If you’re like most Americans, you probably know nothing about Estonia. (True story: My mom thought it was in the Middle East.) Well, it’s worth learning about the Baltic nation’s many fascinating and delightful facets, from the medieval-era capital, Tallinn, to the nearby Lahemaa National Park, home to such quirky attractions as a large and much-visited bog. The Estonian language is a close cousin of Finnish (make that the only close cousin of Finnish—both sound a bit like Elvish), and the country has a distinct Nordic feel, from its hyper-seasonal cuisine to its contemporary design.
Then there’s Estonia’s riveting and tragic history, which has included overlordship by the Swedes, a German noble class, tsarist Russia, the Nazis, and, finally, the Soviets. (The excellent free tour offered at noon each day in Tallinn offers a spellbinding and hilarious run-through of the past 800 years.) Although Tallinn may be a dead ringer for a Monty Python set, this country of 1.3 million is wholeheartedly embracing 21st century trends, including a high-tech ID card for citizens that lets them electronically sign documents and vote online. Still, the appealingly odd aspects of this beguiling place persist—and don’t seem to be going anywhere. Check some of them out below.
This onetime military barracks was commissioned by Tsar Nicholas I in 1828 and converted into a prison in the 1920s, later used enthusiastically by the Soviets when they took over after World War II. The prison was shut down just 10 years ago—apparently quite abruptly, judging by the beds and detritus like cupboards full of envelopes left behind. You can tour the rambling maze of a facility on your own, or go with a guide, which gets you access to the former operating room and even a creepy execution room. When you’re finished, relax at the seaside beach bar located in back. Because what tumble-down prison is complete without a relaxing waterside bar? While you’re back there, take some profile-pic-worthy selfies with the fleet of broken-down military vehicles.
You probably never knew you needed an elk soup restaurant fashioned after a medieval tavern in your life, but trust me—you do. There is only one soup, and it costs just 2 euros a bowl, but don’t expect any niceties like a spoon. Meat and mushroom pies are ideal for dipping, and there are also free pickles, if you can manage to awkwardly fish them out of a barrel using a wooden stick. The whole thing feels like somebody’s dark absurdist joke (which gives a hint about the national sense of humor), but it’s also a great place to eat lunch, as long as you don’t mind a candle-lit dining room that’s so dark you’ll probably bump your knees on something. The soup is also the best cure in town for your inevitable Tallinn hangover. Service by employees dressed in era-appropriate peasant gear is appropriately brusque for the time period.
3. Viru Bog, Lahemaa National Park
Lahemaa national park near Tallinn is home to a number of odd attractions, including “one of the most accessible bogs in Estonia.” (Fun fact: 7 percent of the country is bogland, and Estonia isn’t a very big place.) There’s a wooden walkway to take you across Viru bog, since you definitely don’t want to fall in—bodies become mummified in the extremely acidic water. Despite the prevalence of what’s basically battery acid, this is a very popular tourist and nature lover’s pitstop. I saw the bog as part of Tallinn Traveller Tours‘ excellent national park day trip, and my guide, Ann, relayed intriguing botanical knowledge along the way, pointing out moose moss (“My grandmother calls me every autumn to remind me to make a tea of moose moss for colds. Don’t do it; it smells disgusting.”), and another plant that has mild psychedelic properties if smoked. We also ate some cranberries, which didn’t taste very good—something you might know if you’ve ever eaten raw cranberries. Autumn is the best bog-viewing period, said Ann, since the sparse vegetation takes on brilliant rusty hues.
Basically, during World War II, the dastardly Soviets figured out how to make their submarines immune to detection from enemy radar, by running a copper wire around them, which effectively demagnetized them. Hopefully I got that right—the details really aren’t that important anymore, since this strange concrete structure sticking out into a particularly placid section of the Baltic sea is now little more than a popular fishing and graffiti spot. Anyone who loves a bit of ruin porn will have a field day here (bring your camera!) checking out the amazing spray-painted art, hopping around the various parts of this odd structure, and doing like the fisherman and enjoying the eerily quiet beauty.
Ever felt like you needed an amateur oil painting of Lenin? Maybe a commemorative clock with Stalin’s mug on it? A model car of a Soviet Lada? You can find all this and more at the Balti Jaam market across from Tallinn’s train station, where the vendors don’t seem to have gotten the memo that it was curtains for the iron curtain several decades ago. To track down the weirdest stuff, veer all the way left at the entrance. On the right-hand side you’ll find cheap Russian cosmetics, the usual made-in-china whatnot, and a pretty good selection of produce, including, when I visited recently, flats of gloriously bright-orange sea buckthorn and fairytale displays of wild mushrooms. You might even see a shopping cart full of unwrapped meat in the butcher area, but don’t try to take any photos of this bizarre sight, or you’ll be severely reprimanded in Russian. Um, from what I hear.
The town of Valga is located on the border between Estonia and Latvia, with a foot in each country, so you could visit this touchingly homespun military theme park from either Tallinn or Riga, Latvia. Or better yet, while you’re traveling between the cities! (Tallinn Traveller Tours offers a day trip that ends in Riga and includes a stop here.) “Theme park” is an optimistic designation; it’s more of a rinky-dink museum, really. The two-story building includes exhibits on Nazi and Soviet combat (complete with papier maché soldiers) and another on the Estonian police force, including ’80s mannequins in sexy skirt uniforms. Out back is where the “theme park” part comes in, kind of. Feel free to risk your life in the shaky helicopter ride or lose your children on the obstacle course at their own risk.