Discover the old world charm of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania
When we think of Eastern European cities, it’s often in the context of ultimate bachelor or stag destinations, or where groups of holidaymakers can make the most of the thriving nightlife in cities like Prague and Budapest. But there’s another side to these holiday destinations that’s perfect for those seeking beautiful scenery, rich history or just a relaxing time sampling local food and beverages. The capital cities of the three Baltic nations – Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania – offer all this and more. And in our opinion you’ll struggle to find more picturesque old towns anywhere in Europe.
Culture vultures and history buffs alike are waking up to this part of the world thanks to its fascinating history and stunning architectural backdrop. All three countries were part of the Russian Empire before gaining their independence after WWI, but then faced occupation by Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union throughout the latter half of the 20th century.
In the late 1980s, coordinated civil resistance known as the Singing Revolution saw 25% of the three nations protest against the Soviet Union, culminating in the Baltic Way protest in 1989, in which two-million protestors form a human ‘Freedom Chain’ stretching 600km from Tallinn, Estonia in the north, through Latvia to Vilnius, Lithuania in the south.
This spirit of independence and fierce national pride make the Baltic people expert hosts, and though tourism from the UK is still in a growing stage (seen in the occasionally hit-and-miss service), Volopa users will find it easy to shop, eat and explore in the local Euro currency.
It doesn’t really matter which way you visit the remarkable Baltic capitals, but musical Tallinn should be on everyone’s list. With 24 different music festivals over the course of the year – including Europe’s biggest and most diverse festival, Tallinn Music Week, every March – there is something for everyone.
This small city is also one of the world’s foremost technological hubs, with thriving start-ups specialising in everything from online security to blockchain. For a taste of the nation’s tech-savvy hipster side, visit Telliskivi Creative City outside the Old Town to shop from creatives and craft-makers, and relax in quirky cafes and restaurants. The KUMU Art Museum is well worth a visit, particularly for its permanent history of local art exhibition – which includes satirical, disturbing and uplifting work dating during Soviet rule.
Don’t miss a tour of the Old Town, which is split into Upper and Lower Towns, to find out about the country’s history. Tallinn’s importance as a coastal trading route means it has been ruled by the Danish, Swedish, Germans and Russians throughout its complicated history, and you can find evidence of that in everything from the mix of architecture to unique local cuisines. Stop for hot chocolate in any of the cafes that overlook the Old Town Hall before dining at Lower Town’s Restaurant Farm for a modern take on Estonian-European fine dining.
Perhaps the best known of the three cities, Riga is also the most tourist-ready of the group. While this means there’s plenty for tourists to see and do, be warned it can also be harder to find authentic experiences amid the Costa Coffees and TGI Fridays dotted around even the Old Town.
Spend a day sampling Riga’s architectural beauty, gothic spires and quirky turret with a wander around the Old Town. You can visit the House of the Black Heads, The Three Brothers and a myriad of churches with an easy walk. Shopping streets are connected by pretty squares full of restaurants and bars for some al fresco refreshment, but remember to explore the nooks between church buildings too for some romantic cafés and coffee-houses.
The city’s most famous restaurant is Vincents – which served the Queen for lunch and dinner when she visited the Baltics in 2009 – while for a more budget-friendly option, head to Dome Square. There, Key to Riga serves up a menu full of local dishes like ‘Flirting with the lady of the court’ (duck in honey and red wine jus), ‘Dragging Superintendent Samson to church’ (pork with pickled cucumber), and ‘There’s no love without squabbles’ (Pike perch fillet and shrimp butter sauce). For a mid-range, sophisticated option, our favourite discovery was B-Bar, a restaurant and cocktail bar frequented by cool locals. With an indulgent Italian menu and extensive cocktail selection, this establishment oozes contemporary city vibes – and you can also sample Latvia’s famous Black Basalm as an aperitif.
If you thought grand architecture was limited to the historic Old Town, think again. Other highlights include the flamboyant Art Nouveau district of Alberta Iela – architect Mikhail Eisenstein’s gift to Riga – and the packed Central Market, known for being Europe’s largest market as well as its unique location in the old German zeppelin hangers. If you’re feeling a little landlocked, Vecaki beach is one of the most popular white-sand beaches for city locals, and can be reached via the no. 24 bus.
Lithuania has been put on the map as a tourist destination this year thanks to the popularity of TV show Chernobyl, but its capital city, Vilnius, has much more to offer than past tragedies. Its quaint, pastel-painted Old Town is a feast for the eyes, with plenty of historic sites to explore.
Don’t miss a tour of Gediminas’ Castle, whose 15th century ruins still boast a tower with unbeatable views of Vilnius. From there, cobble stoned Pilies Street with lead you through the Old Town’s shopping district and to Cathedral Square, where tourists can climb the belltower and experience the working bells from inside the wooden belfry itself. A remarkable experience, so long as you’re prepared for quite a shock if climbing the steep stairs when they start to chime!
Afterwards, head to the only remaining historic city gate, the Gates of Dawn. From inside the city wall, the gate is a blue archway with a tiny chapel inside, and a gold Madonna that shines down on the street. Around this area is a choice of lovely cafes and restaurants. For local cuisine, Medininkai is a perfect summer choice, while Café Montmartre is known for its sweet treats.
Of course, no trip to Vilnius would be complete without a stroll around the Republic of Užupis, a micronation formed by artists spanning just 148 acres inside the city. This tongue-in-cheek nation declared its independence on April Fool’s Day 1998, with a 38-point constitution honouring the rights of people, cats and dogs. Guests can read the constitution in 23 languages just across the river, including its mottos, ‘don’t fight, don’t win, don’t surrender’. Not just a charming bohemian escape, Užupis is also home to some of the city’s best restaurants, including the upmarket Sweet Root restaurant for fine dining and Užupis Picerija for the best pizza in the Balkans.