An individual trip through Estonia, Lithuania and Latvia (Baltic States)
What do you do with four days off and a long weekend?! Cleaning your house or maybe just the windows? Clean out the basement or visit your parents (or even your in-laws)? No! You take those four days and visit the three capitals of the Baltic countries – Riga, Vilnius and Tallinn (The Baltic States).
We show you how to easily travel those three countries in just four days without stress and hectic and see the most important sights that the three capitals Riga, Vilnius and Tallinn have to offer. In addition we will share some useful life hacks about this trip. Everything without guidebook and guided group tours. Totally free and individual and most important – tested and tried by us (a couple fond of travelling with time- and budget restrictions).
The rustic Riga
Our first destination was Riga. Our Air Baltic flight touched ground around 22:00 h on a Wednesday night. We did not have to wait for our luggage since we only travelled with backpacks that fit the carry-on guidelines (we do not recommend check-in luggage on this trip since it would just weigh you down and be in the way). Once we got off the plane we were able to simply walk out of the airport to the next kiosk (Narvesen) and buy bus tickets for only 1,15 € per person to go downtown – never before did we have such a cheap airport transfer.
Our accommodation was Hotel Viktorija. It had the perfect price-location-ratio. What you have to know is that you should not have high expectations on your accommodation in the Baltic states. After we had to change half of the bedding because of ugly stains, we could finally arrange ourselves with the hotel. Considering the price of 30,- € per night per room including breakfast we couldn’t complain too much. Looking back on it, Hotel Viktorija was the second best hotel that we stayed at during the trip (or the second worst one – depends on the perspective).
On Thursday morning we left the hotel around 11:00 h after breakfast and walked to the city center and the old part of town. The first destination on our list was the St. Peter’s Church. There were already a few tourist group bustling around to visit this impressive basilica with three aisles. It is possible to climb the tower for 9,- €, but (luckily) we chose not to do that. More on that later. Instead of climbing up the stairs we walked through the beautiful old part of Riga to the Riga Cathedral – the largest church in the Baltic states. On our way to the river Daugava we passes the Riga Castle that is nowadays the residence of the President of Latvia.
We strolled along the promenade, passing Riga’s legendary Big Christopher (“Lielais Kristaps”), towards the Latvian Academy of Sciences with the impressive TV Tower 2.0 in the background. The Academy of Sciences tower has a platform on top of the building and it is really worth it to pay the 5,- € to take the elevator up there. You do not only have a beautiful 360 degree view, but you will probably have the platform all to yourself since most people pay the 9,- € fee to get up on St. Peter’s church tower that has a similar view, just way more crowded. Another plus is the fee-free bathroom you can use on top. From up there we could even spy out our next destination, the Riga Central Market.
The Central Market captivates you with its colors, hustle and bustle, odors and variety. Walking across the market was really enjoyable. Afterwards we went to the Nativity Cathedral, a formidable Russian-Orthodox cathedral with its characteristic golden dome. All those impressions wore us out a little so we decided to take a break and have a beer and a coffee as well as a little snack in the park right next to the cathedral while enjoying the outstanding weather.
After we strengthened up we went on to the Freedom Monument that is a symbol for the national independence of Latvia. From there it is only a short walk through a beautifully laid outpark that leads us to the Powder Tower that hosts the Latvian War Museum nowadays. We skipped the museum that day even though the entrance was free. For the last part of the day we chose the Restaurant Rozengrals for dinner. It is a pretty authentic restaurant in a basement vault charging salty prices. Unfortunately the food wasn’t to our liking. Thus, after 10 km walking distance and 8 hours, our time in Riga was coming to an end as we walked back to the hotel because we had to catch an early flight the next morning.
The virtuosic Vilnius
In order to catch our flight with Air Baltic at 07:35 h we had to leave the hotel pretty early in the morning. Sadly we missed breakfast in the hotel that morning. However, thanks to our credit card benefits we could use the lounges in the airports and have a relaxed breakfast in the airport while waiting for boarding. The flight from Riga to Vilnius took about an hour. After we arrived in Vilnius the first thing was getting bus tickets to go to town again.
Since it was rather early in the morning when we got to town our accommodation wasn’t ready for check-in yet so we decided to check out the first sights. The Vilnius Cathedral was our first destination. This impressive cathedral is the main Roman Catholic cathedral in Lithuania and definitely the eye-catcher of the town. Beyond the cathedral and 140 m higher on a hill is the Gediminas’ Tower. After we walked up there we were rewarded with a beautiful panoramic view on the town and the surrounding area. The contrast between the buildings in the old city center and the newer, more modern buildings is really noticeable from up there.
But now it was time to get rid of our backpacks and check in to our hotel Budget Central. The Budget Central is located pretty much in the middle of Gedimino Prospektas – one of the main streets in Vilnius with lots of shops and restaurants. The best thing about the hotel was its location and its staff. Everything else was basically minimum subsistence level (saggy mattresses, no warm water in the morning, loose toilet bowl, just to name a few things). Fortunately we only had to stay there for one night. After our check-in in that cheap hostel we strolled along the Gedimino Prospektas to our next destination – a second-hand shop called De’Žavu Vintage Boutique. Very cool store, were we couldn’t leave without buying a dress.
Walking past the Church of St. Catherine (there is a lot of churches in the Baltic States) we stopped at the Vilnius Museum of Illusions. Don’t fear the 10,- € entrance fee, it is worth it! There is multiple stations to actively try things, to be amazed by things and to be fooled by illusions. In addition it is possible to take pictures of a few optical illusions or even become one. So switch on your camera, go ahead and enjoy.
From there we went to the Townhall Square including the townhall. A side street, Stikliai street, offers lots of little shops and restaurants that basically invite you to stay and explore. Walking further south took us to the most important cultural monument of Vilnius – the Gate of Dawn. Back in the day this was a very important pilgrimage destination for Christians. Today it is one of Vilnius’ most popular photo scenes. From there we went to the residuals of the city walls. Barbakan – The Bastion of the Vilnius City Walls – is completely restored so it is vaguely perceptible what it might have looked like in the 16th century.
Before we moved on to the end of the day (and as well the end of our visit in Vilnius) we stopped by the Presidential Palace. Soldiers of the Lithuanian Army performed a change of flags in front of the building. After watching this parade-like happening we strolled through the Old Town towards the restaurant for the night – Forto Dvaras. The restaurant has the charm of a typical tourist trap restaurant but it really surprised and convinced us with its great cuisine and moderate prices. It was the perfect place to end our visit in Vilnius, that captivated us by its cleanliness and its beautifully restored Old Town.
Again, early in the morning we took the bus to the airport and went straight to the lounge to have breakfast. Around 10:00 h we landed in Tallinn after a short flight. And again, the public transportation was great, easy and at low cost. So after a short bus ride we found ourselves in the heart of Tallinn.
We started our visit with a walk to the Townhall Square. The amount of tourists was immense and we went straight on to the St. Catherine’s Monastery and the St. Catherine’s Passage. The Passage is very popular amongst tourists and is characterized by wooden crossbars that brace over the alley. From there it was not far to the Viru Gate that basically forms the entrance to the Old Town of Tallinn and is definitely a motif of many tourist snapshots.
We reached our hotel after a little walk on Pikk – a long street in the Old Town that is characterized by many historic buildings, like former guildhalls. The Gotthard Residents was situated at the end of Pikk and, because of its architecture, fit right in to the line of historic buildings on this beautiful street. We really liked this hotel, built in very old walls, because it was freshly renovated and some rooms even had access to a huge patio, like our room did.
We left our luggage in the hotel and went on to Toompea (“Cathedral Hill”) and the upper part of town. There used to be a separation between the upper- and the lower-town but nowadays one blends into the other. Up on Toompea we found the Toompea Castle and the Estonian Parliament as well as two small viewing platforms that offer great views over the lower town and the harbor.
Back in the Old Town we sat down in a little café/bar called Babulja that is located just south of the Old Town and we enjoyed the sun on the terrace with a nice and cold beer and a Moscow Mule. It was time to get back to the hotel and on our way there we walked through the Rotermann Quarter – a very modern and new part of town with shops and restaurants, basically Tallinn of the 21stcentury. This district in the east was a refreshing alternative to the historic Old Town of Tallinn.
Once we got back to the hotel we freshened up for the evening and strolled through the little alleys of Tallinn being on the look for a dinner location for our last night, not only on Tallinn, but also in the Baltic States. It did not take us long to find out that it won’t be that easy to find something affordable and not crowded. Thanks to the one-day-tourists from Finland the prices in Tallinn are rather high compared to Vilnius or Riga. Further it is not easy at all not to fall right into a tourist trap kinda place in the Townhall-area. But we were so lucky. Located in the shadows of the Townhall and the crowded Olde Hansa we found a cute little restaurant called Kvartal.
At first we were a little skeptical because we were the only guests (on one hand you don’t want to eat in an over-crowded restaurant but on the other hand you don’t want to be the only guest either…). The wariness faded quickly though when our food was served. Our bellies filled up and so did the Kvartal. Overall the food and the service were excellent. I have to admit that I have never had salmon this tasty before. We really recommend this superior restaurant that has fair prices.
For Sunday we only had a small program planned ahead since we had to fly back home in the evening already. We left the hotel towards the north and reached the harbor. The Tallinn harbor is not very tourist-friendly and, to be honest, it is bleak. Nevertheless, we were kind of overwhelmed by the huge concrete building from Soviet Era that awaited us at the harbor – the Linnahall. A former concert and sports venue. It looks like a bunker and it was left to rot. Because of its ugliness it is impressive and repulsive at the same time but it definitely worth a visit. In contrast to the Old Town and the modern Rotermann Quarter Linnahall offers another facet of Tallinn – representing the Soviet Era.
What we missed on Saturday we did on Sunday. We ate a tasty piece of cake in the oldest café in Estonia – the Maiasmokk Café. Located on Pikk it attracts tourists like light attracts moths. This place is so busy that the time of eating the cake was enough before we decided to leave again.
Our last destination was conveniently located on the bus stop. That we had to go to in order to get back to the airport. Right next to the shopping mall Viru Keskus and the Hotel Viru. It was the KGB Museum in Tallinn that was not easy to find. What we did not know is that the museum is located inside the Hotel Viru on the two top floors. You have to make a reservation for a tour in English or Finnish language beforehand at the front desk of the hotel. Unfortunately there is no signs outside the hotel indicating that there is a museum inside. As a visitor you just have to know it is there.
The KGB Museum is the part of the hotel that wasn’t remodeled. Is therefore preserved as it was in Soviet times. In the Soviet Era the Hotel was used by the KGB and guests were strictly observed. The tour of the museum is 60 minutes long and costs 12,- € per person. Our tour guide did a great job telling us all about the historic background. She shared some entertaining stories of the past days. Time just flew by up there. We strongly recommend this tour. It was the perfect ending to our fabulous trip to the Baltic States.