How many countries fit into Estonia?

From a distance, Estonia looks like a tiny dot on the globe, but when you take a closer look, every corner of Estonia hides its own culture and way of life. Moving from northern Estonia southwards, you will notice the landscape changing. Estonians’ language changes, too, and their world view with it, in some people’s opinion.

Pärnu river in the southwestern Estonia. Photo by: Valdis Skudre / Enterprise Estonia

Differences between the North and South are apparent also in their capitals – the maritime Tallinn and the inland Tartu. Visitors to the latter will no doubt hear about ‘the Spirit of Tartu’, the essence of which is supposedly incomprehensible to the pragmatic capital city slickers. People from Tallinn might on the other hand make fun of the self-complacent academia of Tartu.

One of many neoclassical buildings in Tartu. Photo by: Tõnu Tunnel / Enterprise Estonia

The southern part of Viljandi County is called Mulgimaa, and its inhabitants are ‘Mulks’. They have always been considered wealthy and entrepreneurial, but also arrogant and miserly. 

Despite their arrogance, or perhaps thanks to their stubbornness, the Mulks played an important role in shaping the Estonian selfawareness and later on in the creation of the nation state. Today, the county capital Viljandi, with its Culture Academy, is at the centre of Estonian folk tradition; every year in July, the biggest folk music festival in Estonia takes place there. 

Boats on the Lake of Viljandi. Photo by: Siim Verner Teder / Visit Viljandi

Women in the traditional folk clothes of southern Estonia. Photo by: Heiko Kruusi / Enterprise Estonia

One of the most unique places in Estonia is definitely southeastern Estonia, or Võrumaa, which is decidedly different from the northern Estonian flatlands, boasting numerous lakes and a hilly landscape. The language of the people living there differs from standard Estonian enough to justify its status as a unique language in its own right. The Võro people have plenty of reasons to be proud of their culture – from the written Võro language having set rules to the creation of multiple neologisms and offering school education in the Võro language. 

Four parishes in the farther corners of southeastern Estonia together with a few border regions in Russia make up Setomaa. Even though they are Russian Orthodox, the Seto people still keep alive old pagan customs and beliefs such as honouring their ancestors by bringing food to their graves.

On the shore of Europe’s fourth largest lake, Lake Peipus, there lives a community of Old Believers, who are known as great fishermen and onion growers. Driving along their village roads laced with colourful houses, you can see onion braids for sale hanging on doors. 

In the east, right on the Estonian-Russian border, there is the former great industrial and Hanseatic town Narva. Nowadays, the mostly Russianspeaking bordertown hosts a college of the University of Tartu and of The Estonian Academy of Security Sciences. In recent years, more and more cultural life is finding its way there, due to the opening of a contemporary performing arts centre and international music festivals taking place in the region. The nearby resort town Narva-Jõesuu, with its sprawling sandy beaches, is also a big draw for visitors. 

Western Estonia boasts many different islands. Estonia’s largest island Saaremaa has throughout history been associated with maritime activities; both ancient Viking ships and treasures have been discovered there. The small island Kihnu, with its 700 inhabitants, belongs to the UNESCO Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity thanks to its music, garments, language, and handicrafts.

Peipsimaa visiting house. Photo by: Danel Rinaldo / Enterprise Estonia

Woman and her dog fishing near Kihnu island in western Estonia. Photo by: Meelika Lehola / Enterprise Estonia