The Baltic capitals – Riga in Latvia, Tallinn in Estonia and Vilnius in Lithuania – are well known destinations for stag nights. All three offer inexpensive bars and lively night clubs, great for partying.
But what do these three capitals offer for Short Breaks for that rather older group of people who enjoy travelling, but at a slightly slower pace, and finishing at a rather earlier time in the evening than the stag-nighters?
To help answer that question, I’ve checked out all three capitals over the last couple of weeks and here are my conclusions.
Riga, Tallinn and Vilnius are about the same size, with each having about half a million inhabitants, and indeed all three countries are about the same size, with Latvia sandwiched between Estonia to the north and Lithuania to the south, which itself borders Poland.
In all three capitals, I found genuine warmth towards UK visitors, particularly among the young who were keen to practise their English. They seem very keen to look West, rather than East towards Russia. This is not surprising considering recent history.
It is just 30 years since the incredible Baltic Way demonstration, when about two million people joined hands in a 420 mile chain from Vilnius to Tallinn via Riga. This was a key moment in helping the three states gain their independence from their Soviet Union overlord.
All three cities can all be reached by budget airlines from the UK, and fares are not too dissimilar, at about £100 return or less depending on time of year, with weekday flights often less expensive.
When planning a trip, bear in mind that time in the Baltic states is two hours ahead of UK and that in December the most northerly capital, Tallinn, has only about six hours daylight per day compared to London’s eight hours.
All three countries have the Euro as their currency and all are members of the EU and are within the Schengen Area, so no problem travelling between them if you so wish. Credit cards are widely accepted.
Accommodation, food and drink prices are a quite a bit less than in the UK, but with some marked differences between the three capitals.
If you’re a bit strapped for cash, then Vilnius is the cheapest of the three capitals. In fact according to the Post Office 2019 Barometer of European city costs for Short Breaks, Vilnius was the least expensive of all 48 cities surveyed, with Riga coming out as the 7th cheapest and Tallinn as the 20th. Expect on average to pay about 40% more in Tallinn than Vilnius, with Riga in between.
What to See
This is may be a bit overcritical, but I suggest you avoid the Baltic states if you want to see scenic countryside. When I did a driving tour around the three countries, on almost entirely single carriageway roads, there seemed to be an abundance of flat forested land, with the occasional farms, but not much else.
So for all three countries, there seems little point in travelling far out from the capitals themselves. Rather concentrate on the beautiful Old Towns in each of the capitals – they will definitely fill your Short Break. And that’s where you’ll find a plethora of bars and restaurants, many serving excellent local fare with Nordic and Russian influences. I enjoyed some excellent Latvian food at the Province Restaurant in Kaļķu Street in Riga – highly recommended.
Some Highlights of Riga
The Old Town, situated on the eastern bank of the Daugava River, is quite flat and easy to walk around, although take care not to trip on the uneven cobbled streets as you admire the many fine examples of medieval architecture, such as the Three Brothers Houses, and art nouveau buildings.
I entered the Old Town near Riga Castle, which is impressive enough from the outside, but is largely taken up on the inside by the Presidential residence with only a small part, comprising the National History Museum, accessible to the public.
The Town Hall Square features the highly decorated House of the Blackheads, built in the 14th Century, but totally destroyed in World War II, and rebuilt only twenty years ago. The Square is a good place to stop for refreshment.
There are two great churches within the Old Town, St Peter’s Church with its 400 ft high steeple dominating the city, and Riga Dome Cathedral, the largest medieval church in the Baltics.
For a bit of peace and quiet, head to the canal-side Bastion Hill Park. The National Opera House and the Freedom Monument are close by, as is the temporary site of the Museum of Occupation of Latvia. This covers both the Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia periods and provides background to understanding the Baltic Way demonstration.
Some Highlights of Tallinn
The Old Town has two distinct parts, the upper town, Toompea Hill, and the lower town. There are some steep lanes and stepways in the upper town, although the panoramic views make the trek up well worthwhile. It also allows you to get your bearings before exploring the lower town.
As well as Toompea Castle, with its prominent Tall Herman tower, the upper town is home to the majestic Alexander Nevsky Cathedral and St Mary’s Cathedral.
There’s plenty to see in the lower town, including the Gothic Town Hall with its 200 ft tower and the Three Sisters Houses. But save some time to visit the Kiek in de Kök defensive tower and tour sections of the old city walls.
For a quiet green oasis between the lower and upper towns, wander through the Deer’s Park with its unique tree collection.
Some Highlights of Vilnius
Although the largest Old Town of all the three capitals – in fact one of the largest Old Towns in Northern Europe – it almost entirely flat and easy to walk around past many attractive Baroque buildings.
The Gediminas Castle Tower provides panoramic views across the Old Town and is a good starting point to get your bearings. For less nimble travellers, the Castle Tower has a funicular to the top. It currently contains a very moving exhibition about the Baltic Way demonstration.
The Palace of the Grand Dukes of Lithuania, which contains the National History Museum, looks very impressive, but I was surprised to discover that the building is only about twenty years old built on the site of the original 15th Century palace.
There are a fascinating range of churches in Vilnius ranging from the neoclassical style Vilnius Cathedral to the red brick Gothic Church of St Anne. Both are free to enter, unlike similar major churches in Riga and Tallinn.
If gardens are your interest, then relax in the quiet Bernadine Park alongside the Vilnia River.
Which to choose
All three cities have their individual personalities, which you’ll only really discover when you visit. All can provide very interesting Short Breaks that are inexpensive compared with other European capitals.
I have no particular favourite out of the three and would suggest visiting all of them in turn! You won’t be disappointed.
Steve Hanson is the owner, writer and editor of seniortravelexpert.com.