The best things to do in Pärnu Estonia

This post is about the best things to do in Pärnu Estonia. Pärnu is in the Southwestern part of the country on the Gulf of Riga. The city developed in the Middle ages at the place where Pärnu river joins the sea

Pärnu is Estonia’s summer capital and a favourite beach destination. There are a number of sandy beaches with spas and sanatoriums. Pärnu claims to have the best conditions for surfing and sunbathing.

I visited Pärnu in winter and wondered if it would still be worth it. Are there more things to do in Pärnu than just the beach? 

Things to do in Parnu Estonia

Why visit Pärnu?

At times when your expectations are low or you just don’t really know what you can expect, you can be in for a surprise.

Pärnu turns out to be a pleasant city to visit, even in winter. There are maybe no obvious tourist sights, but there are enough things to do in Pärnu for a day or two.

And they certainly don’t all revolve around the beach. Like everywhere in Estonia, nature is never far away. Pärnu is surrounded by forests, mires and bogs and there are several national parks nearby. This makes it a great place to go hiking and cycling.

Pärnu has history too. In the 13th century it was an important Hanseatic trading town with a large Teutonic castle. Not much remains of the medieval fortifications after Pärnu was looted and invaded by Baltic pirates, the Russians, the Lithuanians, the Poles and the Swedes. Still, the old town kept an authentic and easygoing charm.

Things to do in Parnu Estonia

Things to do in Pärnu

Pärnu Old town

Pärnu’s old town shows little of its turbulent history. The oldest building is the Alms house (Seegi maja) from 1658 that used to be a shelter for the sick. 

The rest of the old town is an eclectic mix of old and new. It is nothing like the UNESCO medieval town of Tallinn. Still, it kept a certain charm and wandering around the streets is one of the best things to do in Pärnu. 

Oldest building in Parnu Estonia

Punane Torn

The Punane Torn is the second oldest building in Pärnu. This tower is the only structure that was left from the medieval castle. It used to be a prison, but is now home to the Pärnu museum

Punane Torn

Town hall

Another historic building in Pärnu is the city’s town hall. A large 18th century yellow building in neoclassical style. Later another part was added in the back. The architecture is completely different and makes it look older than the original part.

Parnu town hall

Tallinn gate

The Tallinn gate is the only surviving entrance gate to the old town of Pärnu. It was designed by Erik Dahlberg who also designed the bastions in Narva.

Tallinn gate in Parnu Estonia

Elizabeth church

The Lutheran church in Pärnu’s old town was a gift from the Russian empress Elizabeth in 1744. It’s one of the best Baroque style churches in Estonia.

Elizabeth church in Parnu Estonia

Ekaterina church

The Ekaterina church was also a present from a Russian empress. As its name suggests it was Catherine the Great who ordered the construction of the church after her visit to Pärnu in 1764

The design inspired the style of other orthodox churches in the baltics. This church is still run by the Russian congregation.

Ekaterina church in Parnu Estonia

Transfiguration church

The Lord Transfiguration church in Pärnu is also an orthodox church, but it belongs to the Estonian Apostolic Orthodox Church.

The church was built in the late 19th century when Estonia was part of Russia. A rumour spread around that those who converted to the orthodox faith would get land in Russia.

The rumours were not true, but many peasants adopted the orthodox faith and churches were built. Most peasants went back to the Lutheran church once they realised it was a hoax. 

Still, a small group remained orthodox and later became the Estonian Apostolic Orthodox Church.

Pärnu’s traditional wooden homes

What I personally loved most about Pärnu were the beautiful traditional wooden homes. I already enjoyed seeing some in Tallinn and Tartu, but they seemed to be disappearing.

In my opinion, Pärnu is one of the best cities in Estonia to see the traditional wooden homes. There are plenty and most are well maintained with beautiful pastel colors. The more you get to the beach area, the larger the houses become. Also take a look at the doors. Many of them are beautifully decorated.

Wooden homes in Parnu Estonia

Pärnu beach

Pärnu beach is the main attraction of the city and attracts thousands of tourists every summer. But even in winter, the beach is spectacular. It’s a white winter wonderland with strange ice formations. It will be very cold, but dress warm and a walk on the beach is still very beautiful.

For me, it was the first time to see a frozen sea. I was even more surprised by the ice fishers. I arrived a little before sunset when they came back from the ice.

The ice fishers spent most of their day sitting still to catch fish in the freezing cold. Besides the fishermen there were few others on the beach.

Parnu beach

Pärnu coastal meadow trail

At the end of Pärnu beach is a 600 meter boardwalk trail. This is the coastal meadow hike. From the viewing platform you can look into the lagoon that is a favourite nesting place for a number of birds.

A very short, but nice hike that you can easily combine with a longer walk along the beach.

Pärnu spa and mud baths

The beach of Pärnu is lined with health resorts and spas. Already, during the Soviet Union, Pärnu was famous for its sanatoriums and received almost 300,000 tourists from within the Soviet Union.

The sanatoriums provided rest and recuperation to Soviet workers as well as so called health treatments when needed. Mud baths and water therapies in particular were very popular things to do in Pärnu.

When the Soviet Union collapsed, most sanatoriums closed their doors or modernized to spa and wellness centers. One of the oldest spa is the Pärnu mud baths that started as a bathing house in 1838, became a mud bath sanatorium in Soviet times and is now the Hedon spa and hotel.

Things to do near Pärnu

Tammiste hiking trail

For an easy hiking trail near Pärnu that you can access with public transport I can recommend the Tammiste hiking trail (Tammiste matkarada).

It is a 3 kilometer trail that runs through the forest and for a small part along the Pärnu river. In winter, with all the snow, it was like a fairytale. The river was frozen and you could watch the ice fishers at work.

In summer, I can imagine there are more beautiful hiking trails out there when you have your own transport. This is the only trail in the vicinity of the city where you can get by bus.

Tammiste hiking trail

Soomaa National Park

For a true nature experience I can recommend Soomaa National Park. A park of forests, mires and bogs home to an incredible number of wildlife including elk, wild boar, roe deer, fox and lynx.

There are a number of trails you can choose from. The Riisa study trail is the only one accessible by public transport. Others require your own transport. 

Without a guide it is very important to stick to the boardwalks and trails. On a guided tour you get to wear bogshoes that can bring you deeper into the bogs.

In winter the bogs become frozen and covered in snow. Still very beautiful, but because the trails are more tricky to follow I recommend a guided tour. In winter they offer snowshoe hikes and ice fishing trips.

Forest near Parnu Estonia

Pärnu travel tips

Where to eat

Mum cafe: The best cafe for Estonian inspired European cuisine. It is very popular and for good reasons. They have a nice menu and excellent food. 

Edelweiss: Edelweiss is a great restaurant for German food. Not necessarily what I was looking for, but because of winter it was one of the few restaurants open that day. The food was very good and the portions generous.

Where to sleep

I stayed at Viive appartment that had a very good deal in winter. Although not too close to the each and the old town it was a very comfortable appartment. It is still within walking distance of everything and the facilities were great. I can truly recommend it in summer or winter.

Parnu Estonia

How to get to Pärnu

There are frequent trains and buses from Tallinn, Tartu and Narva to Pärnu. You can check the bus times on T pillet. I would recommend Lux express. Lux express has very comfortable buses that I used on a number of occasions in Estonia.

To get to Pärnu from Tallinn you can also take the train. Trains are very modern too and it is a comfortable 2 hour journey. You can check the timetable and book tickets at Elron.

How to get around Pärnu

Most things to do in Pärnu are all within walking distance. The best way to get around is on foot. There is also a good bus network and bolt taxi’s are widely available.

Parnu in winter

When to go

Pärnu is the perfect destination for summer, but spring and autumn are also good times to visit the city. Winters can be cold, but the snow makes the town even more beautiful.

I visited Pärnu in winter and I thought it was still very much worth a visit because of its charming old town and the beautiful wooden homes.

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