We’re on our last full day in the Baltics, which we spent exploring Vilnius, Lithuania. Rather than the typical “How to spend a weekend in Riga” or “Top 5 things to see in Lithuania”, we decided to reflect on our time in the region. It was an amazing place to visit.
See our full gallery here.
Tallinn, Riga, and Vilnius – Same Same, but Different
All three capital cities were amazing to visit. Cool historic old towns, great food, interesting history…. but each had their own unique character as well.
Tallinn, with its preserved city walls, red clay tile roofs, medieval towers, and picture postcard main town square was probably the most “charming” of the three. It had a definite influence from Helsinki, a short 2.5-hour ferry ride away. The old town was fairly compact, making it easy to explore. And outside of the old town, we explored the trendy Rotermann Quarter and toured the creepy Patarei prison on the waterfront.
Riga had fewer “sights” to see but a beautiful old town that was easy to get lost in – literally. Rick Steves once said Toledo, Spain had the most confusing street layout, but having been to both, we think Riga takes that title. We were also surprised by the Turkish influence, with kebab shops and hookah bars all over the city – we didn’t see any in either Tallinn or Vilnius.
Riga, and Latvia in general, had a bit of a rough-around-the-edges feel. But that almost made it more interesting as a visitor as we felt it was easier to get some of the “local” experience.
Vilnius is the only city in the Baltics either of us had visited before – Trevor had been there almost 10 years ago. And it hasn’t changed much. Everywhere you look there are ornate churches, great restaurants, and winding streets. And we finally found summer weather after some chilly days in Latvia and Estonia. Being closer to Western Europe and, therefore more accessible, Vilnius seemed the most developed of the three capitals, and had the higher prices to prove it. Still an amazing city to visit, but a bit more polished.
Get out of the Capitals for a more unique experience
It seems that most people visiting the Baltic region just check off the three capitals, taking advantage of the comfortable and frequent buses running between the cities. However, to get a better feel for the region, we made sure to visit a few smaller towns. It was time well spent.
After Tallinn, we spent a couple of days in Tartu, Estonia – a university town 2.5 hours from the capital. Tartu is a beautiful town on a quiet river, and has many historic landmarks relating to the university. We felt like we were the only tourists in the town!
Riga had several options for day trips we could do to get out of the city. The first we did was visit Sigulda, a town in the Gauja National Park about an hour away from Riga. Sigulda is a beautiful town, known for its castles.
The second day trip was Jurmala, a high-end beach town on the outskirts of Riga. Unfortunately, we didn’t have beach weather, but we had a great time exploring the town.
From Riga, we took a bus to the coastal town of Liepaja, Latvia. For no particular reason other than it was on the coast and on the way to Klaipeda, Lithuania. But Liepaja had a great city centre with a large, bustling market, and an amazing park running for miles along a white sandy beach. Unfortunately, it was still not warm enough for swimming.
Klaipeda, Lithuania is on the tourist path, inasmuch as it is a regular stop for cruise ships, although not as many people venture here from Vilnius. The main attraction is the Curonian Spit, a 97km long island that is half Lithuanian and half Russian. A short 10 minute ferry ride from Klaipeda, this was probably the highlight of our trip in the Baltics. The east coast has small towns up and down the spit, all connected by buses and biking paths, while the west coast is lined with gorgeous sandy beaches. We rented bikes, which was the best way for us to see the island.
Our last small town stop was Kaunas, which is part way between Klaipeda and Vilnius. Some people see Kaunas as a day trip from Vilnius, but we decided to spend the night. As a town to relax and not worry about running around seeing sights, it was great. There is a great pedestrian shopping/restaurant area through the centre of the city and an old castle to explore. Great way to spend an afternoon!
Visiting some of the smaller towns around the region really gave us a better feel for the area, and made the trip feel more relaxed as we didn’t have any long travel days. The bus system throughout the Baltics is cheap, efficient, and frequent, making it easy to explore more off-the-beaten-track parts of each country.