Estonia’s second city is home to the oldest and best-regarded university in the country, and its cultural credentials have earned it the designation of European Capital of Culture 2024. Extensively restored in the 1990s after independence, the appeal and character of its original old quarter has been revived. Here’s our pick of the best hotels in Tartu.
For design nerds, Lydia Hotel has a chalk-and-cheese exterior in the old quarter, just below the hilltop observatory, reflecting the seamless fusion of the mid-19th-century townhouse to a contemporary wing. Neat modern rooms with a muted palette of whites, creams and beige are smartened by subtly patterned carpets, wallpaper and headboards. Offsetting this celebration of Baltic cool are sporadic whimsical flourishes in public areas, such as embellished fireplaces and potted plants in huge decorative face pots, while the onsite restaurant, Hõlm, revives traditional 1920s recipes.
About an hour outside Tartu, this handsome building overlooking three parks has a low-key romantic atmosphere. While built in the early 1900s as an upscale hotel, a thorough 2018 renovation finally resolved its chequered role as a hospital and various schools. Rooms and suites vary considerably – clean minimalism dominates the decor – and most are categorised according to their view, with some overlooking a park and others the modern atrium. It’s worth noting that some of the loft (or rooftop view) rooms have low-sloping ceilings with skylights.
Ideal for loved-up couples, Hotel Antonius is a beautifully restored old town pile dating from the 1770s, aggrandised with multiple additions and extensions. Two centuries of accumulated “colour” have seeped into its decor that swerves from costume drama movie set to English country house via the fireplace lounge filled with Chesterfields, all with matching wallpaper, wall paintings and antique furniture. Bathrooms, of course, are modernised, and the hotel has air conditioning and an elegant restaurant in the vaulted atrium-lit cellar.
The imposing classical facade of the Hotel London in the heart of the old town masks modernised interiors to the extent that the rooms and suites could belong to an entirely different building. The striped carpets, cool birch furniture and colour schemes ranging from pale khaki to violet and deep purple exude a slightly minimalist style, while the lobby has an almost-groovy 1970s vibe. The in-house restaurant, Polpo, is regularly listed among the best in Estonia, with crisply lit vaulted ceilings and stripped floors lending a stylish ambience.
The central location of this hotel, between the bus station and the AHHAA Science Centre, lends a business-traveller feel. Built in 1964, the hotel still bears a hint of 1960s decor but with a modern Baltic twist; rather than eye-popping murals and staff with beflowered hair, you get restrained swirly wallpaper, cocktail chairs and rose petals strewn across your bed (actually, that’s an extra paid-for service). Few sauna centres in town have fifth-floor views, but this one, along with its jacuzzi and two hot tubs, does. It overlooks the Emajõgi River.
Like a siren call to beer and ale drinkers, along with all-round funsters, the solid brick facade of the Aleksandri Hotel has one unique feature – the two-storey entrance to the adjoining bar resembles a giant tankard. Nonetheless, the array of rooms includes family options, suggesting you’re unlikely to share this straightforward hotel just south of the centre with hellraisers or Hell’s Angels. It also houses saunas, a solarium and a modest restaurant serving a decent breakfast spread.
Named after Prince Barclay de Tolly, an 18th-century Russo-Baltic nobleman and celebrated military commander, the Barclay might tickle war historians. Only the deluxe rooms and suites come close to matching the handsome pistachio-green facade with wrought-iron railings and arched windows. Still, a former Estonian president called it the city’s “business card,” and secure onsite car parking might be useful in this central location between Pirogov Park and the river.
Out in the rather anonymous western suburbs beside (and with direct access to) Lõunakeskus, the largest shopping and leisure centre in southern Estonia, Hotel Sophia is best suited to business and pit-stop travellers. Sleek modern rooms with clean lines and large windows feature bold geometrically patterned carpets, gun-metal grey walls and furnishings. While the immediate environment offers little in the way of local colour, downtown Tartu is a short drive away.
Facing the river beside the coach station, the Dorpat Hotel is ideal for business travellers with a few sightseeing days in hand. In the heart of the compact business quarter, the functional glass-and-grey facade offers limited aesthetic appeal, but many of the big-window rooms with polka dot carpets offer terrific views across the city. There’s a good restaurant cheerfully lit with pendant bulbs, and Pegasus, the quaint riverboat of the hotel, has short cruises from moorings right outside.
Near downtown Tartu, the Hansa’s whimsical take on a heritage hotel will appeal to fun-loving travellers. Originally a 19th-century stable block, the street-facing facade is unremarkable. The fun begins with the stuffed lynx and wall-mounted antlers in the lobby and evolves into regal-looking runners, Chesterfields and vintage photographs before exploding in the rooms. Junior suites feature lordly walnut-veneer beds, while the king suites have full-blown rococo furniture and out-there throne-like beds trimmed with satin. Meanwhile, the cosy bar goes peasant-rustic.
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