If you have been to Estonia before and visited its megalopolises and lively cities, then once you get to the Estonian islands, you will be surprised how different this part of the country is. Rocky steep shores, fresh sea air, wide sandy beaches, unspoiled pine forests, an abundance of plants and animals, cozy villages and tranquil harbors… Isn’t this what every urban dweller is dreaming of? In addition to beautiful nature, the Estonian islands boast the ancient history and unique natural and historical monuments, which makes them an extremely interesting tourist destination.
How many islands does Estonia have?
The total number of Estonian islands is 2355, including small islands and reefs. However, it’s only 9% of the entire territory, since most of the islands are small and deserted; they are home to birds and various species of animals.
Which Estonian islands are worth visiting?
The largest Estonian islands are inhabited since ancient times; they have a well-developed infrastructure, good ferry connection with the mainland, and a lot of tourist attractions. We’ll look at the most popular Estonian islands which are safe, comfortable and interesting for travelers.
The largest and the most visited Estonian island is Saaremaa, placed in the Baltic Sea in the west of the country. The variety of recreations and landmarks of Saaremaa will delight even the most demanding tourists.
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The biggest city of Saaremaa is Kuressaare, placed on the shore of the Gulf of Riga. This cozy city with cobbled streets, stunning City Hall and St. Nicholas church, ancient fortifications and historical buildings is also a popular spa-resort, famous for its favorable climate and medicinal mud.
The main attraction of the city is Kuressaare Castle, built in the 14th century and considered as one of the best-preserved medieval buildings in Estonia.
Thousands of tourists visit Saaremaa for its unique Kaali Meteorite Crater Field, which resulted from a meteorite crashing 3.5 thousand years ago. There are eight impact craters; the largest one is 110 meters in diameter, 22 meters deep and filled with water. In ancient times, this place was full of myths and legends.
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It’s also worth to visit beautiful and tranquil Angla Windmill Park. Tourists can not only get acquainted with the different types of windmills but also come inside and see it up close.
Saaremaa island is a great place for nature lovers and active leisure enthusiasts. The large territory of the island is covered with forests; there are a lot of hiking and bicycle trails, birdwatching towers, beautiful parks. Viidumae ecological reserve placed in the highest part of Saaremaa and has a great variety of flora and fauna. It’s an excellent place for hiking, picnic or a pleasant stroll. Another way to enjoy picturesque Estonian nature is to take a walk on the Harilaiu hiking trail or Koigi Bog trail.
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Saaremaa has a good ferry service with the Estonian mainland and even a domestic airport that handles flights from Tallinn. So, you can get to the island by bus or by plane from Tallinn, and by ferry from Virtsu.
Hiiumaa is the second largest Estonian island and the northern one; it’s less inhabited than Saaremaa and famous mainly for its unique lighthouses and beautiful natural environment.
Placed far from the bustling cities, Hiiumaa boasts rich and unspoiled nature that is highly regarded by tourists. The only city of the island is Kardla which has a lot of restaurants, hotels, shops and even a domestic airport that serves flights between Kardla and Tallinn. More than half of the island is covered with coniferous forest; the coastline is wide and beautiful, with tranquil sandy beaches. The island is a popular place for active leisure and family vacation.
The most recognizable symbol of Hiiumaa is Kõpu Lighthouse which history goes back over five hundred years. It is considered as the oldest operating lighthouse of the Baltic Sea and one of the oldest lighthouses in the world.
Another must-see attraction of the island is Tahkuna Lighthouse, which is the tallest one in Estonia. It was built in the 19th century and its height is 42.6 meters.
Ristna Lighthouse was constructed in the 1874 year in order to warn sailors of drifting ice. Visitors can climb up all these lighthouses and enjoy breathtaking views of Hiiumaa island and the Baltic Sea.
Tourists can get to Hiiumaa by ferry from the mainland or by bus from Tallinn. In winter the island can be reached from the mainland by the longest in Europe ice road.
Saaremaa is connected to Muhu island by a causeway, so these islands can be visited during one tour. Muhu has a regular ferry connection with the mainland. It is the third-largest island in Estonia and famous for its unspoiled nature and picturesque villages.
The main historical attraction of Muhu is the Gothic St. Catherine’s Church, built in the 13th century and considered as one of the oldest churches in Estonia. Its distinctive medieval shape, high ceilings, frescos of the 14th century, ancient headstones and the altar make an unforgettable impression.
A visit to an open-air Muhu Village Museum of Koguva is the best way to get acquainted with the history of the island and its ancient traditions. The museum depicts the everyday life of Muhu peasants and preserved a lot of ancient buildings, tools, household items. It’s placed in a scenic location, in the heart of beautiful Estonian nature, which makes it a popular destination for pleasant strolls and outdoor activities.
One more beautiful place, highly beloved by tourists and especially kids, is Muhu Jaanalind – an ostrich farm and a park, where tourists can see ostriches, kangaroos, zebras, and other exotic animals. Visitors can also feed some animals, visit café or buy some souvenirs.
Between Hiiumaa and Estonian mainland located one more beautiful island – Vormsi. Visiting Vormsi is like traveling back in time, back to small cozy villages and peaceful tranquil nature. Scenic coastline, pine forest, and fresh sea air make Vormsi a popular destination for hiking, bike tours, and family vacation. Tourists will find here some beautiful restaurants and unique landmarks. The total area of the island is 93 square kilometers, with a population of about 400 people. The route from the mainland to the island will take about 45 minutes by ferry. In winter the island can be reached by ice road.
The island has been inhabited since the 13th century. The main historical sights of the island are St. Olav’s church that was built in the 14th century, and a unique cemetery of the 13th century, which consists of more than 300 ancient Celtic crosses.
One more interesting tourist attraction of the island is the Vormsi Farm Museum, dedicated to the life of Vormsi inhabitants. The museum placed in a restored farm complex that was built by Baltic Swedes and depicts the everyday life of local peasants.
A tiny island Naissaar, which is placed only 10 kilometers far from Tallinn, is a great one-day trip destination and a popular place among tourists who are interested in soviet military history.
Naissaar is only 4 kilometers wide and 8 kilometers long; its territory is mainly covered with coniferous forest. However, the island had a significant defensive role due to its closeness to the Estonian capital.
The name “Naissaar” means “island of women” and first it was mentioned in the historical chronicle of the 11th century. The oldest stone fortifications were built in the 18th century and some of them are still preserved till nowadays.
At the beginning of the 20th century the population of the island was more than 400 people, but after the Soviet occupation, almost all inhabitants fled the island and the territory was turned into a closed military zone. The island was opened for tourists in the 1990s. Nowadays it’s a nature reserve; only 10 people live here on a constant basis.
On Naissaar was established the museum which depicts the history of the island and the period of Soviet rule. The museum collection includes a lot of soviet armor fragments, vehicles, and deactivated sea mines.
One more popular tourist attraction of the island is a narrow-gauge railway that was built in the 1912 year and runs throughout the island.
Estonian island Kihnu, which total area is about16 square kilometers, is known far beyond the country’s borders. There are only 700 inhabitants and 4 villages, but unique handicrafts, distinctive music, songs and language, well-preserved ancient traditions attract to this small island thousands of tourists from all over the world.
During the visit to the island, you’ll see women in national costumes, hear folk music, and will not be able to resist local delicious cuisine. Islanders even have their own dialect that is studied at the school.
Kihnu is often referred as the “Isle of women”. It happened since traditionally fishing was the main occupation of Kihnu’s men, so they left their families for quite a long time and the households were headed by women. Consequently, women also had had a leading role in maintaining the island’s customs and traditions. For islanders, it was usually important to keep their ancient traditions alive since the country often suffered from foreign invasion. Kihnu has become a popular tourist destination not so long ago.
In 2003, Kihnu culture was proclaimed as the UNESCO Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity.
The island has several historical landmarks, such as Kihnu Lighthouse, which was built in 1864, St. Nicolas church of the 18th century, and a fascinating local museum.
The island has a ferry connection with Parnu, which is the closest mainland city, and with Tallinn. At Kihnu harbor market tourists can buy local food, souvenirs, and crafts. Islanders regularly held different kinds of folk festivals and art fairs which promote local traditions.
Väike Pakri and Suur Pakri
If you decide to visit Väike Pakri and Suur Pakri, you will not find here luxury hotels, gourmet restaurants, and souvenir shops. The islands can offer you only scenic harbors, peaceful nature, and abandoned military buildings. It’s a great destination for a short trip and active leisure. There are no shops on the islands so it’s necessary to take some food and drinking water.
The islands are placed about 3 kilometers from the mainland; the only way to get to the islands is to rent a motorboat. Tourists can visit the islands on their own or book a tour.
Since the 14th century, the islands had been inhabited by Baltic Swedes; in the middle of the 20th century, all inhabitants were forced to leave the islands and they became a military zone.
Nowadays Suur Parki is uninhabited, on the Väike Parki live 6 people. Tourists can explore abandoned villages and soviet military buildings, small chapels and remains of the Soviet occupation.
Ruhnu is one of the most remote Estonian islands which is not easy to reach, but once you get there, you won’t be disappointed. Placed in the Gulf of Riga, this welcoming island with a total area of 12 km² charms tourists with the first sight.
The main landmarks of the island are St. Madeline’s Church and Ruhnu Lighthouse.
St. Madeline’s Church was built in the 17th century and considered as the oldest wooden church in Estonia. The most interesting fact about Ruhnu Lighthouse is that it was designed by famous Gustav Eiffel.
Since the 1st of May and till October Ruhnu has ferry connection with the city of Parnu and Saaremaa island. There are also regular flights between Ruhnu and Parnu, which is the only way to reach the island in winter.
This authentic island placed not far from the mainland but far from bustling cities and vibrant life which makes Prangli one of the most popular weekend destinations. The island has quite a good touristic infrastructure and, at the same time, it boasts beautiful tranquil nature and a unique source of natural gas. There are three villages; about 80 residents permanently live on the island. There is a school, a shop, a library, and even a small café.
The main tourist attractions of the island are the local museum dedicated to the history of Prangli since ancient times till nowadays, and stunning St. Lavrentiy Church, built at the beginning of the 13th century. The easiest way to reach Prangli is to take a ferry from Leppneeme port.
Aegna is only one island that administratively belongs to Tallinn. This tiny island is located 14 kilometers far from the mainland, it has a total area of 3 km² and only 12 permanent residents. Closeness to the capital, sandy beaches, scenic coastline, and long walking routes make Aegna one of the most charming Estonian islands and a popular destination for short trips and family vacations.
The island has a unique collection of large boulders, placed among pine trees. It’s also worth to visit the famous stone labyrinth and discover the military history of the island.
Vilsandi is known due to the oldest Baltic national park that was established on the island at the beginning of the 20th century. Nowadays the park includes also a part of Saaremaa and a great number of small surrounding islands. The main attraction of Vilsandi is its beautiful nature, variety of animals and plants. It’s also a great location for birdwatching since Vilsandi is a ground of breeding and nesting of migration birds.
The island could be reached by boat or on foot from Saaremaa. It covers an area of 9 km² and is inhabited by 6 people.
The main historical attraction of Vilsandi is a lighthouse, which was built in the 1809 year. Tourists will also find here former military infrastructure since during the Soviet rule the island was s closed military zone.
Piirissaar is one of the most distinctive Estonian islands, close to the mainland but not overcrowded with tourists. Placed in Lake Peipus, the whole island is a nature preserve with a wide variety of flora, fauna, and birdlife.
Since the 18th century, the island is inhabited by Russian Orthodox Old Believers who are used to live isolated and keep their traditions and believes almost unchanged. The main occupations of the islanders are fishing and vegetable farming. The main attraction of the island is the museum dedicated to the history of the island and its inhabitants. There is no infrastructure and hotels but it’s possible to stay at a guesthouse and to find out more about local history and everyday life. The island can be reached by ferry from Tartu.
As we can see, each island has its distinctive features and unique sights. A visit to the Estonian islands is an excellent way to get acquainted with the history, culture and ancient traditions of the country, as well as to enjoy its unique and beautiful nature.