There are many special days and events in the Estonian cultural calendar, the majority of which take place in summer. The most important of these is St John's Day (Jaanipäev) or midsummer, which is celebrated throughout the country. Various music festivals are also held during the Estonian summer, including song festivals, the baroque music festival and the folk musical festival.
Estonian Independence Day is celebrated in early spring on 24 February with receptions and balls. The restoration of independence is celebrated on 20 August, and a variety of events and receptions are likewise held to mark the occasion.
Art and Culture
Estonian culture has been influenced for thousands of years by the peoples who have claimed the country. Wars, occupations and trade agreements saw Estonia sold out from one aggressor to the next and broken up into lesser parts before finally again being reunited into a great nation.
The Germans, Danes, Russians and Swedes have all had a hand in influencing Estonian culture, as has the country's proximity to Scandinavia, with which it shares many northern customs. Traditions vary from county to county, and even neighboring parishes can differ enormously in their local dress and customs.
New life was breathed into Estonian culture with the break-up of the Soviet Union, its rebirth induced by the Singing Revolution.
Estonia has long fostered art, and you'll find a wide range of local and international ceramics, implements, clothing and other articles in shops and homes as a result.
Not a weekend goes by without something interesting being held somewhere in Estonia you can enjoy watching or even taking part in. Be they open-air performances, black-tie receptions, village fetes or large-scale entertainment events for the masses, they can't help but be stumbled across (or indeed sought out) by visitors to the country.
Open-air events and performances have become an inseparable part of the Estonian summer. But there's always something happening in winter, too. Alongside the national ice fishing contests, sports events and rallies, for example, there's the annual Battle of the Snows (Lumelahing) in Laiuse, where a battle with Swedish forces from the Middle Ages is re-enacted. One event that's certainly out of the ordinary, but at the same time one of the most glamorous, is the Oru Park Promenade in Ida-Virumaa, where well-dressed pairs parade about among the picturesque greenery. Village fetes and fairs are everyday events you frequently come across in Estonia's counties.
If your day only begins after the sun goes down, you'll find plenty of opportunities to live it up in Estonia. The party hot spots are concentrated in the bigger cities like Tallinn, Tartu and Pärnu. The nightclubs in the southern Estonian ski results are popular in winter, while in summer most people head for Pärnu and Saaremaa. The number and variety of clubs, bars and pubs means everyone should be able to find one to suit their musical and style tastes. Party places are usually open 7 days a week until the early hours. Prices and crowds vary according to the theme of an event and its location, but in terms of quality there's no arguing that the Estonian scene is up there with the rest of Europe.
Different religious societies acting in Estonia have opened more beautiful sacral buildings to their visitors- cathedrals, churches, cloisters, chapels and tabernacles, all providing the opportunity to stop for a minute between their majestic walls in the name of the wayfarer's churches.
But they aren't merely places to attend mass or follow church events: each has its own interesting historical memories, exciting legends, intriguing facts from the years of Soviet oppression, and strange incidents from the present.
Estonia has a wide range of museums, offering overviews of the country's history, culture and literature, and covering many other themes.
Among the biggest and best-known are the recently completed Kumu Estonian Art Museum (open from the beginning of 2006), the History Museum and the Maritime Museum and many others.
You'll get a real feeling for traditional culture and village and country life if you visit any of the domestic and open-air museums throughout Estonia. The most famous here is the museum at Rocca al Mare, whose exhibits present a true reflection of farm life. You can find out about the unique traditions of southern Estonia in the Seto Museum in Värska. Koguva village on Muhu draws visitors into the lives and affairs of the islanders. All of these places show what life was really like in Estonia hundreds of years ago and puts the changes time has brought about into sharp focus.
There are also many theme museums, like industry museums, weaponry museums, railway museums et al. Live the quintessential north-east Estonian oil shale mining experience at the Kohtla Mining Museum. Visit the Museum of Occupations in Tallinn and discover what life was really like for Estonians in the Soviet era - the hardship, torment and humiliation uninvited communist rule entailed. Unusual experiences can also be had at the Viinistu Art Gallery, where exhibitions by Estonian artists are complemented by a range of cultural events and concerts.
The coastline of Estonia as a maritime state is full of lighthouses. Although the buildings have lost a lot of their former importance, the powerful sea-marks are still standing there, blinking the inviting-warning light into the night. It is possible to see both solid constructions as well as tall slender buildings among the lighthouses. Some of these have gained fame through films while some of these located in distant islets have been abandoned by people. Each lighthouse has its own story which can be experienced only on the spot. An example of one of Estonia's greatest lighthouses is the country's highest lighthouse (52m) located in Paldiski. It is situated right next to the ruins of another lighthouse built by Peter the Great in the 18th century.
During centuries Estonia has had to undergo conquests by foreign forces and oppression of countries bigger than itself due to its unique location. A lot of such places have remained from the long periods which remind of military history and bloody past.
Next to the ancient and medieval strongholds and castles there are a lot of places all over the country which are only a few hundred years old, but which are still exciting and buzzing attractions. The numerous coastal defence constructions, huge military bases and devastated polygons are only a part of the heritage of the last century. The coastlines are bordered with the remnants of the border towers, abandoned rocket bases can be found in the deep primeval forest, the lines of trenches and bunkers pass strategically more important regions. The areas devastated by the activities of the army, spoilt nature and destroyed buildings - all this is a part of the military heritage of Estonia, which is one of the most diverse war memorials with the most exciting history in the whole world.
The difficult conditions in ancient times forced Estonians to construct defences in naturally protected places where locals could seek shelter in times of war or crusades. The majority of such ancient towns were set higher than the surrounding environment, and often encircled by impassable quagmires. The only way to enter these fortresses in warm periods was along a secret path that wound its way through the bogs on felled oak. Only the chosen few knew these routes, which was why it was usually in winter that enemy forces would surround the defences with bitter intent.
The best maintained such ancient towns in Estonia are the Varbola fortress and Soontagana. Varbola has seen much of its original defensive and attacking equipment restored, including catapults and storming towers. At Soontagana you can uncover traces of ancient village life; its isolation and untouched nature mean it's a pleasant spot to take a break.
Estonia was the battlefield in wars and conflicts for centuries, and this led to the construction of a lot of castles and strongholds by the various rulers caught up in them. Many were built on the site of the ancient towns that existed at the time.
Estonia was protected against raids and attacks (mainly from the east) along its northern shores by a string of castles stretching from Narva to Rakvere. The majority of these strategic defences can still be seen today. Narva Castle towers majestically over the Russian-Estonian border; Jõhvi's church-citadel houses a lovely history museum; receptions and concerts are held in the Purtse fortress; and Rakvere Castle is one of the fastest developing and most attractive stronghold museums in the country.
Kuressaare Castle, which defended the west coast, is now a history museum; the ruins of Haapsalu Castle are an explorer's delight; and the towers of Lihula Stronghold offer a breathtaking view over western Estonia.
The castle ruins in central Estonia's most important defence posts, Viljandi and Põltsamaa, now host open-air concerts and national folk events.
Little remains of strongholds along the southern border such as Helmes and Vastseliina, but they are all the more evocative for it and offer a thought-provoking experience for everyone who visits them.
Over the years hundreds (if not thousands) of manor houses have been built in Estonia. Historical events have seen many of them off, but thankfully there are beautiful exceptions to be found everywhere in the country. The best-known and perhaps most striking of these are clustered within northern Estonia, a region once ruled by powerful noblemen.
The restored Kalvi Chateau, the Palmse and Sagadi manor house complexes in Lahemaa are for the most part fully renovated and surrounded by beautiful parks. The Alatskivi manor house, on the shores of Lake Peipsi, was built to resemble a French chateau. There are many other manor houses which also currently operate as museums or hotels. Large numbers have also been restored as part of the manor house school project, as part of which they have been transformed into modern educational facilities with a rich history.
Few would argue the beauty and diversity of Estonian nature. Since human activity is concentrated in the bigger towns and cities, much of the country's natural environment remains untouched and has developed at its own pace.
The icing on Estonia's all-natural cake is undoubtedly its bogs and marshes, the likes of which are rarely seen elsewhere in Europe. The boggy expanses and marshy tracts are interspersed with swathes of ancient forest where wild animals potter about among the peace and quiet.
The country's countless small islands and even smaller islets are called home only by birds and the occasional four-legged friend. Rarely do you find people in such inaccessible places; perhaps a fisherman or adventurous holiday-maker. There are caves in Estonia both large and small, their darkness attracting large numbers of nocturnal species.
A bird's-eye view of Estonia will pick out the meandering of rivers here and there and the glittering surfaces of small lakes everywhere you look. You'll find hills and even modest mountains here too.
Nature-lovers can make use of the many hiking trails and viewing platforms dotted about the landscape to enjoy their own view out over the unique beauty of Estonia.
This taking place in the depths of the earth has always been of great interest to people. Some of them had the industrial objectives or those of extracting minerals, some of them bore in mind magic or scientific purposes.
The biggest caves in Estonia at Piusa and Ülgase have emerged as a result of manual mining of glass-sand and phosphorite respectively. The operating or closed-down oil shale mines and uranium mines in East Virumaa are even more powerful, although the latters are not open sights.
There are a lot of natural caves and passages which have emerged as a result of running water or cave-ins and which have later been widened by humans.
All such dim places, no matter how big or deep these are, constitute strange and often frightening destinations. But arriving at the spot and diving into the mysticism of the underground life, you want to visit such places over and over again.