When people think of visiting the Baltic states like Estonia, its unlikely they think about spending much time by the beach. That’s more a southern Europe, Italy or Greece kind of thing right? As it turns out, the seaside city of Pärnu is one of Estonia’s more popular tourist destinations for exactly that purpose. Heading north out of Latvia, Pärnu was to be my first stop in Estonia and I was curious to see what the Estonian seaside was like in early August.
After spending several days exploring the castles and woods of the Gauja Valley in Latvia, I was looking forward to a sea change and a chance to see a different side to Baltic life. Pärnu really is a great choice to do just that, as the 4th largest city in Estonia but also one of it’s best summer holiday choices. My two days in Pärnu showed my why the city is so popular even if I what came across was different from what I was expecting in a beach trip.
Let’s start with the beach shall we? Separated from the city centre by a nice stretch of parkland is the Pärnu Rand, the main beachfront of the city. Right along the beach is a broad boulevard for walking and cycling as well as allowing access to a particularly nice hotel. There are also several spa resorts found within the parkland, as Pärnu is also quite well known as a spa town. As that isn’t really my kind of thing, I’ll have to take their word for it.
Anyway, given that it was August which is generally the height of summer, you would expect that it would be warm, sunny and pleasant. It wasn’t. By the time I arrived in Pärnu it seems the weather had already turned and what I was greeted with was cooler weather and fairly strong winds, whipping sand about forcefully. I can imagine that the beach is actually really nice when the weather is good as the sand is soft, there’s plenty of space and the waves didn’t seem too intense. So maybe aim for July if you’re after premium beach weather in Pärnu.
At the end of the beach, you’ll find the Pärnu Muul or pier in English. I was told by the owner of my guesthouse that it was a good spot to both see along the beach but also to see the boats leaving the marina. As it happens, the pier is also the setting for a popular local legend. The legend states that if a couple walks hand in hand all the way to the end of the pier and kisses, they’ll stay together forever. Romantic stuff!
Wanting to see what was at the end of the pier (even though I was alone, no hand holding for me) I made my way down the pier until I came across a section that had been flooded over by the tide. Seems unending love isn’t without its obstacles!
After getting a feel for the beach, I decided to explore the centre of Pärnu and see what the seaside town had going on. Pärnu is not a large city – the centre is maybe 500 metres across – so you can easily get around the city centre on foot. Here you’ll find plenty of cafes and restaurants as well as a few bars, with a great mix of both local and international cuisine. As it was still officially summer, most restaurants had their outdoor seating areas set up and if the weather had been better it would have been a great option.
As for sightseeing in the city, there aren’t too many big attractions. Aside from the local theatre, several churches and the Pärnu Museum you’re not going to find many must see spots. However, one thing I quickly noticed when exploring the city was that the people of Pärnu have a thing for elaborately ornate doors. I soon found myself taking plenty of photos of the doors around town as they really stand out.
Quite surprisingly, Pärnu also boasts some vivid street art which I don’t think you would expect from a seaside city of this size. Most of the art can be found along the side of a building on Pühavaimu Street in the centre of town, with different pieces occupying the windows and doors along the roadside. Don’t forget to also look around the corner to the right where you’ll see the big sea-themed mural above. Unexpected but definitely interesting.
While there certainly some nice buildings in the centre of the city, it wasn’t until headed out a bit further that I came across some really quaint and colourful houses. Now many of the houses in the city were older, panel board houses but the ones on Suur Sepa Street were especially interesting. Apart from their more noticeable colour palettes, the houses had quite ornate bargeboards. There were also some charming ones heading down towards the beachfront along Supeluse Street. The streets of Pärnu away from the city centre are fantastic if you just want a gentle stroll and admire some pretty local houses.
Probably the aspect of Pärnu my guesthouse host was most excited to tell me about were the Urban Cows. If like me, you found that phrase puzzling, allow me to explain. First of all, it has to do with the coastal meadows that border the beach southeast of Pärnu. These areas have been under threat from human activity and so the city designated the area the Pärnu Rannaniidu Nature Reserve to protect the wetlands and the native wildlife. The conservation efforts to protect the wetlands environment involved various measures but the most talked about is the “Urban Cows” that have been brought in.
These cows are “urban” in the sense that you can find them within walking distance from the city and beach. The reasoning for the cows is that for centuries the wetlands were used for pasture and the cattle provided a natural form of maintenance for the environment, in particular by preventing the lagoons from silting up. Once the areas along the beachside stopping being used for farming, they began to suffer from coastal erosion. Hence these “Urban Cows” have been reintroduced to help preserve this important local habitat.
To further the causes of the Nature Reserve, the city of Pärnu has looked to ecotourism as another means of protecting the area. So far they have built several boardwalks that allow visitors to explore the wetlands without disturbing the wildlife and harming the wetlands. There’s even a viewing tower that outlines all the different forms of local wildlife you may see while visiting. It brings me much pain to say that while I did see plenty of birds, I saw a grand total of zero cows. Still, it was nice to explore the wetlands and appreciate what they are trying to protect.
After exploring the Nature Reserve and having no luck spotting any cows, I followed the boardwalk until it reached the beach. Once by the beach, I spotted several people nearby kitesurfing as the conditions and weather were perfect for it. While I’ve never been kitesurfing, I do enjoy just sitting back and watching them fly along. There’s something fantastic about the motion of it all and I never seem to get tired of seeing it. While it is possible to get lessons in Pärnu, I wasn’t in any mood to try. One day though.
Have you ever visited the beachside in an unlikely place? Have you been to Pärnu? Please share your experiences in the comments below.
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