Updated on 9th July 2018: Added a new travel video to the article.
The Baltic countries are often forgotten by most travellers who are travelling in Europe but if you are looking for off-the-beaten paths in a pretty well-travelled continent like Europe, the Baltic countries are the way to go. The Baltic countries offer a more authentic experience to the forgotten history of Eastern Europe from their medieval roots to the bloody fights for independence against the Soviet while also offering a fairy-tale-like experience throughout its small towns and forests.
Within this guide, we will travel through the Baltic countries with a one-week itinerary that I used to travel through Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia. From the raw authentic experience of Vilnius to the magical medieval town of Tallin, here is all the information you need for a great time in the Baltic countries.
Baltic Itinerary Map
Why go to the Baltic?
Ltihuania, Latvia, and Estonia are one of the best places to travel to if you are looking to escape from the crowdedness of other European countries. From the Trakia in Lithuania, Cesis in Latvia and Tallinn in Estonia, the Baltic countries prove that fairy tales really do come true with a perfect mix between untouched nature, fascinating culture, and the crumbling castles.
When to Go
Late June to August is the best time to visit the Baltic states as to maximize the number of clear sunny days since the weather in this part of Europe can get extreme real fast. I was there around April and it was still cold and snowy.
Where to Stay
Vilnius, Lithuania - Pogo Hostel - 13.77 USD/Night (Excellent location in front of the Cathedral Square)
Riga, Latvia - Tree House Hostel - 16.48 USD/Night
Tartu, Estonia - Terviseks Hostel - 17.66 USD/Night
Tallin, Estonia - Tabinoya Travellers House & Family Apartment - 20.01 USD/Night (Excellent location, lovely sleeping arrangement, beds with curtains for privacy.)
How to Get Around
The cities in the Baltic are pretty small so most of the tourist attractions can be covered by foot quite easily. The local intercity buses are also a great option for when you want to go out of the city for a day trip to places like Cesis and Trakai. Buses to these 2 places, in particular, run very often (every one to two hours) every day so all you need to do is pick a time and go to the bus station and get the ticket 30 minutes prior to the time you want to leave.
For international buses, I would recommend Lux Express, an Estonian top of the class bus service that runs throughout the region. The buses are extremely new and comfortable with semi-sofa seats, drinks and electric sockets on all seats.
This place is cheaper than most countries but not dirt cheap. Expect to pay around 30 - 50 USD per day per person including accommodation and food.
Keep in mind that this is just a suggested daily budget based on my style of traveling, which is leaning more toward the budget side of things. If you want to stick to this budget, expect to sleep in dorms, eat out only a few times, and be comfortable using the cheapest and most convenient way of transportation, which often times involves walking.
One week itinerary to the Baltic Countries
Vilnius, Lithuania (2 nights)
First off, if you are coming from central Europe, the closest big city to our first destination, Vilnius, Lithuania is Warsaw, Poland so you can fly there and from Warsaw, you can take a train to Białystok and get a direct bus to Vilnius. This can be done in a day easily but do check for the bus schedule through Bus Radar. Vilnius is unlike most European cities with its tourist attractions scattered all over instead of concentrated around the main square. This allows you to explore the city on foot and see the city and how the people live first hand.
Its Baroque style architecture in the old town, Orthodox and Catholic churches and the independent republic of Uzupis full of artists and creatives are among the best things to see in this city. First up, be sure to visit the Vilnius cathedral and make a small climb up the Gediminas Castle tower for a morning view of the city (as of March 2018, the tower is closed for renovation). Another great climb, which will take a little longer and I would recommend going in the evening before sunset is the climb to the Three Crosses where you will be rewarded with a view of the Old Town and the entire city. Definitely worth the climb!
Once you are done with the hills, make your way to St. Peter and St. Paul's church and check out the stunning Roman Catholic church, a masterpiece of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth Baroque. The inside is even more impressive with its all white interior contrasting with the wooden decors. Really worth a walk all the way up to the church.
From the church, make your way back to Vilnius cathedral and go down south toward the independent republic of Uzupis. Be sure to check out the stunning red brick church of St Anne's on your way to the neighborhood.
Uzupis is a unique neighborhood wherein in 1997, the district declared itself the independent republic of Uzupis which then attracts many creatives due to its bohemian and laissez-faire atmosphere. The district consisted off cool cafes, old cobbled alleys and crumbling walls full of stunning graffitis. The district is definitely worth a visit if you are interested in the modern take of Vilnius.
Be sure to also walk the old square (more like a long oval) and check out the town hall square (Vilniaus rotušė), the church of St. Johns and the Saint Parasceve Orthodox Church, all in the same street leading up to the Gates of Dawn (Aušros vartai).
Trakai (half day)
It won't take you long the see Vilnius city so if you started the day early and have half a day left, I would suggest you take a bus from Vilnius bus station to Trakai town, where you can walk 30 mins from the town to the famous castle on an island and learn about the medieval history of Lithuania and how the Trakai became the center of a wide range of communities of Karaims, Tatars, Lithuanians, Russians, Jews to the Poles.
Riga (3 nights)
Riga, a stunning medieval capital city of Latvia is our next destination as we make our way across the Baltic countries. Now, we are getting into a more familiar territory with the medieval old town with large cathedral and tall towers surrounding it. Riga is an easily navigatable and quite rewarding to explore on foot. First, visit the spacious square around one of the most notable landmarks in the city, the Riga Cathedral. The cathedral is considered to be the biggest of its kind in the Baltic. From the cathedral, you can make your way towards the Swedish gate and walk around the old walls of the city.
If you wake up early, you can head over to the Freedom Square and witness the routine guard changing ceremony. You will also get to go people watching and see the lively locals exercising, and socializing out by the square.
One thing I like to do in a European city is to go up a tower and check out a view of the city from the top and one of the best place to go up in Riga is the tower of the St. Peter's church where you can get an entrance ticket with the tower access so you can see the beautiful Baroque-style interior and take the elevator up to the platform and get a 360 view of the city from above.
If you are interested in the bloody history of Latvia during its multiple occupations by foreign lands, be sure to drop by the Museum of the Occupation of Latvia, nearby the Daugava river.
If you are not interested in that, located right on the opposite side of the museum is the House of the Blackheads, another famous landmark of the city. It is a gothic style property that was recently rebuilt in 1999, home to the president. The stunning facade of the building is quite a sight to behold.
One of the best view you can get of the city is from the opposite side of the Daugava river and the best time is in the early morning where the sun is still not too strong. A little morning stroll across the Akmens Tilts stone bridge will reward you with the Old Town's view from afar where you can see all the stunning architecture of Riga castle and the high steeples of churches piercing the sky.
If you are looking for a nice cheap place to eat traditional food, be sure to check out Lido restaurant located near the Riga Cathedral. The restaurant has a medieval style to it with live acoustic music and wooden furniture. It serves homemade food where you can select whatever you want to eat and pay by the items on your plate. All of the food provided is reasonably priced and delicious. The location is shown below:
Cesis (half day)
After spending a day exploring the city, it is time to go out and explore smaller towns. Cesis makes a great day trip from the capital which is only 2 hours bus ride away. Cesis is a beautiful old town known for its medieval castle. The castle featuring wall paintings, dungeons, towers, romantic castle park and the old crumbling Lutheran church of Saint John the Baptist located nearby. You can also go up the Lademaher tower to get a view of Cesis from above but unfortunately, it was winter when I was there and the access to the tower was closed.
Tartu (1 night)
Following a brief but rewarding time in Latvia, we continue on to Estonia and introduce ourselves to the final country in the Baltic with a visit to a university town of Tartu, considered to be the intellectual center of the country. Tartu is located on the way between Riga and Tallinn and make quite a good one night stop before we head toward Tallinn. Due to its population being young and creative, the city is filled with stunning art installation like the accidental National Geographic prop seen above and cool cafes and restaurants that are cheap and delicious.
One of the things worth checking out is the Tartu Dome Church on top of the hill. The beauty of this church is not that it has been beautifully renovated. On the contrary, the church is mostly left in ruin which was a good change from all the renovated churches you find all over Europe. You can also go up one of the towers but unfortunately, it was closed in winter when I was there.
Also, do drop by the Old Observatory on the hill nearby the church ruin if you are interested in traditional ways of stargazing. St. John church and Tartu Dormition of the Mother of God Cathedral are also worth a visit as well.
A cafe I would recommend you try is the Khovik-restoran Werner. They serve Lunch of the day where you can get high-quality delicious food for 5 EUR. The cafe is located in between the Town Hall and the University of Tartu building. Also, if you are looking for a nice cozy and hip restaurant for a nice evening beer and dinner, be sure to check out Restoran Aparaat. It is a little further from the city but it is worth a walk. The restaurant itself is located inside a building courtyard full of cool and hip shops and restaurants. They also serve local beers so if you are interested in that, this is a place to be. If you are looking to catch a lively vibe of Tartu's night, GenClub is a place you should check out with plenty of events to attend, and delicious food and drink to go with it.
Tallinn (2 nights)
Last but not least, Tallinn, one of the most fairy-tale-like medieval city of all. Every touristic attraction is all located in the center so the city is easily covered on foot in a day. First off, drop by the Old Town Square and visit the Tallinn Town Hall. There are plenty of cafes, restaurants and beautiful architecture surrounding the square so be sure to spend an hour or two exploring the square.
The square is nice and all but the highlight of the city is the medieval castle on top of the hill and its surrounding. Before we make our way up there, be sure to drop by the St Nicholas church on your way towards the hill. From the church, you can go west and continue up the hill to the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral, one of the most beautiful orthodox church I have seen in the Baltic. A truly stunning piece of architecture towering the city is also the most renown landmark of Tallinn.
There are plenty of places to see on the hill such as the Toompea castle and the St Mary's Cathedral but two of the most photogenic places to go on the hill is the Kohtuotsa and Patkuli viewing platforms. From both of these points, you can see the city from a different perspective, toward the sea and into the heart of the city respectively. I would recommend you to visit these viewing platforms in the early morning when the sun is not too bright and areas not too crowded.
If you have some time to spare, places further away like the Freedom Square and St Olaf's church are worth visiting as well. From Tallinn, you have the option to either leave the country to Russia or Finland. If you are planning to visit Scandinavia next, be sure to stay tuned to BucketListly Blog as the next guide I will write about is a brief visit to Scandinavian capital cities. I hope you will find this guide useful, and if you do, feel free to leave your comment below.
The Solo Traveler’s Journal is a series of posts by BucketListly where we will follow our founder, Pete Rojwongsuriya around the world as he singlehandedly travel alone and experience different cultures, people, and historical locations one country at a time.
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