Situated just under 100 Kilometres from the Estonian capital, Tallinn, Haapsalu is the perfect escape from the hustle and bustle of the city. It is a charming little Baltic seaside town straight out of the days of the Tsars, a kind of Nordic Yalta, if you like. The town has a population of around 12, 000 but the main residential area with the customary post-war tenements are situated inland, while the picturesque attractions are clustered in the old town and at the edge of the water. In fact water features so much on the town that it is often described as the "Nordic Venice" although, personally, I found that epithet a little over the top.
There has been a settlement at Haapsalu for centuries but the establishment of the church of St Nicholas and the adjoining fortifications in the thirteenth century were instrumental in developing a more permanent community; this was the seat of the Bishopric of Osel-Wiek for three centuries and the Episcopal castle has the largest single nave of any cathedral in the Baltic states. Over the centuries different peoples have left their mark on the town, most notably Swedish settlers who undoubtedly influenced the architecture.
In the 1820s Carl Abraham Hunnius, believing the Baltic mud to have a curative effect, established Haapsalu as a spa resort and the aristocracy of St Petersburg came to Haapsalu for holidays. Tchaikovsky was a firm believer in the benefits of Haapsalu mud and was a regular visitor. He is commemorated on the promenade by a stone bench carved with musical notations that plays a loud blast of one of Tchaikovsky’s works as you approach it.
The bench is perhaps the only tacky thing in Haapsalu. Life is relaxed, pedestrian even though this is not to say there is not plenty to do. Haapsalu is an ideal mix of outdoor and indoor, cultural and recreational activities. It is a great place for a day trip from the city but would equally make a convenient and pleasant base for a longer stay.
What I liked best about Haapsalu was the feeling of peace and tranquility away from the capital. I was also struck by the variety and number of activities in this small place offering the perfect mix of cultural and physical pursuits. I would recommend a visit to anyone who appreciates a quiet but active holiday.
Haapsalu can be reached easily by road from Tallinn. Buses leave hourly on weekdays, there are slightly fewer at weekends. The bus ride takes about one and a half hours.
Even in the off-season there are enough bars and restaurants to offer variety for at least a couple of days and it’s not far to walk to the new part of town with its shops and services. Prices are cheap although you can spend more on a blowout at one of the grander waterside restaurants that open only in summer.
There is a variety of hotels and a newly opened backpackers hostel (though backpackers beware, Haapsalu is not on the usual backpacking route and is not really geared towards the demands of hard-drinking Aussies).