Parnu in Estonia is not the most obvious backpacking location, especially in winter. But this is where I found the real charm. Stripped to the bone, Parnu is an Estonian seaside city which buzzes in the summer and slows down to a freezing halt in the winter. It’s where Estonian Independence was announced back in 1918 and a bit different from the capital city Tallinn.
My friends Becci Williams and Shaun Schofield, who is the author of There’s Always One and Albania to America (with Belfast in between) invited me to stay at their place in Tammiste Tee in Parnu and I was able to explore the city easily on foot, with a quick (number 16) bus ride in and out of the city centre. We also had some great food and drink together over the two nights I was in town.
Without Shaun and Becci being there at the time (which was a coincidence) I would probably not have chosen to visit Parnu, nor would I have been able to get such a local, expert and friendly guide to the town. So a big thanks to Shaun and Becci. In the past I have attended a football match at Wembley with Shaun and Becci (England v. Estonia in 2007) as well as meeting them at the Blue Lagoon Iceland and in various other random countries at Northern Ireland football matches.
It’s a peaceful and tranquil spot in the winter and I was happy I got to see it in January in the snowy icy season. I’ve picked out a personal top 17 sights in the city.
1. Parnu Beach
Start with Parnu beach. A summer paradise which freezes up completely in winter. Sand becomes snow and water becomes ice.
It’s amazing to see the contrasts. Beachside bars and cafes close completely in the winter and fishermen and skaters go out on the ice that was once ocean.
2. Town Hall
Every Town has to have a decent town hall and Parnu’s dates back to 1797. It’s on the corner at Uus3 and Nikolai 3 Street.
3. Tallinn Gate
This is shockingly the only remaining 17th Century Town Wall Gate in the Baltics. There was a bridge across the moat from the gate to the postal road that headed to a ferry crossing in Ringi Street and from there via Vana-Parnu to Tallinn. These days it’s a pretty nice gate to admire on your dander round town.
4. Ekateriina Church
Churches and Estonia breed variety, contrasting colours and of course history. While Parnu has a few central churches, the Church of St. Catherine is the most stylish and the richest example of a Baroque church in Estonia, yes better than those in the capital. The building was completed in 1768. White and yellow dominate while spires and green domes pierce the winter sunshine of Parnu.
5. St. Elizabeth’s Church
This church is also in the city centre and on Nikolai Street. The church has one of the best organs in Estonia and is also used for concerts. It was built in 1744 – 1747.
6. Lydia Koidula Statue and Koidula Park
You’ll wonder who Lydia Koidula is when you’re in Estonia. I asked my tour guide Shaun Schofield for the answer and it turns out she is a woman of many trades. Lydia Koidula was a well known and popular poet, publicist and author. Not just any old author either – she was the author of the first ever play in Estonian.
Lydia Koidula was alive from 1843 – 1886 and this monument was completed in 1929, sitting in the park also known as Koidula Park. Museum buffs will also like the idea that a Lydia Koidula museum exists on JV Jannseni Street, number 37 in the Ulejoe district.
7. Orthodox Church of the Transfiguration of Our Lord
A longer title than I had hoped but this central church completes a hat trick of churches to check out on your walk through the city. This is slightly newer than the others, dating to 1904. It’s a Russian style Apostolic Orthodox Church.
6. Mary Magdalene Guild (Arts and Crafts Workshops)
I’m bunging all this into one sight to visit yet within this building is a maze of pretty art and craft workshops. Meticulously artistic and creative, Estonians are a hard working bunch. Even better you can visit all the workshops yourself and chat to the craftsmen and women at work.
Inside there is tie making, weaving, pottery, drawing and even glass staining. It’s really worth a trip and a bit of time to chat to the workers and buy some well designed gifts.
7. Seegi Maja (Almshouse Hotel Building)
Creeping out oddly on a side street is the remarkable Almshouse Hotel Building. Research tells you that this building dates back to the 13th Century. It’s now restored and makes for a historic restaurant and hotel experience.
This swanky beachside Hotel shouts “Savoy” at me for the simple fact that in my hometown of Bangor, the Savoy was the long standing traditionally popular hotel in the town. Sitting overlooking the beach you’ll pay a fair few Euros for a room here in the height of the summer. Book Rannahotell on Agoda.
8. Soorikud Coffee Shop
In many ways this was the highlight of Parnu for me as it felt like a step back in time and it felt for once, I was really travelling again. Soorikud Coffee Shop is as basic as they come. It sells coffee and cakes and is a relaxing place.
Shaun, Becci and I popped in for a well needed morning coffee and doughnuts.
So take a step back in time to this wonderful coffee shop which hasn’t changed in years. A coffee will only set you back 50 cents and with the best hot doughnuts in town, you can’t go wrong. They’re so cool and vintage they don’t even have an official Facebook page yet.
9. Red Tower (Punane Torn)
This tower again shows reminders of the old town centre and while it sits near the Almshouse, it looks a bit out of place down a small alleyway. You want to know a secret? It’s the oldest building in Parnu that still stands so that in itself makes it worth a look.
10. Estonian Independence Monument
Estonia became an independent country back in 1918, and later having been integrated into part of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics it finally got its full freedom back, including its flag and currency in 1991. This marker opposite Hotel Parnu, sits where a theatre once did. The monument marks the spot where Estonians in the city announced their independence.
11. Gunpowder Factory
Housed inside a school building is this former gunpowder factory complete with tourist information board outside it.
12. Parnu Mudaravila (Mud Baths)
This massive neoclassical building is down by the beach and is known as the Mud Baths. These days of course, it’s now a swanky hotel – the four star Hedon Spa no less. There’s also a great sea view from the terrace and restaurant.
13. Raimond Valgre Monument
I had no idea who Raimond Valgre was until I saw his statue. He is a popular Estonian easy listening composer, even cooler is that 24 hours a day they play his music as you walk past – crazy!
Again we’re backpacking through cities checking out buildings and Parnu dishes out a fair eclectic burst of them. The Kuursaal shoots out at you on your seafront walk. What is it? It’s been a dancehall, concert venue and cinema in its history. Apparently it now houses Estonia’s biggest pub. One thing though – it wasn’t open on a cold January morning…
15. Parnu Yacht Club and Harbour
The Bangor Boy in me loves the sea air. The freedom and freshness of it all. For this reason, the seafront and harbour at Parnu holds a special ice cold winter experience for me. We walked to the Yacht Club too and the waters were frozen over. The nearby park had some youngsters on toboggans loving the snow.
As were here off season we were able to get a quick tour of the swanky Ammende Villa which is an elaborate villa built in 1905. An early example of Art Nouveau in Estonia, it has been a casino, a sanatorium and a library (in Soviet times). Let history escape you and enjoy the Grandeur of the coolest hotel in the city. Book a room at Villa Ammende.
17. Veerev Õlu/The Rolling Beer
You knew a thirsty pub was coming after backpacking your way through those 16 sights (and a few others I’ve left out) and I’ve picked out the best bar in town – Veerev Olu AKA the Rolling Beer is run by Bowsi, Parnu’s most famous Swedish resident.
The pub has Estonian beer and cider on tap, live sports, a poky atmosphere and is also the home of the first ever Northern Ireland Supporters Club in the Baltics – 7th Parnu NISC.
The cool thing about backpacking in Parnu in the winter is that there are no other tourists about! There is one hostel in the city centre if you don’t fancy the hotel lifestyle and there are all sorts of hidden treasures on every corner of this town.
My thanks to Shaun Schofield and Becci Williams for the guided tour of Parnu. There may be an option for summer tours with either of them if you contact me through my website – jonny (at) dontstopliving, dot, net.
Here are some of the videos I made in Parnu: