The largest city in the southern half of Estonia is Tartu. Located 187 kilometers southeast of Tallinn, many locals call Tartu the true capital of Estonia. At the very least, Tartu is considered to be the intellectual capital. About a quarter of the population consists of students attending one of the city's 16 universities.

Tartu - a city full of good thoughts

Guided Tour visiting Tartu

History of Tartu

Tartu was first mentioned in 1030 as a fortress built by the Grand Duke Yaroslav of Kiev. Since then the city has been destroyed several times – by Estonians in 1061, by Germans in 1224, by the Great Northern War in 1708 and by a fire in 1775. Most of the buildings in the old town date back to the 18th century.

aerial view of tartu city buildings at night in estonia

The city has developed in a north-south direction along the Emajõgi River, with most of the main university buildings distributed at the northern end, where Old Town is located.

Some facts about Tartu

fountain statue in Tartu city in Estonia
  1. The 2017 World Orienteering Championships were held in Tartu.
  2. The annual running event Tartu Suegisjooks is held in Tartu.
  3. In 1920, the peace treaty between Soviet Russia and Finland was also signed in Tartu.
  4. Tartu is the second-largest city in Estonia, after the political and financial capital Tallinn.
  5. Tartu is often considered the intellectual center of the country, especially since the oldest and most prestigious university in the country is located here.
  6. The Estonian name Tartu has been used since 1918, but as the city has come under the control of different rulers throughout its history, there have been different names for it in different languages.
  7. Tartu has a beer restaurant with the highest ceiling in the world.
  8. The first written records of Tartu date back to 1030 and the original settlement of Tarbatu dates back to the 5th century. In 1030 the Russians built a fortress there called Yuriev.
  9. In 2016, the main building of the Estonian National Museum was opened in Tartu. It was the largest project carried out in independent Estonia.
  10. In 1993, the Russian Air Force left its base in Tartu.

Where is Tartu

58° 23′ 0″ N, 26° 43′ 0″ E 

It is located 186 kilometers southeast of Tallinn and 245 kilometers northeast of Riga, the capital of Latvia. Tartu lies on the Emajõgi river, which connects Estonia's two largest lakes: Lake Võrtsjaerv and Lake Peipus.  

How to Get to Tartu

coulourful buildings at the old town area in tartu city estonia

By plane

The distance between Tartu Airport and the city center is about 10 kilometers. Lennart Meri Tallinn Airport has direct flight connections to numerous cities, including the nearby Baltic capitals of Riga and Vilnius. It is also easy to fly in directly from Amsterdam, Brussels, Copenhagen, Dublin, and many other cities.

By train

Trains to Tartu from Tallinn station run 10 times a day and it takes about 2 hours to get to Tartu. Trains in Estonia are comfortable and you can use Wi-Fi in first class.

By bus

The Tartu Bus Station is located in the city center, and there are convenient direct bus connections to major centers in Estonia as well as across the border. In one direction, more than 50 buses run daily between Tallinn and Tartu, most of which also stop at Tallinn Airport. Comfortable Lux Express Buses are perfect for longer journeys as they are equipped with a toilet, free Wi-Fi, power sockets, and a coffee machine.

What to do in Tartu

Town Hall Square

tartu city town hall building view on a sunny day in estonia

Tartu Town Hall Square is the beautiful central square of Tartu and is surrounded by historical buildings. The current town hall is the third building that has been erected in that spot. In the 18th century, the square was the location of the most important market in the city – The Great Mall.

KGB Cells Museum

Built into what was the local NKVD/KGB in the 1940s and ‘50s, the museum covers themes of repression and the Estonian resistance movement.

Observatory

Tartu Observatoorium - Tartu Observatory (4K video)

Toome Hill is the hilly park that dominates the old town. On the south side of the park stands the observatory from the early 19th century, which once had the largest refractor telescope in the world.

Main building of the University of Tartu

There is no question that the main building of the University of Tartu is one of the jewels of the city. It was built between 1804 and 1809 according to the design of the architect Johann Wilhelm Krause. The opening ceremony of the building took place on July 3, 1809. All important events in the life of the university have been celebrated in its main hall ever since.

Toom Cathedral

Above the park rises the monumental Toom Cathedral (Toomkirik), which gives the hill its name. Begun in the 13th century, this was once the largest brick Gothic church in the Baltics, but most of it was destroyed in the Livonian Wars (1558-83).

Local Street Art

street art on building wall in tartu city in estonia

Like many university towns, Tartu has a lively, creative spirit. One of the most striking aspects of this is the strong culture of street art. From large murals adorning the sides of buildings and museums to small portraits popping up in shuttered windows of old buildings, there are many fun and detailed pieces to be found.

Best Time to Visit Tartu

TARTU, ESTONIA - AUTUMN VISUALS 4K

Weather stations report very large amounts of snow, which can be deepest around March, especially toward the end of February and the beginning of March. The best time to ski in Tartu is often around December 17, when the fresh snow is deepest.

Best Places to Eat in Tartu

dinner gourmet food dish in estonian restaurant
  • Werner Cafe & Lounge (Ülikooli 11, Tartu) 

Werner is an important part of the university town having been a meeting place for professors, students, artists, poets and writers since 1882. The cafe serves the biggest cappuccinos in town. In addition to the cafe downstairs, their 2nd-floor lounge is one of the best hidden places to have a delicious dinner and relax.

  • Taverna (Raekoja plats 20, Tartu) 

The interior in Taverna looks like it's been kept the same since the beginning of the 1990s which gives it a funky retro vibe. Locals say that this restaurant serves the best pizzas in Tartu! 

  • Cafe Truffe (Raekoja plats 16, Tartu) 

Cafe Truffe has won several gastronomy awards and can proudly be called one of the best restaurants in Estonia. Their modern interior, bright staff and simple yet elegant approach to food make it easy to understand why they're ranked among the crème de la crème. 

  • Tokyo Sushi Bar (Ülikooli 5, Tartu) 

Tokyo Sushi Bar is the first and probably the only decent sushi place in Tartu. You know, at times even the locals get a craving for something other than their everyday potatoes and gravy. Stylish interior, friendly staff and good food equal happy customers.

Where to Stay in Tartu

  • Dorpat

Tartu's largest hotel is a professionally-run, 205-room affair on the banks of the Emajõgi River. Features include the city's largest conference center, a spa and a little, red car parked in the lobby. 

  • Domus Dorpatensis 

Domus Dorpatensis is actually a science and liberal arts foundation that happens to rent out guest apartments in a building right next to the Town Hall. Rooms are well-equipped with everything you might need for self-catering and a comfortable night's stay. One of the rooms has its own sauna. Breakfast is offered in the neighboring Hotel Lydia. 

  • Villa Margaretha 

This Art Nouveau house once again joins the land of the living in the form of a small hotel. The attention to detail in recreating the mood of this home away from home earns it a top spot in our books. Rooms are warm and comfortable. Be sure to inquire about the house’s history while you’re there. 

  • Tartu Hotel 

This hotel next to the bus station is certainly one of the city's best value-for-money establishments. Superior singles and twins are located in the building's newest wing, while the hotel's main section offers small but respectable standard rooms They are all fully outfitted and decorated with funky and bright paintings.