Are the Baltic States next on your travel list?
Then you’re probably wondering which are the best cities to visit: Tallinn, Riga, or Vilnius. Or maybe you want to visit all three of the Baltic cities.
It’s a tough choice if you are limited with time.
But one way around this dilemma is to plan the best things to see and do while you are there. Even if you only have a weekend break or one day from a Baltic cruise. We have highlighted the best of Vilnius, Riga, and Tallinn.
And not only the best places to visit but day trips from each city. There are new foods to try and travel options between Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania.
So let’s get started.
12 Amazing Days in the Baltics States
And they are amazing.
Since 1991, when they gained independence from the Soviet Union and joined the EU in 2004, the Baltic States have flourished. Spending a weekend or longer, there are unique things to see in Tallinn, Riga, and Vilnius.
You can also get close to nature with an abundance of National Parks and Nature Parks. To learn more, check out these websites:
Where are the Baltic States?
If you type “Baltic Sea” in Google Maps, you find it laps the shores of three countries on the eastern side: Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania.
These countries are known as the Baltic States.
Nestled with the other northern countries of Russia, Finland, Sweden, Copenhagen, Germany, and Poland. The Baltic Sea unites all these countries and forms the Baltic Loop.
But what makes the Baltic Nations a memorable place to visit?
It’s the history, the food, and the centuries-old folk traditions, especially in dance.
While we were in Croatia, we got to see an entertaining Lithuanian traditional dance. You can see more here: YouTube Clip.
So, here are some tips before you visit the Baltic States.
Baltic States: Use these Quick Tips
Before you head off to explore the charm of Tallinn, Riga, and Vilnius, here are 5 quick tips before you go:
- Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania are members of the European Union – so the currency is the Euro
- There is a time difference of plus one hour to central Europe (Paris)
- Read the history of the Baltic Way story
- Each Baltic State has its own language
- Check the National Holidays in Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania
So, how do you get to the Baltic State cities?
Getting to the Baltic States: What are your options?
Depending on how you like to travel, your options are:
The quickest travel option is a flight to one of the capital cities of Tallinn, Riga or Vilnius.
Ryanair has flights to Tallinn and Riga, and Lufthansa flies to Vilnius.
To find the best deals, we use Skyscanner. That way, you can plan your trip to suit your vacation days and travel budget.
And here are some tips for getting from the airport to the inner city.
Getting from the Airport to the Old Cities
We are comfortable travellers (with a comfy budget), so we seek out affordable options when visiting new cities.
For a cheaper option, the buses to and from Tallinn, Riga, and Vilnius airports were inexpensive, comfortable, and reliable for short distances.
Tallinn Airport to Tallinn Old Town: Take Bus 2 or Tram 4 for the old city, which is about 20 minutes. The ticket costs €2 from the bus driver or €1 from the ticket machine.
Riga airport to Riga Old Town: take Bus 22 (a large white minivan) at Arrival E for the 30-minute trip to the old town. You can purchase tickets from the bus driver (€2) or the ticket machine for less, currently €1.15 (2019)
Vilnius Airport to Vilnius Old Town: Take the airport bus outside the terminal, which is about a 20-minute journey. Tickets can be purchased from the bus driver for €1(2019).
And if you are travelling from another European country, one option is to take a bus.
Travel to the Baltic States from another European Country
We used the Ecolines Bus.
Our starting point was Poland to Lithuania with Ecolines Bus leaving from Warsaw to Vilnius, Lithuania. This is a 9-hour journey that starts at 6.15 a.m.
The other option is a train from Poland crossing the border to Lithuania, then a bus to Vilnius. Making it a much longer journey.
So how was the bus trip?
The Ecolines bus arrived one hour late, so a few of us were nervous we had “missed the bus.” One guy frantically asked every Ecolines Bus into the station, “Is this the bus to Vilnius?”
When the bus finally arrived, probably overnight from Riga, we were met by a tired and grumpy hostess who would be our onboard ‘help’ for the 9-hour journey. Yikes!
What made us happy was the bag security. The driver will place a tag on your bag and give you a matching tag. That way, no one is walking away with your bags at any bus stop along the route.
Don’t be surprised if the hostess takes your printed ticket information for the journey. Apparently, it was for the border crossing from Poland to Lithuania (we think, too scared to ask!)
Our Ecolines service from Warsaw to Vilnius did offer onboard food items served by a hostess. But for a healthier snack, it’s best to bring your own food and drink.
The TV screens on the back of each chair made the trip go quickly. There was a wide selection of movies, TV shows, and games.
If your preference is to slow travel, taking the bus is one way to see more of a country, its landscape, houses and people.
Travelling between the Baltic States isn’t easy.
If you decide not to hire a car, your best alternative to travel between the Baltic States is by bus.
There are no direct train services available between the capital cities.
But if you are short on time, fly between the capital cities with Baltic Air.
Buses in the Baltic region are affordable and comfortable, and it is easy to book online or purchase a ticket at the city bus station.
We used the free travel app Rome2rio for times and prices.
The main highways between the Baltic cities factor in more time for roadworks or traffic delays. And bring plenty of snacks; those toilet stops are quick.
We chose Ecolines Bus for:
- Good price
- Comfort with legroom
- Free coffee
- Onboard toilet
- Selection of movies, music, and games
- Secure baggage
So what was the travel like between each Baltic city?
Lithuania to Latvia by Ecolines Bus
The Ecolines bus trip from Vilnius, Lithuania, to Riga, Latvia, is a 4-4.5-hour journey. This compares to the 6-hour train, which zigzags across the country.
With about 50% of Latvia covered in forest, the bus journey through small villages with views of wooden houses is very picturesque.
Vilnius Bus Station – Sodų g. 22, Vilnius 03211, Lithuania
Riga Bus Station (for Ecolines) – Prāgas iela 1, Latgales priekšpilsēta, Rīga, LV-1050, Latvia
Lithuania to Estonia with Baltic Air
Our option was to fly direct from Vilnius to Tallinn with Baltic Air.
The flight takes 1.50 hours, plus the 20-minute bus ride to the airport.
Latvia to Estonia by Ecolines Bus
Direct travel between Latvia’s capital, Riga and Estonia’s capital, Tallinn, is a comfortable 4.5-hour journey taking you along the Baltic Sea.
Ecolines makes one quick stop along the route, though it is too short to buy snacks, so remember to take food with you.
Tallinn Bus Station (Tallinna Bussijaam) – Lastekodu 46,10144 Tallinn
Riga Bus Station (for Ecolines) – Prāgas iela 1, Latgales priekšpilsēta, Rīga, LV-1050, Latvia
Latvia to Estonia with Baltic Air
Baltic Air flies directly between Riga and Tallinn, a 50-minute flight.
Allow 30 minutes from Riga to the airport by bus and 20 minutes from Tallinn airport to the old town.
After deciding how to travel, what season do you prefer to travel?
What is the best time to visit the Baltic States?
It depends if you like warm or cold seasons.
Our first visit was in June, which was in the summer.
Lots of sunshine, warm temperatures and what seemed like endless daylight were fantastic.
Okay, well, the 30 degrees Celsius was a little hot (unusually high for June). Another reason to pack light!
And the sun never seemed to let the moon have its turn. It seemed like the amount of light was 24 hours a day.
With the sunset at 22.30 and the dawn at 3.45, there was still light in between.
Which meant it was perfect for old-town evening walks and early morning photos. Before, it got crazy busy with other tourists.
However, if you love hearty meals and snow, winter is magical, especially in Tallinn’s Christmas market.
You need to bring a heavy-duty coat as temperatures can get as low as -5 to -15 Celsius, and the daylight hours are shorter.
The ideal months to visit are April and May for spring and September and October for autumn tones.
During these times, the old towns are less crowded, so you can explore each city’s own unique must-see places to visit.
12 Days in the Baltic States: Visit Estonia, Latvia or Lithuania
If you plan to see only one Baltic State, the capital cities are the place to start. This way you can add on a day trip to the countryside, an island or a beach. There are plenty of choices.
And even though Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania are grouped as the Baltic region, each country has its own:
- history and
- stories to tell
The Baltic States are small compared to other European countries. The population in 2017 was:
- Estonia Population: 1.3 million
- Latvia Population: 1.95 million
- Lithuania Population: 2.8 million
But one thing they have in common is the Baltic Way, a human chain uniting all three Baltic States from Tallinn through Riga to Vilnius.
It was a peaceful demonstration of approximately two million people on 23 August 1989 to stand together for the national liberation of the Baltic States.
So, what is special about each capital city?
How to Spend One Day in Tallinn, Estonia
Tallinn is one of the best-preserved medieval towns in Europe.
A UNESCO site, medieval walls, and towers still surround the old town with entry through different medieval gates.
To get the best views of Tallinn’s Old Town, the bell tower of St Olav’s Church tower has 360-degree views. It was the tallest building in the world in the Middle Ages.
Located on Lai 50, 10133 Tallinn, it is currently closed for renovations (July 2019).
Town Hall Square, a meeting place for eight centuries, is surrounded by restaurants, except for one corner where you can find the oldest pharmacy in Europe, the Raeapteek. Take a look inside and browse through their herbal book. You’ll be surprised by just what a certain plant can heal.
Wandering the small, narrow streets, look at the plaques on many houses with details of their past history. It’s really helpful, but it does slow you down if you try to read each one.
If you need to stop for a unique beer experience, Olde Hansa for a honey beer is a refreshing flavour to drink. You can also choose an Estonian dish from the menu.
Alexander Nevsky Cathedral in front of Toompea Castle is one of the most photographed landmarks of Tallinn.
The Orthodox Cathedral was built in 1900 and is free to enter (although you must be quiet, or you will get told off!) with beautiful mosaics.
How many days do you need in Tallinn?
Unless you are visiting Tallinn from a cruise ship for the day, we suggest staying at least three nights in Tallinn.
We visited several landmarks around Tallinn, and our pick for the best to explore nearby are:
- Kadriorg Park and Palace (with colourful summer and spring gardens)
- Food stalls of Balti Jaama Turg in Kalamaja area
- Wander the Telliskivi Loomelinnak Creative City (try La Muu ice cream)
- Maarjamae Memorial at Pirita (for lives lost during the Communist period)
- Lennusadam Seaplane Harbour (guys will love it)
- Take a return day ferry to Helsinki, Finland
To get from your accommodation to these Tallinn landmarks, take public transport.
How to get around Tallinn: the Smart Way
Public transport is the best solution if you are planning to stay in Tallinn for more than one day.
Purchase a smartcard for €2 and load €5 for 72 hours to use on trams or buses from:
- the bus station
- the airport
And when you leave Tallinn, hand in your Smartcard at a bus station or airport for a €2 refund.
Now you have explored Tallinn and learned more about Estonian history; next is Riga.
How to Spend One Day in Riga, Latvia
Riga is a fascinating city with a mix of the old town, nouveau buildings and modern architecture. Navigating your way to the various landmarks as you cross the River Daugava.
Although we make love history, our favourite things in Riga were the food and craft beer. The variety, flavours, and price made exploring Riga’s culinary delights enjoyable.
One of the best places to enjoy local food is from the enormous Central Market in four old Zeppelin Hangars. Local meats, cheese and bread.
We found the Bekereja (Bake Berry) stall was great for breakfast or lunch items. We would buy small pastry bread encased with meat or vegetables. So different as they were light and oh-so-tasty.
But the smell of fresh strawberries was overwhelming. We had to buy a punnet or two. So tantalizing, so sweet.
Beyond the central market is the prominent building of the Academy of Sciences (aka Stalin’s birthday cake). The roof terrace has views of Riga and is a cheaper option than the €11 fee to St Peter’s Church in the old town.
Around this area, old warehouses are being modernized for trendy shops and cafes.
But there is more to see in Riga other than eating its delicious food.
Walk Riga Old Town UNESCO Heritage Site
Town Hall Square was completely rebuilt after World War Two, and the beautiful facades of the House of Blackheads are a popular photo stop. Evenings here are special, with locals playing classical music, giving the square a wonderful ambience.
Especially if followed with a coffee or hot chocolate at the unique place Black Magic.
Now, don’t be put off by the name. Because if you want to know what the national drink of Latvia is, you’ll find the answer here. It’s Black Balsam.
Black Balsam is a secret recipe herbal drink added to your coffee or drunk on its own.
Black Magic Cafe was once used for alchemy. You’ll be mesmerised by the antique interior, old wooden shelving, and large glass counter. But what fascinated us was the large bookshelf. It had a secret door that opened to reveal another cafe below.
Even if you don’t want to try the Black Balsam, try the delicious chocolates or a range of yummy cakes. Or walk through the hidden door.
Wander near the Powder Tower
Make sure to see one of the defensive structures of the old town, the Powder Tower. Although rebuilt, the foundation stones are remnants of the Swedish invasion.
Near here is the Swedish Gate, named after the troops who defended Riga against the 1710 Russian invasion. The row of houses you see was once the army barracks.
Stop at Grannie’s Kitchen (Fazenda Bazars) at the end of the barracks for delicious savoury pancakes and coffee. The lady is so sweet; she doesn’t speak English but cooks her dishes with love.
Spend time Wandering the Local Parks
As you leave the pedestrian-friendly old town, Bastejkalns Park is a popular place in Riga. You can admire the National Opera House or drink tea at the Apsara Tea House.
It’s only a short walk to the Riga Orthodox Cathedral on the Esplanade. It is a stunning church, especially in the late evening sunlight when the golden domes shine.
How to get around Riga
Riga is best explored on foot. The old town area is small, with the nearby Bastejkalns Park and Art Nouveau area close by.
The Art Nouveau area is a UNESCO World Heritage site. Roughly one-third of all buildings in the city’s centre are Art Nouveau architecture. The highest concentration in the world.
The houses along Alberta Iela (Albert Street) and Elizabetes Iela (Elizabeth Street) are very ornate.
Visit the Riga Art Nouveau Museum at Alberta iela 12.
This is actually an apartment where the architect Konstantīns Pēkšēns lived. He designed many buildings in Riga. The unique aspect of the museum is the 20th-century interior and furnishings of the Art Nouveau period.
You’ll also find great craft beer in this city. Try Alkimikis near St Gertrude’s Church.
Day Trips and More from Riga
For a day trip away from Riga, take a local tour to Sigulda and Cesis for food, wine and access to Gauja National Park.
If you are considering travelling from Riga to Tallinn, the one-way sightseeing bus tour is a learning experience. You travel in a mini-van with up to 8 people, with stops along the way for sightseeing.
Learn more here: RigaTraveller (This trip is available from Tallinn to Riga.)
If you love gardens and baroque architecture, take a day trip to Rundale Palace and French Gardens.
Now you have explored Riga, let’s go inland to Vilnius.
How to Spend One Day in Vilnius, Lithuania
Vilnius is an interesting city to explore for one day or a weekend break.
It was once referred to as the Jerusalem of the North. The Yiddish language was spoken amongst the largest Jewish population in Europe.
If this is your first visit to Vilnius, an early morning walk up to the Three Crosses has the best view of Vilnius. You can look down on Uzupis, an ‘independent state’ in Vilnius’ old town.
Uzupis, an ‘independent state’ in Vilnius’s old town, once had a large Jewish population. Today, it’s a popular place for artists.
See the Duke’s Palace, which has access to the famous Gediminas Castle. It’s then an easy walk to the Vilnius Cathedral. Here, you can hunt for the small pavement stone marking the start/endpoint of the Baltic Chain.
We loved wandering around the UNESCO old town streets of Pilies, Stikliu and Didzioji. Pilies Street links the Town Hall to the Royal Palace. At the same time, Stikliu has an amber gallery displaying jewellery and amber items.
While Vilnius isn’t as busy as Tallinn, you have the advantage of wandering the old town without the crowds. To admire the Baroque, renaissance and Gothic architecture.
And when you leave the old town, walk through the Gate of Dawn to see the beautiful Chapel of Our Lady of Vilnius above. However, if you enter from near the Market Hall, you can be forgiven for not even noticing the chapel.
Foods to Savour in Vilnius
One of the joys of travelling is finding local delicacies.
Lokys, a restaurant in a 15th-century building on Stiliu Street, was one place we treated ourselves.
We chose the Lithuanian Beer Snack and a Lithuanian Cheese Snack to sample local delicacies.
The cheese doughnuts were filled with soft cheese, the fried garlic bread was crispy, and the gooseberry jam with cheese was delicious. But the sliced pig ears were certainly a new item to taste.
During the day, if you need a snack, try a Kibinai from a local bakery.
A Kibinai is a small croissant made of dough but filled with meat or potatoes. Like a Cornish pasty. Very tasty.
And the foods in Uzupis are delicious too.
Things to do in Uzupis
One place to spend time in Vilnius is the independent state of Uzupis. No, you don’t need a Visa, but bring an open mind to this quirky and relaxed Bohemian area.
We booked our Airbnb in Uzupis and enjoyed its vibe, cafes and craft beer.
Visiting the local Thierry Bakery for a breakfast of croissants and good coffee was a sweet start to the day.
And we loved the craft beer of Snekutis at the end of the day. We ordered a local dish called Cepelini. Often referred to as a Zeppelin-shaped potato dumpling filled with meat.
Wow, one of those with a beer, and we were sorted.
And while you are digesting that Cepelini, make sure to read the Uzupis constitution before you leave.
It is translated into 50 languages, with 29 translations displayed on Constitution Avenue. We loved Article 1, which reads: “People have the right to live by the River Vilnelė, while the River Vilnelė has the right to flow past people.”
Uzupis is quirky.
And if you have time for a day trip from Vilnius, spend the day at Trakai.
Take a Day Trip from Vilnius
A popular day trip from Vilnius is Trakai Island Castle, which is only 30-40 minutes by bus from Vilnius.
The town of Trakai is an ethnic Crimean Karaite community. It was once the Lithuanian capital in the 14th century. Some of the landmarks were:
- Former Russian Imperial Post Office
- Dominican Monastery
- Karaite Prayer House
- Beautiful wooden houses of the local residents
An alternative walk to the castle is along the shores of Lake Bernardinu. Just follow the local signposts.
But what makes Trakai popular is Trakai Castle on the island of Lake Galve. Built by the Grand Duke of Lithuania, Kestutis and his son Vytautas.
A bridge links the castle with the shoreline. To visit inside, you’ll need to pay a fee.
How to get from Vilnius to Trakai by Bus:
- Choose the inter-city bus (mini-bus) from Vilnius Bus Station on Sodų g. 22, Vilnius
- Purchase tickets at the bus station or from the driver (2019: 2 Euro)
- Buses are frequent in both directions
Planning your Baltic States Itinerary
Hopefully, now you are less confused and have a better idea of how to spend your 12 days exploring the Baltic States.
Discovering the best of the Baltic cities, Tallinn, Riga, and Vilnius (even for a weekend), is a fascinating adventure. Experience their unique must-see landmarks, traditions, and amazing foods.
You can decide whether to fly directly to each Baltic city, saving you more vacation time, or take the bus to see more of each Baltic State.
Either way, you can now decide whether to spend all of your time exploring one or two cities, including day trips, or spend your 12 days travelling all three of the Baltic States.
Whichever you choose, you’ll return from the Baltic States with memorable experiences and suggest your friends come visit soon.
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