If you are planning a 10 day holiday around the Baltic Countries we suggest spending all your time in their capitals: Vilnius, Riga and Tallinn. Each city is unique and for sure worth visiting. They all boast fantastic architecture and offer plenty of cool daytrips. While Riga and Tallinn as part of the Hanseatic League were both important medieval cities, Vilnius came to prominence a bit later. Tallinn is home to one of the best preserved medieval towns in Europe. Likewise, Riga houses another wonderful medieval Old Town and is full of fabulous Art Nouveau buildings. Finally, Vilnius has an impressive collection of Baroque buildings.
Traveling between the Baltic Capitals
There are currently no trains connecting the three Baltic Capitals, but there are plenty of comfortable buses with wifi onboard. Taking a bus is easy, inexpensive and a great way to enjoy Baltic nature. In fact, it’s a 4 hour journey in both directions (Vilnius – Riga and Riga – Tallinn). Additionally, stopping between Tallinn and Riga at the beautiful coastal town of Pärnu is a must. All three Baltic capitals have great restaurants and hotels. Lithuanians, Latvians and Estonians know how to treat tourists!
Vilnius or Riga or Tallinn – How to Choose?
You can rush through the three capitals only if you have at least 10 days in the Baltic States. If you have up to 4 days, we suggest spending 3 in one capital and organizing a day trip to a nearby destination. Riga is the best option for first-timers since it has a bit more to offer. If you are looking for modern architecture and fancy bars and restaurants, then Tallinn is for you. Vilnius is perfect for those of you into laid back destinations. In fact, it has the best coffee houses and bar culture in the region. If you have a week to spend, visit both Vilnius and Riga, to get an insight into a diverse cultural heritage. Another option is to do a thematic medieval heritage tour visiting Riga and Tallinn.
Vilnius, the capital of the most populated Baltic state, Lithuania, belonged virtually to almost everybody at one time or the other. Walk around and you’ll see Russian and Polish heritage next to Lithuanian. While its Old Town may not be as impressive as the ones in Riga or Tallinn, Vilnius churches are crown jewels of baroque architecture. We were surprised by the number of beautifully decorated cafes and bars that dot Vilnius streets. Of course we had to sit down and enjoy delicious coffee and cakes while watching charming modern Lithuanians walk by.
Vilnius is located in Eastern Lithuania, 25 km from the border with Belarus, on the confluence of two rivers: Vilnia and Neris. The medieval Old Town – known as Senamiestis lies to the south of the Neris River with the Pilies – Didžioji Street, displaying the best examples of baroque architecture in the city. To the West of the Old Town you’ll find the New Town – known as Naujamiestis. The northern part of the city with its huge avenues and motorways is where massive superblocks were built during the USSR period.
What to see in Vilnius’ Old Town
Most of the main sights are religious buildings and are in or around the Old Town. The Vilnius Cathedral, the center of the Archdiocese of Vilnius, was built in the late 18th century in a neoclassical style. Next to the Cathedral, the Bell Tower was built over a wall in the 16th century to defend the lower castle. In the same area, the Upper and Lower Castles include the Palace of the Grand Dukes of Lithuania. The St. Kasimir’s Church, the Vilnius University and the Church of St. John are among the most glamorous baroque buildings in the city. On the eastern end of the Old Town, near the Vilnia River the St. Anne Church and the Church of San Bernard represent Lithuania’s most important gothic pieces.
The rest of the city
Vilnius main street Gediminas Avenue is partly in the old Town and partly in the New Town. It is full of beautiful neoclassical buildings, shops and restaurants. To the east of the Old Town, across the Vilnia River, is Užupis District, the art hub of the city. Apparently, not long ago, alternative spontaneous parties took place all the time here, but the police decided to kill the vibe. Nevertheless, the place is a must for art lovers and relaxed people. If you have some extra time check the Commercial District across the river Neris. A little further up north you’ll find some cool modern superblocks built during the Soviet times.
In Vilnius we stayed at the centrally located Real House Apartments.
Vilnius is a great base for visiting Trakai and Europos Parkas
Riga is the largest of the three Baltic capitals. Moreover, it is the city with the most diverse architecture. The medieval Old town is not as preserved as Tallinn’s, but has more outstanding buildings such as the House of the Blackheads. Additionally it is home to one of the largest collections of Art Nouveau buildings in the world, with several extraordinary examples. Finally, the whole city centre is a neoclassical festival, and a pretty large one. Wait, there is more: just half an hour away lies a beautiful beach.
Riga is located in central Latvia, where the Daugava River meets the sea in the Gulf of Riga. Riga’s Old Town is located just north of Daugava, in an area of roughly 500m x 1000m. A lush green park with a canal, where ancient city walls used to be, surrounds it. Next to it you’ll find the neighbourhood called Centrs (the Centre), where most of public life takes place. The main street Brīvības crosses the whole city from the Old Town to its north-eastern end. The other bank of the river is sparsely populated and has no real historical core or area of interest, just some isolated examples.
What to see in Riga’s Old Town
Almost all of Riga’s attractions are located in the Old Town, including numerous historically important buildings. Probably the most famous one is the lavishly decorated House of Blackheads, where merchants used to have their guild. A few steps away St. Peter’s Church has a distinct tall baroque steeple. Nearby Livu Square is at the center of several important landmarks, like the Large and the Small Guilds and the Cat’s House. To the south, the Riga Cathedral is the largest sacral building in Latvia. North of the Cathedral the Three brothers are fantastic examples of medieval residential buildings. In front of them there is another church with a tall steeple: St. James’s Cathedral, the main Catholic Church in the city. Riga Castle, the official residence of Latvia’s president occupies the western end of the Old Town.
The rest of the city
Just outside of the Old Town, along the Brivibas Boulevard, you’ll see the Freedom Monument and later on the Russian Othodox Church. North of the Old Town, Elizabetes and Alberta streets showcase the world’s best Art Nouveau heritage. If you are a fan of cool wooden houses visit the cute Kalnciema Kvartals across the river. Also check out Riga’s Central Market for its atmosphere and Spikeri Quarter and Bergs Bazaar for great shopping and dining. The Latvian Academy of Sciences is a cool Soviet building.
In Riga we stayed at the beautiful Mercure Centre Hotel.
Riga is a great base for visiting Jurmala and Sigulda
Tallinn is special to me because a couple of friends live there. It was super special to be picked up by Jako at the bus station and to have him as a personal guide. In fact, thanks to him I was able to get to know some alternative places. The Old Town is by far the most complete in the region and its city walls are the most preserved in the whole of Europe. Unfortunately it is pretty much taken by crowds of tourists, but with a little patience and flexibility you might get to enjoy some corners by yourself, and at nights it’s practically deserted. Additionally, there are gorgeous wooden houses all around the city!
Tallinn is located in central Estonia on the shores of the Gulf of Finland, just across Helsinki. Again a wonderful Old Town is the highlight of the City, divided into the Upper town, still the Administrative center of Estonia, and the Lower town. While most of the streets date back to the 13th century, many buildings are from the 14th to 16th centuries. The 17th century fortification still surrounds the Old Town. The 19th century industrial complex in Rotermann Quarter, east from there, is a brilliant showcase of how the old can be incorporated into a new environment in a chic contemporary way.
What to see in Tallinn’s Old Town
The largest and most centrally located square in the Old Town is the grand Raekoja Plats, surrounded by the Town hall built in 1371 and several merchant houses. It can be accessed through the Viru Gates at the beginning of the live Viru Street. The oldest church in Tallinn, the Cathedral of Saint Mary the Virgin, was built during different historical periods, and was originally a catholic church. It is located inside the Upper town near the Toompea Castle, home to the Estonian Parliament. As a remnant of the tsarist Russian empire, the Saint Nevsky Orthodox Cathedral standing in front the Castle is a festival of colors and shapes.
The rest of the city
Tallinn is home to two cool neighborhoods: Rotermann and Telliskivi. Check them out for the best shopping and dining experiences. The best area for discovering the beautiful traditional Estonian wooden houses is the Kalamaja Neighborhood. Tallinn’s nicest park, Kadriorg Park (with its museums), is a bit away from the center, but surely worth a visit. If you have more spare time visit the Pirita Convent ruins, next to Tallinn Bay.
In Tallinn we stayed at the cool Kalev Spa Hotel.
Tallinn is a great base for visiting Lahemaa National Park and Pärnu
For more places to see in Tallinn check this post
Vilnius, Riga and Tallinn Now and Before
I had the privilege of visiting the three Baltic Capitals Vilnius, Riga and Tallinn two times. The first time was in 2011 to attend the Estonian Song Festival, one of the largest choral events in the world. This great festival is held only every five years, so imagine my luck! The second time I went with my husband in 2016, after TBEX in Stockholm.
Consequently, I’ve had the chance to see how much each of the Baltic capitals has changed. Vilnius has become more sophisticated, with cool young people and good vibes everywhere. On the other hand, Riga is still impressive but seems to be crumbling a bit. Finally, Tallinn though modern and hip felt overcrowded with drunken tourists around its Old Town.
I reckon that I must come back in 2021, who knows what I may find!?