European Capital of Culture 2024

Following the Estonian capital, Tallinn, which was European Capital of Culture in 2011, Tartu, the country’s second city, has begun its own year in the spotlight, which it shares this year with Salzkammergut in Austria and Bodø in Norway. Over 1,000 events are planned, including architecture tours, street and contemporary art exhibitions, dance and theatrical performances, light installations, music, film and culinary festivals. Tartu is also the regional capital of Southern Estonia, and with 20 municipalities within an hour of the city participating in the programme, a quarter of the country is involved.

The oldest city in the Baltic states (the first written records date from 1030), Tartu has long been considered the intellectual capital of Estonia. Tartu University, founded in 1632 and the first in the country, occupies one of Estonia’s finest neo-Classical buildings and is responsible for students making up a quarter of the population of just under 100,000. There is also a strong IT sector and scientific community (including the largest science museum in the Baltics), while Tartu is credited with publishing Estonia’s first newspapers and opening its first national theatre.


Tartu University occupies one of Estonia’s finest neo-Classical buildings.

Tartu was fought over twice during WWII, once by the advancing Germans and retreating Russians, then vice versa, when one occupation was replaced by another. The opposing armies shelled each other across the Emajogi River, which the city straddles, causing extensive destruction. As a result, not much heritage architecture remains, mainly adjacent to Town Hall Square, and the city centre is decidedly modern. On the other hand, there are many green areas where buildings once stood.


The Kissing Students statue will be the site of a mass kiss-in to be broadcast live on TV.

Landmarks include the neo-Classical Town Hall Square, a gently sloping, cobble-stoned avenue leading up to the pink Town Hall, which is fronted by the famous Kissing Students statue. Check out also St John’s Church, one of the best examples of brick Gothic architecture in northern Europe, where hundreds of elaborate terra cotta figures dating from the Middle Ages adorn the interior, with a fair few on the outside as well.


St John’s Church is one of the best examples of brick Gothic architecture in northern Europe.

A short walk from the city centre is Supilinn (Soup Town), a historic neighbourhood filled with rustic, wooden houses where the streets are named after the vegetables which were once grown there. Formerly a slum, it is becoming one of the city’s most desirable addresses.


A street in Supilinn (Soup Town)

At the foot of Town Hall Square is the Tartu Art Museum – and no, your eyes are not deceiving you. It really does lean at an angle. Inside, visitors can get a thorough overview of Estonian art from the 19th century to the present day.


Tartu Art Museum, er, leans towards Estonian art from the 19th century to the present day.

The first part of the exhibition features mainly artists who graduated from Tartu art schools during or after WWII such as Aleksander Vardi, Elmar Kits, Rudolf Sepp, Linda Kits-Mägi and Johannes Saal, while the second part represents the generation known as the “Tartu Circle”, who brought new ideas – all under the watchful eye of Soviet censors.


Aleksander Vardi (1901-1983), ‘Window in my Studio’, 1960, oil on canvas (Tartu Art Museum)

The exhibition also draws comparisons between Tartu and Tallinn artists, suggesting that the former display a ‘warmth and joyfulness’ lacking in the latters’ work. As well as the permanent exhibition on the first and second floors, a ground floor space is dedicated to special exhibitions.

Across the pedestrian Arch Bridge and on the other side of a sculpture-dotted park, Tartu City Museum is housed in a grand, late 18th century building, where the history of the city is told through an extensive collection of artefacts, including (deep breath) clothing, furniture, consumer goods, signs, flags, souvenirs, archaeological findings, photographs, newspapers, magazines, posters, maps, coins and paper money. There is also an art collection comprising graphics, painting, sculpture and applied art.


Part of an exhibition about the Estonian theatrical designer George Sander at Tartu City Museum

The museum is closed for repairs until the second half of June, when a new exhibition, Our Tartu, based on residents’ contributions highlighting what makes their communities special, promises a ‘mini-city tour in one place’.

Opened in 2016, the Estonian National Museum occupies one of Europe’s most striking museum buildings – a giant, sleek, elongated wedge which extends from the runway of the former secret Soviet airfield on which it stands. (Foreigners were banned from Tartu because of it.) At over 350 metres long, its upward sloping end seems to mimic the take-off path of one of the bombers which once flew from it.


The Estonian National Museum occupies one of Europe’s most striking museum buildings.

Named Memory Field, it is the result of a collaboration of Paris-based architects comprising Dan Dorell (History Museum in Warsaw, Science Museum in Naples, Hirosaki Museum of Contemporary Art), Lina Ghitmeh (Sara Hilden Art Museum in Tempere, Natural History Museum in Copenhagen, Museum of Revolution of Dignity in Kiev) and Tsuyoshi Tane, whose revolutionary architectural philosophy is based on the belief that sites hold deeply embedded memories.


Traditional costumes in the Estonian National Museum

Inside, the building is every bit as impressive as its exterior, with expansive flooring, gently undulating walls, multimedia screens and superbly displayed collections. Devoted to ethnography and folk art, the museum has two permanent exhibitions: Encounters traces every imaginable aspect of the history, life and traditions of Estonian culture, while Echo of the Urals follows the history of indigenous Finno-Ugric peoples. There is also a series of special exhibitions on various aspects of Estonian life.

For a selection of independent galleries and craft shops head to Aparaaditehas (“widget factory”), a former industrial complex which has been converted into a cultural centre for art exhibitions, workshops, music and theatre performances, film screenings, markets, artist studios and design shops. With a number of cafes and restaurants, it is one of the city’s most popular hangouts. Look out for resident cat Gutenberg, Tartu’s most famous feline.


Aparaaditehas

In the building of the Estonian Literary Society, previously used as a prison and interrogation centre by the Soviet secret police, you’ll find Psühhoteek (Psychotheque), a treasure trove of bootleg records produced to keep the spirit of rock ‘n’ roll alive in occupied Estonia.


Note the Soviet army badge on the doctored cover of the bootlegged Rolling Stones album ‘Sticky Fingers’ in Psühhoteek (Psychotheque).

European Capital of Culture Highlights

In her first solo show, Tartu Art Museum is presenting Kris Lemsalu’s Donatella: Spiral of Life (Mar 16-Jul 21). One of the brightest stars of Estonian contemporary art, Lemsalu, who represented Estonia at the 2019 Venice Biennale, is known for the striking costumes worn by both herself and her works, which combine materials such as porcelain, fur, wool, textiles, silicone, found objects and even sounds to create surrealistic scenes.


Kris Lemsalu, ‘Love Is A Beautiful Thing’, Photo: Kati Göttfried (Tartu Art Museum)

On the centenary of the publication of André Breton’s manifesto on the movement, Surrealism 100: Prague, Tartu and Other Stories at the Estonian National Museum (Apr 4-Sep 8) includes a retrospective of work by the country’s pre-eminent surrealist Ilmar Malin (1924-1994), a co-founder of the surrealist artists’ group Para ‘89 in Tartu, making it the unofficial centre of surrealism in Estonia.


Ilmar Malin, ‘The Tower’, 1979, oil on canvas (Estonian National Museum)

By taking an Architour (Apr 1-Oct 31) guided by local historians, visitors can learn about the collective farm architecture of the 20th century, Tartu’s hidden monumental art, the school buildings of the 20th century in Southern Estonia and the Arhitekti street area of Tartu.

Washing Machine Made of Beetroot at the Tartu City Museum (Apr 24-Dec 29) is an exhibition exploring the inventions, ingenuity, recycling and handiwork of people in the Soviet era, a time of deprivation which sparked a ‘garage culture’ of repairing and home-building and a DIY mentality which still persists in Estonia today.

Sting brings his My Songs tour to the Tartu Song Festival Grounds with a programme of his greatest hits.


Sting is bringing his My Songs tour to Tartu.

Stencibilty Goes Europe (Jun 7-Aug 1) is one of the oldest street art festivals on the continent. It also includes Europe’s largest sticker exhibition, when 100,000 decals by artists from around the world will be displayed on a bus driven around Tartu.

During the Out of Town Art Festival (Jul 24-Jan 31, 2025), the Art Route will wind out of Tartu through municipalities decorated with murals, sculptures and installations. With an eco-friendly approach, the works are designed to age with the environment.

FURTHER INFO tartu2024.ee