10 good reasons, why visit Läänemaa

1. A bird-watcher’s paradise

The west coast of Estonia is a migratory route for birds that nest in the Arctic. Lääne County is home to one of Europe’s biggest and best-known protected areas for birds, Matsalu National Park. Hundreds of thousands of aquatic birds pass through the region in spring and autumn, many of which choose the area to nest in. Early spring sees Matsalu Bay overtaken by swans, while its coastal meadows become the feeding grounds of enormous flocks of geese, plovers, sandpipers and more. Those of a more patient disposition and with good eyesight might even spot some rare visitors to these shore.

2. Stunning beaches and forests full of berries

To the north of the county, in the Nõva and Noarootsi area, you’ll find sandy beaches stretching out for miles – the perfect place to settle in and soak up the summer sun, often completely undisturbed. The beaches in Nõva are famous for their singing sands.

Once you’ve warmed yourself through, why not explore the surrounding forests? They’re well-known for their berries and mushrooms, which are usually found in abundance.

3. Estonia’s most protected county

What sets Lääne County apart from the other counties in Estonia is its unparalleled natural wealth. The majority of the natural environment in the county is protected in some shape or form, with its coastal areas and pristine bogs coming in for extra special attention. 23% of the total area of Lääne County is under protection. The biggest and best-known of its 13 protected sites is Matsalu National Park, which was established in 1957 and has since become famous for its hiking trails and as a bird-watcher’s paradise. Meanwhile, the wooded meadows of Laetalu are renowned for their natural diversity – as many as 76 different species of vascular plants have been recorded here on just one square metre of ground.

The diverse landscape of the island of Osmussaar, meanwhile, is a patchwork of pebble beaches, transitional bogs, cliffs, meadows, broad-leafed forests and juniper.

4. The Coastal Swedes

Swedish Estonians, also known as the Coastal Swedes, have been living along the country’s north and north-western coasts and on the western islands of Vormsi (Ormsö), Osmussaar (Odensholm) and Noarootsi (Nuckö) for more than a thousand years. Because of their relative isolation, the privileges they enjoyed and the language barrier, they remained a rather closed community for centuries, leading to the development of their own dialect and culture. During the upheaval of World War II the majority were forced to abandon their homes and flee to Sweden. A number of agencies and associations are today involved in preserving the culture of the Coastal Swedes, teaching their language and showcasing their traditions and long-practised arts and crafts.

5. Vormsi

Estonia’s fourth biggest island, Vormsi got its name from the Swedish Ormsö, meaning ‘island of snakes’. Historically the island was home to Coastal Swedes, but under Soviet occupation it was a closed zone into which curious outsiders were not allowed. Its main historical and cultural monument is St. Olaf’s church, the cemetery adjacent to which has one of the world’s biggest collections of limestone and sandstone circular crosses. The protected area of Vormsi is diverse in species, boasts a variety of landscapes and is rich in heritage culture. Hullo and Sviby bays and Hari Strait along with their coastal meadows and islets are of international importance in terms of their bird life and are valuable study sites for the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds of the United Kingdom.

6. Medieval churches

The typically single-nave churches in Lääne County are among Estonia’s oldest, the lion’s share having been built in the 13th and 14th centuries. Local limestone was the building material of choice, and murals dating back to the Middle Ages can still be seen in a number of them. And in the churches and churchyards at Ridala, Karuse and Hanila you’ll come across some unique trapezium-shaped gravestones whose exact age historians have yet to agree on...

7. Military history

Forming part of the western extreme of Estonia, much of Lääne County during the Soviet era was a border zone you could only access with official authorisation. Military bases were erected on a number of sites in the region, although the majority of these have failed to find new uses since independence was restored and have fallen into ruin. The biggest are Kiltsi airfield, which can be seen from the Haapsalu-Rohuküla road, and the rocket base hidden in the Piirsalu forest.

8. Gateway to the islands

If you want to go and explore Estonia’s biggest islands, there’s no way around it – you have to pass through Lääne County! Regular services ferry passengers and vehicles between Virtsu harbour in the south of the county to Muhu and Saaremaa, while not far from Haapsalu at the harbour in Rohuküla a ferry service operates connecting the mainland to the islands of Hiiumaa and Vormsi.

9. Ice roads

During decent winters the shallow coastal waters freeze over to such an extent that visitors can enjoy a truly unique experience: driving on the ice. Haapsalu is connected to Noarootsi peninsula and Rohuküla to the island of Hiiumaa by ice roads which not only attract thrill-seeking visitors but which also act as vital links for locals. For example, the icy link between Haapsalu and Noarootsi cuts almost 30 km from the normal route between the peninsula and the county capital, while for the residents of Vormsi the connection with the mainland gives them the freedom to travel independently of the ferry schedules.

10. Traditional embroidery

The folk costumes and carpets that hail from the south of the county are adorned with beautifully detailed flower embroidery. Local textile historians claim that the style is even older than that of the famous Muhu embroidery, which is thought to have been learnt from the women of Lääne County.

Hanila Museum has one of the most impressive textiles collections of any of the smaller museums in Estonia and provides an excellent overview of the handicraft skills of the local ladies.


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European Union Regional Development Fund