- Official name: Republic of Estonia
- Official language: Estonian
- Ethnic groups: Estonians, Russians, Ukrainians, Belarusians, Finns and others
- Population: 1.3 million (2014)
- Capital city: Tallinn
- Government: Parliamentary democracy
- President: Toomas Hendrik Ilves
- Prime minister: Taavi Rõivas
- Currency: the euro
- GDP PPP: $36.947 billion (2015 est)
- GDP PPP per capita: $27,729 (2015 est)
- Member of the European Union, NATO, OECD, WTO, and Schengen zone
- Time zone: GMT/UTC +2 in winter; GMT/UTC +3 in summer
- Calling code: +372
- Internet TLD: .ee
- Units of measure: Metric system
- Electricity: 220 V
- Right-hand traffic
- Total area: 45,339 sq. km (17,505 sq. mi.)
Geography - small in size, varied in nature
Estonia is located on the shores of the Baltic Sea with Finland to the north, Latvia to the south, Sweden to the west and Russia to the east.
Estonia is one of Europe’s smallest countries. We have a long coastline with 1,520 gorgeous islands. Forests and wild areas cover about 50% of the country, making this small northern gem a true nature lover’s paradise.
And if you are more interested in the inland charms, there are 1,500 lakes – the largest of them, Lake Peipsi (2,555 square kilometres), separates Estonia from Russia – and over 200 rivers waiting to be enjoyed. And we also have many hotspots for spotting bird species in migration.
There’s another inland charm to be mentioned: a 318-meter hill, the slyly named Big Egg Mountain (Suur Munamägi) which also marks the highest point in the country. It has no basecamp but the walk to the top is still very delightful.
Population - a lot of diversity
Estonia is one of the smallest countries in Europe both by its size and population. Out of its 1.31 million people, 68% live in cities and towns. That means you’ll have plenty of space to roam outside the capital. The capital holds roughly one-third of the population (over 430,000 people), just enough to have friends close-by and still have enough privacy.
Estonia has a large percentage of foreign-born residents. Whereas Estonians make up roughly two-thirds (68.7%) of the population, there’s also a significant minority of Russians (24.8%) and other smaller communities in the country (Ukrainians, Belarusians, Finns). In recent years, professionals from the UK, the US, Italy, France, Spain, Ireland and Sweden have also settled in here.
Estonian is the official language of the country, spoken by two-thirds of the population as a mother tongue. The language belongs to a small Finno-Ugric language group, which also includes Finnish and Hungarian. The Estonian language uses the Latin alphabet, plus several additional characters such as the Germanic ä, ö, ü and the very unique õ.
Most Estonians can speak more than one language. English is widely spoken, especially among younger people. According to the English Proficiency Index, Estonia ranks seventh in the world by the average level of English skills among adults.
Russian is also a widely spoken as roughly one-third of the population speaks it as their first language.
Climate and weather - warm for its latitude
The climate in Estonia is temperate and milder than would be expected at such a northern latitude, thanks to the warm maritime air.
Yes, Estonia can get -20 C winters, but most of the time the True North is kept at bay by the warm maritime air. The climate here is temperate and definitely milder than in other northern parts of northern Scandinavia. Or North Scotland.
The Baltic Sea coastline has an effect on the local weather patterns, so Estonia has a maritime, wet climate with rather warm and dry summers and fairly cold winters. If you like the idea of experiencing all the four seasons in their full splendour, this is the place to live.
Usually, winters in here have heavy snowfall and some snowstorms. Both of these turn Estonia into a magical winter wonderland. Should you be looking for a break from scorching hot temperatures of the more southern countries, summertime Estonia will bring you relief with its average 20-25 °C. Quite often, every summer also manages to surprise you, with the temperatures exceeding 30°C.
The transitional seasons – fall and spring – are usually quite mild, but you can expect the weather to change daily from sunshine to rain.
- Spring arrives in March or April and is usually sunny but chilly.
- The average temperature in summer (June to August) is 18°C; however, the temperature rise up to 30°C for shorter periods. You can find most of the Estonians in the sea then.
- Autumn (September to October) is typically the wettest season.
- Winter (November to February) can be fairly cold with a lot of snow, and the temperature may drop below -20°C, usually in January or February. The average daytime temperature in those two months remains around -5°C. With -20°C, the sea freezes and you can drive from mainland to the islands on the ice road.
Politics and government - among the most liberal countries in the world
Estonia is a parliamentary democracy in which the prime minister (currently Jüri Ratas, who at 38 is among the youngest prime ministers in Europe) is the head of government.
The head of state is the president (currently Kersti Kaljulaid), elected by the Estonian Parliament (Riigikogu) for a five-year term. The president is mainly a symbolic figure. However, he does appoint a number of officials, has veto power, and is the supreme commander of national defence.
Riigikogu itself has 101 members who are elected for a period of four years. The government has executive power.
Estonia is regularly ranked among the most liberal countries in the world, whether for its political, economic, Internet or press freedom:
– in the latest Freedom House Index, Estonia ranked among the “free” countries, for both political rights and civil liberties;
– according to the Economic Freedom Index, Estonia ranks 9th in the world and 3rd in Europe;
– Estonia also ranks second in the world in Internet Freedom, just behind Iceland and ahead of Canada, Germany, and the US.
– in the Reporters Without Borders world Press Freedom Index, Estonia is also in the top ten.
Religion - guaranteed religious freedom
Yes, Estonians aren’t religious, but religious freedom is guaranteed by the republic as one of the constitutional rights.
The latest census counted 25 Christian denominations and 40 other faiths from all over the world present in Estonia. This includes both the ancient and well-known (e.g. Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam, Taoism, Judaism) and some more recent practises (e.g. Light Bearer, Brotherhood of Violet Flame).
No worries, you can still practise your faith in your accustomed manner in here, just don’t be surprised if your colleagues aren’t as passionate about matters of doctrine – about 60% of people don’t “profess any religion” in Estonia.
Technically, Estonia is predominantly a Christian country. Recently, Russian Orthodox has become the primary church of choice for many believers, succeeded closely by the traditional Lutheran one.
Other sizeable Christian confessions are: Baptist (4,507 people), Roman Catholic (4,501), Jehovah’s Witness (3,938), Christian Free Congregations (2,189) and Adventist (1,194).
Currently, many “roots” disciplines are going through a revival and neopaganism is gathering momentum.
Although the non-religious people of Estonia aren’t that pre-occupied with the higher power, they are still as curious about the Great Beyond as people are in other countries. Just check the esoteric sections in the bigger bookshops.
There’s also a great body of work gathered on the old Estonian traditions in a web archive Folklore.ee.
P.S. There is no such thing as an official Estonian folk religion – that was an artificial construct devised by scholars in the 1920s and 1930s.
Celebrations - public holidays and flag days
The most important public holidays in Estonia
February 24 – Independence Day (iseseisvuspäev or Vabariigi aastapäev) is dedicated to the the declaration of independence in 1918, the document that founded the Republic of Estonia. A military parade takes place in a different city each year, and the head of state holds a lavish reception honoring several hundred of the most prominent people from all walks of life.
April 3 – Good Friday (suur reede) – Almost uniquely in Europe, Estonia doesn’t give a day off for Easter Monday. But Good Friday, a key day in Easter celebrations, is a holiday.
April 5 – Easter Sunday (ülestõusmispüha). Apart from celebrating the resurrection of Jesus Christ, Easter is celebrated in the country’s folk calendar as a spring holiday to welcome the arrival of a brighter and warmer season. There is also an old tradition of decorating eggs by boiling them wrapped in onion peels or painting the eggs in vivid colors. An egg knocking competition follows: whoever breaks the shell of the competitor’s egg without cracking their own is crowned the winner.
June 23 – Victory Day (võidupüha) honours the Estonian victory over the German forces (led by the Landeswehr) during the Estonian War of Independence in the Battle of Võnnu on June 23, 1919. There is also a military parade.
June 24 – St. John’s Day (jaanipäev), also known as Midsummer Day, is celebrated on the night of June 23, close to the solstice when the white nights are shortest. Estonians all around the country gather with their families and friends in celebrations most associated with bonfires.
August 20 – Day of Restoration of Independence (taasiseseisvumispäev). The dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991 led to the three Baltic states regaining their independence.
December 24 – Christmas Eve (jõululaupäev). The main Christmas celebration for Estonia’s Lutherans falls on the 24th, as in most of Europe. Before repairing to table for hearty fare such as roast pork or goose and sauerkraut, Estonians often take time in the early evening to visit the departed in forested cemeteries.
December 25 – Christmas Day (esimene jõulupüha)
December 26 – Boxing Day (teine jõulupüha)
Days with national significance
You won’t get a day off, but you are likely to either hear from your colleagues or read in the media about related events. These are days important for the Estonian nation, either for remembrance or celebrating its culture, language and identity.
6 January – Epiphany (kolmekuningapäev). A Christian holiday, mainly celebrated by the Russian Orthodox minority in Estonia.
February 2 – Anniversary of the Tartu Peace Treaty (Tartu rahulepingu aastapäev). Signed on 2 February 1920 in Tartu between Soviet Russia and Estonia, the treaty finally recognized the independence of Estonia.
March 14 – Native Language Day (emakeelepäev). The anniversary of the first poet writing in the Estonian language, Kristjan Jaak Peterson, is celebrated as Native Language Day by 1.1 million Estonian speakers.
May 10 – Mother’s Day (emadepäev). Mothers receive special attention, getting flowers and cards and heart-felt messages.
June 4 – National Flag Day (lipupäev). The Estonian tricolor flag was first consecrated as the flag of the Estonian Student Society on 4 June 1884 in Otepää.
June 14 – Day of Mourning and Commemoration (leinapäev). On 14 June 1941, the first mass deportation from the Baltic states took place. Over 10,000 Estonians were deported to Siberia by the Soviet authorities.
August 23 – Day of Remembrance for Victims of Stalinism and Nazism (kommunismi ja natsismi ohvrite mälestuspäev)
October 17 – Tribal Day (hõimupäev). Estonia’s place in the Finno-Ugric family of nations is celebrated. It is a day for cherishing Estonia’s unique linguistic and cultural identity, thinking about other Finno-Ugric peoples and introducing their languages and cultures.
November 2 – All Souls’ Day (hingedepäev). An old folk tradition, the day signifies the belief that the souls of the dead visit their former homes. People usually place candles on windowsills.
November 8 – Father’s Day (isadepäev). Fathers’ turn to receive heart-felt messages and to be reminded about their role in society.
Flag days in 2015
February 2 – Anniversary of the Tartu Peace Treaty (Tartu rahulepingu aastapäev)
February 24 – Independence Day (iseseisvuspäev)
March 14 – Native Language Day (emakeelepäev)
April 23 –Veterans Day (veteranipäev)
May 10 – Mother’s Day (emadepäev)
June 4 – National Flag Day (lipupäev)
June 14 – Day of Mourning and Commemoration (leinapäev)
June 23 – Victory Day (võidupüha)
June 24 – St. John’s Day (jaanipäev)
August 20 – Day of Restoration of Independence (taasiseseisvumispäev)
September 1 – Day of Knowledge (teadmistepäev)
October 17 – Tribal Day (hõimupäev)
November 8 – Father’s Day (isadepäev)
Fun facts - natural wonders, winners, and record breakers
Over 50% of Estonian land is covered by forest
Yes, this means that there aren’t that many people around. It also means that the biodiversity is astounding. One square meter of wooded meadow can be home to more than 70 different species. So watch where you step!
Saaremaa has a prize-winning oak tree
An oak tree in the middle of a football field in Orissaare, Saaremaa won European Tree of the Year in 2015, taking in nearly 60,000 votes. That’s a whopping 32% of votes cast. All Estonians were proud.
There are 1,500 islands, 1,000 lakes and 7,000 rivers in Estonia
And if you want something different, Estonia has the highest number of meteorite craters per square kilometre in the world. The Kaali crater in Saaremaa is what remains of the last giant meteorite to hit an area populated by humans. It fell to Earth with the power of a nuclear bomb over 4,000 years ago.
Suur Munamägi (Big Egg Hill), at 318 meters high, is the highest in the Baltic region
According to a tale in the Estonian national epic Kalevipoeg, Suur Munamägi was made by the giant Kalevipoeg for a pillow to rest his head on. Even when this story lacks documentary evidence, the hill is still a good six meters higher than the highest point in Latvia – a point of much pride for its northern neighbours!
Singing people: Estonia holds the largest collection of national folk songs in the world, over 133,000
The Song Festival, held every five years in Tallinn, is famous for the highest number of choral singers on stage at once. All together 34,000 people turn up to sing, up to 18,000 people can be on stage at the same time and over 200, 000 people attend the event. That’s nearly 1/6 of the entire population!
Spa-addicts: with over 1,200 spa beds for 15,000 inhabitants, Kuressaare is the world’s most spa-dense town
With mud baths, saunas and sea air a-plenty, Estonia has been *the place* for spa procedures since the times of the tsars. The healing mud of Haapsalu and Narva-Jõesuu (not to mention the pine forests and pristine sands) made the towns popular already in the 19th century.
You can take part in competitive sauna
In Estonia, sauna is a way of life. A way of au naturel life. Many homes have their own sauna which gets used at least once a week. If you’re on the move you can even take a sauna bus or erect a sauna tent. The annual Otepää sauna race, combining orienteering with saunas in the middle of winter, is especially popular.
Winners and record breakers
Estonia won the 2001 Eurovision Song Festival
The win took everyone by surprise – even the Estonians.
Estonia has the highest number of international supermodels per capita in the world
Narrowing down Estonia’s top most-known models to just a few girls is not an easy task. Let’s just say that among others, both Carmen Kass and Karmen Pedaru come from these parts of the world.
The world champion in wife carrying (yes, that’s a thing!) is Estonian
Despite Estonia being an astonishingly egalitarian country, we still produce expert wife carriers. And if unusual sports are your thing, you should also seek out kiiking. Kiiking has competitors on giant swings attempting to do a full 360 degree rotation over the top bar of the swing. The winner is the one who can do this on the swing with the longest swing arms.
Tallinn was the European Capital of Culture in 2011
The European Capital of Culture is a city designated by the EU every year. This gives the selected cities the opportunity to advance their culture and show it to the world. Tallinn shared its Capital of Culture title with the Finnish town of Turku, and organised over 250 cultural events, including theatrical, audiovisual, literature, sports and other projects throughout the year.
Stepping into the future – e-Estonia
While other countries are still thinking about it, Estonia embraced online voting already in 2005. In here, 95% of tax returns are completed online and businesses can be registered in minutes. You can sign legally binding documents using your ID card or mobile ID, and now, even those living outside of Estonia can benefit from the e-residency scheme.
And yes, it’s true – you get 4G coverage even in the middle of the woods.
Estonia has most start-ups per capita in Europe
Estonia is the 132nd-smallest country in the world by land mass. Yet, according to the Wall Street Journal, it produces more start-ups per capita than any other country in Europe. We have produced such global firms as Skype, TransferWise and GrabCAD, to name a few.