Is Tartu worth visiting? Sure, it is! This small city has loads up its sleeve, from cool neighborhoods to interesting sights, vibrant nightlife to youthful vibes. It’s like no other place in the country. There is absolutely no reason why you shouldn’t include this fun, student city in your Estonian itinerary, and we’ll explore seven reasons why that’s the case…
Tartu is the second largest city in Estonia, located in the eastern part of the country. It’s nowhere near as popular a destination as the capital, Tallinn, which is renowned for its beautiful Old Town and the access to the Baltic coast. However, Tartu is the intellectual hub of the country, playing host to its oldest university. That grants the city a young, joyful population and a vibrant nightlife on top.
This guide will try to answer the question is Tartu worth visiting by giving you a number of reasons to go. We’ll look at what makes this place stand out from others and talk you through the sights and attractions that the city has to offer.
Tartu may be the second largest city in Estonia, but just like the rest of the country’s municipalities, it’s no urban jungle. With a population of only 100,000, it can often feel like a small town. It’s the oldest city in Estonia, though, with a long academic tradition. It has gained international fame thanks to the fact that it hosts the biggest university in the country, the University of Tartu. That’s popular with local and international students alike, whether attending permanent faculties or student exchange programs.
In fact, around a seventh of the city’s residents are students! That means you get a vibrant nightlife and energetic vibe throughout. There are plenty of bars suited for younger generations, especially around Kesklinn, the city center.
Being a student city doesn’t only mean good nightlife, though. The majority of academics speak decent English, so you’ll find that communication in Tartu is easier than in other parts of more rural Estonia. There are also lots of cultural events on the yearly calendar, from musical concerts to street-art festivals. Yep, there’s always something happening in this compact Estonian city, which is one reason why it was chosen to be the European Capital of Culture in 2024.
From cobbled alleyways lined with grand buildings to historic wooden houses, modern architecture to unique cafes and hip bars, Tartu has a lot up its sleeve. The city may be small, but there is no shortage of cool neighborhoods to get through, each with its own distinctive vibe.
The Old Town is the center of action in Tartu, in terms of food, nightlife, and culture. That’s the place for both locals and visitors to meet up for either a cup of coffee or a pint of ice-cold beer. There is no shortage of cafes, bars, and restaurants along the narrow, cobbled lanes and the squares lined with 19th-century architecture.
Then there is Karlova, a boho district with colorful wooden houses and hipster cafes, creative street art, and lots of greenery around. This is many people’s favorite district of Tartu, thanks to its unique look and atmosphere. There is hardly any street noise, so it’s a perfect place for an afternoon stroll and some photography.
Just north of the center, along the riverbanks, there is Supilinn, an old Tartu slum. It’s known as the Soup District and all the streets are named after different vegetables. Just like in Karlova, there are lots of wooden houses in different colors surrounded by lots of nature, but it’s not quite as vibrant and arty.
Is Tartu worth visiting for nightlife alone? Certainly, this small city offers some of the best parties in the Baltics. There is no shortage of hipster bars and buzzing nightclubs, especially suited to the younger generation. Drinking in Tartu is cheap, too, so it’s no surprise that places get filled with students regardless of the day of the week.
The center and the Old Town have oodles of venues that stay open until late hours. Whether you’re after fancy cocktails, craft beers with friends, or dancing to loud tunes, you won’t have much trouble finding the right place along the bustling Rüütli street. You can visit the retro Trepp for cheap booze and student vibes or head to Vein ja Vine for a glass of good wine.
There are also plenty of places outside the buzzing center. It’s worth heading to the riverside if you’re visiting Tartu in the summer. One of the best places on the banks of boulevards of Emajõgi is the iconic boathouse NAIIV. You can also hit up Väike Kuuba Mojito Baar or Riffen, which are both a little closer to the Old Town.
The sights and attractions
Tartu may not be as popular as the capital, Tallinn, but it’s the center of Estonia’s academia and the oldest city in the country. So, it’s got lots to offer…
For starters, we recommend taking a stroll around Tartu’s charming Old Town. The grand main building of the University of Tartu is one of the highlights there. It’s the largest and longest-running educational institution in Estonia, first built in the early 19th century. You should also visit Town Hall Square, which has one of the most recognizable symbols of the city out front: The Kissing Students Fountain.
There are also plenty of attractions outside the cobbled streets of the Old Town. AHHAA Science Centre is a quirky science museum a short stroll from the center – a great spot to visit with children in tow. To learn about some Estonian history and culture, you can visit the Estonian National Museum or head to the KGB Museum to delve into the country’s darker Soviet past.
You can also take a stroll around one of Tartu’s wooden house districts. Karlova is more hipster, with plenty of cafes and art studios housed within 19th-century architecture. The so-called Soup District, on the other hand, is one of the last surviving European slums built on the lowlands around the river.
The day trips
Tartu is the gateway into eastern Estonia, which means there are lots of places you can visit in just one day. It’s not a big country, though, so you can also take a trip to the capital, Tallinn, a little over two hours away. It’s well known for a number of attractions and its beautiful Old Town. But if you don’t want to head quite that far…
There are a couple of lovely towns within a short drive from the center. One of them is charming Elva. That’s home to two large lakes that are popular among the locals for summer activities, including swimming and hiking. If you happen to be in Tartu in the winter, you can hit the ski slopes in Otepää, which is within 35 minutes’ drive.
Nature enthusiasts will enjoy a trip to one of the nature reserves in the region. The peaceful Alam-Pedja Reserve offers lots of wooded hiking trails less than an hour from the downtown. There is also the Soomaa National Park a little further west. That’s popular for canoeing across the wetlands.
Being the second largest city in Estonia, Tartu is a great place for foodies. There are lots of acclaimed restaurants all over the city serving both Estonian delicacies as well as tasty international cooking. There are places for all budgets, from eateries serving cheap snacks to sleek fine-dining joints.
If you’re looking for elegant restaurants with high-quality cooking, look no further than the chic Fii restaurant. It’s slightly outside of the center, but it’s worth taking a trip to the edge of the city to try their modern cuisine. Hõlm is another high-end place that’s primed for romantic meals of artfully cooked food.
The Old Town is generally a good place to go if you’re looking for a place to eat. It’s got the highest concentration of restaurants, serving a real range of cuisines. We recommend Gunpowder Cellar of Tartu if you’re looking for an unusual, historical setting, or hipster Aparaat for well-priced, tasty menus.
The urban nature
One of the reasons why Tartu is a unique place is the amount of greenery it has. You can easily get your hit of nature in one of the parks or botanical gardens without having to even leave the city.
One of the best is the Botanic Garden of the University of Tartu, right by the snaking river Emajõgi River. This serene spot has lots of species of colorful flowers, leafy trees, ponds, and greenhouses, all right in the center of town.
You can also climb up to Tartu Cathedral. It’s located within vast Troome Hill Park. Expect plenty of alleys of trees that change colors depending on the season and fantastic views of the city from the top. You can also find plenty of green spaces around Raadi Park, Pirogov Park, and Barclay Park – all of those are excellent for picnicking and strolling.
Is Tartu worth visiting? The conclusion
Is Tartu worth visiting? We’d say it is! This small Estonian city has loads to offer. For starters, it’s a student city, which means you can expect plenty of cool cafes and buzzing nightlife on top. There is always something going on, whether it’s cultural events or midweek parties. The city also has plenty of interesting neighborhoods with unique, wooden architecture and lots of greenery. And it’s well positioned to explore other parts of the eastern corner of Estonia.