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"Taaskasutuskeskus" vintage shop. Photo: Auguste Petre

All in one breath 0

A cultural guide to Tartu

Text and images: Auguste Petre

Every so often we become tired of our usual surroundings, sometimes to the point of making it very nearly imperative to get oneself into a different or unfamiliar cultural space. Yet there is no need to whisk off to London, Paris or Berlin to enjoy a refreshing and entertaining weekend. Estonia’s second-largest city, Tartu, offers a wide range of exhibitions, vintage shops and cosy cafés.

Tartu ideally balances the noise and crowds of a metropolis with the idyllic charm of a small town; everything is in arm’s reach, yet the city resists nodding off into slumber for even a moment (except for Sundays, when most of the city’s museums and shops are closed). Two days are all you need for a relaxing weekend retreat – even though culture can be found throughout the city, it is still relatively concentrated and easy to get to. has put together the following guide to this winter’s cultural scene in Tartu, a truly wonderful destination for an enlightening getaway.

Tartmus art museum

Tartmus Sten Eltermaa "Brussels' Prelude" exhibition view

Tartmus. Art Allmägi, "Paint it Black II" exhibition view

Tartu’s art museum contains more than 23 000 artworks created by both Estonian artists and artists with ties to Estonia, with the oldest pieces dating back to the 18th century. At the moment, the exhibition halls of Tartmus are featuring four very different exhibitions. The spacious rooms of the late-17th-century building prove that a historical building can be well suited for contemporary art, and that classical art can hold on to its significance in a thoroughly modern presentation. Through April of next year, the fourth floor of Tartmus is showing an exhibition of paintings by Estonia’s first female artist, Julie Hagen-Schwarz – a true testament to the perseverance of a 19th-century woman in her quest for an education and career in the visual arts. In the museum’s project room one can view Estonian artist Sten Eltermaa’s photo exhibition Brussels’ Prelude: The Liminal Zone, featuring the minimalist architecture of Brussels’ European Quarter, whilst on the building’s third floor, the museum’s essence is explored through the prism of movement and dance in the exhibition Museum Choreography (through January 7). The emotionally charged exhibition Paint It Black II is on view on the museum’s first floor; Art Allmägi’s impressive installation covers the theme of Russian war politics. After you’ve seen the exhibitions, stop by the museum’s book store where you can purchase not only art books, but also postcards of paintings and souvenirs created by local artists.

Open: Wednesday, Friday – Sunday 11:00 to 18:00 / Thursday 11:00 to 21:00
Raekoja plats 18, Tartu

Aparaaditehas creative quarter

"Aparaaditehas". Courtyard of the Widget Factory

"Aparaaditehas". The Widget culture factory. Estonian design store "Noos"

One of Tartu’s hot spots for cultural tourists is Aparaaditehas, a former Soviet submarine factory which in 2014 was transformed into the city’s creative quarter. The factory compound is now home to artist studios, the offices of creative co-ops, cosy cafés, organic grocery markets, and Estonian design shops. In the summer, the spacious courtyard serves as a venue for concerts and open-air film screenings, and every September it hosts the Müürilille antique and vintage flea market. During the winter months, the quarter’s restaurants, cafés, and many shops make for a delightful destination.

Adrese: Kastani 42, Tartu

The used book stores of Riia Street

"Vanaraamat" antique bookshop 

Just a few steps away from the Old Town, at the top of Riia Street, you’ll find two unique book stores. In a pleasant contrast to the hustle and bustle of the city outside, the magically peaceful atmosphere inherent to book stores awaits inside, as does a wide assortment of reading material in Estonian, Russian and English. From sheet music and dictionaries to world literature and travel guides, the Antikvariaat and Vanaraamat book stores have a bit of everything. Adding to the romantic aura is the fine selection of old postcards, photographs, and vinyl records featuring some of the best music of the 20th century.

Open: Monday – Friday 10:00 to 18:00 / Saturday 10:00 to 16:00
Antikvariaat – Riia 7, Tartu

Vanaraamat – Riia 5, Tartu

University of Tartu Botanical Gardens

Botanical Garden of the University of Tartu

Botanical Garden of the University of Tartu

The Botanical Gardens of Tartu University are located almost in the city’s centre, on the banks of the Emajõgi River. All it takes is a seven-minute walk from the Old Town and you’re in a verdant paradise. Established in 1806, the Gardens now span 3.5 hectares and make for an interesting destination in summer and winter alike. When the outside beds are under a blanket of snow, the large greenhouse is especially tempting. Behind the doors of the conservatory is a lush floral world with the power to invigorate the winter-weary bones of even those who seemingly have no real interest in the world of plants. The majesty of the Botanical Gardens lies in its huge diversity of plant species (more than 10 000) and in the architecture of the conservatory – its high ceilings and metal frame construction is reminiscent of both Madrid’s Atocha railway station and Paris’ Museum of Natural History. Both rooms of the conservatory have spiral staircases and platforms from which visitors can practically touch the tops of the palm trees as they overlook the ‘jungle’ below.

Open: Grounds – Daily 7:00 to 19:00 / Conservatory – Daily 10:00 to 17:00
Lai 38, Tartu

The wooden architecture of Supilinn and the largest antique store in Tartu

Supilinn district

Fans of wooden architecture will be thrilled to take a walk in the northeastern part of Tartu called Supilinn, or ‘Soup Town’. The residential neighbourhood emerged in the the 19th century in tandem with the founding of the A. Le Coq brewery. Unlike the city’s centre, the Supilinn area is quiet and ideal for a Sunday stroll when most of the shops and museums are closed. Not only are the brightly coloured wooden houses charming, but so too are the clever street names such as Herne (Pea Street), Kartuli (Potato Street), and Meloni (Melon Street). 

"Taaskasutuskeskus" vintage preču veikals

Not far from there is the city’s largest antique store, a cavernous warehouse filled to the gills with various relics from the past two centuries. With its displays of porcelain tea sets, miniature oil paintings, stuffed animals, books and furniture, it almost seems like a museum, except here everything is for sale, and quite cheaply, too.

Taaskasutuskeskus antique store opening hours: Monday – Friday 10:00 to 18:00 / Saturday 9:00 to 15:00
Tuglase 2, Tartu

Disainimaja Outlet Estonian design shop

"Disainimaja Outlet" design store

If you’re a devotee of the ascetic fashion and interior design of the Nordic countries, Disainimaja Outlet is the perfect place for you. Located right in the middle of the city, this modestly sized design space features clothing and footwear by local designers as well as decorative home goods. The shop also has a wide assortment of jewellery created by Estonian designers, who have impressively climbed to third place in the ratings of world jewellery design.

Open: Tuesday – Friday 10:00 to 17:30 / Saturday 11:00 to 16:00
Kalevi 15, Tartu