Travel photography: Estonia 2014 - Part 1

November 2, 2014


May 2014 was a very special month for me. For the first time in my life I traveled abroad specifically for the purpose of pursuing nature and wildlife photography. After doing a lot of research on the web to find a destination to my liking I more or less stumbled upon the Baltics – a region that is for the most part not yet a particularly popular tourist destination.

May is somehow also a very special month for Estonia. Thousands of geese, ducks, divers and waders are headed to their arctic Siberian breeding grounds during the Arctic Migration. Combined with the huge amount of domestic birds, Estonia is probably one of the best birding regions in Europe. Additionally, some rare wild animals can be seen (if you're lucky, of course) such as bear, wolves, lynx or elk.

About half of the country is covered by forests and the nearly 4000km of coastline, about 1400 lakes and 1500 islands create seemingly endless possibilities for landscape photographers. Apart from these natural assets the Baltics also have a very rich cultural heritage.

Due to the length of this post I split it up into two parts, where the first part deals primarily with urban photography, sightseeing and cityscapes. The second part focuses more on nature and wildlife photography.

From Riga via Tartu to Tallinn

My tour started by arriving by plane in Riga where I rented a car to get to Tartu, Tallinn and the island of Saaremaa and back to Riga.

[Special thanks to for letting me use this map of Estonia for free!]


Riga, the capital of Latvia, is with roughly 700,000 inhabitants the largest city of the Baltic states. The city is especially famous for its Art Nouveau style buildings and the very well preserved old town. As it happens, in 2014 Riga is also the European Capital of Culture so I had the opportunity to see some special exhibitions, concerts and festivals.

View of Riga from the tower of St. Peter's Church.
The Freedom Monument was erected in 1931-35 as a memorial for the fallen soldiers of the Latvian War of Independence. By apparently "reinterpreting" its symbolism the Latvians were able to save it from being dismantled by the Soviets during Latvia's involuntary membership in the USSR.

The house of the Blackheads is one of the most renowned sights in Riga. Originally built in the 14th century, the structure was bombed to a ruin by the Germans during the conquest of Riga and the remains were demolished by the Soviets in 1948.
The current version was built between 1995 and 1999 for the 800 year anniversary of the city. Unfortunately at the time of good evening light most of the building was covered in shadows from the opposing structures. I tried to exclude the shadowy parts as much as possible which results in the unusual composition.

The radio and TV tower with the railway bridge crossing the Daugava in front.
The sunset over the Daugava. The bridge on the right is the Vanšu Bridge (formerly Gorky Bridge) that was built during the soviet rule. The seagull flying towards the sun is not a coincidence. I noticed some seagulls gliding around and waited several minutes for the right moment.
Unfinished buildings across the Daugava.
The Central Market was built at the beginning of the 20th century by reusing the basic framework of old German Zeppelin hangars. It is nowadays the largest market in Europe. The last light of the setting sun reflects in the windows and results in a nice color contrast to the cool surrounding.

This view shows the Central Market as seen from the Akmens Bridge with the Latvian Academy of Sciences in the background. The Academy of Sciences is a prime example of Stalinist architecture that was financed mostly by “voluntary donations" from the rural population.
The two structures are actually several hundred meters apart but the telephoto focal length results in a very compressed view.

Although an urban setting is usually not a very favorable place for wildlife photography, I once saw a family of beavers directly in the Bastion Hill park in the city center. Unfortunately it was already too dark to get usable shots but the experience of encountering wild animals in the biggest city of the Baltics was exciting nevertheless. For now I hope you will be content with my promise that real wildlife images will follow further down this article series, and these pictures of sparrows in flight (also taken at Bastion Hill).

Sparrows are used to getting fed by park visitors and are therefore rather tame. Due to their fast and erratic movements they are an especially good target for practicing action photography.

After some uncomfortably cold days in Latvia's capital I continued my journey to the north and crossed the Latvian/Estonian border at Valga. A great thing about the Baltics is that the physical size of the countries is rather small, which enabled us to get from Riga to our next destination Tartu in a convenient three hour drive. Despite the small distance, the change in customs and the appearances of towns and cities changes rather noticeably. While Latvia is a truly Baltic country with many cultural ties to Lithuania, Estonians see themselves as northerners – more closely related to the Scandinavian countries. While Latvian and Lithuanian are the only two surviving Baltic languages, Estonian has many resemblances to Finnish.

On my way through the mainland, pairs of White Storks that are looking for worms in the wet grasslands were a common sight.
Not as common and therefore even more exciting is an encounter with an Eurasian Crane.


Tartu is often referred to as the intellectual center of Estonia due to its famous University (founded in 1632). Notable sights are the town hall, St. John's Church, the botanical gardens and especially Toome Hill including its historical buildings.

The Town hall square in the city center leads from the Town Hall to the river Emajõgi where the historical stone bridge used to be (unfortunately destroyed in WW2).
The Tartu Town hall once housed the city archives and a prison in the cellars. In the foreground you can see the renowned fountain "The kissing Students" which is meant to be a symbol for the youthful character of the city.
The long exposure time (30 sec.) was realized by using a 1000x ND filter.
The nearly 400-year-old university of Tartu is one of the oldest universities in Northern Europe.
On top of Toome Hill, the ruins of Tartu Cathedral make for a particularly atmospheric location, especially at dusk. The addition of the waxing moon under the Gothic arch produced one of my favorite moments during the trip.
The just recently completed Vabaduse Bridge is the second largest crossing of the Emajõgi in Tartu and already one of the landmarks of the town. The lights in the ark constantly change color and it's not easy to get the desired hue during a long exposure.
This pedestrian crossing replaced the stone bridge (which was the first of its kind in the Baltic States) that was destroyed in WW2. As you can see there was some kind of festival going on that day.
Swamp in the vicinity of the Emajõgi.
A flock of geese can consist of several thousand single individuals. Having such a huge amount of birds passing overhead is a truly exhilarating encounter.

Lake Endla

About halfway between Tartu and Tallinn a very special landscape that is quite different from its surroundings can be found – the Endla Basin. The lake that marks the center of the basin is known to be one of Estonia's most diverse birding locations. Although a wide range of species, including the white-tailed and the golden eagle, can be observed, getting close enough for pleasing images is a big problem. Unfortunately I was just passing through and did not have enough time to find a good spot and wait for some wildlife to pass by, so my rate of yield was not as good as I would have liked it to be.

The view from the 15 meters high observation tower at the eastern shore of the lake is truly remarkable and well worth a visit. Seemingly endless pine woods surround the lake and are bordered by a unique bog system to the east.
This white wagtail is a typical inhabitant of the region during summertime.
Greater white-fronted geese can be found at the lake in vast numbers.
A hike on the wooden boardwalk that leads through the Männikjärve bog is an unforgettable experience.


Tallinn (formerly known by its German name Reval), the capital of Estonia, lies at the Gulf of Finland, about 80 km south of Helsinki. With roughly 400,000 inhabitants it is home to about one third of Estonia's population. The city has never been razed by enemy forces and also withstood heavy bombardment by the Soviets in WW2 without major destruction of its medieval core. Therefore wandering through the alleyways of Tallinn's exceptionally well preserved old town evokes a feeling of entering a different era.

The lower town as seen from Toompea Hill with the nearly completely preserved city walls and defense towers create particularly picturesque scenery. St. Olaf's Church in the center of the frame was the tallest building in the world for 76 years.
The Town Hall marks the center of the lower town and the figure of Old Thomas on top of the spire is one of the symbols of the city.
One of the most famous landmarks of Tallinn is the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral. Finished in 1900, the Russian style orthodox cathedral was a symbol for the 19th century Russification and therefore disliked by most of the Estonian population. It's funny that the only reason that visiting the structure today is still possible is because the planned demolition in 1924 was only prevented by a lack of funds. The cathedral with the same name and a similar historical background in Warsaw was not so lucky though...
Nowadays tourists have a huge variety of alternatives in choosing where to stay during their trip to Tallinn, but back in Soviet times Hotel Viru was the only option. The hotel consisted of 22 floors plus an officially non-existent 23rd floor which was occupied completely by the KGB. That was the place where the audio and video signals from the rooms were collected so the secret service could conveniently spy on the guests and forward the data to Moscow. There were even microphones in the ashtrays and plates of the restaurant. If the Soviets ever received valuable intelligence via this operation is questionable since everyone who stayed in the hotel knew very well that they were spied upon. The command center with its extensive espionage equipment remains essentially unchanged (though hopefully no longer functional) and is now a museum.
Being the first high-rise building in the country, Hotel Viru still offers a marvelous view on the city. This image was taken at the "uppermost" 22nd floor at sunset.
With its cobbled streets and tight alleyways the city offers a very unique atmosphere.

Within the city borders, three peninsulas that are a natural habitat to a variety of shorebirds can be found. Unfortunately the weather conditions were not in my favor during my visit, but at least I managed to get some shots of terns and cormorants in flight.

A male arctic tern delivers a freshly caught fish to its partner – a typical mating habit for this species. These long-lived birds (up to 30 years) have the longest annual migration routes of all migratory animals by far. During their trip from the northern breeding grounds (usually around the Arctic Circle) down to Antarctica and back, they cover distances of up to 90,000 km per year.
Closely related to the arctic tern are these common terns. They are distinguishable by their longer legs and two colored beak. I'm not sure what she is trying to say here, but I imagine she's demanding her own gift of fish.
This little island in the gulf of Tallinn is a welcome resting place for a flock of great cormorants.

My visit of Tallinn also concluded my stay at the Estonian mainland. After a short drive to Virtsu I boarded the ferry to the island of Saaremaa.

If you'd like to know how my journey continued please click here for part 2.

Thanks for reading!

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