Thinking of visiting Estonia? Wondering if it’s ok to go there with diabetes? Find everything you need in this handy guide to traveling to Estonia with diabetes!
Traveling in Estonia with diabetes should present no problem at all if you’re reasonably prepared and flexible. Estonia is a modern, first-world country with plenty of good medical facilities and pharmacists who know about diabetes.
How to speak Estonian – for T1Ds
Want to say tell someone in Estonian that you’re diabetic?
- Diabetes = diabeet (pronounced “dee a bait”)
- Type 1 diabetes = 1 tüüpi diabeet (pronounced “irks turrpy dee a bait” but with almost silent r’s, like British English)
You should be wearing a bracelet or anklet or necklace that says you’re diabetic – something emblazoned T1D and/or T1 DIABETIC should do. At any rate, most pharmacists and doctors should know enough English to understand “diabetes” if for some reason you need to consult one.
Traveling in Estonia as a Type 1 diabetic
I have Type 1 diabetes and I spent six days backpacking through Estonia in late 2014. It’s a really beautiful country with a particularly proud spirit of independence and, consequently, an especially unique culture.
Here are my experiences traveling in Estonia with diabetes – the food, the blood sugars, the sights. They’ll help you understand Estonia as it relates to travelers both diabetic and non-diabetic. I carried a blood sugar monitor and strips, and Humalog and Lantus pens.
If you have diabetes and want to visit this northernmost Baltic country, or want to travel to Estonia with someone who is diabetic, this page is for you!
My route in Estonia
I arrived in the capital of Estonia, Tallinn, with my travel partner Masayo on an overnight ferry from Mariehamn in the Åland Islands. We stayed for three nights in Tallinn then took a bus down to the town of Tartu, staying two nights. Then we headed to Valga, Estonia, a town with an international border running through the middle of it. We crossed over and stayed in the Latvian half, which is spelled Valka.
(Read my Tips For Traveling in Latvia with Diabetes.)
Estonian food has a lot of Scandinavian influences, and there are plenty of international restaurants. Cheaper travel food, if you’re a budget-minded backpacker like me, often tends to be higher in carbs, and my blood sugar had its ups and downs in Estonia.
Some of the things I found to eat in Estonia were:
- Meatballs – Estonia thinks of itself as Scandinavian, not Soviet, and so meatballs are common. I had them every morning at both our hotels’ breakfast buffets, and I also ordered a plate of meatballs and mashed potatoes at a café in Old Town, which came with a side piece of bread. It didn’t seem like too many carbs, and we were doing a lot of walking, so I took what I thought was a good Humalog dose. But whereas before the meatballs I was 140, afterwards I was 257.
- Sushi – Yes, I’d only been out of my adopted home of Japan a few days before I found a sushi place in Tallinn. (Nothing else nearby was open!) High in carbs with all that rice, but pretty good and reasonably authentic. Afterwards my BG was 183, not great but could be much worse after sushi.
- Šeš-Beš – An Azerbaijani restaurant in Tallinn, whose Azeri name means “Six Five”. I had a variety plate of various meat kebab, with rice and sparkling water. A thick and delicious taste, but it took my BG from 143 to 274. Should have had more Humalog for that rice, and maybe the meat sauce as well.
- SALT – This cozy wine-themed restaurant in Tallinn was my birthday dinner. I had lamb liver with blueberry sauce, but sparkling water instead of wine. Great mix of sweet and meaty tastes; my BG before it was 94 and afterwards was 155.
- Rimi Supermarket salad bar – Rimis are all over Estonia, large supermarkets where everything from food to clothes and books is found. In Tartu, we had lunch from their salad bar one day, and it was very filling. All kinds of vegetables, nuts, meats, etc, and you take what you want and put it in a little plastic container. Its weight determines the price. I picked up a little pizza at the bakery to eat with it too. BG before was 50; after it was 240. Not cool.
- Kapriis – A restaurant on the main square in Tartu. I had shrimp pasta with a hot chocolate. And I learned that, delicious though it may be, pasta is always higher in carbs than I think. I turned a 97 BG into a 282 afterwards. Always respect pasta!
There are also the usual sandwiches and pastries in various shops here and there. These often but not always have nutrition info on them, so you may have to guess. Hint: lots of carbs.
Rooms and accommodation in Estonia
Every town has plenty of budget hotels and guesthouses. I recommend using booking.com like I did, because it’s so easy to find what you need at whatever price you want.
All in all I only stayed at two places in Estonia proper:
- Center Hotel (Tallinn) – Nice and cheap little place about a mile from Old Town, which is not too bad, in a quiet, student-y part of town. I booked a room with a shared bathroom but they gave us one with its own en suite bathroom. They also had a functional little attached restaurant with a tasty but simple breakfast buffet every morning. Friendly staff, and flexible.
- Aleksandri Hotell (Tartu) – Spacious rooms on the very quiet edge of town, but a bit of a hike into the heart of Tartu. There was a very large Rimi supermarket nearby where some of our meals came from. Their breakfast buffet was particularly excellent and varied, full of carbs but manageable.
Things to see in Estonia
There are lots of memorable things to see in Estonia no matter what your thing is. Architecture and design tend to be especially breathtaking (and I’m not even into those especially, but awesome is awesome). If you’re into Soviet history, Estonia has plenty of sights to see about that too, although the history of Estonia stretches back much further.
Some of the most recommended places to visit in Estonia:
- Patarei Prison (Tallinn) a.k.a. Patarei Sea Fortress – If you ever wanted something guaranteed to take your mind off of diabetes for a while, go here. One of the spookiest places I’ve ever been, this recently-decommissioned Soviet prison on the edge of Tallinn is like a huge, rusty, compelling art project from outer space. Disused medical equipment, Cyrillic typewriters, and 1980s-era computer parts lie in the dust with newer art installations laid over the top. Dozens of paper airplanes hang on strings in one room; dozens of condoms in another. Ghostly rubber hands emerge from cracks in the wall as if in some mad Fantasia gone wrong. The official status and safety of this place are vague, and the crumbling, weed-covered grounds may be converted into a more proper museum someday. See it raw while you still can. Patarei is genuinely unbelievable and beyond unnerving. Read more about Patarei Prison here.
- Old Town Tallinn – Collectively a UNESCO World Heritage Site, Old Town (or, locally, “Vanalinn”) is like a well-preserved medieval merchant center. Endless little cobblestoned paths and bright, eccentric, recent paint jobs are everywhere. Sections of the ancient town wall stand in places, and there are hundreds of shops, cafés, bookstores, and restaurants to wander in and out of.
- Old Town wall in Tallinn – Noticing a curious, nondescript little door in the corner of a building one afternoon, we investigated and found that it led to a little office where you could pay a small amount to go climb around the inside of the old town walls. Nobody else was there when we were, and we just explored the dark, claustrophobic stone stairwells and dusty wooden rooms in the towers at will. Get some nice views of the town below you and soak up the atmosphere of pigeon droppings, it’s great!
- Toompea Hill – A hill on the edge of Old Town Tallinn where all the famous photos of the red roofs and the Baltic Sea are taken. Just follow any street that seems to be inclining upwards and you’ll get there eventually.
- Russian Market, Tallinn – By the train station between Old Town and Patarei Prison, this bustling little market is full of stalls where you can buy bits of food, toys, tools, Russian books, and clothes. I bought a watch for €5 that worked fine for almost a year. And I haggled with the old Russian lady to throw in a couple of felt shoe pads for free!
- Toome Hill – Another big hill, this one is in Tartu, Estonia, and there is a lot to see: some nice little bridges (Angel Bridge and Devil Bridge) and, most striking, remnants of Tartu Cathedral, a gargantuan red brick monstrosity. A nice museum is at one end, and on the other end you can climb around inside the walls, with heart-stopping walkways over the dirt floor far below.
- Emajõgi River – A beautiful and serene river running through Tartu. You can’t miss it, so just stroll along the shore on either side where there are nice pedestrian paths under the trees, a minimum of any kind of city noise, and some interesting and attractive sculptures and monuments. Make a picnic of it! Bonus: as far as I know, the “õ” character only exists in Estonian.
Blood sugar control in Estonia
Estonian food, as experienced by the traveler, is not too distinct from traveler food from nearby countries. With a tasty and varied international bent, plus the usual junk food and sandwiches if you’re occasionally inclined, all you have to do is watch your exercise levels (Estonia is great for walking around), assume things are carb-heavy, and check your BG often.
My Estonian blood glucose stats
I kept a record of all my BG checks over the six days I spent in Estonia.
- Total number of BG checks: 27
- Average BG: 179
- Lowest BG: 50
- Highest BG: 338
- Average morning BGs (~12:00): 166
- Average afternoon BGs (12:00~6:00): 142
- Average evening BGs (6:00~): 226
So, afternoons were my best time because I used my lunchtime shot to fix the occasional post-breakfast high. (I hadn’t gotten used to the carb count of those huge hotel breakfast buffets yet!) Evenings were pretty bad because I had such a bad habit of taking less Humalog for dinner than I thought I needed. (Psychological block.) Mornings were ok because I was so high at night I’d take corrective Humalog before bed.
Have you been to Estonia?
I’d love to hear about your experiences in Estonia. In particular:
- What Estonian wonders did I miss?
- How were your BGs in Estonia?
- What did you eat in Estonia?
- Did you buy insulin or testing supplies while in Estonia?
Let me know your experiences in this under-appreciated but mesmerizing country. If you’re planning to travel in Estonia with diabetes, go for it.
Don’t let diabetes stop you.
Read more about my travels in Estonia
Come along on the adventure! Follow detailed travelogues about the wondrous sights, fascinating people, and varied diabetes experiences I encountered as a traveling T1D in Estonia:
Day 5: Terrible Diabetes Management At Bomarsund Fortress In Rural Scandinavia
Day 6: The Cobblestoned Streets Of Old Town Tallinn
Day 7: Lost In Tallinn's Old Town Walls
Day 8: Inside Patarei, The Strangest Prison On Earth
Day 9: Riding Through The Estonian Countryside: Tallinn To Tartu
Day 10: Tartu, The Perfect Little City In Estonia
Day 11: Valga/Valka: A Town With Two Names
Share your travel stories, give advice, or ask a question in the comments section.
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