Tartu, Estonia

Photo: Riina Varol via Visit Estonia

Your meals seem a lot different these days. The colorful peppers, the huge squash, and the super-sweet tomatoes are gone. They’ve been replaced with crisp fruit, hearty greens, and nutrient-rich root vegetables. The autumn harvest looks delicious—especially in the hands of the right restaurant.

You no longer have to stick to the usual suspects—Tokyo, Paris, or New York—to find the right restaurant. Those are actually the last places you want to visit right now. Lately, you’ve been trying to find new destinations. The more out of the way and under the radar the better. The Baltics certainly fit the bill. But you have to leave their enchanting capitals. Tallinn, Riga, and Vilnius are new hot spots. The rest of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania remain blissfully ignored.

The place that calls itself the City of Good Thoughts is an ideal starting point. Though Tartu is the second-largest city in Estonia and the oldest city in the Baltics, most people have never heard of it. The city lies 115 miles southeast of Tallinn on the Emajõgi, the river that connects the country’s two largest lakes. It was first settled in the 5th century, changed hands too many times to count, and was largely destroyed by the Soviet Army during World War II. The damage may have been a blessing in disguise. The Soviets left the city alone. It avoided their ugly Brutalist architecture. Tartu’s Old Town was left with majestic buildings and wooden houses. It’s simply charming.

Photo: Restoran Hõlm

One of those buildings, on a shop-lined street behind the classic Town Hall Square, was turned into an elegant hotel. Hotell Lydia, named after the owner’s grandmother, is the perfect blend of old and new. The lobby doubles as a sleek lounge with a gas fireplace and self-serve treats. Other relaxing spots include the samarium at the spa, the indoor pool, and the rooftop deck. Rooms feature parquet floors and views of Pirogov Park. While the breakfast buffet adds sparkling wine on the weekends.

None of these amenities are the real reason to stay here, though. The hotel is also home to Restoran Hõlm. The second-floor restaurant features floor-to-ceiling windows, an open kitchen, and chairs that offset the formal table settings. Many of the dishes were created from Lydia Grünmann Hõlm’s 100-year-old notebook full of recipes. The restaurant recently published a cookbook to show off their award-winning creations.

Those dishes highlight local produce, which happens to be at its best this time of year. As you look over the tasting menu, you’ll find roasted kale alongside the veal tongue. Spruce shoots are matched with celery root. Carrots and pumpkin seeds complement the lamb. Late blueberries are then mixed with chocolate and kama (a traditional oat flour) for dessert. Even the pairings, which include a Czech Pilsner and a vintage port, lean toward fall. Different tastes absolutely delicious.


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