With great city breaks, outstanding natural beauty and an intriguing coastline, Ed Leahy says this compact Baltic state has lots to offer as a year-round holiday destination.

Situated in the northeast of Europe and bordering Russia to the east and Latvia to the south, Estonia is just a three-hour flight from Dublin and home to the European Capital of Culture for 2011. With great city breaks, outstanding natural beauty and an intriguing coastline, this compact Baltic state has lots to offer as a year-round holiday destination.

Tallinn Old TownTallinn
Tallinn is situated on the northern coast of Estonia, on the banks of the Gulf of Finland. The 2011 European Capital of Culture is Estonia's capital city and an ideal holiday destination, boasting a vibrant nightlife and a rich cultural scene with many historic sights to visit. The UNESCO protected medieval Old Town of Tallinn is one of the best-preserved Hanseatic town centres in the world and sits comfortably alongside the city's modern skyscrapers, contemporary hotels, luxurious restaurants and shopping malls. The pretty Old Town is awash with cobblestone streets and houses dating back as far as the 11th century. Local galleries and museums add to the visit, while several cosy cafés and restaurants can be sampled at your leisure. The historical Rotermanni Quarter is one of the city's top attractions and is located in the heart of Tallinn between the Old Town, the port and Viru Square. Other attractions include the Viru Gate, Raekoja Plats, Toompea Hill, Kadrioru Park, the KUMU art museum, the City Wall and Alexander Nevsky Cathedral. The city stretches out along the coast and the renovated beach promenade close to the city centre is a great place for a morning run, walk or cycle. The city centre is compact and very walker friendly, while the public transportation system is quite good and operates from around 5.30am until midnight.

Le Coq Arena
With thousands of Irish football fans set to descend on Estonia's capital on November 11, Le Coq Arena, which is home to the Estonian national team and FC Flora, is the only show in town as Giovanni Trapattoni's side look to qualify for the European Championships in Poland and Ukraine in 2012. The stadium has a capacity of just over 10,000 so many of the travelling Irish will have to settle for a barstool at one of the lively pubs around Tallinn, of which there are many. The stadium is located just to the south of the city centre, a short bus journey or a half-hour ramble from the Old Town. The Northern Ireland international team recently played there and left empty-handed, although Shamrock Rovers enjoyed Champions League success in the stadium earlier this summer.

Parnu
The Spa town of Parnu is a beautiful, historic seaside resort city and the summer capital of Estonia. The city was established in 1251 and became one of the rich vibrant Hanseatic cities during the medieval period. Home to many artists, Parnu's versatile architecture, beautiful parks, courtyards and numerous galleries provide fertile ground for all creative types. Attractions around Parnu include Rannapark & Vallikäär, Eliisabet Church, Jekateriina Church, Tallinna Gates and Red Tower (Punane Torn). Parnu plays host to a large number of festivals and other events and has become an internationally recognised spa resort. Its small harbour is popular with people sailing the Baltic Sea.

TallinnWinter Holidays
During winter peak time in January and February, there is plenty of snow in Estonia and despite the absence of high mountain ranges, there are still many places to enjoy skiing, snowboarding or ice skating. Cross-country skiing is the most popular of winter sports as most walking/hiking trails are suitable with many public prepared tracks in and around bigger cities. South Estonia is the hilliest region, where Otepää and Võrumaa are ideal for snowboarding and downhill skiing. Enjoy the medieval atmosphere at the public open-air rink in the Tallinn Old Town or take a spin on the frozen bay in Haapsalu.

Tartu Tartu
The university city of Tartu sits on the Emajõgi river, which links the two largest lakes in Estonia, and dates back to 1030, making it one of the oldest cities of the Baltic states. Tartu is the second largest city in Estonia and is renowned for its music, large student population and wealth of museums. The Tartu University, founded in 1632, is one of the oldest universities in Northern Europe, which is why Tartu is often referred to as the intellectual capital of Estonia, and the city retains its bohemian ambience. The famous kissing sculpture is one of Tartu's main attractions, while the Tartu ghost makes you spend too much time in the city, which is why locals say that time flows slower in Tartu. The Town Hall Square, the Soup Neighbourhood and Toome Hill are some of the other attractions, while the Statue of the Two Writers portrays an imaginary conversation between Oscar Wilde and Estonian writer Eduard Vilde. There is an identical statue in Galway city centre, which was given as a gift from Tartu.

ParnuEstonia's Beaches
The Estonian coastline is packed full of unspoilt beaches, spa resorts, yacht marinas and interesting sleepy fishing villages. The white sand, unspoilt beaches of Parnu, Estonia's summer capital, are one of the country's main attractions, while more excellent beach resorts are located at Narva-Jõesuu, Võsu and Valgeranna. Laulasmaa with its singing sands and Kaberneeme, a beach village on a peninsula, are located less than an hour's drive from Tallinn. Playgrounds on the beach and recreational areas are ideal for families travelling with children.

Active Estonia
Nature and the outdoors make Estonia the ideal location for adventure holiday enthusiasts. Great diving spots into historic wrecks are located off the coast, while Estonia is covered with beautiful pine forests for great hiking, camping and cycling holidays. Nature is most colourful during autumn and spring as water levels turn high, making Estonia ideal for canoeing down the rivers in wild forests. Geocaching is also very popular in these parts, which appears to be a mix between orienteering and a giant treasure hunt, where all you need is a GPS device, good maps and a sense of adventure, apparently.

Narva
The city of Narva boasts the easternmost point of the European Union and the only location in Estonia that offers an unobstructed view of Russia. The Hermann Fortress, which looks across the Narva River to the Russian castle on the other side, is the best-preserved castle in Estonia. Narva was once called the “Baroque pearl of the Baltic Sea” but was almost completely destroyed in 1944 by Soviet aircraft raids and fires set by retreating German troops. The city was largely rebuilt after the war and as a result remains heavily influenced by Russia, which is evident with lots of fine examples of Soviet architecture.

RuhnuThe Islands
Estonia has over 1,500 islands, where life moves at a slower pace and traditional Estonia remains. Saaremaa is the largest island boasting a well-restored medieval castle, which sits pretty among stone fences, thatched roofs and working windmills, while the homemade beer is worth the visit alone. Hiiumaa, the second largest island, was formed as a result of a meteor explosion and can be accessed via an ice-road from the mainland in winter – or a flight from Tallinn for the less adventurous. The island is also renowned for its lighthouses and unspoilt nature. The matriarchal island of Kihnu is recognised by UNESCO, which has proclaimed the Kihnu marriage ceremony as a Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity. Other islands include Ruhnu, which is home of the giant chocolate bear statue and an intriguing ancient wooden church; Muhu, where the ancient St Catherine's church has pagan tombstones, and Vormsi, known as Snake Island, which combines a unique blend of Soviet and Swedish. Island trips are proving very popular with birdwatchers, canoeists, sailing enthusiasts and anglers.

Lahemaa National ParkNational Parks
Less than an hour from Tallinn sits Lahemaa National Park, the largest in Estonia and ideal for a day trip from the capital. Bears, wolves and lynx roam the park, which is surrounded by deserted beaches and small fishing villages. Matsalu National Park is also easy to reach from Tallinn and is popular with birdwatchers, it being an important autumn stopover point for migrating birds. Soomaa National Park is home to brown bears, golden eagles and rare orchids and can be the ideal place for a canoeing holiday, while Karula National Park is home to moose, lynx, wild boar and red squirrels. Vilsandi National Park is another birdwatchers' paradise en route to Saaremaa.

For more information on Estonia, go to: www.VisitEstonia.com.

Ed Leahy

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