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Culture enthusiast's guide to the city of Tartu

Tartu has been a valued cultural city through centuries. The first national elite stemmed from the local university, the first newspapers and cultural societies began their work here, national theater emerged, and the first national song festival took place here as well. In addition to the University of Tartu, Tartu's history and spirit are carried on by several wooden neighbourhoods, historical buildings, various museums, and much more.



In the 18th century, the city's most important market, der Grosse Markt or the Great Market, could be found on the city's trapezium-shaped central square with classicist buildings, the Tartu Town Hall Square. Situated on the square is the early classicist Tartu Town Hall, which is already the third building on the same site. Since 1998, a fountain with the sculpture of "The Kissing Students", which has become a popular meeting spot, adorns the front of the Town Hall. Every day, the sounds of the carillon can be heard from the Town Hall tower. Its 18 bells were manufactured at the Karlsruhe Bell Factory in Germany, and another 16 bells were cast at the Royal Eijsbouts Bell Foundry in the Netherlands to mark the 15th anniversary of the carillon in 2016.


Tartu's Old Town, Tarmo Haud



Both the Town Hall Square as well as the Town Hall are fascinating sights in terms of architecture. For example, the Leaning House – the oddest and most eye-catching building on the north side of the square. The house is also called the Pisa Tower of Tartu as it is tilted to one side. The building currently houses the Tartu Art Museum. The National Geographic’s yellow frame, located on the river-side end of the square, represents Tartu as one of the 21 places worth discovering in South Estonia.



The National Geographic’s yellow frame, Ruth Pindus





The development of Tartu as a cultural city has been greatly influenced by the University of Tartu, established in the year 1632, main building of which is undeniably an architectural pearl. The main building was built in 1804–1809 according to the design of Johann Wilhelm Krause; the festive opening ceremony took place on July 3, 1809. Since then, the assembly hall of the main building has been an important part of celebrating all the major events and festivities of university life. Conferences are organised in hall and, thanks to very good acoustics, concerts as well. The classicist style assembly hall and the historical student lock-up on the attic floor can be visited through the university’s Art Museum. The University of Tartu Museum in the Cathedral introduces the history of science and university education from the 17th century to the present day. The Old Observatory, the Old Anatomical Theatre and Botanical Garden of the University of Tartu also operate under the University.



The Main Building of University of Tartu, Ragnar Vutt





If you wish to take a walk through the medieval centre of the Bishopric of Tartu, you should make your way to Toome Hill. In ancient times, Tarbatu, the earliest Estonian fortress, was located on the hill, and later the centre of the bishopric with an episcopal castle and a cathedral. After the Great Northern War, the bastions erected under the Swedish rule were flattened and the episcopal castle was destroyed. At the beginning of the 19th century, Toome Hill went under the ownership of the university, and a park and university buildings were founded. It is the heart of the campus, where the University of Tartu Museum is now located in the ruins of the Cathedral. Tartu Cathedral is one of the largest and the only medieval church with two towers in Estonia. The construction of the church began in the 13th century, and it was improved upon till the beginning of the 16th century. Since spring 2005, the towers have been open to the public.



The Cathedral ruins, Kiur Kaasik



The Devil's Bridge (Kuradisild), which is one of the few remaining concrete bridges from the beginning of the 20th century, can also be found on Toome Hill. The bridge was built to commemorate the 300th anniversary of the Romanov Dynasty in 1913 and was dedicated to the memory of Alexander I. Its name may originate from the contrast to the nearby lighter Angel’s Bridge (Inglisild), which was completed in 1838. The name of this bridge is believed to come from the name "English (inglise) bridge" because Toome Hill Park is designed in the English style.



The Devil's Bridge, Mall Kullamaa




Tartu is considered to be the city of museums as every cultural enthusiast can find something to their taste here. In the Tartu City Museum, you can take a closer look at the city’s diverse history, find an archaeological collection reflecting Tartu’s older time, a photo collection showing the spatial development of the city as well as archive and object collections that consist of over 158 thousand preserved objects. In addition, there are establishments operating as branches of the City Museum: The 19th Century Tartu Citizen's Home Museum, which introduces a citizen’s house in the 1830s with Biedermeier style interior. The museum is housed in one of Tartu’s oldest remaining wooden dwelling houses, built in the 1740s; the KGB Cells Museum offers an insight into the cells of Tartu’s NKVD/KGB detention prison; the Oskar Luts Home Museum invites you to visit the writer’s home in Tammelinn; the Tartu Song Festival Museum presents the tradition of Estonian song festivals and Tartu’s role in its formation.



Tartu City Museum, M.Tann




Naturally, the Estonian National Museum, founded already in the year 1909, is considered to be Tartu’s most spectacular pearl. In 2016, the museum received its new home which is located only two kilometres from the city centre. In addition to the new main building, the museum complex encompasses the centre of the old Raadi Manor, the lake, the dendro- and theme park area as well as the runway of the partially preserved military airbase. On the exhibition area of 6000 m2, you can find permanent exhibitions about the cultural history of Estonian and Finno-Ugric peoples as well as art galleries, and various music, theatre and film events take place on a daily basis.



Estonian National Museum, Simo Sepp




One of the most important buildings for the city is the St. John’s Church which is one of Northern Europe’s most unique examples of a medieval sacral building. Although the church has been repeatedly destroyed and reconstructed, its general mediaeval form has been preserved. A wonderful view of Tartu’s historical Old Town and St. John’s Cultural Quarter can be enjoyed from the church’s bell tower. St. Anthony's Guild, uniting artists and craftsmen can be found in Antonius Courtyard located in the Cultural Quarter. In the year 1449, the extensive area from Väike-Gildi Street up to Lutsu Street belonged to St. Anthony's Guild. Art and craft workshops operate in the three houses, also drawing inspiration from the craftsmanship of ancestors, but primarily the artists offer modern designs. Open-air events, fairs as well as concerts take place at the Antonius Courtyard, and a café-restaurant is open. Workshops are offered by Köösnerikoda (Furrier House), Maitseelamuste koda (House of Taste Sensations), Nahastuudio (Leather Studio), Jaanika kutsed (Jaanika’s Invitations) and Savikoda (House of Clay).



St. John's Church. Tiit Grihin




Unique and magnificent among the churches is Tartu’s St. Paul’s Church which is designed by Eliel Saarinen, one of the most recognised Finnish architects of the 20th century. It is an exceptional work among the architect’s creations as it has succeeded in blending the interior of a more geometrical National Romantic design with the more classical and monumental exterior. In World War II, the church burned, and its restoration under the conditions of the Soviet regime was difficult and time-consuming. The church was finally completed in 2015. The Art Nouveau style St. Paul’s Church is Estonia’s first new style and only Art Nouveau style sacral building, which is why it is a unique architectural monument across the entire Baltic Sea region and a fascinating tourist attraction.



St. Paul's Church, Are Tralla




You will find Estonia’s oldest theatre as well as the only three genre theatre in the Baltics, Vanemuine Theatre, in Tartu. The theatre has three different buildings – the Grand Building of Vanemuine Theatre, the historical Art Nouveau style Small Building of Vanemuine Theatre, which was the first proper theatre building in the city, and the black-box type Harbour Theatre, a multifunctional theatre and concert facility, on the bank of the Emajõgi River. At Vanemuine, you will find all possible genres of the performing arts – from operas to classical dramas, from musicals to children’s plays, from modern ballet to symphony concerts. There are about fifty different productions in a variety of genres in the current repertoire. The theater season is from September to May, but considering the various summer projects, it can be said that the theater is open all year round. The Tartu New Theatre operates since 2011 in a medieval building which housed the Holy Spirit Church in the middle of the 13th century. Today, you can see productions of various genres and with different actors because anyone with a wild idea can make it happen there. The new theatre centre takes performing theatre in Tartu to a new level, which is definitely a worthwhile experience. Karlova Theatre is another small theatre that is nestled in a former house of worship – the present theater building was constructed according to the design of the legendary Arnold Matteus in the year 1931 as a prayer house for the Tartu Kolgata Baptist Congregation. In this building, inaugurated as a theatre house in 2014, you can enjoy verbal as well as musical productions, concerts and even exhibitions of Estonian artists.



Estonian oldest theatre Vanemuine,, Heikki Leis




Within the city, there are a number of manor houses that ooze history and culture, being noteworthy for both their architecture as well as history. Tähtvere Manor, currently lying within the city limits, used to be a part of Nõo Parish. In the Middle Ages, the manor belonged to the bishop of Tartu, and after the Second World War, the Estonian Institute of Animal Husbandry and Veterinary Medicine was located in the main building. Nowadays, the manor has become one of the academic buildings of the Estonian University of Life Sciences, therefore the building can be viewed and its architecture admired only from the outside. Karlova Manor was founded in the year 1793 when it was separated from Tähtvere Manor. In 1828, the manor came under the ownership of Thaddeus von Bulgarin who had the building expanded to twice its original size, and it became the centre of the local Russian cultural life of the time. The manor was special due to its abundant collection of art, books and rarities as well as the largest collection of maps in the entire Russian Empire. At the moment, the interior of the manor is partially renovated, and guided tours take place with tour guide Elina Aro when booked in advance. Ropka's single-storey stone manor house was built in the first half of the 19th century. The buildings of Ropka Manor lie on either side of Ropka Road, the structures still remaining of the complex are the farmhand’s house, cattle barn, converted stables that belong to AS Eviko, granary, cellar and the manor park. There are three ponds in the park, and there are plans to restore one of these. The building is privately owned and can only be viewed from the outside. On the border of Tartu city and Tartu Parish stands Raadi Manor, the glory days of which can be considered to fall into the first part of the 19th century when the owners associated closely with renowned musicians and people from the art circle. The manor stood out among others due to its rich collection of art, its library, and its salon evenings. The manor's water tower, ice cellar and the restored enclosure wall as well as the natural Raadi Lake in the centre of the manor complex and the restored manor park – all are open to visitors.



  • Wooden Neighbourhoods


Formed in the middle of the 18th century, Tartu’s historical neighbourhood Supilinn (Soup Town) is a one-of-a-kind place, a former slum and suburb. The local unique wooden houses in a variety of colours, green gardens, the Emajõgi River and the frog pond all create a place where the city meets the country, constituting to the identity and a sense of community characteristic of the residents of Supilinn. All this is enriched by the village swing, the legendary Herne (Pea) Shop, the bakery Saiasahwer (Bread Pantry), unique street art, and the annual spring-time neighbourhood days. The wooden houses on Lutsu, Jaani and Lai Street are Tartu's oldest wooden houses that were built in the 18th century. These are single-storey baroque-style houses with hip and half-hip roofs and early classicist floor plans, and where the mantle chimneys have remained intact as well. All the buildings remained untouched by the great fire of 1775. At the address Lutsu Street 2, in the Toy Museum’s Theatre House, a medieval heat storage hypocaust furnace still exists for the visitors to have a look at. In addition, the building also exhibits Tartu’s oldest original portal and door. Historical wooden buildings can also be found in the Karlova neighbourhood where annual Karlova Days are organised to introduce the large wooden neighbourhood during an entire week.



Karlova neighbourhood, Tiit Grihin


Last updated: 05.05.2023

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