The first mention of the port in the mouth of the River Pärnu appeared in written records 1242 under the Latinate name Perona. Bishop Henricus established a cathedral, consecrated 1251, on the right bank of the river and the Livonian Order, a branch of the German Order, built its fortress on the left. The town of Pernau (Pernow) developed in front of the fortress. In 1318 the town received a charter similar to that of Riga. Since Pärnu laid on profitable trade routes, the town prospered and played an important part in the Hanseatic trade of Old Livonia.
Medieval Pärnu was seriously damaged in the wars and fires on the 16th and 17th centuries. The town was expanded under Swedish rule in the 17th century. Baroque houses and churches from the 17th and 18th centuries as well as Tallinn Gate between the earth bastions catch the eye in the Old Town. Today the medieval building, the Red Tower of the old town wall, survives.
Since the 19th century great attention has been paid to creating parks and designing Pärnu into a resort town. Thus, the city has abundance of facilities foe rest, recreation and cure, modern hotels, pensions, sanatoria and also a beach pavilion. Pärnu is acclaimed for its white sand beaches, shading alleys and romantic seaside villas. In 2004 the city had about 43 000 inhabitants.
Pärnu is also famous for the Pärnu Marina, the Modern Art Centre and the Endla Theatre. Summer events include David Oistrakh Festival, Music Festival Glasperlenspiel, Watergate Water Festival, the “Welcome, Pärnu Summer!” Celebrations, the Pärnu Festival of Documentary and Anthropological Films, The International Choral Festival and the Art Summer.