By Henrik Jeppesen.
Visiting new islands is one of the most fascinating things about travelling the world, and this week I got a new favourite: Saaremaa. Estonia is one of my favourite countries in the world, and I like it so much that I decided to move to Tallinn with my wife to live. There are many reasons why Estonia is one of the best countries in the world. I have visited every country in the world, so I am comparing Estonia with all the world’s other countries when writing this.
Although it might not officially be a Nordic country, for me, Estonia feels Nordic in a lot of ways, and I feel at home there. I feel Estonia is entirely different from the two other Baltic countries, Latvia and Lithuania, and is similar to Nordic countries such as Denmark, Finland, Norway and Sweden. Especially Finland, which capital is just a cheap ferry ride away from Tallinn, the capital of Estonia.
I like the culture, sights, the food and the excellent value for money. Excellent because the other (in my opinion) Nordic countries are very expensive, while Estonia is a lot cheaper. You can compare the prices of accommodation and restaurants in Copenhagen and Tallinn, and you get an idea.
After moving to Tallinn, I have experienced a lot, but I only recently made it to my first Estonian island, and I started with the biggest one: Saaremaa. Estonia has more than 2,000 islands, but only about 20 are inhabited. Saaremaa is home to approximately 33,000 people with about 13,000 of them living in Kuressaare, the main town of the island.
Below are my top ten tips for this beautiful island, but first a few reasons why this is a new favourite island: The people are friendly and helpful. The nature is stunning. The food is great. The air quality is excellent. It’s not overrun by tourists. The destination is very developed and with good infrastructure. Things work; it’s easy, convenient and comfortable.
Table of content: Henrik’s Top 10 tips for Saaremaa
- Rent a car
- Use this tourist map by Visit Saaremaa
- Stay at Johan Design & SPA Hotel
- Spend hours at Kuressaare Castle
- Eat well
- Combine it with Hiiumaa
- Stay at UNGRU Resto & Külalismaja on Hiiumaa
- Go hiking
- Take pictures of churches
- Spend time exploring Kuressaare
1. Rent a car
Saaremaa is Estonian’s biggest island with 2,673 km2, so it takes time getting around. You can, of course, explore it by bike or foot, but it will require you to have a lot of time if you want to see a lot. There are tour operators that can take you around, but I highly recommend renting a car to get around the island. It is one of the easiest places in the world to drive, and it is lovely to be able to explore different sights at your own pace. Our road trip was definitely a memorable one. We picked up the car at Kuressaare Airport upon arrival (thanks to Raimond for the easy process) and went to Kuressaare for the first stop.
2. Use this tourist map by Visit Saaremaa
Visit Saaremaa has made a fantastic tourist map which made it easy to explore the island. I have often a lot of time trying to plan a good trip, and a lot of the time have been spent on things to do and see. This map saved me a lot of time and it was easy to just google each sight one by one for the road trip. I really believe comfort and convenience makes a difference when it comes to travel, and a well-made map like this takes some of the things I don’t like about travelling away.
There is a lot of things to see on Saaremaa. I would recommend a minimum of two days to see the most impressive sights, while a week would be better to fully explore the island at a slower pace. I would like to come back and spend a lot more time in the future as the island really made a big impression on me.
3. Stay at Johan Design & SPA Hotel
I like combining great comfort and relaxation with exploring. Johan Design & SPA Hotel is one of the best hotels on the island, and it actually exceeded my expectations. Located in the centre of Kuressaare, within walking distance of the famous castle, the hotel is a great base for exploring the island. The room was very comfortable with an ultra-soft bed, good shower, TV, nice views, and complimentary Wi-Fi. The hotel has a great spa with saunas, a hot jacuzzi tub, and two pools, both indoor and outdoor. It was a pleasure to see the hotel’s focus on breakfast. A massive buffet with a lot of good food and attention to details. A really lovely place to stay for great comfort and relaxation.
4. Spend hours at Kuressaare Castle
The main attraction of Saaremaa is the Kuressaare Castle, a quick walk from the centre of the island’s main town, Kuressaare. It is a stunning historical castle estimated to have been built in the 1380s, but possibly earlier as only the earliest written recordings are from that period. My wife and I enjoyed the area of the castle for several hours, where you have a lot of beautiful viewpoints as well as a nearby beach. I would recommend not being in a rush and combine exploring with relaxation at the castle. Sit down, relaxing while looking at the beautiful castle with the stunning surroundings is a great way to get a relaxed holiday feel, instead of just rushing between the different sights.
5. Eat well
I have visited every country in the world, and some of my best experiences have been with food. Unfortunately, also some of my worst. I don’t enjoy the food in a lot of the world’s countries, and in many countries, great food is limited to the best restaurants in a few big cities. Estonia is a country with great restaurants in a lot of different locations, including the islands.
White Guide is a great guide to find the best restaurants in Nordic and Baltic countries, and in the islands of Estonia, there are actually 11 restaurants included in the guide’s 2021 edition. It is easy to conclude that food is another big reason to visit Sareemaa, and it’s actually surprising to me as many islands, and remote places often don’t have great places to eat or are limited to just one decent place. Here are a lot. Great food is, however, not limited to the White Guide as we went to establishments not included in the guide, but where the food impressed us as well.
On Saaremaa, I can highly recommend Saaremaa Veski, which is actually a restaurant inside a windmill. Here you can experience a charming experience in a cosy atmosphere that includes lovely Estonian music. On Hiiumaa, my best food experience in all of Estonia took place at UNGRU Resto & Külalismaja, which you can read about further down in this article.
6. Combine it with Hiiumaa
The second-biggest island of Estonia is Hiiumaa, located north of Saaremaa and reachable by a cheap, comfortable ferry in around an hour. I have been on many ferries around the world, and both the ferry connecting Saaremaa with Hiiumaa and the ferry connecting Muhu with the mainland were among the best ferry experiences I’ve had. Comfortable, clean, fair prices onboard (which is often not the case), and friendly people. Again, comfort and convenience. I recommend visiting Hiiumaa as well as has historical lighthouses, great beaches, excellent food, and as it’s easy to get there from Saaremaa with three daily ferries at the moment. You can visit on a day trip, but to fully explore the top sights at a slower pace, I recommend spending at least a night. Hiiumaa, with 989 km², is around 2.5 times smaller than Saaremaa.
7. Stay at UNGRU Resto & Külalismaja on Hiiumaa
This is perhaps the biggest surprise I’ve had in Estonia when it comes to experiences. UNGRU Resto & Külalismaja is a charming, seasonal 4-room guesthouse with a White Guide restaurant. I have decided to include it as a separate tip as it was a truly great experience. It is located approximately 13 kilometres east of Kärdla, the main town of Hiiumaa, in a quiet location close to a beautiful lake. The rooms are charming, making me think of the Relais & Châteaux collection, which tend to be charming and where food is very important. As their restaurant was part of the White Guide and UNGRU’s overall ratings are excellent, I was excited to see how good it would be.
The dining experience at UNGRU was my best dining experience (together with Tchaikovsky) in Estonia and probably one of the most surprising in my travels. I have experienced hundreds of gourmet restaurants, and it was a better experience than several Michelin-starred restaurants I have experienced in the past. A young passionate team that have experimented with food to create a very impressive food experience.
The food included a unique lemonade with a “Chaga” mushroom, hand made udon noodles, and two of the best desserts I’ve ever tasted. One called green pea halwa with coconut cream, marinated rhubarb and cashew nuts, and another with “Chaga” créme Brûlée, marinated birch leaves and marinated cucumbers. Unusual, but the taste was fantastic. The staff are friendly, attentive and service-minded.
The guesthouse also had attention to details in the room where they use a fantastic local product called Hiiuihuhooldus. The stay ended with one of the best breakfast in my travels. There is no menu, and you can just ask them what you would like. I asked for several things included vegetables with an impressive carrot puré, and it was not a problem. I can’t recommend UNGRU enough if you love food and charming places to stay.
8. Go hiking
Back to Saaremaa, there are a number of hiking trails where you can really experience the peace and beauty of the island. Our best experience was the hiking trail at Koigi bog, a four-kilometre-long hiking trail with an observation tower and bog lake set in beautiful surroundings. If you enjoy hiking and long walks, Sareemaa has enough for several weeks of vacation, but if you are just visiting Sareemaa for a few days and only have time for one, I recommend the one at Koigi big.
9. Take pictures of churches
Saaremaa is home to seven unique medieval churches. I enjoy taking photos of churches surrounded by nature, and that is easy to do on Saaremaa. St. Catherine’s church in Karja (picture) is a good combination of a church with nature. The foundation date of the church is unknown, but it is definitely old.
10. Spend time exploring Kuressaare
Kuressaare is the 9th biggest city/town in Estonia, with a population of about 13,000 people. In my opinion, it is a destination in itself as you can spend several days just enjoying what it has to offer on foot. You don’t need to rent a car to say you have been to Saaremaa, and you can experience a lot without needing to leave the area of Kuressaare. A flight from Tallinn cost just 26 euros each way at the time of this article, and there is a free bus from the airport to the town.
Within walking distance of Kuressaare, you have a number of spa hotels, White Guide-restaurants, the stunning castle, and a lovely centre with shops and cafées. For many travellers, it might be more than enough for a weekend trip to just fly in, enjoy two nights at a great spa hotel, eat well, walk around, and then go back to Tallinn. On Saaremaa, there are many options, and it is now one of my favourite islands in the world. A fantastic travel destination for relaxation, nature and comfortable adventures.