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With my return trip to Estonia, there was absolutely no way I was missing out on the city of Narva this time around. For those unfamiliar with this city in eastern Estonia, my eagerness might seem strange. What’s so special about visiting Narva?
Well a few things make Narva worth visiting actually. For one, the city sits right on the border with Russia, providing me with another tantalising glimpse into a country I’ve yet to explore. Then there’s the fact that Narva is the third largest city in Estonia with over 700 years of history. That seems like a recipe for something stories and landmarks. Speaking of which, Narva is also home to one of the most iconic castles in Estonia and I can’t say no to a good castle.
So, basically I had to visit Narva. Especially as I’m keen to find all the interesting places in Estonia beyond just Tallinn. Whether you’re keen on learning more or already want to go, here are few tips to make the most of a trip to Narva.
Follow the Promenade for Views Galore
If you want to find the most scenic and appealing part of the city, head straight for the Narva Promenade. This riverfront area makes quite a bold first impression and just bursting with nature. It runs along the Narva River as it flows from Lake Peipus into the Baltic Sea, with Russia easily spotted on the far bank.
While the blues of the river and the modern promenade are both attractive, what makes this place special is Narva’s impressive old fortifications. Seven bastions were built by the river in the late 17th century and are today a gorgeous leafy park with superb views.
Start with the fortifications, then head down to the river boulevard for a pleasant walk by the water. Although they were closed the days I was there, it is possible to head down into the Victorian Bastion Casemates within the fortifications. As for attractions on the water, most find the above Sun Square, effectively a “human sundial”, quite a peculiar sight.
Visit Narva Castle
If there’s one thing you can’t leave Narva before seeing, it’s the iconic Narva Castle. This statuesque stronghold is the main attraction and most iconic landmark in Narva and with good reason. Actually, you could say it’s one of the most recognisable landmarks in Estonia. It doesn’t hurt that it overlooks the river and cuts a different figure from every angle. But you better believe there’s lots of history behind it as well, as it houses the Narva Museum.
Officially called Narva Hermann Castle after the central Hermann Tower, the castle was founded in the late 13th century. At that time, this part of the Baltic was controlled by the Danes, and there’s some exhibits inside on the city’s Danish history. The Danes eventually sold the castle to Livonian Order, who renovated it and gave it the layout seen today. Narva Castle was badly damaged during WWII, but restored in the 50s, resulting in its rather sparse look.
Besides admiring the castle from the outside, it’s worth exploring the museum inside when visiting Narva. It seems the museum has just recently been updated before my trip, as there were quite a few new audio-visual displays scattered throughout.
Unfortunately, my reaction to the museum was a bit mixed. There were some exhibits I found interesting and the views from the tower are fantastic. However, I did think the castle was hard to navigate and had limited English information. The last part makes sense as the visitors were overwhelmingly either Estonian or Russian.
Mind the Border
It’s hard not to be fascinated by the way Narva sits right on the border with Russia. Standing on the riverfront or within the castle you get some great views across into the neighbouring country. Getting such a good view of colossal Ivangorod Fortress is a little bitter sweet mind you as it’s just out of reach. Still, much like when I was on the Curonian Spit looking at Kaliningrad Oblast, I enjoyed a glimpse of this place foreign to me.
That said though, the actual border control area is a bit of a hassle. It’s situated right near the centre of town, with the border controls and bridge crossing creating a big barrier you have to skirt around. Luckily, the river promenade passes under all this, so you’re riverside stroll won’t be interrupted. Just know that the city layout isn’t quite as it appears on Google Maps here, which can be a little confusing.
Find Remnants of the Narva Old Town
Walking around the centre of Narva, you’ll quickly notice that there are very few old buildings about. For a city with such a long history that might be surprising at first glance. But sadly, Narva joined the likes of Warsaw and was nearly demolished in 1944 during World War II.
It’s particularly sad given that the city was quite proud of its 17th century old town prior to the war. So impressive was Narva that it was known in Estonia as the “Pearl of the Baltic Sea”. That’s not the case any more, as the city was rebuilt as needed following the war. Luckily, there is one place you can go to see what’s left of the old town. North of the castle in a residential area you’ll discover Narva Town Hall. This is the best landmark to give you a sense of what the city used to look like and reflect on what was lost.
Search for Churches in Narva
Narva isn’t really a city too big on landmarks, but two local highlights I think worth finding are its main churches. Both are located close to the train station and offer up wildly different looks based on their respective religions. In case you didn’t know, Estonia is officially the least religious country in the world, and yet churches still seem to be major points of interest.
Above is the Jesus Resurrection Cathedral, an Estonian Orthodox church whose architecture really stands out among the bland Soviet-era buildings. The other is the Alexander’s Cathedral closer to the river, whose spire you can often spot over the treetops. It is a Lutheran Church that’s looking a little worse for wear, but still has quite an interesting layout.
Travel Tips for Visiting Narva
Finally, we have a few things you should know before you head off to visit Narva. Let’s start with getting there, as it really couldn’t be easier, either by car or public transport. Narva is an easy train ride from Tallinn, which let’s be honest, is probably where you’ll be coming from. The Tallinn Narva train runs every few hours and is pretty reasonably priced too.
Then we come to accommodation. Because of its size, you have a decent selection of places to stay in Narva, although a lot are apartments. For a simple and reasonably priced budget hotel, I can suggest the Inger Hotel, which was fine but nothing particularly special.
Before this travel blog post, had you heard of or thought of visiting Narva Estonia? Does seeing a little of Narva make you more or less interesting in traveling to Estonia one day? Please share in the comments below.
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