Tasting the Good Life in Parnu, the Summer Capital of Estonia Destinations / Estonia / Europe

 
When talking beach resort, most of us probably think Greece, Spain, Portugal. The Côte d’Azur. If you’re American, Florida or California. The islands of South-East Asia. The Caribbean. Australia.

Well, Estonians and their Baltic and Nordic neighbours may have a completely different answer for us: they have their own little beach paradise, and it’s called Pärnu.

If you’ve never heard of it before, don’t worry, you don’t need to sign up for a geography Master’s. You’re not alone: neither had I!

In fact, it’s not like I knew anything other than Tallinn when I first started researching for my trip in the Baltics… However, my cousin and I wanted to spend time in at least two different places in Estonia in order to see a little more of the country, and to break up our trip from Riga to Tallinn. So, I googled ‘Estonia highlights’ and ‘Things not to miss in Estonia’, and read about this little beach town called Pärnu that seemed to be located halfway between the two capitals and kept being referred to as ‘the summer capital of Estonia’.
 
Estonia Parnu beachfront

A beach stop on our Baltics route? We hadn’t even thought of that, but now that Google mentioned it, YES, sure, we’d take it!

SOLD.

However, after rejigging our plans several times so we could fit in everything we wanted to see in Latvia, we quickly realized that we would only have one day to spend in Pärnu.

With less than 24 hours to spare in the city, we needed to make the most of it. So I put my magic Google research skills to use again and found exactly what we were looking for: a Walking Food Tour with Perona Travel/Perona Reisid.

First off, let’s just say that the idea of a walking food tour is GE-NIUS. I had taken walking tours and food tours before, but never the two combined. And yes, it is exactly what it sounds like: a guided visit of a city broken up by stops to stuff your face at different restaurants.

Basically, if you like to take walks and to eat (which, if you’re a human being with feet and a mouth, you probably do), this is for you.

As soon as our bus dropped us off in Pärnu, we hurried to meet our guide Tiina outside the City Hall. After a quick introduction, Tiina immediately took us on a first loop around the historical city centre, leading us inside Orthodox and Protestant churches, and telling us about the various strands of architecture in Pärnu.
 
Parnu, Estonia churches

Like other cities in the Baltic-Nordic corridor – such as Bergen in Norway -, Pärnu was a Hanseatic trading center in medieval times. And like in Bergen, this means: colourful old houses! It also means that with its long history, Pärnu features a variety of beautiful buildings from the 12th, 17th, and 18th centuries.
 
Colourful old buildings of Parnu Estonia

Parnu, Estonia colourful architecture

After sampling the architecture of the city centre, it was time to start sampling THE FOOD. Our first stop was at Komfek, a cutesy arty cafe where Tiina ordered a platter of cheese, breads and dips for our starter.
 
Komfek cafe Parnu Estonia

We received a personal welcome from the young female owner, who explained that after getting addicted to macaroon-making, she had returned from Dubai to Estonia to open a cafe where she could give free rein to her passion. From cakes, she had quickly graduated to serving full meals and hosting a variety of events.

I knew I had met a kindred spirit when she told me that she had envisioned Komfek as a kind of ‘wonderland’, doubling up (or rather, quadrupling up) as a cafe, art space, bakery, and gift shop. Yes to young entrepreneurship!

With its relaxing background playlist, fresh food, and occasional live music and open-air plays, Komfek is now well-established as Pärnu’s most ‘happening’ hangout. In fact, its outside space has recently been named one of Estonia’s most charming summer courtyards.

Although it would have been very easy to get comfy and while away the rest of our afternoon reading at Komfek, we had to march on. Tiina led us outside the historical centre through the old Tallinn Gate.
 
Parnu Tallinn Gate, Estonia

What lay behind this pretty monument was a gigantic residential park linking Pärnu’s centre to its beachfront. The sprawling greenery and rather stately villas weren’t without reminding me of my hometown of Maisons-Laffitte, except for the very distinct architecture and colourfulness of the wooden houses. And, well, the beach at the edge of the park.
 
Villa Katariina in Parnu, Estonia

Parnu Park villa, Estonia

Pärnu’s park is the heart of its spa activity, which makes the city a sought-out tourist destination even in winter. Pärnu features over a dozen medical and leisure grand spa hotels – and if you think these are only filled by the (rich) elderly, think again! Estonia has a long-standing spa and sauna tradition, making it a pastime equally favoured by young people and families.
 
Parnu residential park, Estonia

Do you know what else struck us about Pärnu? Its musical and cultural penchant: it seemed like every hotel or pub we passed turned into an evening venue for open-air gigs and concerts. A big beach music festival had just ended, a film festival was starting, and the city was getting ready to host the international Weekend Festival Baltic headlined by David Guetta in August…

As further testimony to its love of music, Pärnu features a statue of one of Estonia’s most famous composers and playboys, Raimond Valgre, who used to perform (and pick up girls) in the city regularly. This is an interactive installation: you can pose with the man while listening to one of his accordion tunes blasting from a speaker!
 

Raimond Valgre statue, Parnu, Estonia

Clearly smitten with me!

After many spa hotels, villas, and anecdotes, we reached the beach and took a few steps along the Pärnu Beach Promenade.
 
Beach in Parnu, Estonia

If, like us at the time, you’re thinking ‘It’s nice that they have a beach and all, but omg, the sea must be freezing‘, prepare to be surprised:
 

Sea temperature on Parnu beach, Estonia

NOT Photoshopped!

Yup, the sea temperature can go up to at least 21°C! This is more than many Central European resorts can claim!

All this walking and sea air were starting to dig large holes into our stomachs, so we retraced our steps and headed back to the city centre for our main course: a local fish-based dish and bottle of white wine at Mahedik Cafe.
 
Fish dish at Mahedik Cafe, Parnu, Estonia

Mahedik offers a changing menu of fresh, locally-sourced organic food that can be enjoyed in its cosy indoors area or on its summer terrace.
 
Mahedik Kohvik, Parnu Estonia

We had time to digest our yummy meal on our second round of the city centre, which revealed more colourful old buildings, artisanal workshops, and summer terraces.
 
Parnu Estonia city centre

Parnu architecture Estonia

Overview of Parnu city centre, Estonia

Finally, we sat down for dessert in the large summer courtyard of Kohvihoovik Coffee Shop, where Tiina ordered not one, but four different cakes for us to share! The chocolate cake was a little too sweet for our taste, but the other flavours (carrot and summer fruit) really hit the mark.
 
Kohvihoovik Coffee Shop Parnu Estonia

Overall, our 4-hour Food Walking Tour was a brilliant way of making the most of our short time in Pärnu. It packed in a lot of culinary and sightseeing delights at a leisurely pace, leaving us enough time to add the Baltic Sea to our ‘swimming trophy board’ and to enjoy sunset drinks on the Beach Promenade. Tiina used to work for the Pärnu and Tallinn Tourist Offices before she set up Perona Travel/Perona Reisid with her daughter, and it was clear that she knew her stuff.

Although we were slightly disappointed that the food part of the tour did not include more Estonian specialties, Tiina explained to us that the national cuisine was rather heavy (being inspired by German food). Locals therefore tend to prefer fresh, Mediterranean-style eating in the summer. This was hard to argue with!

And Pärnu itself? Everything seemed to sing ‘Relax, take it easy’ in this walkable city. History. Colourful buildings. Green parks. A thriving coffee scene. Good hotels. Spas. Music festivals. Beach parties. Swimming. What more could you ask from a summer resort?!

(Disclaimer: I received a small discount from Perona Travel/Perona Reisid for the Walking Food Tour. However, I only accept partnerships for activities I am genuinely excited about, and all opinions are solely my own!)

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Where to stay in Pärnu

Budget options in Pärnu are limited. We stayed in a twin room with shared bathroom at Tiia Guesthouse for €42. The room was simple but clean, and offered free wifi, cable TV, and tea- and coffee-making amenities.

The best thing about Tiia Guesthouse was its location in the middle of the Pärnu park, 5 minutes away from the centre and 10 minutes from the beach, and its exterior aspect as a traditional wooden house.
 

Tiia Guesthouse, Parnu Estonia

Tiia Guesthouse

With a slightly superior budget, you can look for something a little plusher from the range of properties offered on Booking.com or Agoda.

Getting to Pärnu

Pärnu can be reached with frequent buses from Riga (2.5 hours; €10-18) or Tallinn (around 2 hours and €9). The buses we took on these routes were highly comfortable, with free wifi and individual entertainment screens!

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What do you think of Pärnu? Would you consider it for your summer holidays? Have you ever been on a walking food tour? Let me know in the comments below!

If you would like to follow the rest of my adventures, consider subscribing to the blog to receive all updates by email, and connecting with Camille in Wonderlands on Facebook, where I regularly post snapshots and musings that haven’t made it onto the site.
 
 

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Camille

Ex-French girl. Reader, writer, editor, and world traveller. Digital nomad. Aspiring filmmaker and poet. Into lifestyle choices, culture and the arts. Passionate about passion. Risk-taker. Occasional ranter!

Comments

  1. Thierry Says: July 31, 2015 at 8:42 pm

    J’ignorais l’existence de Parnu. En Estonie je ne connaissais que le nom de la capitale,Tallinn. Je ne savais pas non plus qu’on y trouvait une si jolie station balnéaire, avec ses maisons multicolores, son parc, etc, et surtout que la mer pouvait y être aussi chaude. Etonnant !

    • Je n’en savais rien non plus avant de commencer à planifier notre itinéraire, mais ce fut une très bonne surprise ! Un cadre très agréable dont il se dégage une vraie douceur de vivre, entre centre-ville vivant plein de cafés et de vieux bâtiments colorés, parc résidentiel parsemé de villas et hôtels, plage, et concerts et films en plein air… Bref, la belle vie !
      Camille recently posted…Tasting the Good Life in Parnu, the Summer Capital of EstoniaMy Profile

  2. This sounds amazing! I had definitely never heard of Parnu, but now I want to go! I’ve always wanted to go on a walking food tour, but have yet to bite the bullet!
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  3. Wow! Never seen such vivid colors in any city before! Parnu looks absolutely stunning! Thanks for sharing. 🙂
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    • Yes, it is beautiful and it deserves to be better known! Thanks for stopping by Renuka 🙂
      Camille recently posted…Tasting the Good Life in Parnu, the Summer Capital of EstoniaMy Profile

    • enfpwoman Says: August 13, 2015 at 9:40 pm

      Yes, you’re right, those intense colours are not real.
      The colours have been oversaturated during editing and don’t reflect how Pärnu really looks.
      Known as the trendy “Disney cartoon effect”
      Ugh!

      • Yes Enfpwoman, you’re right, like most images in most travel publications (whether online or offline), the photos have been edited – in this case, it was particularly necessary because I had my camera stolen and had to fall back on my very basic phone camera to take pictures! For some reason they were also saved in low resolution, so I ended up with very poor quality photos to work with for this post (e.g., see the white sky in some of the pictures?! The slightly pixellated beach in the post cover?!)… I got stuck with grainy pictures and dulled out colours, and I tried my best to iron out these issues using my (rather basic) photo editor.

        So while the colours might appear a little more vibrant than they actually are, I can 100% tell you that I was truly impressed at how beautifully colourful Pärnu was, and I kept gushing about the diversity and colourfulness of the buildings throughout the tour!
        Camille recently posted…4 Reasons To Quit Your Job and Travel The World… and 1 Reason Not To!My Profile

  4. I went to Estonia last summer but we didn’t have time for Parnu! I actually hadn’t seen a ton of blog coverage of it at the time, so it wasn’t high on the old travel radar. But it’s so gorgeous and beachy and cute. And all that cake!!!
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    • Right? We had an all-round lovely, relaxing day there…and to be honest, I wish we’d stayed longer! There is also a national park nearby where you can go bogshoeing and looking for wildlife, so it was a shame we didn’t have time for that… There doesn’t seem to be much written about Parnu yet, but that made writing this article even more exciting!
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  5. Parnu looks great! I’ve never heard of that city before and I’m surprised by the high sea water temperature. I’ll definitely try to go there.
    Ola recently posted…Thoughts on cultural prejudicesMy Profile

  6. What a great post! I’ll be in Pärnu later this month! I’ll only be there on a brief stopover on my way from Saaremaa to Riga, but am definitely excited to eat some cake and look at pretty houses! 🙂
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  7. such an interesting and refreshing destination!!

    The Fashion Matters- Fashion & Travel Magazine

  8. Parnu sounds like my kind of town! I love that it has plenty of open air concerts and beach music festivals – plus it looks ridiculously charming! I’d also be disappointed not to try more traditional Estonian dishes on the food tour, but after eating really heavy Hungarian food in Budapest in 35 degree temperatures, the Mediterranean-style meal sounds like a great idea!
    Ashley recently posted…Falling for BudapestMy Profile

    • Yes, I’m sure you would love it Ashley! Summers are short in this part of the world, so you can tell people want to make the most of the good weather and enjoy outdoors activities… We wished we’d had more Estonian specialties on the food tour but at the same time, if the latter are reserved for winter and special occasions, then in a way eating non-traditional was eating local! To give credit to Tiina, she told us that she picked different places for each tour depending on the seasonal menus and daily specials to ensure people only got fresh, locally-sourced food. And we saw so much in 4 hours that it was money and time well-spent anyway 🙂
      Camille recently posted…Tasting the Good Life in Parnu, the Summer Capital of EstoniaMy Profile

  9. I really don’t know very much about the Baltics, but this place sounds like a nice little paradise. The colors on those buildings!! Magnificent! And I cannot believe the water gets so warm. What a dream. This is such an informative post; kudos to you!
    Amanda | Chasing My Sunshine recently posted…7 Road Trip Essentials to Save Your SanityMy Profile

    • Thanks Amanda, I tried to balance inspiration and information! 🙂 It really is a lovely city, I was surprised by the colourful and varied architecture and I liked that it wasn’t too crowded for a beach resort – it had local tourists from Estonia, Finland etc., but it has not yet been discovered by the rest of the world…
      Camille recently posted…What To Do in Yangon, Myanmar: 8 Things Not To MissMy Profile

  10. What a cute and colorful little place! I really need to explore more of Estonia!

    I took a walking food tour once in Hong Kong, and while I didn’t love all the food, I thoroughly enjoyed learning all the history that went with it.
    Heather @ Ferreting Out the Fun recently posted…Discovering Vilnius: Lithuania’s Dynamic CapitalMy Profile

  11. Wow, your pictures are beautiful!! And Pärnu looks so colorful and cute! Oh, and a walking food tour sounds right up my alley–eating food and taking in the sights are literally two of my favorite things, and I could easily spend a whole doing just that!
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  12. Parnu looks so PRETTY! Love all those pastel- and neon-colored houses and buildings… And it’s good to know the sea can actually get warm to take a dip in :-).
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  13. Love all the beautiful colours in these photos – I’d never considered visiting Estonia before (wasn’t on my radar!) but it definitely is now! x
    Elle-Rose recently posted…Foodie Heaven: The Best Diners In NYCMy Profile

  14. Such a lovely post about my hometown, thanks for sharing! About the temperatures .. õhk=air, vesi=water, meaning the first line of the temperatures is air temperature and the next line is for sea temperature. 🙂

    • You’re very welcome Kats, I’m so glad you like it! Thanks for pointing this out about the temperatures – you’re right that 23° was the air temperature that day, but I think our guide said that the sea temperature could also sometimes go up to 23°, which is why I mentioned it! I hope I can make it back to Estonia and pretty Pärnu sometime 🙂
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  15. Thanks for this lovely post of my hometown. It is great to see Pärnu from a different perspective – i’ve been living in other towns for the past 10 years and though visiting Pärnu often, it still stays something small and not so attractive. I am glad to realize through your eyes what Pärnu is becoming. Thanks! 🙂

    • Thank you for taking the time to comment Hannele, it makes me happy that people who know Pärnu well enjoyed the article. I think we always tend to take our home town for granted and dismiss it as boring – sometimes it takes someone else’s perspective to be reminded of the good points! I’m glad my post could do that for you!
      Camille recently posted…Bergen, Norway: a Photo-EssayMy Profile

  16. J’aime bien cet ville, Pãrnu, quand-même si je n’y suis jamais vécu. Mais la femme que j’aime est née lá. Et forcément cette ville sera mienne aussi un jour.

    Ce post m’a fait beaucoup plaisir à lire.

    Merci, Camille.
    Giuseppe
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  17. Hello Camille !

    Ces photos me font bavé. J’ai habité 7 mois à Pärnu en 2011 (j’habitais à côté du café Mahedik, je connaissais la carte du restaurant par coeur). J’y suis retourné 2 fois depuis mais pas cet été malheureusement. C’est un paradis méconnu, en été tu as pu le découvrir, mais aussi en hiver … Quand on va à la plage alors que les températures ne dépassent pas les -10°C pendant plusieurs semaines, la baie de Pärnu se fige et on peut marcher sur la mer qui devient une immensité blanche …

    • Salut Gaétan, ah c’est drôle ! Dans quel cadre as-tu habité là-bas ? Je savais que Pärnu était aussi une destination populaire en hiver pour la thalassothérapie, mais je ne savais pas qu’on pouvait marcher sur la mer… Comme tu le dis, un paradis méconnu, et c’est pour ça que j’ai voulu contribuer à le faire connaître un peu mieux avec cet article !
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      • Dans le cadre d’un service volontaire européen, j’ai travaillé pour une maison culturelle / université populaire de Pärnu. Tu sais que ton article a été relayé par la page facebook de “Visit Estonia” version anglaise de “Ma armastan eestimaad” – en gros le ministère estonien du tourisme ? 🙂

  18. Wow, what a colourful place! It looks beautiful and I love the idea of a walking food tour. Great find, Camille! 🙂
    Secret Traveller recently posted…The Best of Both WorldsMy Profile

  19. Hi Camille, thank you for the nice blog post about my home town. I would like to confirm that on a sunny day all the colorful buildings looks almost as vivid as on the pictures. 🙂
    I have a correction to make – the water temperature on your picture is 21C the highest and not 23C as commented.
    õhk – air
    vesi – water
    The water will be very warm at 21C too so no problem there. 🙂

    • Hi K, thank you so much for commenting, I’m so glad to hear that people who actually live in Pärnu enjoyed the post and think my impressions of the city are accurate! You’re the second person to bring up the mistake with the sea temperature, so I’ll correct it now… but as you say, 21°C is still a good temperature for swimming, and probably a lot better than most people would expect from the Baltic Sea! 🙂
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  20. I took my mother and daughters on a tour of Estonia in 2003. Parnu was our first stop and we were in love with this beachside town immediately. . I was prepared for cold weather and cold water. It was very hot (July 31*C) and the water was incredibly comfortable for swimming. As you pointed out the water was fabulous- and was shallow for ever… a wonderful beach for children and the elderly. The Estonian young women on the beach were strikingly beautiful. I am not sure if it is still there, but there was a “ladies” beach, a little off the usual path that was for nude bathing.
    The town was beautiful and you have described the architecture well. We were able to take in the market while we were there which also provided ample opportunity to sample local food and souvenirs

    • I love your comment Judy, I am so happy that this article could bring back all your nice memories of Pärnu! It sounds like you had a wonderful family stay there – in fact, one of the things that struck me about the resort was how family-friendly it seemed: it looks like there is something to cater for all age ranges…
      I didn’t walk the full length of the promenade so I am not sure if the nude beach still exists. I wished I could go back someday to do the full walk, take in the market, bogshoe in the nearby national park, and do all the other things I missed out on 🙂
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  21. This little town is just as beautiful as you described. And best of all: in summer, if one festival ends the ohter is just beginning. Amazing open air concerts, theatre for kids in the parks on sundays, sailing, beach volley and football, kayaking on the river, a really cute little house where you (at least on saturdays) can take classes for with pottery making, glass and textile art and ohter crafts.

    It is always helpful to pick up the free “Pärnu this week” from some cafe or restaurant and make sure you know what is currently going on in town.

    Just love this little town.

  22. It’s great to you got to experience this city in such an authentic way! I can see why a walking tour in this city is great because you get to see so many colorful buildings and architecture. There would be so much to feast on for eating and seeing!
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  23. […] Tasting the Good Life in Parnu, the Summer Capital of Estonia […]

  24. A big ‘hello’ from a gal born in Tallinn BEFORE WWII and now resident for many decades in Australia! Sheesh: that was the ONLY summer place besides Narva-Jõesuu to be before that time and I kind’of grew up there every summer!! My Dad was the Prosecutor of the Higher Military Court of Estonia and we obviously stayed at the ‘Officers Casino’ Summer House for all our hols! Fantastic for little me!! Spoiled to bits by the many who had at that stage decided not to have families!! One interesting fact: if one walked onto the beach – the centre part was ‘dressed’ for couples – to the left were the ‘naked’ ladies with their bubs and the right the guys let it all hang out 🙂 !! Believe me: I was there!!!! And naturally ALL the ‘ladies’ had the famous health-giving mudbaths at the Centre . . . Pärnu of my day 🙂 !

  25. I’ve been to Estonia during winter, can’t believe how different it looks from summer! Such a different atmosphere! Both pretty though
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  26. […] additional perspectives on Pärnu, check out these articles by at Kami and the Rest of the World and Camille in Wonderlands.  Or you can head to the Parnu […]

  27. Parnu is definitely not in most travelers’ radar. Thanks for sharing this hidden gem, this post is travel inspiration worthy!
    Therie recently posted…Dreaming of MontanaMy Profile

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