While much of the Estonian tourism glory tends to go to the larger capital city of Tallinn, there is still much to be said about Tartu. For starters, Estonia’s second largest city has been selected to be the 2024 European Capital of Culture.
Tartu is also home to the University of Tartu, the oldest university in the country, which opened its doors in 1632. The large student population means this city has plenty of sights, nightlife, and things to do, despite having a population of less than 100,000.
13 Things To Do in Tartu
1. Visit the “Kissing Students” fountain
The Kissing Students fountain is one of the most beautiful fountains we’ve seen during our travels in Europe. This moment in Town Hall Square is a reminder to residents and visitors alike that the student population has a been influence on the city and its history.
University of Tartu has over 13,000 students, 1,700 academic staff, and 1,800 administrative staff. All combined, that’s over one-fifth of the entire population!
2. Check out the ruins of the Tartu Cathedral
Construction on the Tartu Cathedral began in the late 13th century and was completed during the 15th century. During the 16th century, it was damaged during the Protestant Reformation, then subsequently left to decay for the next few hundred years. At one point, it was even used as a barn. During the 19th and 20th centuries, part of the cathedral was renovated.
Today, part of the renovated ruins are home to the University of Tartu Museum, and the rest of the ruins have been structurally solidified though otherwise untouched. During the summer months, the ruin towers can be climbed while accompanied by a guide.
3. Admire the Tartu Art Museum
Founded in 1940, this museum is home to over 23,000 pieces. The museum’s exhibits are held in the “Leaning House” which is tilted to one side due to discrepancies in the original foundation, though it has since been solidified.
The Tartu Art Museum is home to classic, contemporary, and modern art, and has even caused a stir in the national headlines with some of its exhibits. Tickets are €5 for adults, but on the last Friday of every month tickets are only €1.
4. Walk along the Emajõgi River
The Emajõgi River is a beautiful river to walk along, and there are plenty of paths and bridges to weave your way along as you explore the riverbanks. The name of this river means “Mother River” when translated to English, for those who are curious.
During the spring, usually at the end of April, the University of Tartu students have a big rafting party on the river. There is also a big floating parade in July during the Hanseatic Days festivities.
5. Eat at the Gunpowder Cellar of Tartu (Pussirohukelder)
There are many reasons to eat at the Gunpowder Cellar of Tartu (Pussirohukelder). The atmosphere is rustic and inviting, the service is friendly, the food is delicious, and the drinks are reasonably priced.
Oh, and it is also in the Guinness Book of World Records for the highest pub ceiling in the world.
6. Visit the University of Tartu Botanical Garden
Located just north of Old Town, the Botanical Garden is a beautiful thing to see while in Tartu. The outdoor gardens are free to walk through and the greenhouses can be visited for €3 per adult, and prices are cheaper for students and families. The garden is worth visiting in the winter too, as it becomes a winter wonderland after a fresh snow.
7. Walk though Supilinn, Tartu’s smallest neighborhood
Just north of the city center, and sitting on the banks of the Emajõgi River is Supilinn, or Soup Town. It clocks in at 0.19 square miles, or just under half a square kilometer, which makes it the smallest neighborhood in Tartu.
Supilinn used to be a slum, but today it’s famous for its rustic wooden homes. It’s also home to the lovely Airbnb we stayed in, which we’ve linked to here.
8. Have a drink at Krooks
This local dive bar is sandwiched between the city center and Supilinn. It was right near our Airbnb and we loved the laid-back, relaxed vibes here. It’s a great place to grab a cheap drink!
9. Hangout in Town Hall Square
The Town Hall Square in Tartu has plenty of bars, restaurants, and cafes to visit and watch the world go back. The square doesn’t get packed, but it stays consistently busy. It’s a great place to enjoy the Estonian architecture and do some people watching.
The city has recently added the #Tartu2024 sculpture to the square to commemorate the city’s designation as a European Capital of Culture.
10. Turn your life upside down at Tagurpidi Maja
This might be the best €7.50 you spend during your time in Tartu. It’s about a thirty minute walk from the city center, but this place is totally worth it. Tagurpidi Maja, or “Upside Down House” is literally that. It’s an entire house flipped over, both inside and out. The furniture is on the ceiling, the roof is on the ground, and your senses don’t know what to think.
11. Marvel at all the street art
It’s not often you find a city that sponsors graffiti, but then again, Tartu isn’t your everyday city. The city authorities work with local artists to give Tartu a splash of color. All over the city you can find murals, tags, and drawings from a variety of artists. There are special street art tours, but you can find a map of all the street art here too.
12. Enjoy one of the many parks
Tartu has lots of beautiful green space, so it’s easy to find a park to enjoy some peace and quiet. Toomemäe Park is a beautiful park just outside the city center near the Tartu Cathedral, Jänese Matkarada is a wonderful hiking area just north of Supilinn, and Ülejõe Park has great paths along the river.
13. Visit the University of Tartu Campus
The University of Tartu has a beautiful campus located in the heart of Tartu. University life is what gives the city of Tartu most of its character, with approximately 13,000 students attending school at this University every fall.
The campus is really beautiful to walk around since it’s right in the city centre. It’s nice to see a bunch of young people walking around and enjoying the beautiful city.
Getting to Tartu
The best way (and the cheapest way!) to get Tartu is by train. From Riga, take the Latvian Railways train to Valga, Estonia. We paid $12.48 USD for both of our tickets, and there is no need to purchase tickets ahead of time, as it only takes a few minutes to buy them in the Riga Train Station.
During our trip from Riga, we found out while on the train that we would have to get off in the town of Valmiera to catch a bus to Valga. We knew we only had 5-10 minutes from our scheduled arrival in Valga to catch the next train, but the bus arrived ahead of schedule, so the posted schedule is kept quite nicely.
Once in Valga, board the Estonian Railways (Elron) train towards Tallinn. These trains are nice! There is Wi-Fi onboard so you can purchase tickets once you’re seated. It’s was $9.67 USD for both of our tickets. An attendant will come around and scan the QR code shortly into the trip. There is also the option to pay with cash, though it’s a bit more expensive.
Taking both trains, it’s about five hours total to get from Riga to Tartu.
If you’re coming from Tallinn, take the Elron train from Tallinn Train Station. It’s about €10 per person, depending on the train, and will take about two hours.
Two bus companies run between Riga and Tartu: EcoLines and LuxExpress. Since both lines are about €11-€17 per ticket, we’d recommend going with LuxExpress. They have in-seat entertainment, clean restrooms, and some of the buses even have coffee, tea, and hot water dispensers.
The bus ride from Riga takes about four hours regardless of which company you go with.
If you’re coming from Tallinn, there are more options, and tickets are around €8-€14 per person, so it could be cheaper than the train, but not by much. Again, we’d recommend going with LuxExpress here since they have buses running almost every hour.
The bus ride from Tallinn takes two and a half hours.
If you find yourself in Estonia, don’t limit yourself by just staying in Tallinn. Tartu is a fun and energetic city, despite it’s otherwise small population.
The city has a variety of festivals that encompass food, art, culture, history, and sometimes all of the above. From the masterful street art, gorgeous parks, and rich history, it’s a place that’s worth more than just a day trip.
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