Last summer, my partner and I embarked on a surprisingly awesome journey to the Baltics. We had heard nice things about these far away, isolated Northern European countries – but nothing we heard captured just how fascinating they would end up being.
Countries you should see during your week in the Baltics
Obviously, the Baltic Sea is rather large, and encompassing countries all the way from Germany to Norway and Russia. But right now, we’re only going to concentrate on a handful of distinct, special, and smaller countries you will love.
We will start our journey in the incredibly cute town Vilnius, Lithuania.
Through a combination of bus, rental car, ferry boat, and rideshare apps, we will smoothly make our way up to Finland, making sure to spend time in the wonderful countries of Latvia and Estonia and smell the roses, then fly out of Tallinn at the end.
Note that this itinerary is reversible; if it’s easier for you, you can start in Estonia or Finland.
Lithuania: 2 days in the intriguing land of Baltic medieval Europe (with castles and more!)
On our journey last summer, we flew into Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania, on a sweltering hot summer day. Low on energy after much travel, sweating from all corners, we pushed through and started exploring from day 1.
And what we saw did not disappoint us. Rather to the contrary, we felt enchanted by the charming old town, the surrounding elegant architecture, the bright colors of the city, and lovely marble and stone used extensively around the city.
How do I get to Lithuania?
Lithuania is very well connected from practically all over Europe, especially in the summer. There are tons of easy connections here from all over the world.
Flying into Lithuania
Air Baltic has a large base in Vilnius, Lithuania. You can fly here from:
- London Gatwick
You can purchase connecting codeshare SkyTeam flight tickets to Lithuania departing from the US for a seamless experience.
You can also fly to Kaunas, a stupefyingly cute medieval town 1 hour outside Vilnius, from many cities in Europe. Ryanair serves this airport extensively, offering very cheap fares from all over Europe.
Vilnius By Bus
You can take a bus from Riga or Tallinn for relatively cheap. We enjoyed our experience on LuxExpress.
What to do in Vilnius for an epic Baltics adventure
You should spend at least a day exploring Vilnius, especially its exceedingly cute old town and surrounding castles, churches, monuments, restaurants, and parks.
- Exploring the Gediminas Castle Tower
- Visiting the Palace of the Grand Dukes of Lithuania and it’s museum
- Making your way to the lovely Cathedral Square and its charming architecture and fountains
- Strolling around the Vincas Kudirka Square, and surrounding lovely shopping area often filled with live performances and even parades
- Entering the Old Town via the ancient and fabulous Gates of Dawn
- Walking along the main streets of Old Town Vilnius for a beer at a charming little restaurant
- Hiking to the Three Crosses Monument and Altana Hill for epic views on the city (especially at sunset)
Where to eat in Vilnius
Vilnius absolutely delighted our taste buds, with marvelous cuisine and fantastic flavors. Most are little family-owned restaurants in old houses with seating outdoors, or cozy dining indoors. These were our favorites:
- Head to Faustino Cafe for amazing coffee and great, healthy food options
- Bazilijonai is an excellent option for lunch and dinner. You’ll find local food full of flavor and warmth.
- Don’t miss Beigelistai, another great local option – this one in the heart of old town. It’s the perfect place for a romantic date
- Vegan lovers will be delighted with RoseHip Vegan Bistro, conveniently situated right outside the Gediminas Castle Tower
- In the morning, stop by Coffee Circus Piano for amazing coffee and pastries
Where to stay in Vilnius
Between charming B&B’s and even more charming local hotels right in the heart of Old Town, there’s no lack of choice here. But here’s what we recommend.
Our top choice: the Artagonist Hotel (4.8 on Google)
The Artagonist Art Hotel
Our Top Choice in Vilnius
We stayed at this 4-star boutique hotel on a whim and ended up really appreciate its artistic vibes, comfortable rooms, lovely views, and excellent location – only a 5 minute walk from the castle!
The rooms are spacious with views on the Old Town and an excellent cafe on property.
The Ultimate 5-Star Vilnius Hotel: The Kempinski
There isn’t a way to overstate just how nice the Kempinski of Vilnius is. With the top reviews of any hotel in Vilnius, you are sure to have a peaceful, relaxing time right in the heart of Old Town Vilnius.
5 Stars on a Budget: The IMPERIAL Hotel & Restaurant Vilnius
Look for a truly amazing experience in Vilnius without breaking the bank? The IMPERIAL Hotel offers 5 star amenities for 3/4 star prices, and it has an epic location in the direct center of Old Town Vilnius.
The ultimate Baltics day trip: visiting fairytale land in Kaunas, Lithuania
As we started our descent on our flight from Amsterdam to Vilnius, I looked out the left side of the airplane, glancing at something that surprised me: a massive full fledged castle and surrounding estate.
My first thought was “I have to go there!”. I looked it up on Google Maps, and much to my pleasure it was only an hour away!
Castles, moats, a medieval fortress, green mystical forests, Gothic architecture, bright colors, and an incredible Old Town – all of this is in nearby Kaunas.
Plus there is a plethora of excellent cafes and restaurants, lots of wonderful green parks and river walks, and friendly people to make your visit fascinating.
Only an hour by car or train (see schedules) from Vilnius, Kaunas is such an easy trip, whether it’s for a single day an overnight (lots of great AirBnBs here).
LuxExpress: the best (cheap) way to get from Vilnius to Riga and beyond
Onwards to Latvia. Our next stop on this enchanting medieval journey is Riga, the capital. So the next logical step is to get there! We took a “luxury” bus;
We ended up using LuxExpress several times during our trips, finding their coaches super comfortable and very accessible and cheap.
The driver checked our CDC-issued vaccine cards prior to boarding and that was it. Nice and simple.
The highways in the Baltics are incredible smooth and well done. The buses typically make stops at small towns where you can get out and walk, use the facilities, and enjoy fresh air for a couple minutes.
Latvia: Riga & The Beaches of the Baltics
Riga, the capital of Latvia, has a fantastic location. Why?
It’s only 45 minutes from the beach! And whether you take a bus, or rent a car (as we did), you’ll love the quaint small villages on the water and experiencing how Latvians holiday.
Riga itself was our least favorite Baltic capital, but it still has much to offer. It’s just not as “cute” and quaint as the others.
Renting a car in Riga for the day and visiting the beach
We rented a car right from the heart of downtown, steps from the Coach station, for an epic day trip; heading to the beach!
Hertz has a few convenient locations included the aforementioned one, with great rates and ease of use.
We drove down to the wonderful Majori Beach area, where locals flock during the summer – and for good reason. Whether you’re visiting the Dzintari Forest Park, walking along stunning beach boardwalks, or just embracing the heritage and truly unique architecture of the area, you’ll enjoy it.
In fact, we preferred the Latvian beachside over Riga. It’s a lot more laidback and enjoyable to explore.
What to see in Riga
Though Riga was our least favorite Baltic capital, it still offers some incredible food and amazing history.
For example, there's so much written about the Singing Revolution of the late 1980s-early 1990s, where tens of thousands of local stood hand to hand in non-violent protests of Soviet occupation, eventually successfully declaring independence and creating these wonderful countries you are visiting today.
But there’s even more history about the early 1900s and the world wars. Much of what you can visit entails this gruesome history;
- The Freedom Monument, dedicated to Latvians who fought for independence in 1918-1920
- Monument 1905 The Fighters
- Latvian Riflemen Monument
- Monument to the Liberators of Soviet Latvia and Riga from the German Fascist Invaders
- Museum of the Occupation of Latvia
- The Latvian War Museum
As a lover of green, lush vegetation, I enjoyed visiting:
- The University area around the Riga Canal and all of its charming riverside parks and walkways
- The Riga Cathedral – incredibly big and beautiful, and especially unique
- Riga Castle
- Plus, the Riga Central Market
Where to stay in Riga
One thing we loved about Riga, a down-to-earth and charming city, was it’s great selection of accommodations.
Whether you want to stay in a cute boutique with a rooftop or in a 5-star swanky hotel for less than $100, Riga has you covered.
Naturally, my favorite option would be something in between. The Relais Chevalier right in the Old Town Riga offers the best blend of boutique-ness, amenities, views, location, and pricing.
Where to eat in Riga
Although Riga wasn’t our absolute favorite city, I have to admit one thing: the food is pretty dang good here.
As a Belgian-American, I was naturally drawn to KwakInn Belgian Beer in Riga right in the heart of Old Town.
Vegans will delight themselves at Kozy Eats, whereas fine diners will love Martinelli Riga, likely the nicest restaurant in town.
Other awesome areas to visit in Latvia
Thanks to our rental car, we were able to cram in a few other extraordinary Latvian points of interest into our short weeklong experience. These included:
- Jūrmala, for its epic monastery church and totally beachy vibes
- Gauja National Park (Enter Gauja) and the Turaida castle. Absolutely gorgeous riverside hiking
- Cēsis and it’s wonderful castle which you can fully explore. The Old Town here is super cute.
I actually enjoyed visiting these more than Riga itself.
Getting from Riga to Tallinn, Estonia
We deposited our car at the downtown Hertz location, gathered our stuff, and then took an Uber down to the Coach station for our bus to Tallinn.
Once again we relied on LuxExpress for a cheap and comfortable ride. But there are other options;
- Flying from Riga to Tallinn
- Flying from Riga to Helsinki then taking a ferry
- Renting a car one way at great expense
- grabbing a “BlaBlaCar”, via its hitchhiking app, towards Tallinn
Tallinn, Estonia: the most marvelous Baltics Old Town of all
If you can’t already tell, I might a just a touch biased.
Tallinn, Estonia’s capital, is downright incredible. Not only is it’s Old Town absolutely delightful, it’s also big enough to have a lot to explore.
The food here is also spectacularly great, the people are particularly friendly, and the architecture is magnificently charming. It’s the quintessential old town.
What to see and do in Tallinn
There is just so much to explore in Tallinn. Truly. It’s a brilliant town.
There’s an upper and a lower Old Town, built around Medieval castles and fortresses. You will never have any doubts of the authenticity of this old town.
Tallinn is probably one of the best cities to get lost in. But if you want a more targeted experience, make sure to visit:
- The Tallinn Town Hall and its fabulous 13th century center square
- The Master’s Courtyard, a cute passageway with all the Old Town feels
- Viru Gate, a 1300s watchtower entrance to the city
- The Nunnatorn, Kohtuotsa and Patkuli viewing platforms for epic views on the city
- The Maritime museum on a cold, rainy day
- Freedom Square and the Harjumae Park area
- The Kiek in de Kok (haha, funny name) and Bastion tunnels for the cannon towers and awesome exhibition
- The Alexandar Nevsky Cathedral, super Orthodox and out of place, it truly stands out
- And of course, the Toompea Castle – from the 9th century!!
This list only scratches the surface; you’ll just have to see for yourself!
Where you should stay in Tallinn, Estonia
The absolute best hotel in Tallinn: the surprisingly affordable 5-star Schlössle Hotel in Old Town Tallinn.
- It’s right in the heart of Old Town. Literally the center, the highlight, the perfect location.
- The best reviews of all hotels in Tallinn, with excellent rooms and a vibrant mix of comfort and art
- A fantastic restaurant serving up delicious local dishes
Alternative options include Hotel Telegraaf, another exceptional 5-star hotel in the heart of town. And those looking for a cheaper, but still excellent option will love My City Hotel which is also right in the heart of Old Town Tallinn.
Where to eat in Tallinn
Ah, the food. Maybe the most important part! Well, hey, why not?
To start with, make sure you don’t miss Restaurant Rataskaevu 16 and its absolutely epic local dishes. Fabulous. Right across from it is our favorite vegan place in Tallinn, Vegan Restoran V. Don’t ask me about why there are numbers in the name. I don’t know. But maybe I should.
Craving pancakes? Head to Pub Kompressor for a delicious treat. Looking for seafood? Head to Restaurant The Nautilus for freshness.
There is no lack of options for food in Tallinn.
An epic day trip across the Baltic Sea from Tallinn to Helsinki
We took the opportunity to head to Finland’s capital city of Helsinki. Only a short ferry ride away from Tallinn, Helsinki is compact enough to make a great day trip, but big enough to be interesting to visit.
Riding the ferry between Tallinn and Helsinki
There are three main providers linking these two Baltic capitals: Tallink, Linda Line, and Eckerö Line. These ferries provide both car transport and simple passenger transfers. As a simple (very simple) passenger, I found Tallink’s schedule most conducive to a day trip.
We left on the 10:30AM ferry for only 29 Euro per person, and enjoyed the 2 hour journey with ample shopping opportunities. However, dining options were paltry.
After a day of exploring, we returned on the 1930 ferry, enjoying the late evening and making it back to Tallinn by 2200.
What to see on your day trip to Helsinki, Finland
We found Helsinki to be not as quaint or charming as Tallinn, and more resemblant of other typical European capitals. But we enjoyed the truly waterfront feel and accessibility of the city.
From the ferry dock, you’ll immediately find a Tram line that takes you right into town. SUPER convenient.
Although visiting Helsinki in a day means your itinerary will be jam packed, make sure to visit:
- Esplanadi and its Market Square, the heart of downtown
- The Kaivopuisto area for gorgeous waterfront views and great trails
- Suomenlinna island, acdcessible by a short ferry
- Hakasalmi Villa and its surrounding parks
- The Sternwartenpark
- Senate Square area
- Lapinlahden Lahde for a cultural and local experience
- The Sibelius Monument
Seafood in Helsinki is amazing, and I recommend taking out from the Market Square. But if you want a sit down restaurant like we did, I recommend Restaurant Minato Sushi. It’s fantastic sushi, truly.
Is one week in the Baltics enough?
Our week exploring, trepidating across the Baltics was absolutely wonderful. It was the perfect blend of relaxation, discovery, curiosity, and comfort.
I found that one week exploring the Baltics was the perfect amount. It enabled us to clearly define the similarities and difference between these wonderful countries, finally get a true and authentic taste of Medieval times, and satisfy our craving for discovery while leaving us feeling like we could come back.
So while I’d like to come back someday and explore some more, I felt that one week across the Baltics hit the spot perfectly.
If you're headed back to the USA, check out my guide to meeting the 1-day testing restriction from anywhere.