© Piret Hanson

What is the food culture like in Tartu, the European Capital of Culture?

Falstaff's cheat sheet on where to stay and eat in Tartu, European Capital of Culture 2024.

Tartu, the 2024 European Capital of Culture, is peaceful to live in. It is the second largest city in Estonia. It has just under 100,000 inhabitants. You can fly to Tartu via Helsinki. Alternatively, you can fly to Tallinn or Riga and take a bus to Tartu.

While the logistics of getting to Tartu may seem complicated and time consuming, once you're in the city, those concerns vanish. The city centre is so small and compact that everything is not a short walk away, but just a few steps.

© Lauri Laan

For those looking for a more luxurious stay, there are two hotels in Tartu. Hotel Lydia with modern architecture and Hotel Antonius with historical architecture. For those interested in art, the Art Hotel Pallas is the best choice. If you want to relax during your trip, book a room at the V Spa Hotel. For backpackers, the design hostel Hektor is the place to be. Hotel Sophia is the only hotel in Lõunakeskus that is further away from the city centre. However, guests can enjoy some of the best shopping and entertainment in southern Estonia without leaving the hotel. As a bonus, the hotel's restaurant, Fii, is one of the best in Tartu.

For a small city, Tartu offers a surprisingly wide range of accommodation. And the prices are reasonable. The same can be said of Tartu's restaurants, and you don't even have to leave your hotel to enjoy some of the best food in the city. The best restaurant in Tartu, Hõlm (88 Falstaff points), is located in the Lydia Hotel. The Joyce restaurant at the V Spa Hotel has 84 Falstaff points, and the Antonius Hotel restaurant has 83 points.

Tartu's eating and drinking establishments are largely concentrated in the city's central square, Raekoja Square, the intersecting Rüütli Street, or in the immediate vicinity of both. Walking around the centre of Tartu, it is easy to see that the Italian food culture is alive and well here. Restaurant Pompei (85 Falstaff Point) combines Italian cuisine with local ingredients and Tartu atmosphere.

In the basement of a building on the corner of Town Hall Square is a bar called BMW. No, the name is not borrowed from a famous car brand. It stands for blood, milk and water, the three most important liquids for human life. This recently opened bar is the latest innovation in Tartu hospitality. It claims to be one of the best bars not only in Estonia or Scandinavia, but in the world.

Other places of interest for visitors in Tartu interested in food culture are the Aparaaditehdas. It is similar to Telliskivi in Tallinn, Teurastamo in Helsinki or the Meatpacking District in Copenhagen. In Tartu's market building, with its interesting architecture, you can have a look at and buy local food products.

Southern Estonia is the food storage of Estonia. Products grown here are on the menu in every Estonian home. Tartu and its surroundings are the European Capital of Culture. Don't forget this when you are in Tartu and take a trip to the countryside.

Otepää is only half an hour's drive away. And there are more good places to eat here than you might expect to find. The Vidrike Village House confirms once again the Estonians' love of Italian cuisine, and it's hard to say which has a more authentic Italian vibe, here or in Pompei. Meanwhile, Tammuri Farm Restaurant offers local food from its own garden, pond and forest.

Driving around Otepää, you may have come across the Estonian Wine Route. Yes, it is there, but without any signs. It links Estonian wineries where you can taste and buy cider, berry wines, distillates and, increasingly, grape wines. A visit to Murimäe Winery is sure to leave an impression.

Time tends to run out here. If you can extend your trip, it's worth checking if there are rooms available at Ugandi Hotel. A newly renovated boutique hotel, it offers top-notch comfort and the personality of a small, family-run establishment. The best way to make the most of your extra time is to dine at the Three Sisters Restaurant, a 45-minute drive away. This small country restaurant (90 Falstaff points) is currently the best place to eat in southern Estonia. Here you will get the most authentic taste of rural Estonia.

© Piret Hanson

When is the best time to visit Tartu? If eating and drinking good is important, then definitely in August. The Tartu Food and Wine Festival takes place on August 9th and 10th. There are also several special events. Chefs from Finland, Mexico and Estonia will cook a dinner in the market. The arched bridge over the Emajõgi River will be transformed into a bubble bridge. TABU, a pop-up restaurant, will be set up in the ruins of Toomkirik. The full programme of events for the year can be found at https://tartu2024.ee/en/.

The small city of Tartu, with its nearby surroundings, offers an unexpectedly high level of hospitality and a wide variety of restaurants. Time for cultural events tends to be short. If you're planning a visit to Tartu, European Capital of Culture 2024, make sure you have plenty of time. The time will pass more quickly than you think.


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Aivar Hanson
Aivar Hanson
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