We’ve all heard of the sights to see in Paris or London, but small European countries are hidden gems in travel. These untapped treasures have all the charm and luxury to make an incredible vacation. Beat the crowds and the common tourist locations by visiting one of our favorite small European countries: Estonia.
Often overlooked because of her small country size, Estonia houses some wonderfully rich history, appeal, and traditions. While historically under several regimes and rulers, Estonia has long fought for her independence and is very unique compared to her neighbors.
Early Estonians believed in Spirits of Nature and were known to be especially charming and kind. This was typical of many small European countries at that time. With their own national language, traditional designs, and local food, Estonia is an incredibly pleasing country to visit. Boasting beautiful historical towns, widespread open lands for hiking and camping, and alluring castles, Estonia has everything you need for a masterpiece vacation.
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One spot you’re sure to love is the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral in the main city of Tallin.
It’s the city’s largest and grandest cathedral, dating all the way back to 1894. Named after Saint Alexander Nevsky, a hero for winning the Battle of the Ice on Lake Peipus, the church was designed in the Russian Revival style and is grandly ornate in detail.
Whether inside or out, you’ll hear the eleven bells, cast in Saint Petersburg, ring out multiple times a day. The base of the church founded in Finnish granite holds five onion domes and several stained glass windows.
As beautiful as the building is, there were actually plans to demolish it at one point. Local Estonians strongly disliked it as they viewed it as a sign of oppression. The cathedral still stands today and was eventually restored to meticulous detail in 1991. The decision was never implemented due to the lack of funds. Small European countries don’t usually hold such grand cathedrals dating back this far. The fact that it survived even through Estonia’s independence is monumental.
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Majestic sights like these in Vannalinn, the Town Hall Square, are common in small European countries.
You will literally be surrounded by history where you stand, with several churches, cathedrals, restaurants, shops, and even art galleries in every direction. The oldest pharmacy in Europe still exists there and is still running a business. Small European countries don’t always have surviving historical landmarks this old, but miraculously, Estonia does. St. Mary’s Cathedral houses gravestones as early as the 13th century and coat of arms epitaphs from the 17th century. Astonishingly, it has been a working marketplace since the middle ages. Concerts, the ballet, art shows, you name it, it all happens here.
When the seasons turn, specifically in the winter, it transforms into a glorious Christmas market. A large spruce tree decorated in the center, the festivities continue as it has since 1441. Legend tells us that the Brotherhood of the Blackheads erected the world’s very first Christmas tree here and the tradition has been carried on every year since.
If you’re looking to step into a fairly tale, Viru Gate is the place to be.
When thinking of the history of small European countries, you’re sure to see this location pop up. Dating back to the 14th century, when its main purpose was to stand as a defense system for the city, this gate has a strong Rapunzel style. With several towers and curtain walls connecting it all, you can easily imagine the horse-drawn carriages that came to market in its heyday.
Although most of the gates themselves have been demolished, there are large pieces that still survived. To this day, you can still see part of the bastion that the locals call Musumägi. What once was a busy market street is busy once again, as Viru Street (the street the gate resides on) houses many shops and restaurants. It’s more recently become one of the busiest pedestrian streets in Old Town.
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If you’re up for a little bus ride to the Tartu Cathedral, you surely won’t be disappointed.
Sitting a top the gorgeous Toomemägi Hill is one of the largest churches in Estonia. This magical, medieval church is the only one in the country that dons two towers. Construction began as early as the 13th century and was finally completed almost three centuries later. The towers themselves were the last to be finished. Unfortunately, the building was attacked during the Livonian War and has not operated as a church since.
The beautiful structure is not going to waste, though. The University of Tartu Museum now resides there and introduces the history of science and education. It’s also on the National Register of Cultural Monuments. Walking through a 600-year-old church isn’t something you get to do every day.
This glorious palace was built in 1718 on the orders of Russian Tsar Peter I. Adorned with impeccable gardens, statues, and a swan pond, it’s easily the most beautiful property in the city. Covering nearly 200 acres, a stroll in its promenade is a vision in itself.
Originally built in the Dutch style manor for his wife Catherine, the two never actually resided there. After several visits to the unfinished palace, the emperor passed away and his wife showed little interest in the property. Her initials still adorn the great hall, through many alterations have been made during its restoration.
Small European countries aren’t often very high on our radars, but don’t let that mislead you. There are plenty of gems to be found in the uncommon. Estonia may be small, but what it lacks in size, it gains in history and absolute beauty. You may be tempted to book that flight to Madrid or even London, but the palaces and seaside views of these small European countries are sure to be worth your while.
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Photo Credits: Mylyn Wood Photography