Tartu is Estonia's 2nd biggest town, with a population of around 100,000 it's hardly Tokyo though! What it is though, is a very pleasant country town with nice buildings and a calm atmosphere. 185km South east of Tallinn, it's relatively close to the Latvian border and the capital of the south. Tartu is built upon the Emajogi River, a clean river that connects Estonia's largest lakes (Peipsi Jarv and Vortsjarv). The city is a university city and therefore populated by a lot of students and the cultural centre of Estonia.
There are archaeological findings proving life in Tartu from the 5th century and a wooden fortification on Toome Hill from the 7th century or slightly earlier but the first written accounts of existance are in the 11th century when in 1030 Yaroslav the Wise, Prince of Kiev took over Tartu and named it Yuryev and took taxes from the local villagers in the area of what was then known as Ugaunia who were themselves known as robbers and warriors by their neighbouring Sackalians (now Viljandi area) who in turn are suspected of burning Tartu to the ground in 1061(either them or Soopoolitsens, it's not clear!)
By 1224, Tartu at that time known as Tharbata came under the Livonian Order after being conquered by German crusaders and had a name change to Dorpat. During this time Tartu became a mecca of commerce and culture as it became the capital of the semi-independent Bishopric of Dorpat, a place that the German nobility were fond of and remained so until the 19th century, most stunning structures like the University and townhall were built by Germans and the population was also mostly if not completely German. German names still remain today.
In the 16th century, Livonia and therefore Tartu came under the Polish rule of King Bathory who introduced a Jesuit grammar school and translator's seminary but this was interrupted by a war with the Swedes who eventually beat the Poles and took over Tartu. It was during this time that the great university was built.
1721 marked the beginning of Russia as a great European power, they signed the Treaty of Nystad with Sweden in which Livonia, Estonia, Ingria and parts of Karelia as well as Baltic islands became Russian in return for Finland and 2 million Swedish daler (like dollar from the german word thaler). This meant that Tartu came under the rule of Tsar Peter I and was renamed to Derpt (another silly name by all accounts!)
Huge fires in the 18th century led to the damage of many medieval buildings and the city was rebuilt in a Late Baroque/Neoclassical style. Towards the end of the 19th century, the still oddly named Derpt believe it or not became the centre of romanticism and national feeling, the first Estonian song festival took place and a National Theatre and Writers Society was founded.
In 1893, the city was changed back to it's original Yurryev name (must have been a huge sigh of relief after years of Derpt!). After the Russian revolution, the Bolsheviks gave Estonia their freedom in 1920 and withdrew territorial claims "forever", well it sounded nice but in reality it only lasted 19 years as Estonia became under Soviet rule due to the Nazi-Soviet Pact of 1939.
Tartu suffered badly at the hands of the Soviets during WW2 and in 1944 in particularly was almost totally destroyed. Following WW2, another 46 years of Soviet rule took place which saw the population double as many Russians moved to Estonia.
Estonian independence in 1991 returned Tartu to it's former glory and it is once again a great place to be.
Tartu's train station is a bit derelict but there are 4 trains a day to Tallinn (2-3 hours depending on whether it's express or not), 1st class provides you with free coffee (often biccies too!), free internet and comfy seats and only costs 140kr. There's no train direct to Latvia, one goes to Valga and then you have to walk about 4km over the border. Buses are much more frequent and take 2.5hrs, there are over 40 a day and cost about the same as the 1st class train ticket. The bus station is bang in the centre of town where as the train station is about a mile out. Tartu is only small really, so there's little chance you'll need to use the public transport. If you are by car then the roads to Viljandi and Tartu were pretty good but the roads to the Latvian border were being repaired last time I visited, divertions were reasonable though.
Krooks is a good rock pub in a medieval sort of style, Wilde Pub is the Irish pub where Guinness can be found incredibly cheap, Hansa Tall is an old country worldy place which also has an old fashioned sauna in the pub! Maalim is an insane place with crazy decorations on the walls, good food and student parties on Thursdays. Püssirohukelder is a gunpowder cellar that features live bands, great beer and a cosier tier below where embraced couples drink wine. There is also a fair amount of coffee bars and clubs of which I've never visted but I've heard Atlantis is probably the most well known one.
I'm not hugely into the names of the sights but everything is within walking distance in the old town, walk around and you will be impressed! I recommend The Tartu City Museum.
If you have just come from Riga, Tallinn or even St. Petersburg then you'll be a little surprised at the quietness of the town in comparison to those three but Tallinn is quaint and pleasant and the locals have a lot of time for you. There are things to do and nice places to go but you have to enter the doors, if you just walk around admiring buildings, you'll found yourself sat on a bench by the river wondering what to do next!
I've only ever been there with an Estonian friend, so that was a major benefit but what I can tell you is not to bother going to the Indian Restaurant, revolting food with poor ingredients, cooks and cooking equipment, very disappointing indeed.