Tartu is the second largest city of Estonia, with a population of 100,482 (census data as of 2004) and an area of 38.8 km. In contrast to Estonia's political and financial capital Tallinn, Tartu is often considered the intellectual and cultural centre, especially since it is home to Estonia's oldest and most renowned university. Situated 180 km southeast of Tallinn, Tartu is the centre of Southern Estonia. The Emajõgi river, which connects the two largest lakes of Estonia, crosses the city for a length of 10 km and adds colour. 

The city is best known for being the home to the University of Tartu, founded by King Gustavus Adolphus of Sweden in 1632. Mainly for this reason, Tartu was and is also - tongue-in-cheek - known as the "Athens of the Emajõgi" or as the "Heidelberg of the North". 
Tartu is also the seat of the Estonian Agricultural University, the Baltic Defence College, and the Estonian Ministry of Education and Research. The Estonian Supreme Court, which was reestablished in Tartu in the autumn of 1993, is likewise in the city, as well as the Estonian Historical Archives. 

The architecture and city planning of historical Tartu mainly go back to the pre-independence period, with Germans forming the upper and middle classes of society, and therefore contributing many architects, professors, local politicians, etc. Most notable are the old Lutheran St. John's Church (Johanneskirche or Jaani Kirik), the town hall, the university building, the botanical gardens, the main shopping street, and many buildings around the town hall square. 

In the suburbs, classic Soviet neighbourhoods were built during the period between the Second World War and restoration of Estonian independence in 1991. Presently, Tartu is also known for several modern, rather sterile-looking buildings of the "steel, concrete and glass" type, but has managed to retain a mix of old buildings and new buildings in the historical centre of town. 

Being the intellectual and cultural centre of Estonia, the Estonian Prime Minister often takes state guests to Tartu. Famous guests have included Charles, Prince of Wales, the presidents of Finland, Latvia, Hungary, the Republic of Ireland, and Lithuania, as well as religious leaders like the Dalai Lama and the head of the Orthodox Church of Constantinople, Patriarch Bartholomew I. 

Tartu's large student population means that it has a comparatively thriving nightlife, with some bars, restaurants, and nightclubs. Some of the more popular destinations for tourists include the Wilde Irish Pub and the Gunpowder Cellar.