The Baltic States in the northeast of Europe has long been an underrated destination. Often overlooked for big-ticket countries in Europe like France or Italy, the Baltics remain pleasantly calm and authentic. Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia have been popular with Russian tourists for a while and are now starting to get attention from western tourists as well.
Although often lumped together as “the Baltics”, Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia each have distinct cultures and languages. Since becoming independent from the Soviet Union in 1991, there has been a strong revival of their traditions, history and culture.
The proximity between the nation’s capitals makes the Baltics the perfect destination for a multi-city trip. This makes it a great first introduction to the Baltic States and will make you want to come back for more. Here is our guide for a multi-destination trip between Vilnius, Riga and Estonia, you can take this trip from South to North or in reverse.
Destination 1: Vilnius – Lithuania
Although a small city, Vilnius doesn’t lack for things to see and do. Take your time to explore the beautiful Old Town with its Baroque churches and historic sites. Make sure to add in the former Jewish Quarter as well with its charming neighbourhood with little boutiques and restaurants.
The jewel in the crown of Vilnius is the Cathedral Square where you’ll find the beautiful Palace of the Grand Dukes of Lithuania and the Cathedral. Unfortunately, the Gediminas Tower is the only part left of the old castle, but at least it offers a beautiful view of the city.
Lithuania has a tumultuous history, filled with wars and occupations. The National Museum of Lithuania has several different buildings, each dedicated to a different period in Lithuanian history. Arguably the darkest time for Vilnius was World War II and the Soviet Occupation. You can learn about this terrible time in the Museum of Occupations and Freedom Fights, located in the former KGB headquarters. Vilnius also has plenty to offer art lovers with great museums like the National Gallery of Art, the MO Museum and the Lithuanian Art Museum. That the Lithuanians are proud of their culture and heritage is especially evident in Literatu Street where local artists have placed decorative plaques honouring Lithuanian writers.
You might be surprised to find that Vilnius is a city within a city. On the 1st of April 1998, a community of artists jokingly declared the Bohemian neighbourhood Uzupis an independent republic. Once one of the poorest and dirtiest parts of the cities, Uzupis is now a thriving and beloved area. Make sure to visit this “Republic” which even has its own constitution, currency and flag.
Highlights of Vilnius
- Museum of Occupations and Freedom Fights
- Gediminas Castle
- Cathedral Square
- Literatu street
Destination 2: Riga – Latvia
Despite the similarities in Latvian and Lithuanian culture and history, Riga is a very different city from Vilnius. Close to the Baltic Sea, Riga became an important seaport as part of the Hanseatic League during the Middle Ages. Unfortunately, most of the architecture from that time has not survived. But the iconic House of the Blackheads (seen further below) was beautifully reconstructed as an example of Medieval Latvian architecture.
The Old Town of Riga is an exciting mix of architectural styles with imposing churches, narrow cobblestone street and elegant manors. Here you’ll find famous sites such as the Three Brothers, St. Peter’s Church and the Swedish Gate. At the entrance to the Old Town stands the Freedom Monument, a beautiful testament to Latvia’s independence. The Museum of the Occupation of Latvia and the Latvian War Museum are the perfect places to learn more about Latvia’s political and military history. For a look at life in Latvia through the ages, visit the Ethnographic Open-Air Museum of Latvia just outside Riga.
The Latvian Museum of Art is one of the best art museums in the Baltics. Its permanent collection showcases Latvian art from 1780 to 2000, whereas the temporary exhibits focus on individual artists. During the end of the 19th century, Latvia experienced an economic boom. As a result, wealthy citizens erected beautiful Art Nouveau buildings. Although you can find them spread around the city, the biggest concentration lies in Albert Street, including the Museum of Art Nouveau.
Food is as much a part of Latvian culture as art and architecture are. Be sure to visit the Central Market, one of the biggest in Europe and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The four market halls are each dedicated to different wares, from meat and fish to cheese and bread. Take your time to stroll through the market and sample the typical Latvian products. The outdoor stalls are also the perfect place to look for souvenirs.
Highlights of Riga
- House of the Blackheads
- Alberta Street
- Central Market
- Freedom Monument
- Latvian National Museum of Art
How to travel between Vilnius and Riga
There are no direct train connections between the Baltic capitals. But the bus lines between Vilnius and Riga are also comfortable. LuxExpress offers a bus service that is both affordable and well managed, with onboard entertainment, WIFI and free coffee and tea. You can also fly, but bear in mind that this will not save much time with transfers to and from the airport. Another option would be to turn this trip into a road trip. Rent a car and drive or even hitchhike, which is quite a common practice in the Baltics.
Cost: From 7 € for the bus/ From 30 € for a flight
Duration: Approx 4 hours by bus/ Less than 1-hour flight
Destination 3: Tallinn – Estonia
You’ll immediately notice the difference between Estonia and the other Baltic countries. For most of its history, Estonia developed independently from Lithuania and Latvia. It has an entirely different language and cultural heritage.
The Old Town of Tallinn is one of the best-preserved medieval cities in Europe and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Walking through the cobblestone streets is like stepping back in time. Take your time to explore this beautiful place with its historical sites such as the old city walls. There you will also find the Kiek in de KöK Museum and the Bastion passages, which give an excellent insight into the history of Tallinn.
Walk up to the upper part of the Old Town to see the Palace and the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral. There are also several viewpoints in the upper town that give you a beautiful view over the lower part of the Old Town. When you head back down, stop at St. Catherine’s Passage for beautiful artisanal products, St. Nicholas Church for Medieval art, the Cat’s Well and Town Hall Square. The time-travelling atmosphere extends beyond the architecture to the Medieval style food served in the restaurants around Old Town.
Once you feel like stepping forward in time a bit, visit the Viru Hotel for a guided tour around the KGB Museum on the top floor. Telliskivi Creative City and Kalamaja, just outside the Old Town, are the hippest part of Tallinn. Explore the modern side of the city through street art, hip bars and cafés, and shops. More good food and quirky vintage stalls can be found at the Balti Jaam Market, the perfect place to shop for souvenirs.
On lovely sunny days, there is no better place to be in Tallinn than Kadriorg Park. The beautiful park also houses several excellent museums, such as Kadriorg Palace and the KUMU Art Museum.
Highlights of Tallinn
- Old Town
- Kadriorg park
- KUMU Art Museum
- Estonian Open Air Museum
How to travel between Riga and Tallinn
There are no direct train connections between Riga and Tallinn. Luckily, LuxExpress also offers their excellent services for this connection. Although the flight time is short, you will have to add 2.5 hours for the transfers and wait time through this route. The road between Riga and Tallinn is also easy to drive and popular with hitchhikers.
Cost: From 9 € for the bus/ From 50 € for a flight
Duration: Approx 4.5 hours by bus/ 1 hour by plane
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