Let’s Go Exploring! Estonia: The Silicon Valley of Europe

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FIRECracker

FIRECracker is a world-travelling early retiree. She used to live in one of the most expensive cities in Canada, but instead of drowning in debt, she rejected home ownership. What resulted was a 7-figure portfolio, which has allowed her and her husband to retire at 31 and travel the world. Their story has been featured on CBC, the Huffington Post, CNBC, BNN, Business Insider, and Yahoo Finance. To date, it is the most shared story in CBC history and their viral video on CBC's On the Money has garnered 4.5 Million views.
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source: Guillaume Speurt @ Flickr

If you’ve ever used Skype before,you need to thank Estonia.  

Long before it became a global success with 300 million users, it was a tiny start-up in Tallinn.

The coders, who also happened to be schoolmates, Ahti Heinla, Priit Kasesalu, and Jaan Tallinn (yup. Apparently a real name), had no idea how far their code would go.

They first called it “Skyper” which was short for “Sky peer-to-peer” on account of that fact that it used peer-to-peer sharing protocols and it was passing the information through the air/sky. But then it turns out the name was also taken, so they shortened it to Skype.

On the first day, they were shocked to find that 10,000 people downloaded it. A few months later, a million. And now, 15 years later, they have hundreds of millions of users. I’ve yet to meet a single person who hasn’t heard of Skype.

And as we would find out, Skype not only put Estonia on the map, it’s inspired Estonians to transform their country into one of the most innovative in Europe.

Want to start a business online in less than 10 mins?

Vote online?

File your taxes in 5 minutes?

Estonia has you covered. In fact, as of January 2019, Estonia will offer the world’s first digital nomad visa—allowing entrepreneurs and freelancers an eventual path to citizenship. No wonder Estonia now has the highest start-up to population ratio in all of Europe.

I love how Estonia solves problems with innovation instead of bitching. While other countries are grappling with what to do with these weirdo mobile entrepreneurs/freelancers known as “digital nomads”, Estonia is welcoming them with open arms and giving them a chance to pay taxes, contribute to the community, and create jobs.

If you’re innovative and entrepreneurial, Estonia will reward you rather than discourage you for thinking outside the box.

When I was there, our Estonian guide told me their goal is digitize everything and make voting, starting a business, or naming your baby online as easy and seamless as possible with their ID card.

Check out this video of a Japanese digital nomad, Satoshi,  who started his online business in Estonia:

Estonia is the Silicon Valley Europe and that’s why I love it.

And since they are so welcoming to digital nomads all over the world, this is reflected in their food scene too.

Not only was I able to find ethnic food easily, I discovered one of my favourite restaurants in Tallinn—serving traditional Estonian food with a twist. I have to admit, when I first heard about this place, it screamed “hipster” and I wasn’t too enthusiastic. I like my food unpretentious, not trying to make a statement, and not covered in avocado, thank you very much.  So when I found that this highly recommended “F-hoone” restaurant was in a hipster district named Kalamaja, I didn’t know what to make of it.

Admitted, I did enjoy walking around Kalamaja, looking at the cool art, and checking out the funky shipping container sized food joints:

Your childhood superhero memories have now been ruined. You’re welcome . (credit: Tony Bowden @Flickr)
 
Hipster: If it’s not in a shipping container I refuse to eat there

I was still pretty skeptical of “F-hoone” though, especially given how slow their service is—we practically had to tackle a waiter to get their attention.

But after the first bite of my beef cheek with cauliflower puree, asparagus, and oven-roasted kale (see what I mean by hipster?),I seriously considered moving to Estonia, just so I could eat here every day.

The beef was so tender it melted on my tongue. The cauliflower puree was also an explosion of flavour that brought tears of joy to my eyes. I could’ve done without the mountain of Kale, but even then, I was still blown away.

The beef tartare with egg was also sublime:

This was Michelin-star quality, fine dining at regular restaurant prices. And they have just as many exceptional vegetarian dishes, so neither carnivores nor vegetarians have to compromise.

In addition to exceptionally goodrestaurants, Estonia also has amazing little coffee shops to write in. We enjoyed“Café Grenka” which had amazing coffee and healthy, delicious tuna tartare, pierogees,and salads:

And just so that you don’t think I’m a complete glutton, we also explored some of the beautiful architecture of Tallin, like…

The Alexander Nevsky Cathedral

The Kadriorg Palace:

Ethan Doyle White [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)]

St. Olaf’s Church:

Raeapteek (the oldest pharmacy in Europe):

One of things I noticed about Estonia is how many grocery stores offer self check out. Which, isn’t surprising considering how badly they want digitize everything. However, I found out the popularity of self-checkout is because Estonians are quite introverted. God forbid they have to talk to another human being every time they buy groceries.  It’s insanely difficult to get Estonian’s to open up and tell you their feelings. There’s an Estonians joke that goes:

One time, there was once a man who loved his wife so much…that he almost told her.

HA! Coming from a culture where parents never say the words “I love you” or hug you, it’s pretty understandable.Never-the-less I was told that Estonians open up once you get to know  them.


And the best place to get to know an Estonian? At the sauna of course!

source: https://www.tallinkhotels.com/tallink-spa-conference-hotel/private-sauna
source: https://www.tallinkhotels.com/tallink-spa-conference-hotel/private-sauna

(you honestly thought I’d write a post without talking about spas or saunas?)

We learned  that one of the proudest Estonianian inventions is the smoke sauna.

What is a smoke sauna, you ask, and how is it different from a regular sauna?

The smoke sauna is unique because it has no chimney. As a result, the smoke from the burning wood is allowed to circulate the room, and once a desired temperature of 100 degrees (Celsius) is reached, the smoke is ventilated out of the room. This helps the room sustain a high temperature.

And once you are nice and relaxed from the sauna, you get to be whipped with birch branches all over your body to help circulation (or so they claim). All I heard was “whip” and branches”, and I immediately started testing it on Wanderer. I had a blast.

Sadly, we didn’t pick up much Estonia while there. It’s a very hard language to learn and everyone spoke English anyway. I was surprised to learn that it’s actually very similar to Finnish. I would’ve thought Estonian would be similar to Latvian and Lithuanian, but as it turns out, Estonian is part of the Uralic language family—so it’s actually closer to Finnish and Hungarian. So to a Latvian, Estonian might as well be Chinese, the languages are so different.

But to the Finns, their languages are quite similar. And luckily since Tallin is only 2 hours from Helsinki (another perk of Estonia), we got to find out exactly how similar, and I also discovered a Finnish cutural trait similar to the Chinese which I will write about in my next post.

Here’s how much we spent in Estonia:

Category Cost in USD/couple Cost in CAD/couple Notes
Accommodations: $37 USD $48 CAD We stayed in Estonia for 2 weeks. The Airnb was super comfortable, walking distance to everything, and even had a soaker tub.
Food: $29 USD/day $38 CAD/day ($21/day for eating out, $17/day for groceries) Of all the countries in Eastern Europe, Estonia had the best food and the best variety of restaurants. It's worth it to go to Estonia just to eat at F-hoone, which offered fine dinning at regular dinning prices. Just be patient with their service–as they get incredibly busy and are a bit short staffed.
Transportation: $2 USD/day $2.50 CAD/day Since our Airnbnb was within walking distance to all attraction, we spent almost no money on transportation other than the bus from Riga to Tallin (which strangely enough takes 1/2 the amount of time as the train) and only cost us 5 Euros per person, and a few inner city train tickets to F-hoone when it was too chilly to walk.
Entertainment: $10 USD/day $13 CAD/day Entertainment was very affordable and consisted of entry to a few museums (14 euros each for a 2 museum combined ticket), the palace (8 euros each), and the Tallink spa (8 euros each if you go on Mon-Thurs before 2pm).
Total: $78 USD/couple/day $102 CAD/couple/day Just like the rest of Eastern Europe, you can easily live in Estonia for $30-40K/year, but because it's the Silicon Valley of Europe and its welcoming attitude to digital nomads, it wins in terms of livability and innovation.

Of all the Eastern European countries, Estonia is my favourite. From Tallinn, it’s an easy 2 hour ferry to Finland, you can get a digital nomad visa, everything’s convenient and digitized, the food is exceptional and the cost of living is very affordable. It’s one of those places that just feels like home.

If you have time to kill, take this fun quiz from their tourism board to find out which Estonian mythical creature you are and share your results:

Quiz: https://www.visitestonia.com/en/estonian-myth-quiz

Apparently, I’m a “Metsik”–which means I’m obsessed with nature. Really? They didn’t have a creature that was obsessed with whipping?


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29 thoughts on “Let’s Go Exploring! Estonia: The Silicon Valley of Europe”

  1. Another day another sauna eh?

    That’s some nice looking food too! Oddly enough it doesn’t look that much different from what I’d find in a cafe down the street. There’s nothing that screams “Estonian” about it. Which is a good thing I guess.

    Looks like a very affordable location to travel.

    1. Another day, another sauna. Shocking, right? 🙂 And yup, it’s definitely affordable and the international food scene is exactly why I love Estonia.

  2. there is a problem in your ‘let’s math this up’ prjections. And that it ASSUMES an average ROI. THIS year, savings in a globally balanced portfolio will likely LOSE money and NOT get the 6% average you consistently quote

    of course, this DRAMATICALLY changes the projections

    it’s always been a stickler for me. Of course, if a GIC guaranteed us 6% then your projections would be founded, accurate

    1. The fact that you would even compare a GIC to the stock market shows your ignorance. Read the investment workshop. And if you’re too lazy to even read it, you don’t deserve to be rich and you definitely should not be investing.

      1. good grief,

        again- when you are making the ‘lets math this shit up’ stuff you are assuming a SET average (6%). okay, that’s all i’m saying.Person A’s return for 2018 will be negative , most everyone’s will. Your estimates are just that- estimations. Then you often go on to conclude; ‘well, Mrs Smith after 11 yrs you will be set!!”. No she’s not, not after 2018- she’ll need even greater returns now

        A GIC at 6% (those dont exist, for a reason) would validate the scenarios you paint for people. I’m NOT saying a GIC is comparable to SPY longterm, don’t assume (in fact, with debt levels GIC’s at 6% are long long gone)

        is that hard to understand?

        ‘don’t deserve to be rich’? that was uncalled for, childish. My net worth is just over $4,000,000.

        1. “lets math this shit up”

          This year we might loose money.
          Last year, S&P 500 returned more than 21% and the year before 12%.
          This is called average.
          The average annualized total return for the S&P 500 index over the past 90 years is 9.8 percent
          True you do not seem very aware.
          I doubt you have 4M. Or maybe in real estate…

          1. thats an all equity portfolio. You are quoting the SPY. And you are assuming historical returns for the next decade? Bogel has said he thinks 4% for the next decade for the SPY. The Trump effect is over (late 2016, 2017). We shall see

            ‘i doubt you have 4M’

            now now Mr R… real estate is approx 35% of my net worth. 🙂 I added my net worth ONLY cause the author’s childish comment ; ‘you don’t deserve to be rich’. What kind of human being makes that kind of statement? a close minded individual, is my guess

            1. FYI:

              The majority of seasoned investors including Bogle and Buffett are predicting low growth for the next decade. We would be lucky to get even 3.5% averaged returns yearly in the markets.

              So yeah, I would say 6% is overly optimistic.

            2. Yes. This is an all equity portfolio. To each his level of comfort regarding asset allocation. (I was not quoting anyone by the way). Same for the assumptions related to future returns. Nobody knows. But I am not forecasting 9.8% if you want to know😞…
              Related to your net worth. It is so easy to throw a number on a blog. Good for you if it is actually your net worth (although, what do you do with this kind of money ?🤯
              we are way beyond FatFire, this is ObeseFire !🤣)
              Have a good one!

              1. I find discussing nest eggs is like judging other drivers. Anyone driving slower than me needs to get out of the way and anyone driving faster than me is obviously reckless!

                FIRE discussions seem to be like that. If someone’s nest egg is appreciably smaller or larger than one’s own it somehow is suspect is what I’ve noticed. I’ve trained myself not to judge what number a person/couple decides is their number after I received multiple comments similar to those just made. Everyone determines what lifestyle they want to lead and I’m not here to judge. We know what we want out of our retired years are planning accordingly even though our decisions would raise some eyebrows and will take a few more years than some FIRE folks did to leave the working world.

                Cheers!

  3. This is the first I’ve heard of Estonia’s digital nomad visa, thanks for sharing the information. I was curious how it worked with the Schegen visa that restricts Americans (and I think Canadians too) to being in the 26 Schegen countries 90 days out of 180 days, especially since Estonia is covered by the Schegen visa. It looks from my Google searches that the digital nomad visa will allow a person to spend 365 days in Estonia and still be eligible for the 90 day Schegen visa! That’s great news if a person wants to extend living in Europe for more than 90 days and doesn’t want to wait out their 90 days in high-priced England. Estonia looks totally charming too.

    1. Yes, I’m super excited about this Estonian visa. Our original plan to work around the 90 day Schengen rules was to use the Spanish Non-lucrative visa or the Portuguese D7 visa, but it looks likes the Estonian digital nomad visa should make things even easier. Guess we’ll find out exactly how much easier once they release the details next year.

      1. That Spanish non-lucrative visa looks great but I need to carefully research the tax situation. From what I’ve read one will be required to become a taxed resident at some point and the tax situation does not look pretty. For instance, except for Madrid, each region has a net worth tax, with at least one region at 2.5%! Bad region. If we can avoid taxes that visa is great though in that it gives access to all the Schengen EU countries.

  4. Looking forward to visiting Estonia but I have to say, as someone that’s eaten at numerous Michelin starred places, that does not resemble Michelin starred food. I do love me some beef cheeks though. It’s called “cachete” where I live and I’ll put them on our kamado grill for a 12 hour “low and slow” cook and then make tacos with hand tossed tortillas. Cannot be beat!

    1. Yup, beef cheeks are the best! I was a bit sad to find out that they swapped it out for another dish when I went back the second time, but hopefully they’ll bring it back in the future.

  5. Nice that you enjoyed Estonia! I live in Stockholm but my grandfather came from Estonia after ww2 so I have been there a couple of times. Today it is hard to believe how depressing and undeveloped that the country were after the Sovjet union fell apart. Let me know if u guys are coming to Stockholm, love your blog and would be happy to give you tips or guidande 🙂
    /Linda

  6. I know very little about Estonia but it has been getting mention more recently in some of the Bali Digital Nomad groups I follow. With some of the guys having trouble with Bali government trying to live there and work online.

    1. Estonia to the rescue! We have yet to see their digital nomad visa rules, but given their obsession with making things easy and digitized, I think it’s going to be great.

  7. I always learn so much from these posts! And I’m not just saying that because I took the quiz. (Murumemm: “You are a true socialite whose radiance is simply contagious! While you are full of fascinating stories, you like to keep things in perspective, which is why you are the go-to person for anyone in need of solid advice.”)

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