Haapsalu has taken its time to catch up with the rest of Estonia.

Its role as an air-force base restricted access until the end of the Gorbachev era and, as late as 1995, visitors were entitled to feel that it was a town looking backwards, not forwards. It had indeed much to look backwards at, with a turbulent history stretching back to its foundation in 1279, the year in which the construction of the castle was completed. Recent archaeological work has unearthed evidence of stone being used a century earlier.

Haapsalu Promenade Estonia by Toomas Tuul Visit Estonia
The town is one of the most popular destinations along the Baltic coast due to its warmer climate © Toomas Tuul, Visit Estonia

Given its strategic location, every invader over the centuries had to secure the town, no matter at what cost. Most were to rebuild it, but Peter the Great, when he arrived in 1715, decided simply to destroy it so that the Swedes, with whom he was still fighting, would have little incentive to return. It would never again be seen as a major fortress. By 1715, as a result of war and plague, Haapsalu’s population had dropped to around 100 and even a century later it had only risen to 600. Its sudden rise to fame can be ascribed to one man, Dr Carl Abraham Hunnius, and to one product, mud. In 1825 Hunnius opened his first sanatorium and the popularity of the town was quickly established amongst the St Petersburg nobility.

Once the royal family showed an interest, as it soon did, the town’s continuing status was assured. Tsar Nicholas I himself came in 1852 for the first time, and Alexander II, who succeeded him in 1855, made repeated visits throughout his reign and Haapsalu became a major summer resort with a regular ‘season’. Tchaikovsky paid his first visit in 1867 and a wide range of his music was written in Haapsalu, including his Songs without Words and of course the Souvenir de Hapsal written in 1867. Soviet histories find it very difficult to cover this era in the town’s history, when support from the Imperial family, effectively Baltic-German entrepreneurs, and a rising Estonian middle class turned what had been barely more than a village at the beginning of the century into a resort on a par with many others in Europe by 1900. One history of the town, published in 1976, is forced to admit that ‘due to the mentality of the inhabitants, the town played a minor role in the revolutionary struggle’. A revolution in Haapsalu would have been as unlikely as one in Baden-Baden, Bath or Biarritz.

Haapsalu Estonia by yegorovnick Shutterstock
Most of Haapsalu’s buildings date from the late 19th century when the town was the favoured seaside resort of the Russian aristocracy © yegorovnick, Shutterstock

The sea is very shallow in the bay, which makes it warmer than elsewhere in Estonia, giving rise to the name ‘Africa Beach’. The water temperature is often around 21 ̊C (70 ̊F) in the summer, much higher than anywhere else in the Baltic Sea. The protection of the bay makes the sea less prone to storms, so the town became one of the most popular resorts along the Baltic coast.

What to see and do in Haapsalu

Haapsalu Castle

The town centre has always played the combined role of fortress and cathedral. When first built with local limestone at the end of the 13th century, it had a far more isolated location than it does now as it was right beside the sea and could be more easily defended. The land around it has risen quite considerably in the intervening seven centuries.

It has probably had the most turbulent history of any castle in Estonia, with frequent fires adding to the many attempts to conquer it. A convenient legend of the ‘Lady in White’, whose ghost stalks the supposedly all-male redoubt each August, has given rise to an annual festival centred on the castle with son et lumière performances each evening. She was alleged to have had an affair with a priest, disguising herself successfully as a pageboy for two years before being discovered. When this finally happened, her punishment was to be impaled on the castle walls. During full moon in August, her ghost can be ‘seen’ through the central window of the cathedral.

Haapsalu Castle by Visit Estonia
Haapsalu’s castle has seen a turbulent history © Visit Estonia

The ruins themselves involve tough climbs, so are not for the frail, but a walk around the outside walls, 800m in length, is not difficult. These ramparts date from the 16th to 17th century, when the Swedes built them, and consisted of seven towers and four gates. As so often with major fortifications in Estonia, they were never actually used, and were allowed to decay from the 18th century onwards.

Läänemaa Museum

This is housed in an 18th-century building, which was the Town Hall before World War II. In 1946 it was designated as a museum and through the Soviet era housed a collection of antiquities which had previously been in the castle. Since re-independence it has taken great trouble to bring to life Haapsalu’s history and every year it seems to expand its collection.

There are models of boats used in the harbour as well as Arabic coins to show the extent of early trade links. The archaeological collections have been put into one large case with a shelf for each century from the 13th onwards. 

Getting to Haapsalu

Buses, both local and long distance, leave from the railway station forecourt and tickets can be bought in advance from the office inside the station (long-distance buses can also be prebooked on the website.

Ironically, since the closure of the passenger line in 1995, the only tickets the station can sell are those for buses (although at the time of writing in early 2021, the rebuilding of the railway line was being discussed). There are hourly services to Tallinn (1½–2hrs), as well as several services a day to Pärnu, Tartu and Hiiumaa Island. In summer, buses also operate to Virtsu for Saaremaa Island.