Indulge the body with a relaxing spa, unsettle the mind with a dose of vodka and let the soul dance with the dramatic coastline of the Baltic States
The Baltic States are a fascinating cultural crossroads for the eastward-bound traveller. And, with a tourist infrastructure geared up for visitors – since hard-won independence in 1991 – plus cheap flights from the UK, there has never been an easier time to go.
As a first taste of Eastern Europe, nothing usurps the Baltics. Indigenous cultures blend with Polish, Ukrainian and, above all, Russian minorities – in countries small enough to explore in a few days. Plus, in the case of Latvia and Estonia, there’s enough Scandinavian influence to keep the countries’ services thrumming along with Nordic efficiency.
For those with more than just a few days, the Baltics provide a digestible feast: dense forests, pristine lakes, pine-fringed sandy beaches, castles and war memorials, communal saunas and Russian Orthodox cathedrals. While inland itineraries offer ample variety for trips of up to several weeks, the Baltic Sea affords numerous day-trips to islands or the capitals of Finland and Sweden.
Linked as a threesome far more in the minds of outsiders than in their own, the Baltic States have differing temperaments, wildly clashing languages (the word for ‘hello’ being rendered as tere, sveiks and labas in Estonian, Latvian and Lithuanian, respectively) and a host of competing interests to push them apart.
Whether you're interested in exploring the region's diverse cities, coastal plains or enchanting forests we have the trip itinerary to keep your days jammed with adventure.
Photos of the Baltic capitals do not do them justice, often showing a chocolate-boxy tweeness that, if it were genuine, would make them about as authentic as Legoland. What give Tallinn, Riga and Vilnius their allure are the far more vigorous, at times even edgy, local cultures that play out against these exquisite surroundings.
A first day spent wandering around Tallinn should take in the Old Town Hall Square (Raekoja plats), and the Orthodox churches on Toompea and Vene streets. Visit the knitwear market near the Old Town walls and round it all off with a glass of mulled wine at Kloostri Ait (Vene tänav 14), a deconsecrated Dominican monastery and Tallinn’s bar of bars.
On the second day strike out for grittier fare: a leisurely few hours, complete with beer, vodka and birch twigs, at the Kalma bathhouse (Vana-Kalamaja 9a); a lunch of stuffed cabbage and pierogi (semi-circle dumplings filled with cheese, potatoes or meat) for a few pennies at one of the railway station canteens; and a night surrounded by jiving middle-aged Finns at Café Amigo (Viru väljak 4).
The next morning, nurse your hangover on the fir-lined 4.5-hour bus trip to Riga: elegant, polyglot and highly cultured. Here, spend a couple of days visiting the city’s markets, where babushki (old ladies) twitter out prices, butchers’ cleavers dismember and decapitate with a cheerful ruthlessness, and pigs’ heads sit grinning in their own blood. Elevate yourself afterwards with a coffee at the Hotel Metropole (Aspazijas bulvaris 36-38), a Bach chorale in the splendid Dome Cathedral, or a smoked rib, pea and sour cream supper at Alus Seta (Tirgon¸u iela 6) – one of Latvia’s most enjoyable national restaurants.
On day five, strike out south again to Vilnius, Lithuania’s capital, and one of the spiritual hives of the region. On a day’s walk you can pass from the Gates of Dawn (Aus˘ros vartai) – with its miracle-working icon, constant stream of supplicants and headscarved old women clutching hands to the heavens – then on to the Museum of Genocide Victims (Aukų gatvė 2a) and poignantly atmospheric Antakalnis Cemetery to the north-east. Take lunch or dinner at the restaurant of the TV tower (Karoliniškės suburb), scene of traumatic skirmishes heralding the fall of communism, now housing a small museum.
In Vilnius, the rupintojelis (the ubiquitous carved figure of the ‘worrying Christ’) seems to stand for the whole region’s tormented past. You are inescapably in Eastern Europe: sombre, mystical, remote.
With a day or two extra, a trip to the Baltics can be heightened by approaching Tallinn, a Hanseatic League port, as it should be approached: by sea.
While ferries and hovercraft cross from Finnish capital Helsinki in a few hours, the most enjoyable itinerary is to fly to Stockholm and, sidestepping the punitive costs of the Swedish capital, take the overnight ferry to Tallinn (crossings are daily and take 14 hours). Once aboard, enjoy the mix of communal saunas and steam rooms, Swedish smorgasbord and the heaving chaos of beer- and vodka-seared Slavs and Finno-Ugrics, all of them partying with a last-chance urgency. This is the best possible introduction to the Baltics, reminding you of that strand of melancholy – and its accompanying hedonism – underneath the sometimes eerily placid surfaces of the countries.
A good way to break up routes between Baltic capitals is with a visit to the Estonian coastal spa resort of Haapsalu. This huddle of pastel-painted wooden villas set along a promenade over the Baltic was a favourite retreat of Tchaikovsky (there is a bench in his honour, which plays a snatch of Swan Lake), Tsar Nicholas II and Soviet workers rewarded for Stakhanovite efforts during the Five-Year Plan.
While Tallinn crams you with urban amusements, it’s in places such as Haapsalu that the slower pace and palpable silence (to which Estonians naturally gravitate) can be sampled – alongside every kind of health treatment, including infrared saunas, chocolate bastings and the time-honoured (and foetid) mud baths. Buses for Haapsalu leave Tallinn hourly, and take around one hour 45 minutes.
Likewise, a visit to Vilnius shows you only one face of the real Lithuania. The city – at times glittering, at others aloof – has changed hands several times throughout history, and has a population still only 57% Lithuanian – the rest includes Poles, Russians and Ukrainians.
For a more typical experience make for Kaunas, the country’s second city. Here you can visit the Jewish ghetto and synagogue, take an afternoon trip to the unforgettably moving Ninth Fort concentration camp, and visit the Devil’s Museum (Velniu muziejus; Putvinskio 64) where, appropriately enough, among its 1,700 demonic exhibits, effigies of Stalin and Hitler dance over the prostrate region.
White nights and moving dunes
Focusing on the Baltic Sea as a spine for your journey will deny you nothing of forest or
city life, while introducing you to one of Europe’s marine anomalies: non-tidal, placid,
a luminous metallic blue in summer; in winter periodically frozen solid.
The coastline itself – ribbons of sand, pine groves and vast standing stones – is one of the most unforgettable images of a Baltic holiday; the chance to barbecue food or congregate on its beaches under a 3am sun during the white nights of the summer should be revelled in.
Two weeks is long enough to follow such a route. After sailing into Tallinn from Stockholm or Helsinki, a couple of days of city wandering is mandatory. On day four, take a bus to Haapsalu, for promenading and curative therapies. Buses leave Haapsalu regularly for ferry port Virtsu, with hourly boats to Saaremaa – the biggest of the Estonian islands.
A couple of nights should be spent here. Estonians rhapsodise about the nature of the islands – the ‘real Estonia’ – to which they make an elated beeline each summer; island capital Kuressaare (on Saaremaa) is a good starting point, boasting a 14th-century castle, plus many cafés and restaurants – the restaurant with sea views at the Georg Ots Spa Hotell comes particularly recommended.
Catch the ferry back to Virtsu, then a bus to Pärnu, which has coach connections to Riga. Forty-eight hours later, Riga’s pleasures may be reluctantly abandoned for a five-hour bus journey across the border to medieval Klaipėda, Lithuania’s seaside third city, with its fountains, statues and sea museum.
From there it’s a 90-minute bus journey to the Baltic resort of Nida to see the Curonian Spit, the highest moving sand dune in Europe – not only one of the strangest coastal regions on the continent but also the world’s main begetter of amber, ‘Lithuanian Gold’ (see left). Here you can pace the shifting sands, ice-fish, take a cruise on the Curonian Lagoon or even go for a helicopter trip.
Finally, return to Vilnius or Kaunas (a hydrofoil from Klaipėda runs to and from Kaunas along the Nemunas River in the summer months) for a night or two of inland pleasures – Lithuanian dance is particularly resonant (see www.dance.lt).
Marsh hikes and forest castles
This is the route that gives you indelible knowledge, not only of the Baltics as they are today but of their historical context, too. From Stockholm, ferries travel to Helsinki, and hovercrafts cross the Gulf of Finland from Helsinki to Tallinn. Finland is Estonia’s sometime role model and the source, in Soviet times, of Western television beamed illicitly into Estonian houses, making Estonia the most liberal of the Baltics.
Tartu, Estonia’s second (and university) city is the next stop after a couple of nights in Tallinn, and is arguably more emblematic: 80% Estonian populated, with a pretty town centre, a more leisurely pace and a consummate national museum. Much of Estonia’s key history has happened here: the first Estonian language faculties, the Germanisation and Russification of Estonian life and the Soviet purges of academia. Yet still Tartu stands, placid, colourful, atmospheric and comforting.
From Tartu, catch a bus to Haapsalu, preparing yourself with a night of varied curative treatments for the journey to the islands. On your return, buses to Pärnu connect at 2.20pm to Riisa and thence, by a short taxi ride, to Soomaa National Park. Chop your own timber, learn how to make a canoe, go on a marsh-walk and take a floating sauna down the river during the white nights of the summer before journeying on from Pärnu to Riga.
After exploring the city, leave Riga behind for a couple of rural days once again in Latvia’s lovely Gauja National Park, in a setting of forests, castles, meadows, sandstone cliffs and a fast-flowing river, from which it takes its name. It is ideal for trekking and boating in summer and for robust cross-country skiing in the snow.
Down in Lithuania, Kaunas and the Curonian Spit should be followed by a trip to Sˇiauliai, a pilgrim destination known for its Hill of Crosses – festooned with rosaries and dedications, continually added to and much attacked (it was razed at least three times) under Soviet atheism.
Finally, choose between a pair of days in Vilnius or, should time and red tape not deter you, a trip across the fortified border into Belarus – the last dictatorship in Europe adds an invigorating element to the mix. It shows not only the repression with which the Baltics lived for so many years, not to mention food shortages and Lenin statues, but also surprises you by being a more heartening trip than you may expect – largely due to the warmth and vitality of the Belarussians themselves.