There’s more to #Estonia than Tallinn in the same way that there’s more to Germany than Berlin and Australia than Sydney. So why is it many tourists barely make it out of Tallinn? Weary traveller, reader of this blog, I encourage you to get out there. Explore Viljandi for a little while.
There’s more to Viljandi’s picturesque town, its active cultural life and cobbled old town streets, castle ruins and the lake.
Don’t get me wrong. Tallinn is certainly a beautiful destination. There’s no doubting that. However, if you’re looking for a true Estonian experience you need to get out of Tallinn. I’m talking about cute wooden houses, greenhouses, lakes, forests, the Estonian language on every street, the smell of fireplaces in winter, an abundance of apple trees in summer, places of history and homes of cosy traditions and sauna culture. Viljandi is a place where the peaceful Estonian town life is easily observed. It might be exactly what you’re looking for.
So, what’s it like living in Viljandi? 😉
I’m often asked what life’s like in Viljandi. But it’s usually accompanied with a smirk and forward leaning gesture in anticipation of a depressing story of boredom, isolation and loneliness as though life in tiny Tallinn “city” with its minuscule population is somehow impressive by comparison. Прости Таллин, you’re not that big. Sit back down!
First, a quick ego adjustment. Let’s be frank. Tallinn is a tiny, largely Russian speaking city with a population the size of an ordinary Australian neighbourhood. Its beauty is impressive and its history is amazing but problematically some of its inhabitants think they are Estonia’s only city. Tallinners shunning smaller towns is a “big fish – small pond” mentality of sorts. It’s actually embarrassing to watch. Coming from a “small Australian city” myself – several times larger than Estonia’s entire population gives me perspective of what a city really looks like.
This bias is more common than I’d like to admit. I’ve noticed even some naive tourists have picked it up too. But the joke’s on those of you who’ve spent all your time confined to the triangle of Kristiine, Kalamaja and the Keskus.
Understanding Estonia’s Cultural Capital
Understanding Viljandi first begins with the acknowledgment of its place and purpose in Estonia.
Viljandi’s purpose is culture. It is the cultural capital of Estonia, largely due to a few things in my view. Firstly, Viljandi hosts every year Europe’s largest folk music festival – Viljandi Folk Festival. During this festival the town is very much alive, if not overcrowded with tourists from other cities and abroad. It’s a big deal for all of Estonia.
Secondly, Viljandi has its own branch of Tartu University which focuses on cultural studies (like music, dance and other arts). It’s Tartu University’s – Viljandi Culture Academy. Students from all over the world attend cultural classes in Viljandi. Non-EU foreigners are not uncommon. Last year I recall Finns, Scandinavians, Germans, Turks, Czechs, Russians, Balts and Ukrainians all in town.
Viljandi is frequented by several artists. Some from abroad like the American writer Justin Petrone (author of the successful “My Estonia” series and other publications). Then of course there’s painters like the Australian Brit – Richard Denny and the Finn Mika Vesalahti. Viljandi is culturally rich and alive in many ways.
Not everyone in Viljandi is an artist. Viljandi draws its people from all walks of life and all parts of the world. A small handful of locals are foreigners who have sought refuge in this beautiful little town. Refuge from real cities.
You’ll quickly appreciate the town’s cosy vibe. A welcome change from Tallinn’s stag-nights, dosile guided tour groups and pushy babushka. In-hail the fresh air!
Small Town Bliss
Part of Viljandi’s attraction is what Viljandi isn’t. Think for a moment all about all the things a big city has which annoys you. Traffic? Crime? Noise? Property Prices? Tourists? Many of those stresses simply do not dominate everyday life here.
A short walk through the town will take you past the historical buildings in the Old Town, castle ruins and an open natural lakeside park area. All possible without a single pedestrian street light crossing. The town is very safe. Children are frequently seen playing and enjoying a childhood reminiscent of “the good old days”. Stabbings, burglaries and other crime common in big cities is very rare here.
Six degrees of separation is very obvious here. Most of your facebook friends from this town have mutual friends. It’s nice to walk around and occasionally run into people you know or at least people you’ve seen before. Fortunately most people follow the Estonian custom of keeping to themselves. People aren’t that nosey here.
Property prices are an important part of everyday life. It’s true not just in the case of Tallinn, capital city prices right around are rather inflated. Viljandi offers pretty affordable options. There’s a mixture of new developments and several abandoned properties looking for owners. If you’ve ever thought of buying a piece of land – Viljandi has options under 15,000€ just a couple of kilometres from the Keskus.
The most exciting development is 4 Linnu, Viljandi. A massive property next to the town hall on Raekoja Plats. Recently sold to developers for 1€. Being a historic building, terms for sale would certainly be many, but still… Walking around Viljandi it’s easy to imagine business ideas and projects. The town is a perfect opportunity for investment yet remains for the moment relatively untapped.
Viljandi’s town council (Viljandi Linnavalitsus) seems pretty open to ideas. I particularly liked Kohvikuöö (Café Night). Over 2 days Viljandi permitted pop-up cafés all over the place. The town’s inhabitants literally created cute little cafés in their backyards and alongside the streets. Little initiatives like this give me faith in the town’s future.
Kohvi, Beer, Food
A typical morning in town usually begins with a trip to Rohelise Maja Pood ja Kohvik. Service is friendly, the coffee is good and when the weather’s pleasant – there’s a cosy courtyard. It’s not the only option in town. Other cafés include at least LAYK Stuudiokohvik and Caramel Pagariari ja Kohvik (2 locations).
In Viljandi when you speak Estonian, Estonians reply in Estonian. It’s a great place for foreigners to practice Estonian. In Tallinn though Estonians sometimes responded in English which can be frustrating if you’re a foreigner trying to grasp an already difficult language.
Yes. There’s bars. Tegelaste Tuba and Legend are fairly typical for new arrivals whereas Mulks (situated under Rüki Galleri) is the more hipster and local. Mulks specialises in craft beers and it has a decent selection of wine too. Its name takes after the term “Mulgi” (referring to people from Viljandi by decent).
Food? Amrita Café is one of the best pizza restaurants in Estonia. There are other restaurants for every kind of consumer. Fellin Kohvik describes itself as having “charms with cosy simplicity and finely wrought sophistication, and where families and couples, friends and relatives, gourmands and backpackers all feel right at home.” – its name takes after the German name of Viljandi. Fellin. Also the heading of this post if you didn’t catch that already. 😉
There are several places in town for coffee, beer and food. There’s even a sushi restaurant, but as this isn’t a guide to Viljandi as such I won’t mention them all. Hopefully the few venues I’ve mentioned gives you an idea that the town has enough on offer.
The hipsters among us would love Romaan. If you’re the type to frequent places like Sveta Baar in Telliskivi, Tallinn or Must Puudel in Vanalinn Romaan’s for you. Cheap drinks and an intimate crowd of locals and others. Especially late in the evening through to early morning Romaan’s the place to meet anyone. Students, international volunteers, foreigners and locals all visit Romaan.
Romaan’s built out of an old building with an open courtyard, its interior includes old Soviet furniture and books. Many, plenty, piles of books around the place. Romaan even sells old Soviet books which have been handmade into writing notepads. A crafty little souvenir. The vibe’s somewhat like a speak-easy.
Sport and Lifestyle
Viljandi has a couple of gyms but my favourite is MyFitness which better than Tartu’s. The gym has everything you need by way of the usual equipment but other perks include a steam room, sauna, free lockers and various classes from yoga to boxing.
Fitness in Viljandi doesn’t need to involve gym membership. Viljandi’s main lake – Viljandi Järv has a 12 Kilometre running track which hosts a competitive event every year. The past few years have been won by Ibrahim Mukung Wachira from Kenya. There’s also a professional runners track on the Viljandi City Stadium.
Viljandi Järv has a small “beach” – where volleyball is played in the summer. There’s an outdoor exercise park, a basket ball court, a tennis court and football grounds. All within the same area. There’s 3 places selling food and drink during the summer. In winter the lake freezes over and you can skate on it. Viljandi has its own cycling club and rowing club too.
Transport between Tallinn is possible by either bus or train. Personally I prefer the train. Tartu’s easy by bus as the train doesn’t run to Tartu directly.
The best way to get around the town is by foot or bicycle. However, if you wanted to visit the outer areas of Viljandi like Vana-Võidu or Viiratsi you can jump on any of the town buses which by the way are all completely free. Even the short bus trip from the train station to Viljandi keskus is free. You don’t need to be a holder of any “locals permit” (as in the case for Tallinn). Viljandi’s buses are free for everyone. Just get on. No questions asked. Oh, and there are no trolley-buses here either.
If you need a taxi, just take a Bolt. Of course!
Fellin Love with Viljandi
Viljandi is not perfect. I’ve said it. Sometimes I like to take a break from the pace of life here and visit Tallinn, Tartu or Helsinki. Fortunately having transport options in and out of Viljandi prevents one from feeling “trapped”. As an Australian – the 240 Kilometres to Helsinki, Finland is not really that much of a staggering distance either. About Tallinn? I’ve never disliked Tallinn. I like Tallinn and Tartu, but living in Viljandi has been far greater than I ever expected. I can’t count the amount of times I thought myself very lucky to call Viljandi my second home – rather than Tallinn.
Where To Stay
Accommodation in Viljandi is plentiful. There’s about 20 Airbnbs in town. They’re cheaper than Tallinn. Get €31 Airbnb credit when you sign up via this link: https://www.airbnb.com/c/jaim93?currency=EUR.
Airbnb is not the only option. You can also use Booking.com for Hotels. The 2 hotels are Grand Hotel or the new and impressive Viljandi Park Hotel which has a café and restaurant. You can reduce the cost of your Booking.com reservation by using my referral link: https://www.booking.com/s/44_6/jai75470
What I’ve Learnt
Living here has made me realise what small towns can offer. Not just Viljandi. I’ve become less judgemental of other smaller towns. It’s now with an inquisitive mind that I think about other places like Rakvere, Pärnu, Hapsalu and Otepää.
Those of you living in a “real city”, tired of the rat race and the stress that comes with it will understand how I fellin love with Viljandi. Please check http://www.visitviljandi.ee for more information ahead of your visit.
Would you visit Viljandi? Have you visited a small European town before? Share your thoughts and encourage others to leave capital cities.