Tartu's small size belies its big personality. Estonia's 'second city' is an inviting mix of creativity, stately buildings, leafy parks, tradition and vitality. The large student population brews a lively bar scene, where warm evenings continue into summer nights. With the Emajõgi River rolling through, and wood-panelled buildings standing next to modern renovations, get to know Tartu and its spirit of revival.
Tartu hostels are located in the city centre, conveniently located for getting around. How about an Art Deco mansion decorated by local artists using recycled materials? Or a newly renovated property with a gym, sauna and yoga studio? Room options are varied, with an even spread of dorms and private rooms. There are hostels in Tartu offering free breakfast, but communal kitchens for making your own meals are more common. Free Wi-Fi is standard in a Tartu hostel.
The Emajõgi River divides Tartu, and most of the main areas to explore lie on its west side. Here, the Old Town is a view into the past with its collection of well-preserved 18th-century buildings – a rare sight in Estonia. To the north is Supilinn, meaning 'Soup Town', in reference to its beginnings as a floodplain. This past is remembered in the area's street names, whimsically named after the vegetables that grew on the fertile swampland. South of the Old Town, Karlova's wooden-slatted townhouses are now home to art students and vintage shops.
In the Old Town's Raekoja Plats square, try your luck by throwing a coin into the 'The Kissing Students' fountain, a monument to Tartu's sister cities around the world. Find a vintage souvenir at Müürilille flea market in Aparaaditehas, a cultural hub around 15 minutes' walk from the city centre. Back east towards the river, AHHAA science centre has a 4D cinema and an ever-evolving roster of exhibitions. On the Emajõgi itself, the Jõmmu barge looms like a pirate's galleon. Book on for a dreamy stargazing tour on the water.
The only flights to Tartu Airport are from Helsinki in Finland, so it's often easier to fly in to another European airport and connect to the city by bus. Tartu Bussijaam bus station is just south of the Old Town and has services running to Tallinn (taking 2.5 hours) as well as international destinations such as Riga, Warsaw and Moscow. Compact Tartu is easily explored on foot, but there is a local bus service that runs outside the city if you'd like to visit the surrounding areas.