Few cities are a better reminder of the divide between East and West than Narva. Here two castles face each other across the river dividing Russia from Estonia. We recommend Narva for those looking to get off the beaten path and explore Eastern Europe’s Soviet legacy. The Swedes developed the city, building a Baroque Old Town and extensive fortifications in addition to the castle. Largely destroyed during World War II, Narva was rebuilt and resettled by Soviet citizens. We recommend visiting the border, where one of Imperial Russia’s largest factories sits on an island between waterfalls. When the weather is warm, visit the beach near the two castles, one of Estonia’s most photographed spots. The nearby seaside resort of Narva-Joesuu, with its pine forest and fine sand, provides another coastal option. Next to Narva’s surviving Baroque town hall is an impressive new university building, with a roof that slopes outwards beyond the floor area of the building, and plenty of cozy places for travelers to rest. Photographers are fond of Narva’s Soviet architecture and Russian Orthodox and Lutheran churches, but the surrounding countryside has its own scenic and historic beauty.
Lake Peipus, where Alexander Nevsky is said to have defeated Teutonic Knights by luring them onto the ice, forms Narva’s southern border. This quiet lake is fished by Old Believers, insular Russians who fled 17th century religious reforms and have maintained their own traditions since. Nearby lies the Puhtitsa Convent, the largest Orthodox monastery in the Baltics, built around an oak where a holy icon was miraculously discovered. One of the two monasteries kept open by the Soviets, it has changed little for centuries. Lahemaa National Park lies between Narva and Tallinn, and with its rocky coast, teeming wildlife, extensive bogs, and many manors, is Estonia’s most popular park. There are many abandoned Soviet complexes near Narva, from a secret submarine base in Lahemaa, to an oil shale mine turned into an underground museum. Many manor houses lie in this area, as well as one of Estonia’s largest and best preserved castles, in Rakvere. We recommend stopping by Sillamae, one of the largest concentrations of Stalinist architecture. Due to its role in the Soviet nuclear program, this was a secret, closed city, unmarked on maps.