How to survive life in the north: a guide for expats in Estonia

How to survive life in the north: a guide for expats in Estonia

Maria Magdaleena Lamp
min read


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So you’ve taken the leap and moved to Estonia. While your friends back home may still be wondering where it is on the world map, you know you’re living in the world’s most advanced digital society, breathing in some of the cleanest air on the planet, and possibly learning a really cool secret language (more about that later). And research shows that the further you live from the equator, the happier, more individualistic, and less aggressive you tend to be.

For all that’s amazing and wonderful about life in the north, winters at these latitudes can be mentally and physically draining for those who are new to this seasonal cycle. The days are short—the shortest days around midwinter have only around six hours of daylight—and what little light there is often gets obscured by cloud cover.

We’ve put together this quick guide so that you’re prepared for whatever Estonian winter may throw at you.

Take your vitamins

Yes, we’re starting with classic mom-advice. We’re not saying food supplements will solve all your problems. But a lack of exposure to sunlight can contribute to Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) and vitamin D deficiency. Taking preventative measures like a daily dose of vitamin D can help. Many Estonian foods, like dairy products, have added vitamin D.

Ask for help

SAD is often shrugged off as the winter blues, but if you’re feeling more melancholy than normal, don’t ignore the symptoms. In Estonia, you can book an appointment with a psychiatrist at a psychiatry clinic without a referral from your family doctor. Waiting times can be on the long side in the public system, so you may want to check out private options. Mental health NGO Peaasi has some information available in English.

Embrace the cold—with the right gear

Temperatures can drop below -15C in Estonia, and if you’re not dressed for the weather, your winter experience will be dismal. So forget fashion and think about warmth and waterproofing when choosing your outdoor attire. Invest in good hats, gloves, long underwear, scarves, jackets, ski pants, and a good pair of boots. We’d also recommend ice grips for your boots, for those extra icy days. When the wind chill threatens to break your cheeks off your face, slather some thick moisturizer on your face—you’ll definitely thank us for that one later.

And always remember to wear a reflector in the dark (you can get fined if you don’t)!

Treat yourself

Start small with eating right and cooking for yourself. A good bowl of porridge is a traditional Estonian way to start the day, and hearty soups are a good winter staple to have around when you don’t feel like cooking for yourself.

And don’t forget to relax and unwind. Estonian spas are the perfect solution. Not only are they (for the most part) reasonably priced, but they often offer different saunas, various treatments, and many are kid-friendly too.

Socialize and make new friends

This one is much easier said than done, we know. Making new friends only gets more complicated the older we get. Add Estonians to the mix, and some may feel it’s impossible. Many expats seem to agree that Estonians tend to be shy and generally not very outgoing in social situations, so you may need to make some effort to connect. This is where all the hobbies and activities really help. We promise that there are outgoing Estonians out there who would love to make new friends.

There are also plenty of expat groups online to help you meet new people and find hobbies.

Speaking of:

Find a hobby

The best way to avoid sitting at home doing nothing is… well, to get out there and do something.

Part of loving winter in Estonia is finding an activity that gets you outside and moving. Cross-country skiing is a popular winter sport. It may seem hard at first, but if you keep at it, you can sign up for the Tartu Marathon soon enough. Not quite ready for a ski marathon? Start with the Sauna Marathon instead.

If that’s not extreme enough for you, you might want to look into winter swimming—a pastime that has been gaining popularity in Estonia in recent years, among expats and locals alike.

Indoor hobbies are also good (on some days, perhaps even better). Have you always wanted to channel your inner Ghost romance and take up pottery? Winter is a great time to start, especially for something creative you can do at the end of a workday. Or join an international gaming community like Yo Mana if you’re a fan of board games or tabletop roleplaying.

Learn the language

One of the best ways to fit in and meet locals is to learn Estonian. Yes, most Estonians speak English almost perfectly. Yes, it may be considered one of the most difficult languages to learn, but a little goes a long way when you try to communicate in the local language. Plus, language classes and groups will give you something to do on those long, dark nights.

Celebrate the small things

Estonia is stunning both in summer and winter. So take time and appreciate the beauty when the snow falls in the Old Town or you wake up to a snowy yard. And if all else fails, know that after December 21, the days will start getting longer, by almost five minutes a day.

For more of our best tips and tricks on adjusting to life in Estonia, take a look at our city guide to Tallinn!

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