Baltic capitals Riga and Tallinn are both UNESCO-listed, culture-packed and known for their charming old towns. They make a fantastic winter break (or spring getaway). Which city should you choose?
Area: 304 sq km
Famous for: Great food, vibrant nightlife and the orange-red exterior of the House of the Blackheads
Area: 159 sq km
Famous for: The Old Town and its striking Alexander Nevsky Cathedral, surrounded by Baltic Sea coast
Vecrīga (Old Riga) is, as UNESCO says, a “living illustration” of its past. See the Three Brothers (the oldest buildings in Riga) and St Peter’s Church, offering views looking towards the River Daugava. Old Riga thrives at night, with countless bars and trendy cafés, such as Bufete Gauja.
Remarkably preserved, the cobblestoned streets of Tallinn’s Old Town is lined with Medieval churches and quaint shops. Hike up limestone Toompea Hill to reveal the clifftop castle and a city panorama. Even Viru Gate, the orange-topped, turreted entrance to the city, is fascinating.
The Museum of the Occupation of Latvia is a walk-through of the country’s Soviet and German eras, while the rebuilt House of the Blackheads is home to stained-glass treasures and furniture replicas. Around 45 minutes from the city, the Ethnographic Open-Air Museum displays traditional buildings, many dating from the 1600s.
For a first-timer, popping into the Tallinn City Museum for an overview of the city is a must. Those looking for a ‘hidden’ gem, should venture underground with a guide to the Bastion Passages (left), a system of tunnels; enter them from the Kiek in de Kök Museum, based inside a 15th-century artillery tower.
History lingers in the rest of Riga’s centre on the outskirts of the Old Town, from the art nouveau architecture on Alberta Iela to the towering Freedom Monument, built to honour soldiers killed in the Latvian War of Independence, visible from Bastejkalna Park (known for its sculptures). For a taste of local life, Centraltirgus food market is open daily.
Telliskivi Loomelinnak (Creative City) (left) is Tallinn’s answer to Hackney Wick, with murals, flea markets, independent shops and stylish bars and restaurants, such as the impossibly cool F-hoone. Art enthusiasts will also want to head to Kumu, a truly modern art museum with a twist, close to Kadriorg Palace and Park.
Latvia is around 50% forest, so you’re never far from nature. Drive for one hour to Jūrmala (right), a beach-lined resort city which is the gateway to Dzintari Forest Park (good for strolls and high-octane activities) and the magnificent bogs of Ķemeri, Latvia’s third-largest national park.
Unsurprisingly, Estonia is approximately 50% forest, too. Staying close to the city centre, Harku Forest has a pleasant 8km walking trail for a taste of untouched nature. Got a full day? Travel 70km to the forested wonderland of Lahemaa National Park. Beaver trails, Altja fishing village and Jägala waterfall await.
Though Tallinn’s Old Town is hard to top, Riga rises when it comes to museums. But given their close proximity – a bus between the two takes roughly four hours and costs from £10 – hopefully you’ll never need to choose…
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