Estonia to E-stonia: One foot in historic past, one step into the digital future

Estonia is an underrated jewel in Northern Europe. The country has Russia and Latvia as its neighbors to the east and south, respectively, while the Gulf of Finland and the Baltic Sea flank its north and west coasts. Estonia is so accessible; you can fly, sail, ride, or drive into the country from anywhere in Europe. Little wonder that influences from its European neighbors throughout the years are evident in the country’s historical and cultural hotspots.

And nowhere is this more apparent than in its capital, Tallinn. It remains to be the best preserved medieval city in Northern Europe; its old city center was designated a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1997.

Throughout much of its history, Estonia has been dominated by foreign powers. But after declaring independence in 1991, Estonia surged ahead and made great strides in moving into the digital future, making it one of the most wired and technologically advanced societies in the world today.

So how did this ancient nation turn into one of the most advanced in the world?

Welcome to Estonia

Estonia had been influenced by a mix of neighboring cultures — from Sweden to Russia — for centuries. More than two-thirds of the residents are bilingual; aside from Estonian, they also speak Russian, Finnish, German, and English.

Estonia’s total land area is larger than Holland and Denmark, and its forest area is, remarkably, 50%. And with a population of 1.3 million, similar to Canada’s Calgary, Estonia is one of the least densely populated European countries.

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If you wish to see the natural beauty and historical wonders of Estonia, here are some of the places you must visit.

  1. Soomaa National Park – Unlike most parks where you can take a walk or hike, Soomaa is actually a peat bog resulting from a melted glacier thousands of years ago. Several beautiful rivers cut through the park, and the best way to travel around and experience it is on a canoe.
  2. Rakvere Castle – History comes alive in this castle that’s now a medieval theme park where visitors can experience 16th century daily life. Roam around the fort dressed up as a knight or warrior, and make sure to check out the wine cellar, a torture chamber, a medieval brothel, and an alchemist’s shop. Then dine on medieval recipes in the tavern.
  3. Hiiumaa Island and its lighthouses – Hiiumaa is one of Estonia’s bigger islands located in the Baltic Sea. A quiet destination for hikers as well as surfers and sailors, Hiiumaa is also home to numerous lighthouses. The tallest in Estonia is the Tahkuna Lighthouse, standing 42.7 metres above sea level at the north end of Hiiumaa. The oldest is Kõpu Lighthouse, which dates back to the 15th century. While Kõpu stands only 36 metres tall from the ground, it was built at the highest point on the island, at 67 metres above sea level. That means its light shines out at 102.6 metres above sea level — it shines higher than Tahkuna!
  4. Tartu – Tartu may only be the second largest city in Estonia (Tallinn is the largest), but it is the oldest. 18th-century structures stand alongside newer, modern buildings throughout the city. Tartu is considered the country’s intellectual and creative centre; it houses the nation’s oldest and most renowned institution, the University of Tartu.
  5. Tallinn – The political and financial capital of Estonia, Tallinn is also a hub of medieval architecture, with several magnificent castles, towers, and forts located in the Old City. Part of this UNESCO Heritage site sits on top of Toompea Hill. Visit the 14th century Town Hall, marvel at the impressive Alexander Nevsky Cathedral, and wander around the bustling shops on Viru Street on this historic hill.

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Welcome to E-stonia

So how did this tiny country that’s half forest and with a sparse population transform itself into a land of digital pathfinders?

It started in 1991, after Estonia gained independence from the Soviet Union. Estonians wanted to fast-track reforms and modernise their country, and they invested heavily in technology. By 2000, every Estonian school had computers, and even seven-year-olds were taught computer coding. They also invested in free computer training for 10% of the adult population.

All those investments paid off. In 2000, only 29% of the population was using the internet, but by 2016, that figure was up to 91%. A tech-savvy people meant that the government could transform their public sector technology into the digital era. Here’s a timeline of the country’s digital transformation:

  • 1997: The government launched e-Governance. 99% of public services were made available as e-services, cutting through bureaucracy and document handling for a hassle-free experience.
  • 2000: By introducing e-Tax, the government made setting up and running a business convenient. This is why paying your taxes in Estonia can be done in 3–5 minutes.
  • 2002: The Estonian government launched the digital national ID card. Today, almost all citizens have a digital ID with an encrypted chip that contains their digital signature, which they use to do taxes, vote, bank online, and access their healthcare records. The digital signature saves the government 2% of its annual GDP, a huge amount for a small country.
  • 2008: [1] Because cyberattacks will always be a risk, Estonia has led the way in testing blockchain technology. By 2012, Estonia started using blockchain in their national registries. [2] With e-Health, Estonians’ health records have been made available online for faster and more efficient access, saving the country billions of euros.
  • 2014: Estonia started offering e-Residency to the world. It is a digital nation of global entrepreneurs, startups, and digital nomads who can run their business and work remotely around the world. It’s business without borders, and anyone can apply.

All these efforts made Estonia a haven for startups. Skype, the video chat service, was created in Estonia in 2003 before Microsoft acquired it in 2011 for US$ 8.5 billion. It is no surprise that the country is home to many tech unicorns, or private companies valued at over $1 billion. Estonia boasts it has the most tech unicorns per capita than any other small country in the world.

Despite having preserved a lot of their medieval structures, Estonia is surging ahead into the future. It’s a country where history is preserved and is also being made. For travellers who seek a unique experience, Estonia is certainly a trip worth taking. We’ll be visiting Tallinn in July 2020 as part of our Baltic Seafarer program – join us!

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