Baltic Capitals - View from the Inside

"Charming stone walls, cobbled stoned streets, its Gothic Town Hall and people dressed in medieval costumes give you a feeling you travelled back to the Middle Ages."

December 2017 • Jules Verne

Baltic Capitals - View from the Inside

With a morning tour of beautiful Vilnius already behind us, as we watched a fairly entertaining cepelinai making demonstration, already warmed up from our Žalgiris I started to get really excited about the week ahead.

To be honest there is not much I knew about the Baltic countries before this tour except that they were once part of the Soviet Union and have since joined the EU. I also don’t often hear of people having these countries on their travel list, except maybe my father. By the end of the 7-night tour I understood why he speaks so fondly of the Baltics and why when I told him I was finally going to visit them he was probably even more excited than I was.

The geographic location of the Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania makes it easy to explore the three countries in one go, and first-timers should not miss the capitals. All three have historic city centres, and are beautiful in different ways.

Vilnius – The most satisfied capital city in Europe

The name of the country Lithuania originates from the word lietus, meaning rain. And as Plautus said: ‘Nomen est omen’, rain, there is plenty of. Thankfully there is much more the country and its capital have to offer.

Vilnius is known for its baroque and neoclassical architectural style dominated by churches (over 40 churches in the Old Town alone).  The Palace of the Grand Dukes of Lithuania has the biggest collection of renaissance tiles and the country was second behind Italy to use the fork.

Our morning tour included a walk in the Old Town and despite being the largest Old Town in Europe, it is compact and pedestrian friendly, with most sights located in walking distance.

We passed Uzupis, the free thinking, independent republic within the city. Its 41-point constitution includes points like “A dog has the right to be a dog”.

Our 3-course lunch and cepelinai demonstration was in a cosy, local restaurant Senoji Trobele. Apart from traditional Lithuanian dishes it has a large selection of local beers (my favourite was the honey beer) and local fruit wines. As the climate is not very good for grapes the wine here is produced from different types of fruits. As a self proclaimed “wine-buff” I was a bit apprehensive about trying wine made of anything other than grape and while it wasn’t really my ‘cup of tea’ it’s definitely worth a try.

Despite being a mere 3 hours away from any European destination by air Vilnius does not feel as touristy as the other two capitals. We found the hospitality and service to be of a very high standard and yet the prices to be the lowest, making it excellent value for money.

Riga – “Paris of the North”

Being October, the sun was already beginning to set as we approached the city of Riga.

We left Vilnius in the morning and drove past some stunning landscapes with vibrant autumn colours. On the way we stopped at the Hill of Crosses, a slightly odd but fascinating site of pilgrimage in the north of Lithuania, with hundred of thousands of crosses brought here by locals and tourists of different religions with their names and wishes on them.

About an hour and a half from Riga is the Baltics’ most impressive Palace, the Rundale Palace. The Baroque and rococo gem, resembling Versailles is definitely worth a day trip even if you are not a fan of the BBC series War & Peace. The opening scene of the series was filmed in the Gold Hall, where you can still find the names of the French soldiers from the Napoleonic army carved in the plaster.

We reached the Latvian capital from the left bank of the river Daugava, passing the unusual building of the National Library before crossing the Stone Bridge leading directly to the Old Town.

Riga is the largest city in the Baltics with a population of over 600,000. It is the most cosmopolitan of the three and has an early 20th century vibe, with its Art Nouveau style buildings dominating the city’s architecture.

Even on a rainy day there are noticeably more tourists in the Old Town than in Vilnius. After a morning tour of the city we set out to find a place for lunch and to warm up. Lucky for us it didn’t take long as there are many cafes and restaurants around the Old Town.

We finished our day in the sky bar of the Radisson Blu Latvija, enjoying a bird’s eye view of the city and a Riga cocktail made from the famous Black Balsam.

Tallinn – Singing Revolution

Energised from a hearty lunch in the Estonian summer capital Parnu and that the rain finally stopped, as soon as we arrived in the afternoon we headed out to explore the Old Town of Tallinn.

Charming stone walls, cobbled stoned streets, its Gothic Town Hall and people dressed in medieval costumes give you a feeling you travelled back to the Middle Ages. The lookouts in the Upper Town offer panoramic views of the city and its wonderfully preserved 14th – 15th century light coloured buildings and orange-topped roofs.

Being a relatively small city, many of its attractions are within walking distance except for the Kadriorg Palace which is about a 10-15 minute bus ride away.

Another interesting site is the grounds of the Tallinn Song Festival featured in the documentary Singing Revolution and where the Estonian Song Festival is held every 5 years (the next one is in 2019).

Due to the proximity to Finland, Tallinn is the most expensive of the three Baltic capitals but as we wondered off the main streets we found more reasonable prices. Hidden in a lovely garden, surrounded by city walls we discovered Leib Resto Ja Aed, a local restaurant offering Estonian dishes using locally sourced and seasonal ingredients and hand-made bread (leib). The combination of the atmosphere, quality of food and service made this lunch one of the highlights of our time in Tallinn.

“So which one was your favourite?” was my father’s first question upon my return. And while all three are beautiful and unique, I must admit I did have a favourite. It could be because of the number of rainless days or that we spent the most time here, but personally,  I liked Tallinn the most.

View our Baltic Capitals tour