10 things to love about living in Estonia – expat experience

Time flies so fast! We still cannot believe it, but it’s been more than a year since we moved to Estonia. At the beginning of February 2019, we came to this country for the very first time. With no specific agenda, and a lot of expectations. We stayed in Pärnu for two months, just to get acquainted with new surroundings, and then rented a flat in the capital of Estonia, Tallinn, where we still live today.

View over the old town of Tallinn, taken from a view point. The towers of the defensive wall and churches, with red roofs in between them. Clear blue sky in the background.
Tallinn Old Town

So, why Estonia? – you may ask. We got tempted by the innovative solutions and the e-society we have read so much about. The geographical location was of great significance, too, as we wanted to come back to the north. Are we satisfied with what we got? I guess we wouldn’t stay so long if we were not. That being said, here are the ten things we love the most about this Baltic state, in random order.

Unique Estonian nature

To be honest, we didn’t have high hopes when it comes to the Estonian nature. We have lived in Norway and Spain before, and we thought nothing would surprise us here. After all, it’s a flat country covered by an ordinary forest. We couldn’t be more wrong.

I’m not gonna lie to you. The landscapes are not as spectacular as the Norwegian fjords are. They are, however, soothing. There is nothing better for reducing stress than a long hike through the forest. And there are so many trails in Estonia, that life may be too short to check every one of them.

Our first real outdoor experience was a visit to Soomaa national park last February. This is when we got introduced to the Estonian pride – the bogs, in their winter attire. The trail was covered in snow and ice, and the walk took us about three times longer than it should have. But it was worth it!

Soomaa National Park on a sunny day in winter. Frozen bog and short trees surrounding it. A small wooden platform with a bench on the shore.
Frozen bogs in Soomaa National Park

Having moved to the Estonian capital, we gained new outdoor adventure opportunities in the close vicinity, including the most famous nature reserve in the country. Driving to Lahemaa National Park from Tallinn takes less than an hour. The absolute must-see here is the Viru bog. In case you have a choice, we would recommend exploring it in on a weekday during spring when the trail is not too crowded.

Last but not least, the Baltic coast. You will find many beautiful beaches with white sand. Some of them more frequented, like Pirita, the others empty even in high season, like Vääna-Jõesuu. But the best are the wild, indomitable beaches that you find by accident.

Beach in Estonia. Wooden path leading to the white sand beach, with sea and blue sky with white clouds in the background.
Vääna-Jõesuu beach

RMK

RMK, or State Forest Management Center, is doing a great job for the Estonian forests. These guys are responsible for building and maintaining campsites all around the country. Some of them are just rest stops, others have the full infrastructure, with dry toilets, tables, barbecues, wood chopping stands, or even huts. A number of these areas can be legally reached by car, and you can spend up to 24 hours there, free of charge. Something unbelievable for a person who comes from Poland, a country where it is strictly forbidden to enter a forest with a motorized vehicle, not to mention an overnight stay.

Typical RMK campsite in Estonia. Greed wooden bench and a barbecue with chimney, with sea in the background.
RMK Leetse campsite

You can check every single campsite in Estonia on map on RMK’s website or application. This will help you plan your trip if you travel by van, like us, or carry your tent around. Thanks to RMK, we have had a great time on Saaremaa island last summer. On weekends, we love to visit one of the campsites near Tallinn and spend some time by the fire, contemplating the soothing nature.

Estonian winter

Let’s forget about winter this year, as it was far from normal. I want to talk about last season’s wonderland. When we were moving to Estonia in February, we hoped to see the real winter. What we didn’t expect, though, was that the reality would surpass our deepest wishes. Our visit to Soomaa National Park was an opportunity to feel like we were thousands of kilometers up north, in Finnish Lapland. But the real surprise was Pärnu itself.

You may already know we spent more than a year of our lives in the very north of Norway. And yet, we have never seen a frozen sea. We thought things like this only happen in Siberia or Alaska. But the Pärnu Bay is so tiny that the water freezes frequently. We saw people kitesurfing, fishing under the ice, and even driving their cars on the sea surface. It was like a dream coming true, one of the best experiences of our lives.

Frozen sea surface. On it, a kitesurfing parachute, green and red. Almost clear blue sky.
Frozen Pärnu Bay

That year, the river in Pärnu froze, as well. One could simply cross it at any spot, instead of using the bridge. We felt like we were kids again. We only wished our skates were not locked in the storage unit in Sweden at that time. Our favorite winter sport gear was back with us this winter season, and guess what? The snow appeared every now and then, but it was never cold enough for the water to freeze. Such a disappointment!

Free public transport for Tallinn residents

Free public transport for residents is a genius idea and we love that Tallinn government decided to take this step. Thanks to this solution, we limit the pollution we produce, as we don’t use the car to drive in the city, and we save money at the same time. It’s a win-win situation. Tallinn public transport covers the capital area quite well, but on some routes, one has to change several times. Nevertheless, trams, trolleybuses, and buses are a relatively comfy way to get around. In order to use them for free, you need to register as a resident and purchase a green card, first. Always carry it with you, together with your Estonian ID, and don’t forget to scan it upon boarding means of transport.

Green Tallinn public transport card held in a palm. In the background, trolleybus number 3 direction Mustamae.
Tallinn public transport

Kohuke

Let’s have it clear, we don’t know much about Estonia traditional food. I like the dark bread, though, and eat it daily for breakfast. Other than that, we never really explored the local cuisine, as it seems to be meat-based, and I am vegetarian. But there is one snack we love more than anything. Kohuke. It is sweetened curd cheese covered with chocolate. You can find it in every grocery store in a million versions. There is a vanilla kohuke, coconut kohuke, vegan kohuke, FIT kohuke, and a lactose-free one, to name only a few. Our absolute favorite is a Belgian chocolate kohuke.

A white plate with three kohuke, typical snack in Estonia, each in an open package.
The most standard kohuke, the FIT kohuke, and our favorite kohuke

Estonia is a dog-friendly country

Frankly, we didn’t know what to expect when we moved to Estonia with a dog. Before, we lived with Fabio, our pooch, in Norway, which is considered a very dog-friendly country. We then spent over a year in Spain, which is way less of a dog-lovers’ place. Poland seems to be somewhere in between the two. And then, there is Estonia.

One thing is finding a flat to rent in Tallinn when you’re a dog owner. It is nearly impossible, and we got upset many times during the process. But once you secure a place to stay, the new chapter begins. Suddenly, you notice that the landlords are the only social group that has something against dogs in Estonia.

Small mixed-breed short-hair dog sitting on a concrete wall, wearing blue collar and orange harness, looking at the sea.
Fabio in Haven Kakumäe in Tallinn

To start with, all the natural trails (including RMK sites) are dog-friendly. Pooches are also welcome on the beaches, but some of them remain no-dog zones in high season. Just read the signs before entering. Furthermore, dogs are allowed on public transport, at least within Tallinn. Comparing to the anti-dog policy in Ávila, Spain, where we lived before, this seems a luxury. And so, Fabio frequently travels with me on a trolley or bus downtown. Only a small number of public parks, like famous Kadriorg, bans dogs here. On the other hand, dogs are welcome in the Estonian Open-Air Museum.

Finally, indoor public places. Although it is generally forbidden to enter a shopping mall with a dog, many people still do, and nobody seems to care. Food markets, like Balti Jaama Turg, are ok with dogs inside. We don’t take Fabio to bars and restaurants in Tallinn often, but we haven’t had any issues by now.

The Estonians

This point may seem controversial to some of you. Let’s be clear. Estonians aren’t the most outgoing people in the world. The neighbors won’t do the small-talk here, and the clerks won’t discuss economics with you. Although it sounds like a nightmare for an average person, this is the reason why I love Estonians. As an introvert, I found my safe-zone. Don’t get me wrong. I don’t mean that everybody is unsociable here. People are still polite. Our neighbors sometimes even greet us back! Every now and then, fellow dog owners pick up a short conversation, which they start with a genuine smile.

When it comes to Estonia, population is a very interesting topic, in general. On the one hand, everybody keeps to themselves. On the other, there is this idea of sharing. In this part of the world, early fall is the time when apple trees, which grow in almost every yard, are full of fruits. It is impossible to eat them all when your family is small. And this is where the idea of sharing appears. When passing by the stand-alone houses in September, you will notice baskets or boxes of apples, placed in front of the fence. It’s a selfless gesture of housemasters. They don’t expect anything in return. The rule is simple. If you pick up an apple or two, the food won’t go to waste. I must say, it touches my heart.

Three apples held in two palms, on a plain whitish background.
Estonian idea of sharing

Charming Estonian towns

Once you come to Estonia, Tallinn shouldn’t be the only place you visit. Even more, when you decide to settle in this country. Its small size makes the whole area perfect for a day or a weekend trip. Apart from nature trails, there are also small towns waiting to be explored. Each one of them has something special to offer. In Pärnu, it is the best beach in the whole Estonia. In Haapsalu, it is the Haapsalu castle and the promenade by the sea. And then, there are the towns tourists haven’t even heard of, like Rakvere, with the charming center, recently renewed, and, again, the castle. Among our favorites, there is also Kuuresaare, the only town on the largest island in Estonia.

View over the old town of Rakvere, a small town in Estonia. To the right, a white, weathered church tower. In front of it, roofs of the old houses, red and black. To the left, an empty parking lot with only one blue car parked. Behind it, typical city houses. In the background, blue sky with white clouds. View from behind the tees, one of them visible in upper left corner.
Rakvere Old Town

Everybody wears reflectors in winter

Estonians are a very responsible nation. Therefore, during wintertime, when the darkness accompanies our days, nobody leaves the house without the reflector. Most of the people have some kind of a reflective pendant attached to their jackets, backpacks or purses. It applies to both humans and dogs. In our opinion, this should be a rule in every country. Wearing something reflective makes a huge difference for the drivers, even in the city center. Having lived in Norway before, we already saw an example of a well-disciplined nation, as almost every Norwegian wears a reflective vest when walking on the roadside or in dimly lit areas. But Estonians went one step further and started using reflectors everywhere, including the urban areas. It makes us feel super safe.

Two reflective pendants attached to the zip of a blue jacket pocket. One of them orange, in the shape of a human, standing with arms open (iconic Berlin pedestrian red light image). The other is a grey reindeer face with big red nose.
Reflective pendants

English is the third language

Let’s talk about language issues. Estonian is obviously the official one. But even a significant part of citizens does not speak it fluently. You will quickly notice that while traveling through Estonia language you can hear varies a lot. In Pärnu, it will be mostly Estonian, in Narva – mostly Russian. And then we have Tallinn, where these two meet, and where English is wide-spread, too. Tourism is not the only reason here. Foreign workers, who come here mostly for the IT sector positions, are another one.

Self-service checkout in Rimi supermarket. Flat screen with a list of items purchased and a total sum of 6,32 euros. A hand holding a member card, pressing the option "pay with card". Card terminal to the right of the screen.
Self-service checkout in English

The truth is, in Estonia English seems to be the unofficial third language. Until today, we only had one communication issue, which surprisingly happened in the customs office. Other than that, everybody seems to speak, or at least understand the basics of English. We spoke it to the officials, veterinaries, shop assistants, car mechanics, and so on. Moreover, cinemas screen movies in original versions, including animations. Thus, we even watched Frozen II (big fans here) with English dubbing! Furthermore, self-service checkouts in supermarkets have an English version, too. And so do the governmental websites. I even purchased a private insurance policy online, all in English.

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