Tartu is the second largest town in Estonia which is often considered the country’s cultural and intellectual capital. Founded by King Gustavus Adolphus II of Sweden in 1632, the University of Tartu is the oldest university in Estonia. Also, Estonia’s first professional theatre Vanemuine was opened in Tartu in 1870.
First records of a town called Yurjev (Yuri’s town) date back to 1030 when, according to Nestor’s Chronicle, the Kievan Prince Yaroslav won a military campaign against Chudes residing at the riverbanks of Emajõgi.
The siege of the ancient fortress Tarbatu in 1224 resulted in the fall of the last centre of Estonian resistance to the Christian conquest of Estonia. Tartu became one of the wealthiest towns in Old Livonia, depending mainly on trade between Russia and Western Europe. This golden age was ended by the Livonian War during which Tartu was at different times occupied by Russia, Poland and Sweden, becoming finally a Swedish possession.
In the Swedish times, Academia Gustaviana (the present-day University of Tartu) as well as the first teacher training college in Estonia, the so-called Forselius Seminar, were founded in Tartu.
During the Great Northern War, Tartu was once more conquered by the Russians who in 1708 deported all citizens to Russia and burnt the city down. In the post-war period, the mainly wooden-built town suffered constant fires – in the fire of 1775, two thirds of the town was destroyed. While being re-built, Tartu also got its historic Kivisild (Stone Bridge), a gift from Catherine the Great of Russia, which later became a symbol of the city.
In the 19th century, Tartu developed into the country’s cultural and intellectual capital. The university was re-opened in 1802, the newspaper Postimees was published, and several members of various societies established in Tartu later became the key figures of the National Awakening.
World War II destroyed most of the city, the Stone Bridge, the Estonian National Museum, the theatre Vanemuine among the other buildings. In the Soviet times, Tartu was closed to foreigner visitors because of the air base for bombers located in Raadi airport.
Since Estonia re-gained its independence in 1991, lots of buildings, such as St.John’s Church and others, have been renovated in Tartu. Tartu has retained its status as Estonia’s cultural and intellectual capital with its inspiring academic atmosphere, breath-taking views and unique history.