Have you ever heard of Pärnu? 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’.
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!
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.
Best way to discover Pärnu: on a walking food tour!
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 of Pärnu 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Pärnu’s Art and Music Scene
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!
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:
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.
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.
Kovihoovik Coffee Shop
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.
Overall, our 4-hour Food Walking Tour was a brilliant way to make 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!)
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.
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!
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!