estonian children have played with. Adults who grew up in the Soviet Union will have a nostalgic trip down memory lane, seeing their childhood toys on display. The museum has a playroom and workshops with plenty to keep children entertained.
Where to Eat in Tartu
Tartu has excellent food with very different price ranges, from student-friendly to high-end restaurants offering delicious options.
This cafe is a legendary place for local university students, professors, writers, and artists to meet. The pastries here are excellent. A good stop for a quick coffee and a snack.
Loved by locals, Aparaat is slightly out of the city center in Aparaadi tehas. The low-key, laid-back atmosphere makes this a lovely place for dinner or brunch with friends or colleagues.
The Gunpowder Cellar, as the name says, used to be a warehouse for gunpowder. Now, it is a legendary pub with your regular pub food alongside a ridiculously extensive beer selection.
If you are looking for a vegan place, then look no further. Veg Machine offers fantastic vegan street food. Nothing fancy – just great vegan burgers and snacks await you, but once you have eaten here, you will keep coming back.
It’s the perfect place to have lunch or dinner with friends, nothing fancy. The atmosphere is relaxed and cozy. There is a separate section of vegan foods, which is a relatively rare sight in Tartu.
Who doesn’t love pancakes? This is an excellent place for brunch in the heart of the old town, along with student-friendly prices and even board games for the customers to enjoy. Besides pancakes, they, of course, have other tasty things on the menu, too.
One of the best fine dining restaurants in the region, it is also one of the three restaurants in Tartu recommended in the Michelin Guide 2023. The open kitchen lets you see how the magic is created. The restaurant’s name is historic – the place uses a cookbook from the 1920s written by Lydia Grünmann Holm.
It is a big surprise to find this eloquent restaurant in a popular shopping center in the city. So much so that it is even mentioned in the Michelin Guide 2023. The menu blends Baltic influences with modern cuisine, the cocktail menu offers fun and exciting drinks, and the atmosphere is great.
Restaurant Fii is located outside the city center but is well worth the small trip. The high-quality natural ingredients and exciting flavor combinations led the restaurant to gain recognition in the Michelin Guide 2023.
French cuisine made with Estonian pragmatism. Traditional fine dining meets innovation and experimenting, along with a beautiful interior and enjoyable atmosphere.
La Dolce Vita
This Italian restaurant is admired by both locals and tourists alike. Wood-oven pizzas, pasta, and anything else Italian can be found here, with a glass of delicious Italian wine.
As the name suggests, their focus is on cooking meat to perfection, along with a well-crafted drink menu. This is an excellent place to end a day of museums and sights to get a delicious dinner.
Besides excellent restaurants and cafes, Tartu offers even better places for drinks because of the high concentration of students who are always up for a beer or two.
This little bar on the slopes of Toome Hill is a perfect place to hang out during summer, with plenty of space outdoors. Guest DJs often ensure you have a good time and play anything electronic, depending on the party.
Located out of the old town, this bar is the heart of the Karlova district. The tiny drinking establishment is often so full of customers that half the street engages in discussions with a drink in hand.
Mojito-bar “Small Cuba” is located on the riverbank of Tartu River and does make you feel like you are enjoying a fun, exotic vacation. Many mojitos and other drinks are on the menu overlooking the river.
Another great bar by the riverside. Naiiv often brings local and visiting DJs in to make sure the patrons of the locale are treated with the best vibes and music.
Vein ja Vine
This tiny, cozy wine bar is the best place to enjoy wine and tapas. The selection of wines here is as extensive as the price range, with student-friendly options alongside rare quality wines not easily found anywhere else.
Genialistide klubi / Möku
This student favorite is buzzing with people throughout the week. On weekends, larger parties on two floors take place, with anything from techno to heavy metal on the menu, depending on the week. Most of the time, this is an excellent place to come with friends for a beer. Genialistide Klubi is also the host of a monthly legendary LGBT+ party called Vikerruum.
Vabank Night Club
One of the most popular nightclubs in the city opens up every Friday and Saturday with a different concept party. Be sure to check their schedule in advance to know what’s going on. The dress code is smart casual, and the entrance is 21+.
* Cover photo: Brand Estonia / Virgo Haan