The three Baltic countries are perfect for an epic road trip as a network of well-maintained highways link both major and minor cities and while each have their own cultural identity, they all use the Euro. While it is possible to start or finish in Riga, the capital of Latvia, it is probably best to start in Vilnius, Lithuania and end in Tallinn, Estonia, or vice versa. This way you do not need to do any back tracking. Each one of the three cities have major airports and Tallinn is even connected to Northern Europe through its active port. Our route started in Vilnius and actually went all the way to Helsinki thanks to the ferry across the Baltic Sea.
Locations to visit
Travel Day 1
Vilnius is the capital of Lithuania and the only one to not be along the coast of the Baltic Sea. The city was once the centre point of one of Europe's largest empires stretching all the way from the Baltic Sea to the Black Sea. As such it was a key piece for any invading army to occupy. The extensive fortress walls around Vilnius are no longer standing except for the Gate of Dawn which holds the Blessed Virgin Mary Mother of Mercy which has caused a number of miracles over the centuries. Overlooking the city is Gediminas' Tower, a large brick tower completed over 600 years ago as a major defensive installment. Make sure you don’t miss Cathedral Square or one of the almost 30 churches dotting what feels like every street corner. To fully explore the city you should spend at least 2 full days with 1 extra to tour Trakai. Read all about how to fill your days in Vilnius HERE.
As Vilnius is small and compact, you do not need a car during your stay. Trakai is well connected to Vilnius by both bus and train (roughly 45 minutes away) so the island castle is an easy day trip without your own car. Trakai has a unique history and is home to a small population of Karaim people, an ethnic group of Turkish origin who were relocated to the area about 600 years ago from modern-day Crimea. Interestingly, they are of Jewish faith, leaving the Trakai Kenesa (an Eastern European synagogue) one of the last remaining active Kenesas in the world! Make sure to check out their colourful and symbolic houses and try a Kibinai, a tasty meat-filled pastry.
After your fill of pastry, check out the only island castle in Eastern Europe. Built over several centuries, the castle, complete with an interior moat, can only be accessed by a small footbridge and one entrance. Not only was the castle important as it was a main stronghold for the former Lithuanian Empire, but it is also the spot where Vytautas the Great, a Grand Duke of Lithuania was killed.
Travel Day 2
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Your next stop depends on what season you are travelling during. If you are travelling during the winter, we suggest skipping to Travel Day 3. If it is the summer, the Lithuanian coast of the Baltic Sea is quite stunning with a gorgeous sand "spit" - a peninsula of sorts. This spit is also home to a large national park where you can either go for hikes or just relax on the beach. Interestingly, the peninsula is actually only attached to land across the border in Russia however there are ferries that will take you across while staying within Lithuania. If you choose this route, you can stay in either Klaipeda or Palanga which are both nice resort towns. You can then catch up to the route by heading back inland towards the Hill of Crosses.
Travel Day 3
If you are travelling when the weather isn't quite beach time, make sure you get up early as you have a full day of driving and sightseeing to get to Riga. About half way between the two cities, you will find the Hill of Crosses. What started as a memorial to the soldiers whose bodies were never recovered, became a sign of defiance against the Soviet Occupation. Cross building is a
very important tradition in Lithuania so it should come to no surprise that they would use such skills in this way. When the Soviets occupied the country for the second half of the 20th century, religion was suppressed. The hill became a spot of defiance even leading the government to bulldoze and set fire the crosses twice in the 40 years of occupation. For those who want to participate, buy a cross at the entrance and write a message about peace, love, or suffering and find a spot on the hill to set it down.
Once you cross the border into Latvia, make sure to stop at Rundale Palace, an 18th-century royal residence with a French-styled rose garden. The palace has seen many different uses over the ages, starting of course as a royal residence, then used as a hospital during WWI. After several years of being underused, it was converted into a school and granary. Lots of damage happened during this time as the Soviets neglected the historical attributes of the Palace. The Duke's formal dining room was even turned into a gymnasium with basketball hoops! Lots of effort has been taken to both show the consequences of this "whitewashing" and educate future generations. Tours are with a guide so we suggest to book prior to ensure your timing works well.
From here, continue further into Latvia and towards Riga Bay where you should call the next few nights home. Central Riga retains much of its old town charm with sprinkles of modern every so often. Make sure to check out the Black Heads Guild, a modern recreation of one of the top guild buildings in northern Europe. Sample some black balsam liquor from Tincture Sincere, then wander across to the Central Riga Market. This market is held within 5 of the last remaining Zeppelin hangers in the world and is the largest indoor market in Europe. While you do not have the opportunity to see it, much of the action happens underground. The former market had issues with contamination and sanitary conditions, so built under the market is a network of tunnels and freezers where the processing is completed and then transported upstairs with dozens of massive elevators.
Make sure to give yourself a day to explore the surrounding area of Riga. Gauja National Park is only about an hour away offering lots of hiking opportunities or the chance to tour a few castles. Check out the Castle of the Livonian Order which has one of the most magnificent views into the river valley. After a bit of history, get your heart pumping at the Sigulda Bobsled track. Interestingly, Latvia has only won medals at the Winter Olympics in track sports. This track is used by a number of their Olympic athletes but is also open to the public. Don a helmet and get behind a trained bobsledder and take off reaching speeds of up to 125KM/hour! After your stomach settles, head to the small town of the same name, and check out The Cathouse Restaurant, a cafeteria styled restaurant with great authentic Latvian foods. If that has not been enough for you yet, you can take in the Baltic's largest cave, which honestly is quite underwhelming in size. What is does have though, is a very unique set of coats of arms carved into the walls some of which date back hundreds of years and are extremely intricate.
Travel Day 4
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Before leaving Riga make sure to stroll down Albert Street to see some amazing Art Nouveau buildings from the early 1900s. Depending on the season, you have another option to extend the trip slightly. About halfway between Riga and Tallinn, Parnu is Estonia's top beach resort town. If you are travelling in the winter, it is worth a quick stop as this section of the Baltic Sea freezes allowing you to walk hundreds of meters from shore! A cool experience for those who do not have as harsh winters. There is also a number of old spas in town with some of the best architecture out there. In the summer, the area is full of beachgoers and lots of restaurants so it is worth a couple of days of relaxing.
Travel Day 5
Finally, make your way up to Tallinn. Tallinn pulls much of its style and culture from its Scandinavian neighbours, making it a bit different than its Baltic siblings. It is also one of the most technologically advanced cities in the world. Many Estonians do not need to carry a wallet as everything needed is on their phone or smartwatches. Paying for things at shops is done through banking apps, your phone can display a valid ID, and your ID can be used for free public transit. During the later days of the Soviet Occupation, Tallinn became a black market place of western goods due to its proximity to Helsinki. It even received several radio signals from across the strait helping to lead towards their current independence.
You should spend at least 3 days in Tallinn as it is a city that gets better the more you explore. Tallinn can pretty much be split into 3 distinct areas; the lower old town, upper old town (Toompea) and the new town. The lower old city is a web of dozens of cobblestone streets waiting to unveil their hidden treasures. Try to find the Timeline Alley for a quick history lesson. The town hall was completed over 600 years ago and is the largest town hall in Northern Europe. It is topped with the famous Thomas statue- the cities youngest guard. A skilled marksman with a crossbow, he won an archery competition as a child making him go down in history! The upper town is the site of the former city castle meaning it is the perfect spot to go for a birds-eye view of the city, especially at night! Nowadays, the upper town is home the many embassies, parliament, and several churches including Alexander Nevsky Cathedral.
Your last day should be spent on the edge of town exploring Kadriorg Park. This park was once the extensive grounds of the 18th century Kadriorg Palace. The palace is now part of the Estonian Art Gallery and holds a collection of Dutch and Italian paintings. Just behind it, is the president's house and the new architecturally odd art gallery KUMU.
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