Estonia’s most famous scientists studied and taught here and its most famous patriots, whether in opposition to the tsar, the pre-war president Konstantin Päts or the Soviet regime, likewise spent their formative years in Tartu.
Unlike Tallinn or Pärnu, Tartu is not a town of instant charm. Arriving by any of the dreary approach roads does not suggest the imminence of a famous university town or of one where Estonia gained its statehood. Yet intellectually and architecturally it is the centre of Estonia. Its university cultivates an Oxbridge/Ivy League tradition but has combined it with the radicalism of Berkeley or the London School of Economics.
Estonia’s most famous scientists studied and taught here and its most famous patriots, whether in opposition to the tsar, the pre-war president Konstantin Päts or the Soviet regime, likewise spent their formative years in Tartu. The 200km distance from Tallinn suited both sides. Political activists could be more daring and the government could feign liberalism, safe in the knowledge that its detractors would not be a threat to the capital. With independence and democracy now safe in Estonia, Tartu is taking up new causes.
The celebration in October 2007 of the 375th anniversary of the founding of the university, which was attended by Queen Silvia of Sweden, was a great incentive for renovation in the Old Town. It was also around that time Tartu realised, if it was to be a successful second city, it would need to be a business centre as well as an academic one and had to compete with Tallinn as a base for Estonian and international companies. It has been successful, particularly with start-ups; Playtech and Nortal are among the larger companies based here, with the former now listed on the London Stock Exchange. On the cultural side, the opening of ERM, the National Museum, in 2016 gave the town further prestige and excellent publicity. In 2024 Tartu will be the European City of Culture; see here for more details.
Tartu now has a diverse programme of festivals that take place all year round except in July and August (when the hotels fill up anyway). If it matters whether you turn up for the cross-country ski marathon, the break-dancing finals or student rag week, check their dates here. This also gives the programme at the Vanemuine Theatre, which spills out on to the Town Hall Square (weather permitting) during the summer.
A full day is needed to cover the town centre and the university, and a further half day to visit a selection of the museums. The parks beside the river offer relaxing walks and concerts in the summer.
Getting to Tartu
Tartu is well served by buses to all major towns in Estonia. They run every half-hour to Tallinn and most are non-stop, taking about 2½ hours. Buses operate several times a day to Rakvere, Narva, Võru, Valga, Viljandi and Pärnu. An increasing number of these can be booked online here.
Internationally, Lux Express run to Riga (via Valga) and St Petersburg (via Narva).
There are six express trains a day to Tallinn (2hrs) – see here for times and prices. There are also trains to Valga on the Latvian border, which connect with trains to Riga and probably during the currency of this book there will be a direct service between Tartu and Riga.
Located 8km south of the city, Tartu airport opened in summer 2009 for passenger flights. In early 2020, there were plans for the daily Finnair flight to Helsinki to increase to twice daily but the pandemic stopped the service altogether, although it should resume in 2022.