What passes for the big smoke in these parts, Kuressaare has a picturesque town centre with leafy streets and a magnificent castle rising up in its midst, surrounded by the usual scrappy sprawl of housing and light industry. The town built a reputation as a health centre as early as the 19th century, when the ameliorative properties of its coastal mud were discovered and the first spas opened. Now they’re a dime a dozen, ranging from Eastern Bloc sanatoriums to sleek and stylish resorts.
Kuressaare exists because of its castle, which was founded in the 13th century as the Haapsalu-based Bishop of Ösel-Wiek’s stronghold in the island part of his diocese. The town became Saaremaa’s main trading centre, developing quickly after passing into Swedish hands in 1645. In the Soviet era, Kuressaare was named Kingisseppa, after Viktor Kingissepp, an Estonian communist of the 1920s.