When we think of Europe’s Baltic States, most people think back to the turbulent Cold War era. But after coming out from under Soviet rule in 1991, world travelers have begun taking a closer look at this overlooked corner of Europe. While the Baltic countries are still among Europe’s most skipped over travel destinations, they’re also among the most rewarding. Whether you wander Europe’s largest old town in Lithuania, revel in the proto-Scandinavian chic of Latvia or get lost in Estonia’s swampy forests, the Baltic States will surprise and delight you. Consider this your Baltic States travel primer.
Lithuania: Gateway to the East
Citizens of the Baltic States seriously dislike being thought of as Eastern Europe—some even resent it. However, while many aspects of life in the cities and small towns of Lithuania evoke Europe’s northerly reaches more than its eastern ones, certain places feel like Poland or nearby Belarus.
It’s difficult to precisely place the feeling you get on a walk through Vilnius, whose Old Town is Europe’s most expansive. While the Gothic Church of St. Anne and 15th-century Gendiminas Castle Tower feel Polish or even Germanic, the sidewalk cafés and colorful boutiques visitors pass walking under the Gate of Dawn evoke a cooler version of Paris or Rome. No matter what impression Lithuania’s capital gives you, complete your trip to Vilnius with a stay at the chic, comfortable Artagonist Art Hotel.
The Hill of Crosses
Many amazing Lithuanian destinations sit within day-trip distance of Vilnius, including super-cool college town (and 2022 European Capital of Culture) Kaunas, whose vermilion castle spires are right out of a fairy tale. However, it’s the surreal Hill of Crosses, which is not terribly high but whose variety of crosses numbers into a range that makes them uncountable, that’s the most unique and singular travel experience in Lithuania. Although some travelers enjoy Siauliai, the town closest to the Hill, you’re better off heading back to Vilnius—just trust us on this one.
Klaipeda and the Curonian Spit
If the restaurant-lined King Wilhelm Channel, which cuts through coastal Klaipeda doesn’t charm you, the towering dunes of the 60-mile long sandbar (the Curonian Spit) that sits just offshore will. Finish off a perfect day swimming in the Baltic Sea with a filet of fresh-caught mackerel glazed in citrus sauce, or with meat-filled potato cepelinai dumplings if you missed them elsewhere in Lithuania. If you visit the Spit as more than a day trip from Klaipeda, consider riding a bus down to Nida, an impossibly charming town that sits near Lithuania’s border with the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad.
Latvia: Medieval Meets Art Nouveau
If you weren’t paying attention, you could be forgiven for thinking you’re in Stockholm as you walk along the cobbled streets of Riga’s Old Town. Whether you’re wandering around the cosmopolitan capital, visiting one of the country’s charming villages or beach-going along its sandy shores, Latvia is where the Baltic States really start to feel, well, Baltic.
Many travelers arrive in the capital city Riga, take a walk around medieval Vecriga (including panoramic St. Peter’s Church and the Stalin-era Latvian Academy of Sciences) and call it a day. Among its other charms, Riga boasts one of Europe’s largest and most eclectic Art Nouveau districts. An hour (or an afternoon) inside the meticulously re-created exhibition inside the Riga Art Nouveau Centre is like a veritable trip back in time, while strolls down Alberta and Elizabetes Streets might just exhaust whatever is left of your camera battery—every building is worth photographing!
A Tale of Three Day Trips
As the largest and most activity-filled Baltic capital, Riga is uniquely difficult to leave behind. But if you do so, whether by renting a car or using Latvia’s impressive bus and train network, take one of three day trips. The first option takes you to Rundale Palace, an 18th-century royal residence that’s Latvia’s answer to Versailles. Cesis, for its part, is home to both a Livonian Castle, and a pint-sized Russian Orthodox Cathedral, while Kuldiga is where you’ll find the Venta Waterfall—at nearly 750 feet across, it’s Europe’s widest.
Alternatively, if you didn’t have time to visit Klaipeda in Lithuania or you just miss the ocean, head back to the Baltic Sea. Jurmala (which literally means “beach” in Latvian) is less than an hour from Riga. But for a real adventure, you’ll want to make the longer trek to Liepaja, which offers much more than just an opportunity to swim. In addition to its own miles-long swath of sand, Liepaja is home to Latvia’s second-largest collection of Art Nouveau architecture, while Karosta is home to a (thankfully) defunct Soviet-era prison. Another factor that sets Liepaja apart is its growing selection of top-rated lodging, including the five-star Promenade Hotel.
Estonia: Get There Now
Vilnius is huge and Riga feels Nordic, but Tallinn’s Old Town wins the Baltic beauty contests hands down. However, it’s also the region’s most poorly kept secret, which means that if you visit any time between May and September, you’ll be competing with thousands of other travelers (many of them traveling aboard cruise ships)—and that number is only going to grow. Do yourself a favor and get to Estonia stat.
Tallinn’s Tempestuous Old Town
There’s not a bad spot—or experience—in Tallinn’s Old Town. For example, just when you think the viewpoints atop Toompea Hill offer the most beautiful vistas in all of Europe, you climb hundreds of steps up the Tower of St. Olaf’s Church and the ranking reshuffles. You luck out with a table at the always-packed Rataskaevu 16 eatery, only to discover that the honey flavor on offer at the Gelato Ladies costs a third as much as your pork belly and is twice as delicious. No matter how crazy your love for Old Tallin, the charming Gotthard Residence is a must-visit and cozy hotel located within its City Walls.
Old Town Tallinn is gorgeous, but there’s more to Estonia’s capital than its crown jewel. Walk along the coastal Culture Kilometre, for example, to marvel at makeshift art installations as well as permanent exhibitions, namely the one at Seaplane Harbor Maritime Museum. Head 10 minutes south to reach Tallinn Creative City, which is filled not only with hipsters but the delicious coffee they make, or about 25 minutes east of the Old Town to Kadriorg. Here you’ll not only find Kadriorg Palace (Estonia’s answer to Latvia’s Rundale Palace and, therefore, the Estonian Versailles) and Kumu, which is Tallinn’s largest and most famous art museum.
A Boggy Conclusion
High tech and hipsters aren’t all Estonia has in common with Finland. Like its neighbor to the north, Estonia’s landscape is defined primarily by swampy forests, with Lahemaa National Park being the easiest one to reach from Tallinn. It takes only an hour to walk along the flat boardwalk that circles through the park’s Viru Bog, but it’s precisely the simplicity of this adventure (which you can easily do on a day trip from Tallinn) that makes it so satisfying.
Indeed, as you look back on your time in Europe’s understated—and underrated—Baltic States, you might find you see it less in terms of high and low points (figuratively or literally—it’s pretty flat in this part of the world), and more as a week or two well spent in a region where charming old towns, sandy seascapes, friendly locals and subtly delicious food maintain a constant grip on your mind and heart.
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