Tartu, Estonia: The little-known European city break soon to go mainstream

“Tartu is the birthplace of much of Estonian culture,” says designer and illustrator Kalle Paas, as we set off on a morning walk through the compact city, two hours south of the capital Tallinn.

It feels like a bold claim, given that we’re gazing at a shopping mall. Paas explains that Tartu was once a prosperous medieval stronghold, until its location amid rival Swedish, Russian and German empires took its toll. In the end, though, it was the great fire of 1775 that devastated the ancient core.

The 700-year-old ruins of Tartu Cathedral watch over the city from leafy Toome Hill. Its Gothic arches provide a dramatic backdrop for the occasional open-air concert; the renovated section contains the University of Tartu Museum, home to both precious antiquities and a hands-on “crazy science lab”.

“The city’s history has given it an impulse for reinvention. It’s a place of deep layers,” says Paas.

Tartu – alongside the wider south Estonian region – will reveal its heritage and spirit of innovation as one of next year’s three European Capitals of Culture. The programme of more than 300 events will range from a traditional singing festival to a major audiovisual installation by Japanese artist Ryoji Ikeda, based on data from the University of Tartu’s Institute of Genomics.

In a country where figures show that more than two thirds of UK visitors in 2022 did not stray outside the capital – and which, albeit, is expected to be one of Europe’s fastest-growing tourist destinations in the next decade – Tartu’s Mayor, Urmas Klaas, believes the cultural calendar will help the city “become stronger and more visible across Europe and the world”.

'The Kissing Students' sculpture (Photo: FotoGablitz/Getty Images)
The Kissing Students sculpture (Photo: FotoGablitz/Getty Images)

Stepping onto Town Hall Square in the Old Town, the charms of Tartu’s storied past soon become apparent. The pastel, neoclassical buildings were once home to 18th-century Baltic-German nobles. Meanwhile, a beloved statue depicting two young people locked in an eternal kiss occupies the fountain: a joyful post-Soviet-era celebration of the large student community here.

The city’s population of 100,000 swells by 20 per cent in term time thanks to the prestigious university, the oldest in the Baltic states. Paas points out Rüütli Street: come evening, its elegant facades pull in a young crowd who come to party at the string of craft beer and cocktail bars.

Across the square, I’m thrown off-balance by a rose-tinted, three-storey building, home to Tartu’s art museum. Set at an alarming 5.8° angle, it’s wonkier than Pisa’s famed tower – but Paas reassures me the foundations are now secure. Its avant-garde stance feels well suited to hosting Tartu 2024’s exhibition marking 100 years of surrealism.

Paas understands the lay of the land here better than most, having recently created a free illustrated city map for the tourist office. The suggested routes take in under-the-radar bakeries, riverside hangouts, an old widget factory now filled with artists’ studios and design stores, as well as family-friendly attractions such as the Estonian Sports and Olympic Museum and the AHHAA Science Centre.

Tartu has 15 museums in total. The big hitter, though, is the award-winning Estonian National Museum. So that afternoon, armed with my map, I stroll 15 minutes out of town to be greeted by an arresting 350-metre-long glass-clad building sloping along the runway of a former Soviet airfield.

Inside is no less show-stopping. Its sleek, interactive design – in which information boards translate at a flash of a smart ticket – showcases beautiful, often hand-crafted artefacts, telling the stories of ordinary Estonians through the centuries.

A wooden house in 'Soup Town' (Photo: Evelin Pihlak)
A wooden house in Soup Town (Photo: Evelin Pihlak)

The next day, I again encounter this compelling mix of old and new on a street art tour of Supilinn – a district of colourful wooden houses skirting the city centre, whose name translates as “Soup Town”. “It’s actually one of the oldest slums in Europe,” says guide Timo Parts.

The now desirable district was once home to poor 18th and 19th century agricultural and factory workers. “The river would flood, and the mud and water would come into the street,” says Parts. “Maybe produce floated up from the cellars. So, people started calling it Soup Town. At some point, it became official.”

As we potter along quiet streets, Parts points out striking two-storey murals and playful sticker art. Many of the works were created as part of the city’s annual international Stencibility Street Art Festival, which will celebrate its 15th year in July.

We end by viewing the galleries that have sprung up on the banks of the Emajõgi river.

Street art on the widget factory (Photo: Hedrica Hargats)
Street art on the old widget factory (Photo: Hedrica Hargats)

To coincide with Tartu 2024, shipbuilding company Emajõe Lodjaselts will launch a 23-metre-long two-masted barge on the river, modelled on original 14th century designs. Throughout the year, the river will provide the backdrop to other events, with a focus on reducing waste and using local suppliers and food.

I am reminded of something Paas had said the day before as he’d reflected on his comfortable hometown, tucked away in a region of deep forests and lakes at the edge of the EU. “The European Capital of Culture can help us mobilise and energise; it’s about setting the bar.”

Getting there
There are direct flights from Stansted and Luton to Tallinn, or you can connect in Helsinki. Coaches depart from Tallinn airport and city centre to Tartu, taking around two hours, 15 minutes.

Staying there
Four-star V Spa Hotel, with a Michelin-listed restaurant and family-friendly water spa, has doubles from £98 B&B.

Visiting there
For the full programme of Capital of Culture events, see tartu2024.ee/en/

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