Tartu, University City and European Capital of Culture

The eastern Estonian city has been named European Capital of Culture 2024, but in addition to the incredible agenda they have in store, Tartu has a lot to offer.

Los íconos de Tartu.

- © Arcady / Shutterstock

Tartu, Estonia's second largest city (after Tallinn) was named European Capital of Culture 2024 together with Bad Ischl and [Bodø]. Together with the south of the country, Tartu will this year celebrate activities focusing on the power of the arts to improve the future and survival through respect for the environment, community strength and essential life skills.

The agenda for this event is rich in its diversity. There will be pagan dances, bus trips through the southern regions, gastronomic feasts, concerts, festivals: of light, of summer, of wellness, of art. More than 350 projects will be organised, leading to more than a thousand activities.

But beyond what will take place this year, Tartu is a city with a lot of history and interesting places to see and learn about. This is a tour of its must-see places, so you can enjoy this European Capital of Culture even after 2024.

The heart of the story

Tartu is very old. The city was founded in 1224 when a bishop, part of the Knights of the Teutonic Order, decided to build his cathedral there, making it the oldest urban enclave in the Baltic. Although it is known that there were people living in this area by the Emajõgi River even earlier, its history has been told ever since.

Today, Tartu's historic centre has classical and neoclassical buildings, with pastel colours and gabled brick roofs. On this side of the world, it is one of the very few cities in which the Soviet influence is not visible in its architecture. A fire in 1775 forced the Tatronais to renovate their Dutch-influenced buildings, but since then they have only been maintained and not much modified. As a result, the Estonian city centre is a bit of a fairytale, with cobbled streets and only a few towers protruding from the heights.

Tartu desde las alturas.

- © Ikars / Shutterstock

The focal point is the Town Hall square, where the municipal building stands out. It was built with rococo and baroque elements, but has a very elegant neoclassical façade in pastel pink and red. The clock on the top was put there later, as an incentive to the city's students to be on time for class.

The front faces an iconic Tartu fountain with a sculpture of two students kissing under an umbrella, the Suudlevad tudengid, in the middle of it. Although it is not the only sculpture in the city, it is the most representative, both because of its location and because Tartu's development is largely due to its university.

In the central square is also the Leaning House, recognised as the most diagonally inclined building in Europe, surpassing even the Leaning Tower of Pisa.

© Maya Afzaal / Shutterstock

A university city

The emblem of this city and the creator of the social dynamics here is the University, which is only a few minutes' walk from the town hall - hence the useful clock.

It was founded in 1632 - when Tartu was part of the Swedish territories - by King Gustav II of Sweden. It is said that the time of its foundation was the most peaceful time for this city, which was in territorial disputes because it was an excellent trading post.

Peace is maintained in Tartu, which is the country's student epicentre with Estonia's largest university, a member of the Coimbra Group and the Utrecht Network.

Universidad de Tartu

- © Arcady / Shutterstock

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The main building has a majestic classical-style façade, very white, with huge Doric columns. You can visit some rooms and curiosities inside the building, such as where misbehaving students were locked up for weeks at a time and a mummy chamber with Egyptian-inspired decorations, and in the University Art Museum, which is also in this building, a collection of ancient sculptures.

The ensemble of university buildings is at the foot of Toomemägi Hill, which forms part of a magnificent park. It is also called Cathedral Hill, for here are the ruins of that first cathedral, the genesis of Tartu. Among the arches and towering brick walls are the library and the University Museum and observatory.

La Catedral, donde empezó la historia de Tartu.

- © Popova Tetiana / Shutterstock

The Tartu University Museum has a number of permanent and temporary exhibitions, covering different themes. Science and its discoveries is a main focus, and you can see anatomy study instruments, such as a real hand used for study. But there are also other eccentricities, such as the funerary mask of the great Russian poet Alexander Pushkin and a collection of chops that students prepared for their exams.

Practical information on museums

University Art Museum

⏰Hours:

  • May to September: Monday-Saturday 10:00-18:00
  • October to April: Tuesday-Saturday 11:00-17:00

👛Fees:

  • Adult: 4€.
  • Discount: 3€.
  • Family ticket: 10€.

Tartu University Museum

Opening hours:

  • From May to September: Tuesday-Sunday 10:00-18:00
  • From October to April: Wednesday-Sunday 11:00-17:00

👛Fees:

May to September

  • Adult: €10
  • Discount: 8€.
  • Family ticket: 25€.

From October to April

  • Adult: 8€.
  • Discount: 6€.
  • Family ticket: 21€.

The park on Toomemägi Hill is also worth a walk. It is a truly beautiful place that emerges from the city, with large trees and paths, from which the university buildings emerge. It is also home to the botanical garden, which is managed by the university and covers about three hectares. It has three greenhouses with species from different tropical and subtropical climates, and a rose garden with many different species of roses, among other collections.

The museums of Tartu

In addition to the university's many museums, Tartu has several others. The Estonian National Museum is one of the most acclaimed and is dedicated to the folk heritage of Jakob Hurt - theologian, linguist, nicknamed "the king of Estonian folklore" - ethnography, and Estonian folk art.

It is the key place to understand the history of the generations that have lived and given life to this country, whose history is complex and rich, with Russian, Swedish, Dutch influences, and of course, its own traditions and idiosyncrasies.

The museum was founded in 1909 but the original structure was irreparably damaged during the attacks of World War II. Later, at the hands of the Soviets, the space intended for the museum was turned into a secret base for Soviet bombers, leaving the museum's collection without space.

The exhibits were scattered in many places and for a long time it was impossible to reinstall the original approach: to show the history, life, and traditions of the Estonian people. It was not until 2004, when the current building was built, that the fantastic collection was once again on display.

El Museo Nacional de Estonia.

- © Anton Kaydalov / Shutterstock

Tatru doesn't stop there. The St. John's quarter, which takes its name from an early Gothic church that once held nearly two thousand terracotta figures, is charming and well worth a walk. There are many parks, such as the Pigorov Park, named after the poet, where botellones are organised during the school season.

You can also visit the Upside Down House, a very eccentric attraction that allows you to take a certain perspective...

by Sofia Viramontes
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