10 Reasons to Travel to the Baltics This Year
The three Baltic States – Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, are among Northern Europe’s best-kept secrets. These former Soviet republics regained their independence in 1991 and are now attracting visitors with their medieval towns and castles, historic yet youthful and vibrant cities, and unspoiled countryside. As travelers from North America are largely yet to discover these destinations, here are 10 reasons to travel to the Baltics this year!
- Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania are all celebrating birthdays in 2018!
This year, all 3 Baltic countries are celebrating 100 years since their declarations of statehood and the centennial festivities will include events like art exhibits, historic reenactments, and song & music festivals and concerts such as the Latvian Song & Dance Festival which only takes place every five years and but be held this year from June 30th – July 8th.These some of the reasons why Estonia and Lithuania were listed in the New York Times’ 52 Places to Go in 2018.
- Travel to the Baltics and getting around is easy
The international airports in Tallinn, Riga, and Vilnius are served by regular flights on European airlines like SAS, Finnair, Air Baltic, and Lufthansa. Several ferry lines like Tallinnk and Viking connect Tallinn with Helsinki and the journey takes roughly 2 hours. Traveling between the capital cities and around the countryside is best done by car as the main roads are in good condition and driving distances are relatively short – 4 – 5 hours to get from Tallinn to Riga and even less from Riga to Vilnius. Air Baltic runs inexpensive flights between the 3 capitals taking less than an hour.
- All 3 capitals are UNESCO World Heritage sites
Tallinn dates to the 13th century when a castle was built on this spot by the Danes. Later, under the Germans, it prospered as a major trading center of the Hanseatic League, and most of the present day historic architecture – churches, craftsmen guilds, and merchant houses, are from this period. Nowadays, Tallinn’s medieval Old Town is considered to be the best preserved in Northern Europe.
Riga too was a German settlement and as a member of the Hanseatic League of trading cities in the 13th –15th centuries thrived from the commerce with Central and Eastern Europe. In the 19th century, the areas surrounding the medieval town were developed with a ring of boulevards replacing the fortress walls and the magnificent Jugendstil (Art Nouveau) architecture, unparalleled anywhere in the world, has been recognized by UNESCO.
Vilnius started in the 11th century as a hilltop castle at the confluence of two rivers. In the 15th century, it was already the capital of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania – the largest country in Europe at the time, stretching from the Baltic to the Black Sea. Nowadays, the large yet compact Old Town with its Gothic, Renaissance, Baroque, and Classical architecture is perfect for a guided walking tour.
Note: Both Tallinn and Riga are busy cruise ship ports and in the summer months can get exceedingly crowded with day-trippers.
- Travel to the Baltics for the boutique and historic hotels
International hotel brands like Hilton, Swissotel, and Radisson have moved in, but what is even more notable is the spread of small boutique properties, often in beautifully-restored historic public buildings, merchant houses, or country manors.
In Tallinn, these include the Telegraaf, The Three Sisters (located in 3 adjacent 14th-century merchant houses and part of Relais & Chateaux), and St. Petersbourg (recently given a complete makeover), all of which are within the walls of the Old Town. In Riga, a great option is the Grand Palace Hotel, the Relais & Chateaux Dome Hotel, and the design hotel Bergs. In Vilnius, the Kempinski Cathedral Square is right in the heart of the Old Town and so are the smaller boutique Narutis and Stikliai hotels.
- Love history and centuries-old architecture?
Many cultures have left their mark on these lands. In the 9th – 12th centuries, the Vikings and Slavs conquered the local indigenous tribes. Later, the German crusaders subjugated vast swaths of land and Tallinn and Riga prospered as members of the Hanseatic League – a confederation of German market towns and merchant guilds. Next, the Swedes and Russians sought control over the Baltic coast.
Thanks to all these influences, the Baltic capitals are treasure troves of architectural styles ranging from Gothic to Renaissance, Baroque, and Art Nouveau, and the countryside is dotted with medieval castles, palaces, and historic manor houses. My favorite castle in the region is Trakai – an imposing yet fairy-tale-worthy red-brick castle atop a tiny island in a lake. In the summer, you can reach the castle by boat, or walk across the frozen lake in the winter.
- Foodies will find reasons to travel to the Baltics too…
Think Baltic cuisine is all about potatoes, cabbage, pickled fish, and rye bread? Nowadays, a new generation of chefs is leading a culinary revolution by fusing Nordic-style cooking with traditional flavors to create innovative dishes based on fresh, local, and seasonal ingredients. The White Guide – the leading restaurant authority in the Nordic countries, is a great resource for recommendations on where to try New Baltic cuisine.
- Explore the unspoiled and uncrowded outdoors!
If you travel to the Baltics, you will be pleasantly surprised by the vast forests, dramatic coastline, and numerous lakes, rivers, and wetlands, most of which are protected by one of the region’s 13 national parks.
Just a short drive from Tallinn (thus a perfect day-trip) the Lahemaa National Park – the oldest and largest in Estonia, covers an area of over 280 square miles including lakes, rivers, forests, and marshes teeming with wildlife. Crisscrossed by hiking trails, it is also sprinkled with villages offering an insight into the region’s history, culture, and traditions.
Lithuania’s most-popular national park is the UNESCO-protected Curonian Spit – a 60-mile strip of land which separates the Curonian Lagoon from the Baltic Sea and features sandy beaches, dunes, forests, trails stretching the entire length of the spit, and small fishermen villages with wooden cottages seemingly frozen in time.
The largest and oldest of the national parks in Latvia is Gauja. Located just a short drive out of the capital Riga, it stretches for over 60 miles along a river valley and offers opportunities for hiking, biking, canoeing, and kayaking. History buffs would enjoy visiting the restored Turaida Castle (originally built by the crusaders) as well as some medieval churches, manor houses, and watermills.
- Travel to the Baltics for the islands!
Did you know that Estonia has over 2,000 islands and islets of all shapes and sizes? My favorite is Muhu Island – a hidden gem just a short ferry ride from the mainland which the traditional local trades of fishing and shepherding have left largely untouched by large-scale farming and tourism. This could be the perfect stop between Tallinn and Riga, so you can explore the small charming villages with wooden cottages and reed roofs, or drive over the bridge to the nearby Saaremaa Island to visit the beautifully-preserved Kuressaare Castle built by the Teutonic Knights.
Muhu island is also where Padaste Manor – one of Estonia’s most luxurious boutique hotels, occupies a centuries-old country estate. After a long and painstaking restoration, the manor and the estate’s buildings now house exquisite rooms and suites, a spa, an award-winning restaurant, and a wine cellar. There is a variety of seasonal activities you can enjoy like horseback riding, mushroom- and berry-picking, fishing, and traditional cooking classes.
- Journey along the ancient Amber Road!
The Baltic coast has been the world’s leading source of amber for millennia. The fossilized tree resin was formed in the water tens of million years ago and later transported along a network of ancient trade routes known as the Amber Road all the way down to the Mediterranean. Because of its alleged healing powers, amber has been used in folk medicine since antiquity and amber jewelry has been found in excavations in ancient Mesopotamia, Egypt (in Tutankhamen’s tomb), Morocco, Greece, Italy, and even China. There are several amber museums in Latvia and Lithuania and even a workshop where you can see how amber is polished and maybe create your own jewelry.
- Learn about centuries-old crafts and traditions!
The three Baltic countries are proud of their customs, traditions, folklore, and craft skills which are all part of their national identities. The lives of many modern Estonians, Latvians, and Lithuanians are intertwined with centuries-old traditions and rituals like the Easter egg painting or jumping over bonfires at Midsummer celebrations. Folk music and dance are also very popular and kept alive by local choirs and dance groups and performances at festivals like the Baltica international folk festival which brings together thousands of participants each year. The Baltica festival is shared between the three capitals and in 2018, it will be hosted in Riga from June 16 – 21.
So, why travel to the Baltics this year?
The Baltic states have similar climates and landscapes but, while bound by shared historic influences, they each have their distinct cultural identity, independent spirit, and unique flavor. Because the region was part of the Soviet Union for most of the last century, it has remained relatively unexplored, unspoiled, and waiting to be discovered.
You can get a feel of the three Baltic capitals in as little as a week though exploring the countryside in more detail would require more time. Let me help with planning your trip to the Baltics!
Enjoy further reading on travel to the Baltic region: