Tartu: guide from a former student

In Estonia, World
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I spent three and a half years living in Tartu during my studies at the University of Tartu and found countless places that I still like to visit every time I manage to make my way back there. This article gives a brief overview and some useful links regarding my favorite spots and activities.

How to get around?

Walk, walk, walk!

The first thing you should probably know about Tartu is that it is very pedestrian friendly. Most places of interest are at your arm’s length and in fact, a lot of the streets are one-way, making it not the easiest city to navigate by car (I still struggle sometimes). Renting a bike makes sense only if you need to go to the edge or out of the city as the center has quite many hills and you would probably end up pushing the bike, not riding it. One day is quite enough to walk all around town and see most of the sites worth seeing.

What to do?

The joys of river Emajõgi

The city is divided into two by one of the biggest rivers in Estonia – Emajõgi. There are seven bridges crossing it and some of them are for pedestrians only. You may come across fishermen and boats offering a little trip on the river for a small fee. The most famous vessel in Tartu is a barge called “Jõmmu” and it takes people on different types of trips such as stargazing, sailing or trips for listening to bird songs. The schedule can be found on their website and the season lasts from April to November. The river is usually frozen during the rest of the year.
boat on Emajõgi in Tartu
If you follow the river in the opposite direction of which it is running, you will quickly find yourself walking out of town and straight into nature. You will find beaches, picnic tables, benches, volleyball fields, running tracks and more.

Botanical Gardens

I would also suggest walking through the Botanical Gardens of the University of Tartu. The outside area is free for all visitors and if you are lucky, you may even find a concert happening there. You can walk on many small paths, sit down to read a book in the beautiful surroundings or stop on the little bridge to watch fish, ducks, and swans. The greenhouses can be visited for a small entrance fee.

botanical gardens in Tartu

Shop ’til you drop

If you are interested in going on a shopping spree, I would recommend going to Lõunakeskus. It has shops for clothes, accessories, toys, gifts, electronics, home decor, many restaurants, grocery stores and even an ice-skating rink. As it is located at the very edge of the city, there is a free bus going every 30 minutes from the city center. You can find the bus schedule here. If you do not want to wander that far, there are also three malls right in the city center – Kaubamaja, Tasku, and the newly opened Kvartal.
Kvartal Tartu

Shopping mall Kvartal.

Scientifically fun.

Another place worth paying a visit is AHHAA Science Centre. It is the biggest science center in the Baltics and it often has amazing exhibitions and very engaging science theater shows. Most of the people working there are science students who keep coming up with new attractions and inventions, thus it is updated frequently. I have visited it probably more than five times by now and keep going back because the place is huge and I tend to spend hours wandering around and playing with different objects and machines. They also have a gift shop, a cafe, a spherical hybrid planetarium and a small maze of mirrors for you to get lost in.

Festivals & Events

There are plenty of festivals and events happening around the year in Tartu and some of my favorites are:

Stencibility Tartu street art

You may notice signs of Stencibility all around town.

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For food and coffee lovers

If you are looking for a nice place to eat, simply walking down the main street would provide many options. There are numerous restaurants, cafes, and pubs to choose from. Whether you are after something vegan, something sweet (Werner is famous for its cakes), something fancy or a simple pub meal, you will find it. A bit further from the city center is an old factory complex called Aparaaditehas (The Widget Factory) with an industrial looking restaurant called Aparaat. It is highly rated, not too expensive and famous for its pulled pork sandwiches. I would definitely suggest trying it out.
During my time as a student, like so many others, I managed to develop a strong caffeine addiction. My favorite place for getting takeaway coffee is a small coffee shop Väike Deli on Küütri street. A cup of coffee costs only 1€ there, which, for a student is a really nice deal. The staff is uncommonly friendly and their wraps are some of the tastiest in town. Don’t be surprised if you happen to find yourself having a meaningful conversation about life with the person behind the counter! The place is small, but it sure is precious.
Väike Deli coffee shop Tartu

Väike Deli on Küütri street.

Go out, meet new people, enjoy the nightlife

Even though consuming alcohol in public places is prohibited by law in Estonia (and the local authorities enjoy keeping it under control), there is one park in the heart of Tartu where it is allowed to drink (light) alcoholic beverages. In the center of the park is a statue of a Russian scientist called Nikolay Pirogov and the park is named after him, but most people know the place by a shorter term – “Piro”, as “Pirogov” is more commonly used for a bar with the same name. It is probably not the neatest place, but locals still enjoy having picnics and gatherings there during the warmer months.
Pirogov Park

Pirogov Park in May 2017.

Pubs & trivia

Whenever I go out with my friends, I tend to stick to the three pubs in Tartu that used to form the “Bermuda Triangle” – Kivi, Trepp, and Möku – all worth visiting. A place with more of a “hipster vibe” is Genialistide Klubi, where it is normal to sit down with a friend and start an intense chess tournament. It recently joined forces with Möku (famous for its drink called Sparta) and now you can find them at the same venue on Magasini street. The last place you should probably know about is Zavood. There is a saying among locals that goes “All parties end in Zavood” because it is usually the last place open in the early hours of the morning. Again, not the neatest place to visit, but still a legendary place to go and dance on broken glass or meet some of the strangest folk in town. I have a friend who for years was not exactly sure where this pub is located because he never remembered how he got there or how he got home and the entrance is well hidden off the main street.
Kivi Rüütli Tartu Möku Genialistide klubi Tartu Trepp Rüütli Tartu
If you are looking for something interesting to do in the evening with a group of friends, I would suggest checking out the weekly music quizzes. There is a rock music quiz (Rocktoriin) every Wednesday in a small pub called Arhiiv and there is more of a general music quiz (Tartu Muusikaviktoriin) every Thursday in a pub called Naiiv. There is no participation fee and there are prizes for the best teams, including bar credit, albums, and tickets for upcoming shows. I would suggest looking up the events through social media for more information. It is worth noting that most places and events in Estonia have up-to-date information available online, so you can do your homework and plan everything from a distance.
Good luck exploring and finding your own special places among the many hidden gems Tartu has to offer!
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