The Setos are an ethnic and linguistic group living in the farthest south-eastern corner of Estonia. Already their name “neither this nor that” (ei see ega too in Estonian) gives an idea of the origin of Seto people. Influence from two cultures, Estonian and Russian, has formed their unique language, lifestyle and folklore that due to the relative isolation of the area has been well preserved through times. Today, the estimated number of Setos in Estonia is 10 000 – 13 000.

Being a borderland has caused much harm to Setos. Once entirely Estonian territory, Setomaa was divided in two from 1944 as the new Estonian-Russian border now runs through Setumaa. Petseri, the centre of Setomaa, lies now in Russia. The division has definitely not been easy for the locals causing split of families and congregations.

Seto villages are traditionally cluster-villages – houses and farms are surrounded with high fences, guaranteeing privacy and protection to the household.  Every home has a sacred praying corner with an icon. Every village has its own small chapel, filled with icons, beautiful scarves, candles and flowers and is open for public prayer during festivities. Besides the Orthodox religion, the Setos have preserved their faith in natural forces and their old pagan god of fertility - Peko. The two religions have been mixed and many sacrifice stones and healing springs are still used in Seto tradition. During church holidays people come together to commemorate the souls. After services they go to the graveyards, eat and drink with their ancestors always leave some food to the souls of the deceased.

Their rich cultural heritage is well preserved through folk songs, dances and other rituals. Especially evaluated is the Seto leelo – a way of singing where a soloist sings a verse, which is repeated polyphonically by a choir. Extremely expressive and often invented at the same moment – the lead singer often improvises and sings of what he sees or thinks at the moment. Leelo singing has also been included to the UNESCO List of Intangible Cultural Heritage from 2009.

The Seto folk costumes are also well known. Married women carry a characteristic set of silver jewellery - numerous necklaces and a conic brooch. Seto handicraft is appreciated, especially the multi-coloured crocheted laces and traditional embroidery with fine ornaments (mostly diamond, cross and square), stitched on bright red cloth. 

Old Believers

The Old Believers are Russians who refused the reforms of the Orthodox Church in the middle of the 17th century and as they were prosecuted for their decision to continue the practice of the “old faith,” they had to search for new lands out of the Russian boarder. 

The first groups of Russian Old believers settled in Mustvee, on the western coast of lake Peipsi, in the 17th century. Today there are 11 congregations, 9 of them are located along the western banks of the lake Peipsi, 1 in Tartu and 1 in Tallinn, with a total number of 15 000 members.

Religion is the centre of the everyday life of the Old Believers. Religious feasts as Christmas (celebrated on the 6 January according to the old calendar) and Easter are very important events.

Spiritual practices have been important to their community. They use two fingers for making the sign of the cross, instead of three as used in the reformed Orthodox church; recognize baptism through three full immersions and reject the validity of any other baptismal rite; do not use polyphonic, but only monotonic singing and do not kneel but make low bows when praying. Only Old Russian or Byzantine iconography is used and for that purpose, also icon painting schools have been founded to keep the tradition alive. The most famous icon painting school was founded by Gavriil Frolov at the end of the 19th century.

The Old Believers traditionally inhabit rural areas and have fishing as the main activity. Onions are another well-known sales article. The unique 7-kilometer street, running through four villages (Raja, Kükita, Tiheda, Kasepää) features characteristic two-storey colourful houses with balconies or small towers. Each household has a spade and an icon for each member of the family. Symbolism is a part of the tradition – people use to be able to read someone’s whole life story by the patterns woven into their shirt.

Smoking and drinking coffee are seen as sins. More strict Old believers also prohibit men from shaving their beards and do not divide meals with people of other religions.

All these customs have led to a relative isolation and the Old Believers population has not mixed with Estonians or Russians and has kept their culture intact for hundreds of years.


Kihnu is the seventh largest island of Estonia with its 16,8 km², located 10 km from the mainland. It has four villages and about 600 people.

The life on Kihnu Island is closely related to the sea. Men have been fishermen and seal hunters for centuries. Women take care of everyday life in the household, including farming animals like cows, sheep, pigs, chicken and cultivating vegetables and fruits for the needs of the family.

It is mainly the women who have preserved the old traditions and the local dialect in their everyday life. They wear traditional striped colourful skirts and kerchiefs every day. The red colour is considered to bring good luck as also some of the symbols like snake pattern, used in waistband and gloves. Elderly women and women who have lost their husbands usually wear black or blue skirts. An average Kihnu woman can have 20-30 skirts for different occasions.

Men have a traditional knitted sweater – troi and they wear it during the winter.

The distinctive Kihnu culture evolved over centuries in relative geographical isolation and distance from the mainland. Today it is a mix of traditional and modern – a combination that makes it so unique and valuable. Women walk around in their red skirts and singing traditional songs while using Internet, mobiles and watching television.

The most valuable are Kihnu wedding traditions and songs, from 2003 also proclaimed part of the UNESCO Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of the Humanity.

There are also men’s songs – long narrative songs describing their journeys Men also used to take a wooden suitcase with them and during the journey paint the ship on the covers of the box. Some local well-known naïve-style painters are Jaan Oad, Georg Vidrik and Harri Vesik.

Playing an instrument is also an important tradition and is kept alive in local school. Kihnu people love to dance, sing and party!  Along with the church holidays, seasonal holidays related to animals and their indigenous beliefs are celebrated.


Muhu island is the third biggest island of Estonia with its 198 km², lying 7 km off the mainland, today a home of 2000 inhabitants.

Through centuries, Muhu has developed its characteristic culture and traditions. The best-known articles from Muhu are the colourful woven blankets with local patterns and embodied flowers and aromatic juniper wood souvenirs.

The landscape features working windmills, stone fences, juniper fields, pine and birch forests, wetlands and small bogs.

Lack of Soviet time intensive agricultural practices and collective farming has protected the island’s biodiversity and today a large part of the island is included in the EU program for protected costal areas (Natura 2000). Muhu is a natural habitat of 23 rare species of orchids and three couples of rare and majestic sea eagles nest here. There is also quite an unusual ostrich farm with emus, ostriches and kangaroos.

The small fishing villages are charming for their simplicity and tradition. Lovely thatched cottages feature colourful doors and characteristic patterns with symbols that protect from the evil. Pagan symbols are still widely used and can also be found on numerous tombstones. The best example of a traditional Muhu village can be seen at Koguva, dating back to the 18th and 19th century.

People appreciate Muhu island for its uncontaminated nature and the peace and quiet for a body and mind regeneration. The restored Pädaste manor offers the possibility to combine simplicity and luxury, as it the only 5 star hotel out of Tallinn and also features the best gourmet restaurant of Estonia.

Each midsummer day Muhu accommodates a great classical and jazz music festival where local musicians and also international artist take the stage. Over the years it has become a modern cultural event, bringing also in evidence the local cultural traditions and heritage. 

Estonian Sweds

Estonian Swedes are an ethnic and linguistic minority who settled on the western coast and islands of Estonia in the 13th-15th centuries. During the Swedish rule there were about 10 000 Swedes in Estonia. The Russian Tsarina Catherin II forced a part of them to relocate in the 18th century and the refugees settled in Ukraine. The remaining Swedish population fled back to Sweden in the 1939 when the Soviet army invaded Estonia. Today about 300 people consider themselves as descendants of the original population of the Estonian Swedes and there is also a community of Estonian Swedes in Sweden.

Certain areas and some of the islands where the Swedes lived were entirely Swedish speaking, with their own newspapers and schools. Although there is not one unified Estonian-Swedish dialect, but many regional variations, they are quite different from modern Swedish, as they have preserved the archaic character of the old Swedish language.

The principal Swedish populated areas were: Tallinn, where they formed a quarter of the population in the 16th century and the outskirts of Tallinn (Vihterpalu, Kurkse, Padise); Haapsalu, the capital of the Estonian Swedish community and the Noarootsi peninsula to where now many are returning back from Sweden.

The small islands Ruhnu, Naissaar, Vormsi, Large and Small Pakri all had particular folk traditions and architecture, but unfortunately not much has preserved as Soviet military bases were constructed there and the areas used for bombing training. However, Ruhnu can still be proud of the oldest wooden church in Estonia (St. Madgalen) – dating from 1644 and Vormsi boasts with one of the most unique musical instruments in northern Europe – talharpa (the Swedish kannel). 

Hiiumaa has completely lost its Swedish community that can be commemorated on the Hill of the Crosses.