Narva Estonia is certainly not the most beautiful of all the cities in the country. Located in the very northeast of Estonia, it also ekes out a bit of a shadowy existence. In a way, the city is divided into two parts. The river that gave the city its name and flows into the Baltic Sea a little north of the city forms the EU’s external border here, splitting Estonian Narva from the much smaller Russian Ivangorod. In this article, we’ll take a closer look at this unusual city and show you what life is like today in Estonia’s third-largest city (approx. 55,000 inhabitants) with its 95% Russian-speaking population. And if you are interested in the northeast of Estonia in general, just click here.
The troubled history of Narva
Narva has a long and eventful history. There is even a separate culture named after Narva: In the Neolithic period, this culture spread throughout the present-day states of Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and the area around Kaliningrad. Characteristic of this culture, about which little is otherwise known, were its ceramic works, which today are the only evidence of that time.
Danes, Germans, Swedes and Russians
The conditions for Narva’s positive economic development were ideal, as the city is set back somewhat from Narva Bay, protected by the river of the same name, and was thus an ideal trading post for merchants transporting furs westward from the area of present-day Russia. After Narva was under Danish control for a long time, the Danes sold the town to the Teutonic Order in the 14th century. At that time, Hermann Castle, Narva’s most important landmark, was already standing.
And just like then, today the river separates two settlements from each other. The area east of the river was under Russian control and the Moscow Grand Duke Ivan III had another fortress built there. He gave it the name Ivangorod (“City of Ivan”), which is still the name of the city on the other side of the river. Then, in the 16th century, Russia was able to occupy Narva and the cities were united for the first time before the Swedes, Russia’s great antagonist of the time, took control. For Narva, however, this back and forth had not only disadvantages, because economically this city, always located in the border area, flourished.
A battle with far-reaching consequences
Then, in 1700, two huge Russian and Swedish armies faced each other at Narva. Tsar Peter the Great was determined to capture Narva and the important trading post, but failed, and was estimated to have suffered up to 10,000 casualties and prisoners, including ten generals. The battle was of historical significance because Peter the Great learned the right lessons from it and used it as an opportunity to introduce important reforms and reorganize the military. Only a few years later, the troops of the two adversaries, Charles XII and Peter the Great, faced each other at Poltava in what is now Ukraine, and Russia carried off a victory that finally made it a major European power. This would probably not have been possible without the Battle of Narva.
Narva under Russian rule
In the course of the war against Sweden, Russia now controlled large parts of the Baltic region. However, the city subsequently lost importance, and other port cities in the area experienced an upswing instead. After the brief episode of Estonian independence in the interwar period, the city was occupied by the Soviets in 1940 and almost completely destroyed during World War II. After the war, Narva was settled by many Russians from other parts of the giant empire, who soon became the majority of the population. Today there is little evidence of the former splendor of the city, rather numerous more or less boring apartment blocks were built.
After Estonian independence in 1991, Narva was suddenly no longer just a provincial town in a giant empire, but Estonia’s third largest city after Tallinn and Tartu. Compared to the capital and the student city in the south, Narva Estonia today is characterized above all by its palpable Soviet heritage, which is noticeable not only in the many prefabricated buildings, but also in the fact that the overwhelming majority in the city speaks Russian.
Many of them do not have Estonian citizenship today, as this is linked to Estonian language skills and a constitutional test. Most of these people are treated with great suspicion in right-wing Estonian circles, as they are considered descendants of the hated occupiers. Many of them have been issued so-called stateless passports, so in a sense they are people with a homeland, but without a proper passport and with limited civil rights. This sounds a bit depressing, but on the other hand, a very unique kind of people has developed in northeastern Estonia, and coexistence between Estonians and Russians is now working quite well.
But hey, you’re probably not here just to learn about Narva’s eventful history, but you also want to get to know its sights. Let’s start with the most important one, the Hermann Castle.
The most imposing is the tower called Long Hermann, about 50 meters high, from which you have an impressive view over the city and Ivangorod. The fortress also houses an exciting museum. In the inner courtyard of the fortress, workshops are held during the warm season, where traditional handicraft techniques are presented.
And if you’re hungry, you can get a bite to eat at the Rondeel restaurant, which we’ll introduce in more detail below.
Let’s continue with a somewhat curious sight. There used to be statues of Lenin in every Soviet city. However, except for Russia, most of the successor states of the Soviet Union have since disposed of them – not so in Narva! Narva’s Lenin was designed by Estonian artist Olva Männi in 1957 and originally stood in Narva’s central square. It was still at home there until 1993.
When a crowd wanted to get rid of this Lenin as well, the mayor confronted them and claimed that they loved Lenin here. Only his successor wanted to get rid of him. However, because of the large Russian share in the city population and in concern for peace in the town, he did not have the statue destroyed, but only moved. And so today Lenin rests in the museum in the Hermann Castle, which of course holds a certain irony. After all, the fortress was built to protect the city from Russian invaders …
No matter whether you are in Ivangorod or Narva on the banks of the Narva River: The panorama with the other fortress is impressive every time. To better enjoy this view and generally increase the recreational value of the city, Narva has a nice waterfront promenade where you can walk, bike, play chess, or – if you feel like it – also work out your body in a fitness park with the best view. Besides, there are some works of art to see and you can relax in one of the pubs.
The Resurrection Cathedral is the most important Orthodox place of worship in the city. It was built at the same time as the Lutheran Alexander Church (see below) and is the only building of its kind in Estonia in the Neo-Byzantine style. This is also the reason why it is architecturally quite out of the ordinary in relation to other Orthodox churches in these parts and could easily stand in Greece or Bulgaria in this form. The textile entrepreneur Kreenholm, who also supported the construction of the Alexander Church, was mainly responsible for the financing. Later we will learn more about this visionary entrepreneur.
Besides the Long Hermann, Alexander Church is considered the landmark of Narva. It was built between 1881 and 1884 and was the largest church in Estonia at that time. Architecturally, it is one of the most unusual churches in the country, because at the same time it picks up medieval forms, but also sets modern accents with its jagged design for the time. It was designed by the German architect Otto Pius Hippius, who lived in Petersburg, and was intended to serve as a place of prayer for the Protestant population. After the assassination of Tsar Alexander II, it was given his name. After the Soviets destroyed the church during a bombardment in 1944, it was not rebuilt until after independence.
A bit south of the castle, high on a pedestal, stands a monument of a majestic lion guarding something with its paw that looks a bit like a soccer ball (but it is probably more like a globe with a royal crown, meant to emphasize the Swedes’ claim to power). In fact, it is a gift from the Swedish king to the city in 2000, commemorating the 300th anniversary of the battle between Russians and Swedes. It is an exact copy of a statue in front of the Royal Castle in Stockholm. The Lion of Narva is also a popular landmark because from here you can see both fortresses at once.
Old city hall
In the mid-17th century, Georg Teuffel, a master builder from Lübeck who had previously worked in the Baltic region, set out for the far north and built this Baroque gem right in the center of Narva. This was once the busiest part of the city, but in 1944 it was almost razed to the ground. As one of the few historical buildings, the Soviets had the Old Town Hall rebuilt. Unfortunately, the building has been empty since the fall of communism and is not in good condition. Inexplicably, since it is one of the few baroque testimonies in this part of Estonia.
There seemed to be no money for the Old Town Hall, but in 2012 the square was given a rather bizarre building, which today serves as the conference center of the Narva College of the University of Tartu. The pseudo-classical facade is an eye-catcher in itself. However, the building is literally crowned by a futuristic roof structure that seems to grow into the sky at a rather oblique angle. Conferences are held here today, but you can also relax in the very nice Kohvik Muna inside the college (see below).
Now we leave the center of Narva and explore the surroundings of the city. Kreenholm is the name of an island in the Narva River south of the city center. It is located entirely on the Estonian side and was used for economic purposes as early as the 14th century. After several mills stood here, the first spinning mills were installed. From these, the Kreenholmi Manufaktuur around the Bremen entrepreneur Ludwig Knoop emerged in the 19th century. It developed into one of the largest textile factories in the world and experienced its heyday even before the First World War. Today you can learn more about the huge brick complex and its history on a guided tour.
As early as 1943, the Wehrmacht established a cemetery for dead German soldiers north of the center on the Narva-Jõesuu road. This cemetery was extended in the course of time and today it is the central burial place of German soldiers of the Narva front. About 10,000 fallen soldiers found their final resting place here. A memorial square with a 4.50 m high natural stone cross commemorates the horrors of the Second World War and this place.
Hungerburg (“Castle of hunger”) is the not exactly flattering German name for the most northeastern of all Estonian towns. Narva-Jõesuu borders directly on Russia – and on the Baltic Sea. For a long time, Narva-Jõesuu with its long sandy beach was known mainly as a health resort, as evidenced by the many, partly dilapidated spa hotels and wooden houses from the 19th century. They were joined in Soviet times by several modern sanatoriums and rest homes. It is precisely this mixture of Soviet and Tsarist-era buildings in combination with the sea and the beach that makes this unusual place so appealing. Recently, Narva-Jõesuu, which had long suffered from the absence of Russian spa guests, has recovered and is slowly awakening from its long slumber.
Ivangorod, or Jaanilinn, as the town is called in Estonian, has a population of just under 10,000, is much smaller than Narva and has developed much less positively than Narva in Estonia since the fall of communism. It is the last western tip of Russia and those looking for work are more likely to move to St. Petersburg, 150 kilometers away, or migrate to Estonia or the West. By the way, in contrast to today, Ivangorod was part of Estonia in the interwar period, and its external border ran only behind the city. The Soviet invasion in 1940, however, ended this short chapter, with Estonian Interior Minister Mart Helme reaffirming Estonian claims to the city in 2019.
Since Ivangorod is part of the Russian border area, residents from other parts of Russia must obtain permission to travel here before visiting. And since Western tourists also need a visa and applying for it is hardly worth it for just visiting this city, usually people just enjoy the view of the picturesque fortress on the Narva River, which today separates the EU from Russia.
Eating and drinking
- Kohvik Muna, Raekoja plats 2. “One day we’ll all meet here” is the motto of this café, which is housed in the college. Quite possible, because looking at the delicious international dishes already makes your mouth water.
- Old Trafford, Peetri plats 1. Das Restaurant ist zwar nach dem Stadion von Manchester United benannt, hat aber mit englischer Küche nichts am Hut. Vielmehr kommen hier Fans von russischer Hausmannskost und internationalen Fleischgerichten in schickem Ambiente voll auf ihre Kosten.
- Rondeel, in the Hermann Castle. The artillery tower of the fortress houses a restaurant that has already won several awards since its opening in 2016 and reinterprets classics of Estonian and Scandinavian cuisine.
Accomodation in Narva Estonia
- Narva Hotell*, Puskini 6. Very centraly located, clean hotel with rooms in different categories.
- Narva-Jõesuu Spa*, Aia 3, Narva-Jõesuu. There is no better way to relax: Beautiful 1930s functionalist style hotel that not only takes you on a little trip back in time, but also offers all the modern comforts you would expect from a spa hotel.
Great book about the Battle of Narva and its consequences
This tour guide covers Narva, but also many other beautiful places in the Baltic states and is a great choice when it comes to travel Estonia, Latvia or Lithuania
We hope you enjoyed our trip to Narva Estonia. What is your favorite place for a trip to Estonia? Feel free to let us know and write us a comment!