Kuressaare developed around a bishop's castle first mentioned in 1381. In 1559 it was sold by the Bishopric of Ösel-Wiek to Denmark, and it obtained its civic charter modelled after that of Riga in 1563. In 1645 it passed to Swedish control in the Treaty of Brömsebro. Kuressaare was formerly known by the German and Swedish name of Arensburg. Kuressaare was burnt to the ground by Russian troops in 1710 during the Great Northern War. With the Treaty of Nystad of 1721 the town passed to Russian control. During the 18th century Kuressaare became a popular resort. Its historic name of Arensburg was replaced by Kuressaare in 1918 when Estonia declared its independence during World War I. From 1952-1988 it was called Kingissepa after the Bolshevik Kuressaare-native Viktor Kingissepp (not to be confused with the Russian town Kingisepp).
In October 1990 Kuressaare was the first town in Estonia to regain its self-governing status. Today, Kuressaare is a safe and healthy town, open for international cooperation and communication. It also hosts the FC Kuressaare football club.