The Baltics is a collective term often used to refer to those three little countries up there in the top right corner of Europe. Nestled in between big daddy Russia on one side and the attention-grabbing Nordic countries above, they don’t always get the most attention from travellers. And in fact, they are among the last countries for me to visit in Europe. But all three of these charming little countries are worth a visit in their own right, rather than being lumped together as a job lot. So which one should you go for first, or if you need to pick just one? Read on for my thoughts…
I’m going to start with Tallinn because it was the first Baltic capital that I visited, as it was a convenient ferry ride away whilst I still lived in Stockholm. You can read more about my trip in this blog post. Unfortunately as this trip was over Christmas, whilst I visited the other two Baltics in May this year, it makes it a little trickier to compare them like for like, but you get the idea.
According to data from Numbeo, Tallinn is the most expensive of the three, with Riga being the cheapest, just a tad below Vilnius. However I have to say that I didn’t really notice a price difference between them. All three countries have the euro as their currency, and their level of expensiveness is fairly similar. I.e. cheaper than Nordics, London, Switzerland etc, but more expensive than Poland, Ukraine or Romania.
Architecturally and culturally, Tallinn feels like a really nice mix between Finland and Russia. I personally loved the vibe, which combines a touch of ex-Soviet grit with old-town charm and Nordic style. Despite it being winter when I went, there was still loads to see and do and a lot going on. The Christmas market was really nice, and the whole Old Town district (of course there’s one of these in each city) is absolutely picturesque, surrounded by a huge Medieval wall. The city is small enough to walk everywhere, but still big enough to offer enough attractions for a week’s visit. Unfortunately some of the museums I wanted to see were closed for Christmas, but the KGB museum was really interesting.
Tallinn also has the huge benefit that it sits right on the coastline, meaning it’s very easy indeed to pop to or from Finland, Sweden or Russia by ferry. It also means the sea and harbours are very accessible from the city, which give it that port-city vibe that you might associate with a Scandinavian country.
Vilnius was a pleasant surprise, since I didn’t really have any expectations for it one way or another. Of course it probably helped that the weather was perfect in May, but I definitely wasn’t disappointed by this little capital.
I honestly don’t know the exact size of each of the three cities, but Vilnius probably seemed to be the smallest. Like the others, it’s very easy to walk around, and I personally reckon that the weekend I spent there was enough to see everything I wanted to see. Of course I can’t pretend that I have seen or done absolutely everything that there is to do in the whole of Vilnius, but I do feel like I can reasonably tick it off my ‘to do’ list after the trip. The old town, however, is apparently the biggest in Europe, and certainly doesn’t disappoint. Like any other tourist, I always make a beeline for any picturesque old part of a city, and Vilnius probably has the best looking and most photogenic of the three.
If you’re feeling hungry, there are plenty of restaurants around the city, and it was a shame I didn’t get to try all the ones I wanted to. If you visit, you should definitely check out Gusto Blynine, an amazing pancake place right in the heart of the old town. There are a handful of pretty good vegetarian restaurants here too, with a special shoutout to Chaika which does amazing vegan cakes which are even passably healthy.
If you want to taste local cuisine, it’s going to be a very similar story to in either of the other two capitals – very strongly based around meat, which means that I haven’t extensively tried the local dishes. If you do want to eat in the touristy areas, you’ll find that (like in almost any city), most of the restaurants are geared up to foreign tourists, which has its up and down sides. I personally don’t mind to eat in a mock-traditional tourist-friendly restaurant unless it’s a real ripoff, as they usually make it easy for you to try some traditional fare with no hassle.
I was actually a little surprised at how popular Vilnius is with tourists from all around Europe, though. It’s hard to get a decent photo without 100 people walking in front of your camera, and there are plenty of large tour groups around. Just something to bear in mind.
Finally Latvia, which is where I’m writing this post from. Riga is the most populous of the three, and also the most touristy in my opinion. Of course it’s difficult to define ‘touristyness’ precisely, but I’ve rarely spent time in a city that had so many huge tour groups wandering around in such a small area. Other cities that are huge tourist magnets like Rome, Paris, Berlin etc are much bigger and therefore disperse visitors better, whereas walking around Riga’s old town feels a bit like you have to jostle your way among endless crowds of tourists, with nary a local to be seen.
As in the other cities, the Russian influence is very strong here, and the whole city is very Russian-friendly with many people speaking Russian rather than Latvian. This may or may not be a plus for you. They also speak English well too, and I’ve found the service to be very friendly in many places. The downside for how cosy it is for foreigners here, though, is that you don’t quite feel the authentic Latvian vibe as much as you might hope. There are so many British and other European tourists here that the city centre feels more like an amusement park than a working city, which may be a bit of a shame for locals. The same could probably be said for any old town, though, as these small areas always concentrate a lot of visitors in one place.
The huge plus point of Riga, though, is how green it is. I’ve never seen a city with quite so many green spaces and flowery parks prominently placed all over it. If you visit during good weather, it’s really lovely to be able to take a boat trip on the canal or stroll through the lush parks. Bear in mind, also, that Riga has several beaches fairly nearby. Whilst they’re not within walking distance, and the coastline is not visible from the city, you can get a train or bus to the coast within about 30 minutes, which is obviously a perk in summertime.
So which one should you visit?
As with any comparison between places, there are so many factors to take into consideration that it would be impossible to choose a clear ‘winner’ or ‘loser’. All three cities are interesting and worth a visit, and each one has its own unique characteristics, sights and atmosphere. However it wouldn’t be much of a blog post if I simply copped out and didn’t let you know my favourite.
It’s a tough choice, as there are things I liked about all three, but I think if I had to visit just one, it would be Tallinn. Having the sea right alongside the city really adds to its appeal and makes it ideal to fit into an itinerary that also includes any of the nearby Nordic countries. I stayed there for almost a week and still felt like there was more I wanted to do, unlike in Vilnius and Riga where I would say that a weekend is enough to tick it off your bucket list. I also personally really like the Finnish/Scandinavian feeling that Estonia has, whilst the other two countries feel a little more generically European and don’t have quite as much character as I reckon Tallinn has. Of course this is just my opinion and I actually think all three are worth a visit.
Have you visited any or all of the three? Which was your favourite – let me know below!