Paradise / noun : a place or state of bliss, felicity, or delight
What comes to mind when you hear the word “paradise?” A sandy shoreline dotted with spa resorts, perhaps? Tourism industries in far flung locales like Bali, Thailand, and the Caribbean are thriving thanks to plenty of folks seeking exactly that.
But paradise can come in many different forms – and climates. If you happen to live in Northern Europe, there’s an option much closer to home!
Parnu, Estonia is located on the Baltic coast about halfway between Tallinn and Riga. Hugged by the shallow waters of the Gulf of Riga, the pristine white sands of Parnu Beach stretch as far as the eye can see. Development has been kept to a minimum, with bird-watching towers outnumbering high-rise hotels. In fact, you can’t see any hotels from the beach. These have been tucked discretely behind the dunes, inside Parnu Beach Park. The beach features a lovely promenade, playground equipment, and, curiously, a large elephant-shaped slide. Those wishing to indulge in some serious relaxing should head to the hotel spas for which the town has become famous.
A fifteen minute walk inland will lead you to the historic center of Parnu. Founded in 1251, this picturesque town nestled between the Baltic Sea and Parnu River quickly grew into an important port. Parnu was incorporated into the prosperous Hanseatic League, which thrived during the late Middle Ages. The old town was unfortunately ravaged by fire, and later, war, so that only the medieval street layout and one lone prison tower remain intact. You’ll likely pass through Tallinn Gate, a 17th century gate that once formed part of the city’s fortifications.
The current architecture is an eclectic mix of 17th, 18th, and 19th century styles. Baroque stucco, half-timber facades, and Art Nouveau flourishes stand shoulder to shoulder, accented with the most wonderfully painted doors! Lutheran and Orthodox church spires punctuate the sky, and bells peal come prayer time. The main street running through the center of old Parnu is closed to traffic, making it a perfect place to stroll.
Parnu’s most notable attraction is the Mary-Magdalene Guild. A collection of artisan workshops and studios is housed within a restored wooden house in the center of town. Visitors can meander through the studios and chat with the artists while they work. I was particularly taken with the colorful rugs in the weaving studio run by artist Mare Pernik. (To visit her Etsy shop, click here.) A shop of the ground floor offers a wide array of Estonian handicrafts for sale. The Guild is only open until 3pm on Saturdays and is closed on Sundays, so be sure to plan accordingly.
Charming cafes and restaurants abound. I recommend spending at least one night in Parnu to give yourself plenty of opportunities to enjoy them. Kohvik Supelsaksad is the best of the bunch. The menu features satisfying salads and pastas, and the whimsical decor is sure to delight. Wine Piccadilly is also a nice spot to rest cobblestone-weary feet. Their banana toffee pie is the most delicious thing I tasted the entire weekend!
For a more modern take on Estonian cuisine, check out the offerings at Hea Maa Restaurant. Each artistically presented plate consists of only the freshest seasonal, local ingredients; our waitress was able to tell us the specific farms from which the items were sourced!
I chose to stay at the more centrally located Parnu Hotel instead of one of the posh beach resorts. The Soviet-style hotel was built on the site of Endla Theater, which was destroyed during WWII; a memorial to the culturally significant theater stands in a park across the street. Rooms at the Parnu Hotel are sparse, but comfortable. Ask for one facing the the old town for the best view!
A more luxurious option is Ammende Villa. The mansion was built in 1905 by a family of wealthy German traders. Used as a casino and then a health center by the Soviets after WWII, Ammende Villa has been fully restored to its Art Nouveau glory and converted into a boutique hotel. But even if you don’t stay at the Villa, visitors are free to wander around the ground floor rooms and admire the atmosphere. The stately exterior opens onto a two-story lobby hung with a massive chandelier and a bevy of hunting trophies. The dark woods of the billiard room are offset by the light airiness of the elegant dining room and cozy mauve shades of the parlor. I can only imagine the beauty of the upstairs guest rooms!
Is Parnu, Estonia your idea of paradise?