Admitted to the Hanseatic League in 1346, the Estonian port city of Pärnu for many centuries rivalled Tallinn and Riga, but since the 19th century has been better known as a health centre and seaside resort, as well as for its yachting harbour. It has long been the go-to summer destination for locals, thanks to its long, sandy beach, relaxing spas and vibrant nightlife, but its medieval centre is also worth a stroll.
What to see and do in Pärnu
Where Rüütli and Ringi meet is now Rüütli Square but the 40 years of its previous life as Lenin Square needed to be obliterated. The building on the left side of the square, now shared between several banks, was the last in Pärnu to be completed in 1940 before the Soviet invasion. From the end of the war until 1967, the first floor served as a temporary theatre. It now houses the Museum of New Art, which moved here in December 2020 and has a small permanent collection but concentrates on temporary exhibitions, each lasting about four months.
Straight ahead is a monument unveiled in 2009 to commemorate the first signing of the Declaration of Independence, which took place in Pärnu at the Endla Theatre on 23 February 1918, a day before it did in Tallinn. The monument displays the full text. To the right of the Pärnu Hotel, on the corner of Rüütli and Aia, note the model of the former Endla Theatre which stood on this site before the war. Built in 1911, it had been the best example of Jugendstil in Pärnu, and could have been restored after bombing but was totally destroyed by the Soviets because of its association with the founding of Estonia.
Estonia’s most famous man, pre-war president Konstantin Päts, and Estonia’s most famous woman, the 19th-century poet Lydia Koidula, both went to school in Pärnu. Koidula became a household name during the national awakening of Estonia and her school has since been transformed into a museum about her life.
Located in the house where she lived from 1850 to 1863 (her father Johann Voldemar Jannsen worked as a schoolmaster at the time), this is a useful place to learn about their lives and activities in the context of national awakening, all while gaining a deeper insight into the traditional settings of 19th century Estonia. The statue of her made in 1929 was the last work of sculptor Amandus Adamson who died that year.
Pärnu Yacht Club
The town council granted permission for the building of the first bathing centre in 1837 but support was so poor that in 1857 public bathing on the beach was banned in the hope that this policy would force more people to use it. Fortunately the council realised at the turn of the century that Pärnu needed to cater for the healthy as well as for the sick.
The park was laid out, the yacht club established in 1906, and between the wars it attracted many foreign visitors. By 1938, over half of the 6,500 summer tourists were from abroad, Finns and Swedes replacing the Russians as there was a ferry service each summer between Stockholm and Pärnu. The yacht club closed during the Soviet period but is now thriving again.
Pärnu’s pride and joy, the Concert Hall opened in the autumn of 2002. Although famous for the music that is offered year-round, Pärnu has never before had a suitable venue for orchestral music and opera.
For the €5.75 million it cost it is a real bargain, and, as it is a circular glass building, Estonians can see both by day and by night what activities their taxes are generating. Had the world-famous conductor Neemi Järvi not lobbied and given constant support to the project, it might never have gone ahead.
The main auditorium seats a thousand and can be easily adapted for choral or theatre performances; it can equally be turned into a private ballroom. The higher floors are a music school. Neemi Järvi’s extended family is as musical as the Bachs and many of them participate in the annual David Oistrakh Festival in Pärnu each July. Future programmes at the concert hall can be seen on the website.
Walk along Rüütli into the Old Town taking the second road on the left, Nikolai, and the Baroque façade of Elizabeth’s Church on Kuninga comes into view. It was built between 1744 and 1747 and is named after the Russian empress on the throne at that time.
It has two links with Riga: the spire was designed by the architect Johann Heinrich Wilbern, who designed the spire of St Peter’s, and the organ, installed in 1929, is the work of Riga’s most famous organ builder of that time, Herbert Kolbe. It was restored in 2013. The statue on the corner of Kuninga and Nikolai is of Georg Richmann (1711–53), one of the pioneers in the discovery of electricity and probably the first scientist to be killed experimenting with it. His eyes light up at night.
The Red Tower
Just off Hommiku, on the west side of the road, is Pärnu’s oldest extant building, the Red Tower, which dates from the 15th century. As its thick walls and deep basement suggest, it was a prison for much of the time since then. It housed the town archives from World War I until 1972, after which it was largely empty. Fortunately, it reopened in 2020 as a cinema in the round, with a 10-minute 360° film, which skilfully summarises Pärnu’s 11,000-year history.
The Alevi Cemetery is where all the great and the good from Pärnu are buried, but what is surprising is how simple all their tombs are, and very few have statues with them.
Oskar Brackmann’s has a line from a Goethe poem Überallen Gipfeln ist Ruhe (Beyond the peaks, there is calm) famously set to music by Franz Liszt, amongst many others. The Ammende family who built the grand hotel that carries their name are buried together but there is no hint of the exuberance here that characterises the hotel.
Amandus Adamson lies behind the Independence Monument he built for the cemetery and which of course was destroyed in the Soviet period. It had to be rebuilt from his designs and photographs that fortunately remained. The monument is now surrounded again by tombs of those who fought for Estonian freedom in both world wars.
Getting to Pärnu
The bus station is close to the Pärnu Hotel and within walking distance of several others. For years, Pärnu did not have a bus station, and instead passengers had to stand in the open air to wait before departure, but in 2019 a bus station worthy of the town finally opened.
There are several departures each day to Tallinn (2hrs) and Tartu (3hrs). Buses to Valga stop at Kilingi-Nomme, from where local connections are available to Nigula Nature Reserve. Buses to Tõstamaa stop en route at the port of Manilaid, which serves Kihnu Island. This bleak port has no proper indoor waiting facilities and no catering so it is fortunate that only a wait of 15 minutes or so is necessary before the departure of the boat.
Ecolines and Lux Express have between them about 12 services a day to Riga (2½hrs). Fares vary greatly according to the level of comfort offered on the bus.
Flights operate from Pärnu to the islands of Kihnu, Ruhnu and Saaremaa but as these services are dependent on fluctuating government subsidies, and often only run once or twice a week, they are unlikely to be of use to foreign visitors. Sometimes it is possible to fly to Ruhnu for the day in the summer, when a flight leaves Pärnu in the morning, continues to Saaremaa and then returns in the afternoon. The websites of the local airport and of Kuressaare airport on Saaremaa Island both give current schedules and fares.
As of spring 2022, NyxAir fly between Helsinki and the newly renovated Pärnu Airport; the launch of a route between Pärnu and Stockholm is also in the pipeline.