When I was planning my solo adventures, I decided that I wanted to travel around the Baltic countries, which is made up of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia. I was intrigued because there is still a certain mystery attached to these States in the Baltic region, once under Soviet rule, and I wanted to learn more about them. Tourism is increasing in the Baltic countries due to the low cost of travelling and it has surprisingly, or perhaps not so surprisingly, become a popular location for stag weekends and bucks parties. Here is a brief guide to travelling through the Baltic countries.
My Baltic itinerary: Vilnius, Riga and Tallinn
I spent a little over a week travelling solo through the Baltic countries with a focus on the Baltic capital cities. I spent 2 days in Vilnius, Lithuania; 3 days in Riga, Latvia; and 3 days in Tallinn, Estonia. I thought this was the perfect amount of time to spend in each Baltic capital city, but obviously consider extending your stay if you plan on visiting areas outside of the main cities.
You can choose to travel north to south or vice versa depending on what your next movements are after travelling around the Baltic countries. And it is very likely that you will meet the same people along the way staying at the same hostels – it happened to me!
The Baltic countries
The Baltic cities of Vilnius, Riga and Tallinn are often lumped in the same category, or in the same family, but they do have their own distinctive personalities which have been carefully forged following their independence from Soviet rule.
The middle quirky and bohemian sibling
Vilnius felt the most ‘Soviet’ and probably the least ‘touristy’ out of all of the Baltic countries, and it is not a city that you would call opulent. You’ll find dilapidated buildings and crumbling facades but that adds to the whole charm of the small city. You get the sense that Vilnius operates on its own terms: the case in point being the independent republic of Užupis, which is a must-visit if only to read the tongue-in-cheek Constitution.
Vilnius is a great place to get lost in – essentially because you won’t be able to get lost in this tiny town. Start at the Gates of Dawn and make your way down to the sprawling Cathedral Square, and make sure to take detours down side streets where you’ll find colourful candy-coloured buildings and cosy, quaint shops and cafes. Literatų Street is a side alley dedicated to Lithuanian literature and is a must for the word nerds. There are many vantage points from which to get a bird’s-eye view of the city including Gediminas Tower, the Hill of Three Crosses and the Gothic Church of St. Johns.
Read more about Vilnius here.
The older sophisticated and cultured sibling
In my opinion, Riga is the most classically beautiful of the Baltic cities which has much to do with the fact that it is one of the Art Nouveau centres of the world and stunning examples of Art Nouveau buildings are abundant throughout the city – in fact, more than a third of the buildings are built in the style! Wander the Art Nouveau district and admire the elegant building facades particularly centred around Elizabetes and Alberta streets.
The bustling Old Town is charming and quaint and probably the busiest out of the Baltic cities. Get a glimpse of the House of Blackheads in Riga Town Hall Square, which once housed unmarried German merchants who were allegedly responsible for erecting the first Christmas Tree.
Read more about Riga here.
The younger creative and hipster sibling
Tallinn definitely wins in the Baltic hipster category. In the Old Town, quaint cobblestone passages mix with trendy bars and it has a more youthful feel compared to the other Baltic countries. This may have something to do with the fact that it is a hi-tech haven that has attracted many entrepreneurs and start-ups: it is the home of Skype, after all.
Climb Toompea Hill for views of the city and visit the Bastion tunnels, the old military tunnels that run beneath Toompea. Venture outside of the Old Town walls to explore Telliskivi Creative City, an industrial complex that is now a hub for creative enterprises.
Read more about Tallinn here.
Bus travel is very manageable through the Baltic countries. The bus journey from Vilnius to Riga takes approximately 4.5 hours, and from Riga to Tallinn it is also approximately 4.5 hours.
There are different bus companies that travel through the Baltic countries, and I chose to travel with Lux Express after doing some online research. My main concerns were reliability, comfort and safety, and Lux Express ticked all of those boxes. They also offer ‘express lounge’ coaches (which is what I booked) which are coaches that have a separate area towards the back of the bus that allow passengers to have their own single seat as opposed to sitting in a pair of seats. The coaches were extremely comfortable and clean, and it was great to have free wi-fi throughout the entire journey as well as a power supply by every seat to recharge portable items. Tickets can be purchased at the bus station in each Baltic capital city, but I purchased my tickets online in advance and their website was really easy to navigate. Lux Express have regular coaches operating between the Baltic countries throughout the entire day.
Other bus companies that operate between the Baltic countries include Ecolines, Eurolines and Simple Express.
There are plenty of accommodation options to choose from in the Baltic countries, and I stayed in the following hostels during my time travelling through Vilnius, Riga and Tallinn.
Vilnius, Lithuania: Home Made House
Riga, Latvia: Cinnamon Sally Backpackers Hostel
Tallinn, Estonia: Red Emperor Hostel
Eating out is cheap but bear in mind that food in the Baltic countries is very heavy, as it is in the rest of Eastern Europe and Russia, and the diet is centred around meat (mainly pork), filling carbs and hearty stews. The Baltic countries aren’t exactly the centre of culinary innovation and fine dining, but I can guarantee that you will be full after every meal. I did, however, start craving fresh vegetables after a few days – although there is always plenty of cabbage.
Head to a Russian-style cafeteria, a remnant left over from Soviet rule, where you select your dishes from the buffet. It’s an incredibly cheap option for eating out and a nice way to experience a little bit of local life.
One thing you’ll notice is how unique the Baltic languages sound and I can say that I left without learning or picking up a single word. The languages of Latvian and Lithuanian are closely related, while Estonian is actually more closely related to Finnish. English is widely spoken in the capital cities so you won’t struggle with language barriers, particularly if you’re staying in the Old Towns.
In 1989, when the Baltic countries were still part of the USSR, Lithuanians, Latvians and Estonians formed a human chain by holding hands through the capital cities of Vilnius, Riga and Tallinn in political protest against Soviet occupation. This peaceful protest was part of the ‘Singing Revolution’ that occurred from 1987 to 1991 when the Baltic countries finally gained independence from Soviet rule.
There is still very much a lingering Russian influence left over from the occupation and a large Russian population remains, particularly in Riga.
I found the Baltic countries incredibly easy to travel through; I never once felt unsafe and I would recommend it as a travel region for solo travellers and specifically female solo travellers. As everything is so compact, particularly within the Old Towns, it was easy to explore the cities in a couple of days, and the public transport system made it very easy to travel between the Baltic countries. I would suggest venturing outside of the capital cities if you have more time on your hands.
So, which was my favourite Baltic capital city: Vilnius, Riga or Tallinn?
It’s difficult to choose a favourite because there are so many similarities between the Baltic countries but also distinct differences as outlined above. I probably had the best time in Riga but that was due to the hostel I stayed in and the people who I met there. I would have to say that Tallinn was the most fun to explore and that Vilnius felt the most ‘authentic’ and closest to what I felt a former Soviet State would feel like.
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