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Estonia Travel Guide

Welcome to ‘Soup Town,’ Where the Streets Are Named Potato, Pea, and Bean

The most vibrant neighborhood in Estonia's cultural heart is named for soup but is known for art.

It doesn’t take long to notice the smell. The air is heady with the warm, rugged aroma of smoldering logs. Which—given we’re surrounded by rows of painted wooden houses—feels worth raising the alarm.

Timo Parts, a part-time accountant and sometimes bartender and street art guide, notes my panicked nostrils but remains unruffled.

“There’s no central heating in the homes here,” he explains. “The scents come from all the wood stoves.”

The compact neighborhood of Supilinn, which nudges up against the north of Tartu’s city center and whose name translates as “Soup Town,” has stood firm since it sprang up in the mid-18th century as home to poor agricultural and factory workers.

“It’s actually one of the oldest slums in Europe, remaining active all this time,” says Parts.

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It’s not an obvious place for a holiday, perhaps. Although I do have good reason to be standing in a former slum in southern Estonia, on the forested eastern edge of the European Union. I’ve come to get a closer look at Tartu’s creative side, as—along with Bad Ischl in Austria and Bodø in Norway—the city has become European Capital of Culture 2024.

Jenny Elliott

Estonia’s Overlooked Cultural Heart

With its ancient Old Town and picture-postcard good looks, it’s hardly surprising Tallinn is seen as Estonia’s must-visit destination. That said, as with many European capitals, it has begun to be the victim of its success. Its cobbled thoroughfares groan under the weight of tourists during the warmer summer months, especially on days when cruise ships dock at the port.

Tartu hopes to use this year’s packed cultural calendar to lure people southwards (two hours on a train or coach, to be precise) and help rebalance the visitor scales. Not that Tartu is some young upstart. With written records dating back to the 11th century, it can claim to be the oldest city in the Baltic states. And, although the great fire of 1775 destroyed much of its medieval core, visitors will still encounter romantic gothic ruins, handsome neoclassical houses, a 200-year-old botanical garden, and an itinerary-busting array of museums, including the outstanding Estonian National Museum.

Perhaps the city’s most prestigious institution, though, is its university. Established in 1632, it has long been a beacon for ideas and innovation and, despite its centuries-old past, can be thanked for providing Tartu with a youthful buzz.

Students make up around 15% of the city’s 100,000-strong population, many of whom can be found sipping cocktails and craft beers on pretty Rüütli Street come nightfall. Graduates tend to stick around, too, some setting up new businesses and artistic ventures where rents are affordable compared to the capital.

Tallinn may have the more conventional beauty, but Tartu feels charged with both a connection to the past and a present-day creative pulse. Something, no doubt, more international visitors are set to discover with the recent return of direct flights from Helsinki.

Courtesy of Stencibility

Into the Mix in Soup Town

With so much to see and do in the center, why am I spending the morning wandering around a once down-at-heel district? In part, my interest was piqued by the idea of a colorful wooden quarter that has survived the last 250 years. Which, given the circumstances, has been no mean feat.

Built on the cheap, swampy land on the banks of the Emajõgi River, the houses had to withstand regular flooding in the early days. Some believe it was the sight of streets filled with murky water and bobbing vegetables that helped establish the district’s name. Later, while affluent parts of Tartu were devastated by World War II bombing raids, Supilinn went untouched.

“It mainly survived because it wasn’t seen as being worth anything,” says Parts.

Then, in the mid-20th century, when many nations were busy clearing their slums, the grandiose Soviet-era housing scheme planned for Supilinn stalled. By the early ’90s, as Estonia achieved independence, students and artists took advantage of the cheap rents, and the neighborhood became famed for its wild parties and bohemian disposition.

It feels hard to tally this tumultuous past with the Supilinn of today, where leafy streets, with names of Kartuli (Potato), Herne (Pea), Oa (Bean), have a library-like hush. Once the major employer here, the A. Le Coq Brewery still remains. Although Parts says the surrounding two-story wooden homes—some still rather tatty, stained bright yellow with icing-pink doors, others much smarter, painted earnest greens and blues—are now popular with young families and professionals. All the same, it doesn’t take too long before we encounter Supilinn’s free-wheeling side.

Courtesy of Stencibility

An Independent Open-Air Gallery

On Marja—or Berry Street—Parts points out a power box daubed with the striking image of a small child peering out from a bear-eared hoody. Its creator is the mysterious Edward von Lõngus, whose penchant for stencils and satire means they are often referred to as “Estonia’s Banksy.”

“This [artwork] is inspired by the fairytale of the three bears,” says Parts. “It’s a comment about how the smallest, most vulnerable in society are often the ones that suffer.”

Over the next couple of hours, I’m led through a whole gambit of street art, from lampposts decorated in playful stickers to a fence panel celebrating the neighborhood cats. We turn a corner and bump straight into a large-scale, politically charged mural by Polish artists Sepe and Chazme.

Parts explains one of the reasons this district feels like a vibrant outdoor gallery is due to Stencibility, Tartu’s annual international street art festival, which provides artists with a choice of spaces across the city. Perhaps unsurprisingly, given its maverick charm, many have opted to leave their mark in Supilinn.

After stints in Berlin and Aberdeen over the last two years, the festival will return home to Tartu to celebrate its 15th year this July. I later spoke to Mariliis Haljasorg, a Stencibility team member, who explained how the festival grew out of a love of the art form and their city.

“Often street art is associated with big cities like Berlin or London,” she says. “But, for a very small place, we have a lot of street art to offer.”

Haljasorg believes a supportive local government and an excellent local art school can partly explain Tartu’s vibrant scene. But more than this, she suggests street art flourishes here due to an independent spirit.

“Of course, there are murals curated by the city government, but there is also a lot of small-scale street art here where nobody has told the artists how they should do it or what the message should be,” she says. “And that is real art: the ability to express yourself freely.”

This approach will underpin the festival again this year, where around 15 to 20 artists from across the world will be given the opportunity to create what they want. There will also be an exhibition in an abandoned house, street art tours, and the chance to ride from the train station to the Estonian National Museum in SLÄP!, Europe’s largest sticker exhibition mounted on a number 25 city bus.

“The idea was to find a way to exhibit the tiniest of street art forms,” says Haljasorg. “More than 300 artists are involved from around thirty countries, and we have managed to gather 25,000 stickers. The bus is now covered, inside and out.”

Keeping Your Eyes Peeled

My tour of Supilinn also teaches me the joy of noticing smaller creations.

“Look out for these little strawberry stickers everywhere,” Parts advises early on in our walk. I soon discovered strawberries are a recurring motif for resident and artist Kairo, whose distinctive paintings also brighten power boxes, doors, and window shutters across the district.

“It’s not just that they’re pretty,” explains Kairo when I ask her about the strawberries’ significance over Zoom a few weeks later. She says her naive style takes inspiration from celebrated Estonian artist Paul Kondas. His best-known painting is the Strawberry-eaters.

“The strawberries have different symbolic meanings, but mainly, it’s a little signal I send into the past and receive from the past. It’s encouragement that we’re on the same path, making our own way as self-taught artists,” she says.

Kairo tells me that her preference for acrylic rather than spray paint means her work takes longer to create than that of most street artists. Smiling, she says this is probably why she prefers creating smaller artwork and stickers.

“A patchwork city like Tartu is a great place for finding these human-sized canvases,” she says. “When you have old meeting new and these dilapidated places in between, that’s where the unexpected can happen.”

Jenny Elliott

But Where to Have Lunch?

We end our walk by the river, where the banks have also been transformed into vivid galleries. For a long time, Parts says, Supilinn’s main drawback was the lack of somewhere to stop for a well-earned meal. But that problem has been solved with the opening of Käkk, an excellent cafe given a cozy feel by the eclectic mix of vintage furniture,  pot plants, and walls filled with art. Come evening, the space transforms into an atmospheric bar.

The smell of homemade baked goods tinged with cinnamon sweetens the air. In the end, I can’t resist following my nose to the self-service table to see what’s on offer. I’ve hit the jackpot. Waiting to warm my hands and stomach is a steamy bowl of rich tomato soup.