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Located in Northeastern Europe nestled between the Russian border and the Baltic Sea, you’ll find what is referred to as the “Baltic States” or the “Baltic Countries” – Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania. The three countries have been referred to as the Baltics since after WWI when the countries gained their independence from Russia and because of their proximity to the Baltic Sea. As stated earlier, all three countries were once a part of the Russian Empire until their independence in 1918. They didn’t have their independence for long, however, because soon after the Soviet Union took over and then briefly Nazi Germany invaded during WWII before the Soviet Union took over once again. In the late 1980s, the three countries began to make a stir when they formed a 2 million person human chain stretching over 370 miles from Tallinn, Estonia (north) to Vilnius, Lithuania (south) demanding their freedom. Finally on September 6, 1991, the three countries became independent once again when the Soviet Union recognized them as their own countries.
Baltic Travel – Why you should make this part of Europe a priority
This area of Europe was such a pleasant surprise to me. For starters, Baltic travel is incredibly affordable. Although all three countries are part of the European Union and operate on the Euro (€), prices of dining, tours, bus tickets, and hotels seem to be much more affordable than traveling in Western Europe. Although it’s not quite as cheap as some of the countries in Eastern Europe, your money will still go far. And while all of these countries are quite small and near one another, each country has its own culture, history, and feel. In Estonia expect more of an authentic medieval feeling. Latvia a lively and culturally rich country. And Lithuania makes you feel as though you’re a bit more off the beaten path – a country where you can freely explore without being engulfed by hoards of tourists. This Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania itinerary will be a quick dive into what makes each country unique and hopefully inspire you to come to return one day to explore each in depth.
This is part of my “8 Day Vacay” series! A travel series aimed at nurses who are looking to take 8 days off from the hospital (with no need to take PTO) and travel to destinations both near and far. For more information, read A Guide to the “8 Day Vacay” and How to Make the Most Out of Your “8 Day Vacay”
WEDNESDAY – Depart from home fly to Vilnius, Lithuania
Depart from home on Wednesday for an expected arrival at Vilnius International Airport (VNO) on Thursday. When searching for international flights I prefer to use Kayak or Skyscanner to compare prices and choose the best option.
Once you arrive in Vilnius you’ll need to get a ride into the city. Depending on where you’re going (I recommend staying in the Old Town) the ride to the city should be quick seeing as the airport is only about 3 miles from town. Uber operates in Vilnius along with Bolt. I recommend downloading both apps before arriving and once you’re at the airport just walk outside, request a ride, and walk to where the signs are pointing you to go. If you’re more comfortable taking taxis it will cost you more but taxis are located right outside the airport.
For an even cheaper alternative, some buses and trains go from the airport to Old Town. The bus line 88 goes from the airport to Old Town Nepriklausomybės Square in 10-15 minutes and costs 1€. Or the train will take you into town in 7 minutes for 0.70€. The train stop is next to the passenger terminal at the airport.
THURSDAY – Arrival in Vilnius
Highlights of Vilnius Day 1: Exploring the Užupis Neighborhood
Stay: There are tons of options to choose from in Vilnius. I’d recommend staying in Old Town or as nearby as possible. When looking for a hotel, I prefer to use booking.com to search and compare prices. Otherwise, I stay in an Airbnb.
Lithuania is located south of both Latvia and Estonia and is the largest of the three Baltic countries. Arriving in Vilnius to begin my Baltic vacation, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. Out of all three Baltic States, I knew the least about Lithuania and haven’t quite seen it splashed over social media like I’ve seen Latvia and Estonia. This is why I was pleasantly surprised when I set off to explore the capital, Vilnius, for the first day.
As it turns out Vilnius is a fascinating city. It has history, culture, a unique food scene, and friendly locals. From the many churches scattered throughout the city to the mom and pop shops found on the street corners. Outdoor markets, outdoor cafes, and UNESCO-protected sites can be seen throughout Vilnius. One thing that I noticed that I haven’t seen in other cities is that the main attractions in Vilnius have a plaque outside or on the wall of the building that tells you what the structure is and why it’s important. Which makes learning about the city easy and interesting!
Depending on what time you get in, I recommend taking your first day in Europe slowly. Begin in the Užupis neighborhood and save the heavy sightseeing and walking for Friday after a good rest. Užupis is located on the outskirts of the Old Town across the river (Užupis means “beyond the river”) and has been deemed a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It is what is considered to be the art district of Vilnius with nearly 1/7th of the inhabitants being artists.
In this part of town, you can expect to come across interactive art installations throughout the neighborhood, street murals, and more. There’s a water fountain that doubles as a beer fountain on April 1st. And on Paupio Street you’ll find a wall reciting the “Constitution of Užupis” which has been translated into 23 different languages. The constitution includes rules such as – “A dog as the right to be a dog”, “People have the right to be happy”, and so on. In Užupis, you’ll find local pubs such as Špunka and restaurants such as Sweet Root (reservations necessary), Užupio Picerija, and more. It’s the perfect area to explore and stay for food and drinks.
FRIDAY – Vilnius
Highlights of Vilnius Day 2: Exploring Old Town
Spend your second day in Vilnius getting to know the Old Town. Start your day by strolling through the Halle Market, one of the largest and oldest markets in Lithuania. It’s located in Old Town, open six days/week (closed on Mondays), and hours of operation vary from 0700-1800 Tuesday-Saturday and 0700-1500 on Sunday. If you don’t eat at the market, instead head for breakfast at the French restaurant Café Montmartre. Only a 5-minute walk from the market to the restaurant.
After breakfast, I’d recommend participating in the free walking tour that is offered by the team from Yellow Vilnius Free Walking Tour for an insight on the country of Lithuania and how it got to be where it is today. The team at Yellow does a great job of getting you away from the tourist hot spots and showing you tucked away gems of the city. Plus they load you with tons of useful information about Vilnius including the past, present, and future of the city. The tour is offered every day at 1000 and 1200.
Before the sunsets head to the Gediminas Castle Tower for views over Vilnius. You can walk up the hill for free and enjoy the sunset or enter the tower for a fee of five euros, which will also get you higher up. The tower is open seven days/week from 1000-2000. If you’re willing to walk further and want better views, instead head to the Three Crosses where you can walk up the hill for free.
Once the sun sets head back to the old town for dinner. If you’re up to try some local beer and/or bar food to the popular local spot, Būsi Trečias.
SATURDAY – Depart Vilnius, arrive in Riga, Latvia
Highlights of Latvia Day 1: Exploring Old Town
Transportation: While you could easily fly to Riga from Vilnius to save a little bit of time, you can save money by instead taking a bus to Riga. Located over 180 miles north, you can arrive in Riga from Vilnius in under 4 hours. I prefer to use Omio when searching for bus routes.
Stay: There are tons of options to choose from in Riga. I’d recommend staying in Old Town or as nearby as possible. When looking for a hotel, I prefer to use booking.com to search and compare prices. Otherwise, I stay in an Airbnb.
As I arrived in Riga I couldn’t help but compare where I just came from. Although geographically similar, Vilnius and Riga feel worlds different. For starters, Riga felt more lively and seemed to draw more of a crowd (not to say that Vilnius isn’t lively). Riga also seemed more advanced in terms of their culinary scene and just like Vilnius, they’ve done a good job at preserving old architecture and keeping the town’s charm intact. As you move north from Lithuania into Latvia on your Baltic trip, you’ll find Riga sitting on the Baltic Sea with the River Daugava cutting through town. Famously known for having the highest concentration of Art Nouveau style architecture in the world, walking through Riga is like walking through a time machine taking you back to a dreamy and whimsical world in the early 1900s. Aside from the incredible architecture throughout the city, if you visit Riga you can expect a well-preserved medieval Old Town, a beer district, a tasty food scene, and opportunities to experience the Latvian spa culture.
Start your first day in Riga by journeying through Old Town, which makes you feel as though you’re journeying back in time. Aside from the “Historic Centre of Riga” is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, what I found most unique about Riga’s Old Town was the sheer beauty and magnificence. Intricate details and colorful buildings, clean streets, winding cobblestone alleyways, and lively bars and restaurants line the narrow streets. Make it a point that while you’re exploring Riga’s Old Town, you make it a priority to visit these four different sites.
The first place to stop is at the Three Brothers – three houses that make up the oldest complex of dwelling houses in Riga. Each house is unique due to being built during different time periods. The “oldest brother” was built in 1490, the “middle brother” in 1646, and the “youngest brother” in the second half of the 17th-century. Legend has it that the houses were built by three men of one family. Once you’re done seeing the Three Brothers, a three-minute walk south will bring you to the picturesque restaurant – 1221 Restorāns. Although I didn’t eat inside, here you’ll be greeted by a baby blue facade with neatly painted decorations and a narrow alley that leads up to the restaurant. After stopping at the photogenic 1221, three-minutes further south you’ll find the ornate, baroque style museum – House of the Blackheads. Originally this was a place for unmarried merchants, shipowners, and foreigners visiting Riga, nowadays you can tour the inside to see what life was like during the Blackheads Society. Unfortunately in 1941 the building was bombed by the Germans and has since had to be rebuilt. From 1996-1999 the House of the Blackheads was rebuilt and is what you’ll see standing today. And for the last stop through Riga’s Old Town, 360-feet northeast will bring you to St. Peter’s Church. Here you can buy a ticket inside for 9€ which will allow you to go up to the observation tower. You’ll take an elevator up to where you’ll be offered 360 degrees, panoramic views of Riga.
Once you leave St. Peter’s Church walk to the back of the church where you’ll see Restaurant Domini Canes. If you’re looking for a bit more sophisticated Latvian cuisine I’d recommend stopping here for lunch. If you’re interested in experiencing Riga’s “drink” scene stop in at Black Magic to taste the local Latvian liquor – black balsam currant.
SUNDAY – Riga
Highlights of Day 2 in Riga: Experience Latvian Spa Culture, Riga’s Beer Scene, and More
Before the day gets started, head to Europe’s largest market and bazaar – Riga Central Market – for breakfast before a long day. Similar to Old Town, the Central Market has also been placed on the UNESCO World Heritage Site list. It has been open since 1930 and took six years to complete. Of note, the market is incredibly clean and organized. They have a total of five buildings – called pavilions – and each pavilion has its own “theme”. There’s one pavilion dedicated to meat, one pavilion dedicated to seafood, vegetables, and so on. Not only are there five indoor pavilions, but there are also outdoor stalls to shop at as well. There has to be some sense of organization seeing how on average, 80,000-100,000 people shop at the market each and every day. Besides the fresh food you can pick up to take home and cook, the market also has bars and restaurants to eat at. The market is open seven days/week and is located just steps from old town along the River Daugava.
Next prepare yourself for the experience of a lifetime in a traditional Latvian sauna. The Latvian spa culture is a unique addition to the country dating back to the 19th-century. The idea behind the Latvian spa is that it’s supposed to reduce stress, revive your spirit, and strengthen your body by exercising your blood vessels. While traditional spa culture takes place in the countryside, I think it’s worth noting that Riga does have options if you can’t get away from the city but still want to experience the spa culture. For a deeper understanding of the experience, and a recommendation on where to experience it in Riga, read this post.
For your last night in Riga, discover the beer scene known as the “Beer District” – made up of 10 different pubs, brewpubs, and beer kitchens – located outside of Old Town. Before touring the beer district, first, stop for dinner at Folkklubs Ala Pagrabs where you’ll find traditional and contemporary Latvian cuisine along with their homemade moonshine to fill your stomach before drinking beer.
The Riga Beer District is only a half an hour walk from the Freedom Monument located in Old Town, or if you’d rather take public transportation you can get on the No. 11 tram, No. 3, No. 5 trolleybuses from the city center. Otherwise, you can take a taxi or Bolt. The 10 pubs/restaurants that make up the Beer District include Valmiermuižas Beer Embassy, Labietis, Ziemeļu Enkurs, Alķīmiķis, Kanepes CC, Taka, Zobens Un Lemess, Walters & Grapa, Vest, and Autentika.
Thinking of extending this “8 Day Vacay” into something even longer? Read these articles to learn more about the country and Latvia travel.
MONDAY – Depart Riga, arrive in Tallinn, Estonia
Highlights of Tallinn Day 1: Exploring Old Town + Tellskivi
Transportation: You can choose to fly into Tallinn from Riga in under an hour or if you’re looking to save money, you can instead take a bus that will get you to Tallinn in just under 4 hours. Tallinn lies over 900 miles north of Riga. I prefer to use Omio when searching for bus routes.
Stay: There are tons of options to choose from in Tallinn. I’d recommend staying in Old Town or as nearby as possible. When looking for a hotel, I prefer to use booking.com to search and compare prices. Otherwise, I stay in an Airbnb.
The last leg of your “8-day vacay” and subsequently Baltic itinerary brings you even further north to the incredibly well-preserved medieval town of Tallinn. The capital of Estonia, Tallinn is found north near Helsinki (separated by the Gulf of Finland). You may recognize Tallinn as the city of cobblestone streets, orange rooftops, and spired churches. It stands out as one of the most unique, and as stated earlier, well-preserved medieval towns across Europe.
To begin your time in Tallinn start by weaving your way through the small Old Town. Make sure to stop at Alexander Nevsky Cathedral where you’re sure to notice the impact that the Russians had on Estonia. At one point the cathedral was supposed to be torn down but the people of Tallinn were too poor so it still stands today. The entrance into the cathedral is free. From the cathedral walk through St. Catherine’s Passage to the Tallinn Town Wall. Here you can walk the old walls of the city for a small price of 2€.
After you’re done exploring Old Town head to the hip neighborhood of Telliskivi for lunch and shopping. Choose to eat at the affordable, sit-down restaurant F Hoone or if you prefer something on the go, Balti Jaama Turg. Balti Jaama Turg is a 3 floor market of food, clothing, antique vendors, and restaurants.
TUESDAY – Tallinn
Highlights of Tallinn Day 2: Ferry to Helsinki for the Day
Tallinn is small and needs only one day to be explored. However, if you prefer to travel slowly and would like to spend more time on the cobbled streets of Old Town, then stay! There are tons of charm to Tallinn and either way you can’t go wrong. But if you prefer to travel quickly and pack everything possible then I recommend a day trip to Helsinki. The trip will take 2-hours each way so be prepared to start early and end late. The three ferry lines that run between Estonia and Finland are Tallink, Viking Line, and Eckero Line. You can find all information on the ferries here.
If you plan on staying in Tallinn instead of venturing north to Finland, read 10 Things to See and Do in Tallinn for more ideas on ways to fill your day.
Upon arrival in Helsinki begin at the Old Market Hall for food and drinks before a day spent walking around. The Old Market Hall was built in 1889 and is the perfect place for you to try the local Finnish food – reindeer! If you’re not feeling that adventurous instead opt for the fresh salmon although it’s not local. Most of the salmon served in Finland comes from Norway.
From the Old Market Hall make sure to check out Esplanadi Park, the Helsinki Cathedral which was built in 1830, and the Upenski Cathedral opened in 1868.
For your final meal before departing back to Tallinn head to BasBas. Note that it doesn’t open until 4 pm but if you can make it expect to be greeted with incredible small dishes and wine to pair.
WEDNESDAY – Depart Tallinn, fly home
Because Europe is ahead of the US time-wise, you should be able to leave on Wednesday and arrive back in the states on Wednesday. Just in time to clock in for your shift Thursday without taking any PTO! And just like that, in 8 days, your Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania travel week has come to an end. I know that my visit to each of these countries was incredible, I only hope that yours is too!
Information About Baltic States Travel – Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia
Official language: Lithuania – Lithuanian; Latvia – Latvian; Estonia – Estonian. Most people in all three countries speak enough English for you to be able to get by
Currency: The Euro
Emergency: If you find yourself in an emergency in any of these countries dial 112 – there will always be someone readily available to assist in English
Country code: Lithuania – +370; Latvia – +371; Estonia – +372
Packing: Don’t forget to pack comfortable shoes for walking, a light jacket for chilly nights, and a swimsuit if you want to participate in the Latvian spa culture!
Travel insurance: Lastly, don’t forget to book travel insurance before leaving! I use World Nomads for ease of mind when I travel.
If this is your first time hearing about the “8 Day Vacay” and would like some background information please click here.