Tartu has been a valued cultural city through the 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 and various museums.
Reflecting our cultural history, the Estonian National Museum (ENM), founded already in 1909, is undoubtedly the most spectacular pearl on Tartu’s museum landscape, which as a national museum is an interpreter of Estonianness, a carrier of fundamental values and a keeper of continuity. In October of 2016, the ENM was re-opened in a new building, surprising visitors with its unique architectural solution, on the grounds of the former Raadi Manor and on the former Soviet-era airfield. The total exhibition area of 6000 m² is furnished by the 4000 m² permanent exhibition of Estonia’s cultural history Encounters and the 1100 m² permanent exhibition dedicated to the Finno-Ugric peoples Echo of the Urals. In the Temporary Exhibitions Hall (900 m²), the exhibitions change on average once a year. In the participation hall “Create your own exhibition”, exhibitions can be put together and showcased by individuals, community associations and organisations who are not involved in museum work or curating exhibitions on a daily basis. Starting from 2018, three exhibitions will be opened in the participation hall per year.
The goal of the ENM is to reflect everyday life, culture as a way and style of living, taking into account its periodical, spatial and social diversity. The museum focuses on Estonian culture with the addition of other Finno-Ugric, especially the closest Baltic Sea Finnic peoples. Besides the exhibitions, the museum building has several other functions as well – theatre, movie, and art programmes take place here all year round, likewise, conferences and seminars, workshops and training courses are organised. The ENM is also a high-level research institution, a hotbed for young ethnologists and cultural researchers – a library with numerous materials is central for studies. To make visiting the museum even more enjoyable, there is also a restaurant and a café on site for the visitors, and a museum shop with a wide selection of various souvenirs.
However, the Estonian National Museum is by no means the only cultural carrier in Tartu. Among more than 20 museums, you can find an art, sports as well a beer museum and even a historical lock-up – we have museums for everyone’s taste!
With their rich collections, the museums of the University of Tartu are places that present great joy of discovery with plenty of exciting things to explore for both grown-ups and children. The University of Tartu Museum, located in the historical cathedral, introduces the history of science and university education from the 17th century to the present day – here, the rich historical heritage of the university can be discovered, and stories about science, art, astronomy, medicine and student life can be explored. From May to October, the towers of the cathedral are also open, from where a beautiful view of the city unfolds. The main building of the University of Tartu is home to the University of Tartu Art Museum, which is the only place in Estonia where antique art can be seen, and the main building’s special rooms accessed – the assembly hall with a classicist interior and the historical student lock-up located in the attic. The Old Observatory is nowadays a modern museum and a centre for school astronomy, where much exciting knowledge can be obtained about astronomy and the history of space research. Historically, the Old Observatory has been a pearl of Estonian science history and one of the world’s most important astronomical centres. The oldest museum in Estonia, originated in the year 1802, the University of Tartu Natural History Museum holds the collections of zoology, geology, botany and mycology. The University of Tartu Botanical Garden, which is the oldest continuously operating botanical garden in the Baltics, offers an educational and enjoyable trip into the world of plants. The garden is located in the beautiful park area beside the Emajõgi River and designed on the ruins of the medieval city wall of Tartu. Over 8,000 species and varieties of the world's plant kingdom are found in the garden and the greenhouse.
An archeological collection reflecting Tartu’s older time, and a photo collection reflecting the spatial development of the city form a large part of the Tartu City Museum’s collection. The permanent exhibition Dorpat. Yuryev. Tartu introduces the versatile history of Tartu. Varied temporary exhibitions complement the permanent exhibition.
The City Museum has four branches: The 19th Century Tartu Citizen's Home Museum introduces a citizen’s house of the 1830s with Biedermeier style interior; 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; and the Tartu Song Festival Museum presents the tradition of Estonian song festivals and Tartu’s role in its formation.
In the Printing and Paper Museum, it is possible to see the process of making paper as well as various printing presses, auxiliary equipment related to books and printed matter, and the largest collection of type pieces in Estonia. Take part in any of the workshops offered to make the visiting experience even more eventful.
The Tartu Art Museum (Tartmus) is the largest art museum in Southern Estonia. It was established in the year 1940 under the leadership of the members of the art society Pallas. Tartmus collects and introduces modern Estonian art but has also always remained true to its Palladian roots.
In the Tartu Toy Museum and Theatre House, located in the heart of the city, every grown-up will re-discover their childhood and each child will have a wonderful experience. The permanent exhibition showcase toys with which children around here have played with throughout the ages, you will see artist-made dolls, souvenir dolls from different nations and traditional Finno-Ugric toys. In the courtyard house, unique Estonian puppet film puppets are displayed for viewing, and temporary exhibitions are organised.
The largest sports museum in the Baltics is also found in Tartu. The Estonian Sports and Olympic Museum is an attractive interactive museum where all sports enthusiasts have the opportunity to have a hands-on experience and feel like a winner. On the second floor of the museum, those interested in the history of sports will find a permanent exhibition where it is possible to explore Estonian sports history through the centuries.
Tartu is the birth place of the Estonian beer industry. The exhibition of the local A. Le Coq Beer Museum tells the history of beer in the world and in Estonia. You can explore beer equipment, caps, bottles, tankards and barrels as well as the beer drinking habits of students.
A few kilometres south of Tartu, the Estonian Agricultural Museum, operating in the historical Ülenurme manor, introduces the rural culture, agricultural traditions and techniques of Estonians. Many animals live here – ponies, horses, rabbits, goats, sheep and quails. In the museum, you can take part in workshops and enjoy entertaining events for the whole family. If booked in advance, it is also possible to ride the pony on the museum courtyard.
The Estonian Aviation Museum has been active since 2002, having started as a private collection. There are more than 400 high quality models of planes, helicopters and missiles in the model collection. Different attractions offer pleasant emotions and opportunities for exploration to the whole family.
In the Hellenurme Watermill, located 35 km from Tartu, you can imagine yourself going back in time to the era of your predecessors. On the four floors of the mill, which is still powered by water, you can see, touch, feel, taste how and what is made out of a grain. The machinery mostly dates back to the 1930s, the time of the current mill-lady’s great-grandfather. The process of grains being made into flour and semolina can be observed from start to finish. To both grown-ups and children, the mill-lady talks about the way of life in the old times, and offers traditional rye bread and something to drink in the breadroom.
But, there are many more impressive places in the area. There are beautiful churches, different galleries, picturesque views of nature, unique neighbourhoods, regions with fascinating history and many more places that all convey the stories of Estonia and Tartu in one way or another. In addition, new as well as traditional events take place all year round, offering experiences for both locals and our visitors. You can keep up to date with the varied events in this area through the website www.kultuuriaken.tartu.ee.