Narva is the third largest city in Estonia. It is located at the eastern extreme point of Estonia, by the Russian border, on the Narva River which drains Lake Peipus.
People settled in the area from the 5th to 4th millennium BC, as witnessed by the archeological traces of the Narva culture, named after the city. The fortified settlement at Narva Joaoru is the oldest known in Estonia, dated to around 1000 BC. The earliest written reference of Narva is in the First Novgorod Chronicle, which in the year 1172 describes a district in Novgorod called Nerevsky or Narovsky konets (yard). According to historians, this name derives from the name of Narva or Narva River and indicates that a frequently used trade route went through Narva, although there is no evidence of the existence of a trading settlement at the time.
The favourable location at the crossing of trade routes and the Narva River was behind the founding of Narva castle and the development of an urban settlement around it. The castle was founded during the Danish rule of northern Estonia during the second half of the 13th century, the earliest written record of the castle is from 1277.Narvia village is mentioned in the Danish Census Book already in 1241. A town developed around the stronghold and in 1345 obtained Lübeck City Rights from Danish king Valdemar IV. The castle and surrounding town of Narva became a possession of the Livonian Order in 1346, after the Danish king sold its lands in Northern Estonia. In 1492 Ivangorod fortress across the Narva River was established by Ivan III of Moscow.
Trade, particularly Hanseatic long distance trade remained Narva’s raison d’être throughout the Middle Ages. However, due to opposition from Tallinn, Narva itself never became part of the Hanseatic League and also remained a very small town – its population in 1530 is estimated at 600–750 people.
Swedish and Russian rule
Captured by the Russians during the Livonian War in 1558, for a short period Narva became an important port and trading city for Russia, transshipping goods from Pskov and Novgorod. Russian rule ended in 1581 when Swedes under the command of Pontus De la Gardie conquered the city and it became part of Sweden. During the Russo-Swedish War (1590–1595), when Arvid Stålarm was governor, Russian forces attempted to re-gain the city without success.
During the Swedish rule the Old Town of Narva was built. Following a big fire in 1659, which almost completely destroyed the town, only stone buildings were allowed to be built in the central part of the town. Incomes from flourishing trade allowed the town center to be rebuilt in two decades. The baroque style Old Town underwent practically no changes until World War II and became in later centuries quite famous all over Europe. Near the end of the Swedish rule the defence structures of Narva were greatly improved – beginning in 1680s, an outstanding system of bastions, planned by the renowned Swedish military engineer Erik Dahlbergh, was built around the town. The new defence structures were among the most powerful in Northern Europe.
During the Great Northern War, Narva was the setting for its first great battle between the forces of King Charles XII of Sweden and Tsar Peter I of Russia. Although outnumbered four to one, the Swedish forces routed their 40 000-strong opponent. The city was subsequently conquered by Russia in 1704.
After the war the bastions were renovated and Narva remained in the list of Russian fortifications until 1863, though there was no real military need for it. During the Russian rule Narva was part of Saint Petersburg Governorate.
In the middle of the 19th century, Narva started to develop into a major industrial town. The Krenholm Manufacturing Company was established by Ludwig Knoop in 1857. The factory could use the cheap energy of the powerful Narva waterfalls and at the end of the century became, with about 10,000 workers, one of the largest cotton mills in Europe and the world. In 1872, Kreenholm Manufacture was also the site of the first strike in Estonia. At the end of the 19th century, Narva was the leading industrial town in Estonia – 41% of industrial workers in Estonia were located in Narva, compared to 33% in Tallinn. The first railway in Estonia, completed in 1870, connected Narva to Saint Petersburg and Tallinn.
Narva became part of independent Estonia in 1918 following World War I. The town saw fighting during the Estonian War of Independence. The war started in Narva on 28 November 1918, on the next day the city was captured by the Red Army. Russia retained control of the city until 19 January 1919.
A 1929 plan of Narva (including Ivangorod, part of Narva at the time)
Heavy battles occurred in and around Narva in World War II. The city was damaged in the German invasion of 1941 and by smaller air raids throughout the war, but remained relatively intact until February 1944  However, being at the focus of the Battle of Narva (1944)), the city was almost completely leveled. The most devastating action was the bombing of 6 March 1944 by the Soviet Air Force, which destroyed the baroque old town.
The civilian casualties of the bombing were low as the German forces had evacuated the city in January the same year. Germans also blew up some of the remaining buildings and by their retreat in the end of July 98% of Narva had been destroyed. After the war, most of the buildings could have been restored as the walls of the houses still existed, but in early 1950s the Soviet authorities decided to demolish the ruins to make room for apartment buildings. Only three buildings remain of the old town, including the Baroque-style Town Hall.
The former inhabitants were not allowed to return to Narva after the war. The main reason behind this was a plan to build a secret uranium processing plant in the city, which would turn Narva into a closed town. Although already in 1947 nearby Sillamäe was selected as the location of the factory instead of Narva, the existence of such plan was decisive for the development of Narva in the first post-war years and thus also shaped its later evolution. The planned uranium factory and other large-scale industrial developments, like the restoring of Kreenholm Manufacture, were the driving force behind the influx of internal migrants from other parts of the Soviet Union, mainly Russia.
In January 1945 Ivangorod, a town across the river which was founded in 1492 by Tsar Ivan III of Russia, was given a separate administrative status from the rest of Narva, as a part of the Leningrad Oblast in the Russian SFSR. Ivangorod received the official status of town in 1954.
The Town Hall, surrounded by Soviet-era apartment blocks, is one of the few buildings which were restored after World War II.
When Estonia regained its independence in 1991, Narva became again a border city. As the population of Narva was dominated by Soviet-era migrants from Russia and other union republics, the fall of the Soviet Union and re-established Republic of Estonia were not especially greeted in the city and other industrial towns of the Ida-Viru County. The dissatisfaction culminated with the so-called Narva referendum of 16–17 July 1993, which proposed autonomy for Narva and Sillamäe, another nearby industrial town. The Estonian government deemed the referendum illegal and sent Indrek Tarand as its special envoy to the region. The referendum was indeed carried out, but generally failed as it did not provide a clear popular mandate for the autonomy, leading to the stabilization of the situation.
After 1991 there have also been some disputes about the Estonian-Russian border in the Narva area, as the new constitution of Estonia (adopted in 1992) recognizes the 1920 Treaty of Tartu border to be currently legal. The Russian Federation, however, considers Estonia to be a successor of the Estonian SSR and recognizes the 1945 border between two former national republics. Officially, Estonia has no territorial claims in the area, which is also reflected in the new Estonian-Russian border treaty. Although the treaty was signed in 2005 by the foreign ministers of Estonia and Russia, due to continuing political tensions it has not been ratified.