Estonia isn’t the most popular tourist destination. Mostly it’s associated only with its capital – Tallinn, treated as a short gateway destination from Finland, or just skipped as not worth visiting (too small? too expensive?). As someone who loves such small, charming countries, not overwhelmed with tourists, I’ve never understood why people are surprised finding them on someones bucketlist. My visit to Estonia was connected with a short student exchange – summer internship, taking place in of the pharmacies in Tartu in 2016. Although it was a short trip (only 2 weeks), thanks to the country’s small size, I had an opportunity not only to finish it with three extra days in Tallinn but also to visit some less popular cities. One of them was Viljandi – a very small, yet adorable “cultural capital of Estonia”, a perfect place for a short half-day trip.
Cultural capital of Estonia
Among the locals and interested audience, Viljandi is mostly popular as the stage of the most visited music festival in Estonia and one of the biggest folk music festivals in Europe – Viljandi Folk Music Festival
, held during the last weekend of July. The event takes place in the Viljandi Castle Hills and the city center, where it gathers over 25 thousand people every year pouring life and music into this rather sleepy town. Unfortunately, visiting the city in late June, I didn’t get a chance to take part in this famous event. Besides the famous festival, Viljandi has also more connections with music and culture. The Estonian Traditional Music Centre, Kondas Centre – the museum dedicated to naive and outsider art, and finally the Viljandi Culture Academy – the part of the University of Tartu, focused on fields such as art, theater, dance, music, native crafts.
If not for the summer festival, why would anyone visit Viljandi? One of the reasons may be the Viljandi Castle
. Actually, the ruins of the castle, as not much is left from the original building. Built in 1224, it became one of the main strongholds of the Livonian Order in the 14th century and after getting its final shape in the 16th century it turned to one of the most distinguished fortresses in Estonia and Latvia. Unfortunately, due to the following wars between Sweden, Poland and Russia, what we can visit now are only its remainings – a few stone walls. Nevertheless, while still being a very interesting and atmospheric place, they offer also something for tourists less interested in history and medieval ruins. The part which would be appreciated by everyone is definitely the beautiful view over the lake of Viljandi
, which together with the ruins and park around them makes a perfect recreational area.
Nature lovers won’t be disappointed with their visit to Viljandi. The Viljandi Lake
offers not only amazing views from the castle hill, but for visitors who have more time also hiking trails around the whole lake, which isn’t especially big (4600 m long and 450 m wide). If you’re not interested in walking, there is also a possibility of renting a boat and for fans of swimming, a small beach with a pier. Although Estonia may not be the warmest summer destination, even during our visit in June, we came across a few young people jumping from the lifeguard tower and playing in the water. Even my Indian friend decided to hop into the water, despite not having a swimming suit, nor towel. Waiting for her to dry up, we spent some extra time relaxing on the pier and enjoying the surrounding nature.
Another famous sight in Viljandi is the Suspension Bridge
. Over 50 m long rope bridge erected over a 15 m deep valley is difficult to be missed. And it’s not only because of its location on the way to the Viljandi Castle (not sure if there was an alternative path for less courageous visitors). Probably one of the reasons for its high popularity and becoming one of the symbols of Viljandi city is its beauty. The bridge is painted in vivid red and white colors, making it stand out against the green valley, and offers a picturesque photography background. It’s one of the few places in Viljandi where someone may actually interrupt your photoshoot.
Viljandi Old Water Tower
In the city center, you can come across another eye-catching sight – Viljandi Old Water Tower
. A 30 m tall red brick building topped with an eight-sided green, wooden house with tiny windows is rather difficult to be missed. Besides being an interesting architecture structure, it offers also a small permanent exhibition with a historical overview of the city and, what’s more important, an amazing panoramic view over the whole town, lake and surrounding nature. We had no idea that there is such a place in Viljandi and only the curiosity made us check the entrance prices – spending only 2 euro (1 for children!) was definitely worth a try.
Our whole visit to Viljandi took only about 4-5 hours, including many photoshoots and our longer break at the lakeshore. We set off from Tartu in the afternoon, after our internship activities, and came back way before sunset (summer days in Estonia are so long!). Although the town is really small and it was enough time to see all the mentioned main sites, it’s also a good destination for a longer stay. The hiking trails, the lake with beach and boat rentals, few museums and the lack of tourists (and people in general) make it a great place for relaxing in silence, surrounded by nature. While in the city center there are also some interesting churches, statues, street art and, for me somehow characteristic for Estonia, charming wooden houses. The distances between cities in Estonia are short enough to make it an interesting stop on the road trip across the country, but it’s also easily accessible by public transport – only 1,5 h from Tartu and about 2,5 h from Tallinn. Learn more about things to see and do in Viljandi
on the city official website. If you’re interested also in visiting the rest of the country, check the website of Estonia official tourist information