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Eight cities. Four countries. Two kids. A pair of parents. One car, the open road, a bag full of face masks and a whole lot of hand sanitizer. I told you a bit about the final leg of our Baltic States road trip in Augustow, where we spent a few days relaxing and recouping from the whirlwhind journey prior, before heading home (read about it here!). Because we live in Poland, we started our adventure by spending one night in Warsaw, and then drove up in to the Baltic States, where we spent the next ten days exploring.
Unlike other European destinations we’ve visited, for the most part, I didn’t know what to expect from the three Baltic States countries of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia. I mean, you kind of know what you’re going to get in Paris, Rome and Amsterdam, but I think that is what makes exploring the Baltic States even better. Or maybe all the staying home we’ve done this year has dulled my senses. Either way, WOW. I don’t want to lump them all together, because the three countries each have their own distinctly individual thing going on, but they were overall friendly, clean, affordable, navigable, culturally rich, and gorgeous.
If you have ten days, or so, that you want to spend exploring a different corner of Europe, let this be your guide. This itinerary is going to give you a big taste of some of the best places the Baltic States has to offer. Use it as-is, or plan side trips and make it your own! As always, the possibilities are endless. Check out different museums that interest you (we were mostly outdoors, because of the pandemic and amazing August weather), or do a little research in to activities your kids might enjoy. Spend an extra night in Tallinn and take a day trip to Helsinki via ferry (covid kept us from doing this, and I’m not over it). One of the best things about this itinerary is it’s a loop! Because this allows you to circle back and end where you began, your arrival and departure is flexible between the three major cities in each country. Fly in to Tallinn, Riga, or Vilnius, depending on cost of flights and your preference. Its all up to you! This itinerary starts in Vilnius, because that’s what we did. But you can totally adjust it, if you find a better deal flying in to one of the other cities.
Here are your stops:
1. Vilnius, Lithuania and Trakai Castle
2. Tartu, Estonia
3. Tallinn, Estonia
4. Riga, Latvia
5. Hill of Crosses and Kaunas, Lithuania
*Plus! bonus stop Druskininkai, Lithuania
Days 1, 2 and 3: Vilnius, Lithuania and Trakai Castle
Old Town Vilnius is truly lovely and has a feeling of authenticity that is rare. Its cobbled streets and alleys are lined with UNESCO preserved shops, restaurants, and churches. Walk through broad, pristine white Cathedral Square. Take the funicular (2 Euro/person) up to see the sweeping view of Old Town and beyond from Gediminas Tower. Then, take your time crossing Old Town to the beautiful Gate of Dawn. The only remaining old city gate, and a site of Catholic pilgrimage. Appreciate the multitude of gorgeous churches, many of which were used as storage warehouses during the Soviet Era. Look for hand-made wool crafts, like slippers, stockings and funny pointed hats at markets and shops. You must visit the Republic of Uzupis, an artistic bohemian neighborhood of self-declared independence, complete with its own funky constitution. Wander through the peaceful city oasis, Bernardine Park (let your kids do their thing at the playgrounds in the middle). Explore the pretty alleyways and find your own hidden gem restaurant. If you’re looking for a good breakfast, try the pancakes and more at Gusto Blynine (the decor is a treat too, think Hansel-and-Gretel-meets-Cloudy-With-a-Chance-of-Meatballs). Try to decide if you want them topped with Oreos, Snickers bars, your standard maple syrup, or basically any other sweet treat you can think of.
On day two, or three, head out for a day trip to Trakai, about 30 kilometers (18 miles) outside of the city. Go for the castle, but stay for the lake. Trakai Island Castle is a red-brick medieval fortress, on an island in the middle of a clear, tranquil lake. Built to protect the surrounding region from crusading Teutonic Knights, it has an interesting history. Walk across the not-long pedestrian bridge to the island, and head in to the castle for a self-guided tour. Castles are cool, but pretty lakes on a warm summer day are something everyone enjoys. My favorite part was simply taking a stroll on the path that circumnavigates the castle. Afterward, enjoy a meal with a view of the water, sailboats, swimmers, paddleboarders and fishermen-and-women, at one of the restaurants that line the walk along the lake. On your way in and out of town admire the cute, colorful houses. Pro Tip: do not be afraid of the grandmas beckoning you to park in their backyard. They are friendly, parking is cheap, and they will show you the secret shortcut path that leads straight past the barn, right to the waterfront. I’d rather park under grandma’s apple tree, than basically anywhere else, any day.
Day 4: Tartu, Estonia
Take the Easternmost route from Vilnius to Tartu. Its a bit of a haul (7 hours-ish), but this is a road trip, and the journey is half the fun. This is by far the longest driving stretch of the trip. Plus, Tartu was my favorite surprise on this trip, you’re gonna love it. Leave Vilnius after breakfast and get lunch in Daugvapils, just over the border in Latvia. Its an easy, flat, pretty drive, without much traffic, through a lot of generic forest and countryside that could be Latvia, or Michigan. You’ll be in Tartu by mid-late afternoon, just in time for happy hour on their sweet, pedestrian, Ruutli Street, lined with pubs, cafes and restaurants. Tartu is a small city, but Estonia’s second largest. It is home to Estonia’s prestigious University of Tartu (est. 1632!) and has those cool college town vibes. See the kissing students statue in front of the pink and red town hall building. Head up under Angel’s Bridge to Toomemägi Hill and explore the old campus. Old Tartu Dome Church Cathedral ruins are incorporated in to a new museum building there. The contrasting new and old make an interesting blend. Pro tip for parents! There’s a playground just slightly down the hill from the church. Spend as much time exploring as you’d like the next morning, its an under two-hour drive to Tallinn. Cafe Werner is a great spot for breakfast. Their full breakfast, coffees and baked goods are amazing, but the porridge was something I still dream about. Add that to the list of things I never thought I’d say.
Days 5, 6 and 7: Tallinn, Estonia
Tallinn is fresh. Clear, crisp breezes blow seemingly straight down from the Arctic Circle, across the Gulf of Finland. There’s an unexpected Scandinavian influence, to include the language. If its 70 degrees or above, they will literally tell you it feels like a sauna outside. Saunas are common indoors, though, and you might get lucky with one in your accommodations. Upon arrival in Tallin, enjoy a stroll through the shady, green park circling the turreted walls outside Old Town. Then walk back through Old Town. Stop in town square for a meal at one of the many encircling restaurants, with a view of towering Town Hall and iconic white steeples surrounding. Spend the next morning exploring everything Old Town. For a bird’s-eye view of the steeples, head up to Toompea Castle for a sweeping panoramic of Old Town and beyond, from the lookout there (there are stairs, and a cobbled uphill street, if you have a stroller- persevere! It is worth it). Admire the colorful building facades as you browse through shops. Don’t be surprised if you start taking pictures of the color schemes for future home decor inspiration. Stop for refreshment and learn all about marzipan at Maiasmokk Cafe, open in the same location since 1864.
In the afternoon, head to Kalamaja neighborhood. Old Towns are pretty, but neighborhoods are where you really get to know a place. Walk the streets past leftover Soviet style housing and stop by one of the coffee shops for a caffeine recharge for you, and one of the playgrounds for the kids. Then, walk over to Balti Jaama Turg market. A renovated historic warehouse market near the train station. Here you can find everything from locally handmade crafts and a flea market on the top floor, to farmers market produce, to breweries and food stands that have anything from a chicken sandwich to Tiawanese street tacos (recommend!). There’s something for everyone. If you do nothing else on this trip, the next morning, go to Patarei Prison museum. It is an incredibly moving and unique experience that helps put the terror and oppression of Soviet reign in the Baltic States in to perspective. I wrote a whole blog post on it, you can read about it here. In the afternoon head out to one of the surrounding beach parks for fresh breezes and sand in your toes on the Gulf of Finland. Have dinner at Moon, a nice, but relaxed, restaurant just outside of Old Town and Kalamaja, with a menu of “modern Russian” cuisine. Reservations recommended. So good. Top off your stay with a walk over to the Soviet Olympic ampitheater, Linnehall. Sit on the steps and soak in the sunset glow off the Gulf of Finland.
Days 8 and 9: Riga, Latvia
From Tallinn it is just over four hours drive to Riga. Not far, but the cities felt so different from each other. Riga seemed more, gritty and I mean that as a compliment. Head straight in to Old Town and start exploring the streets and alleys, churches and historic buildings like the can’t-miss House of the Blackheads. In the morning, stroll in the direction of Riga Central Market, along the riverwalk that lines the Daugava river. One of, if not the, largest market bazaar in Europe. Built inside a series of massive old German Zepplin hangars in the 1930s, each hangar is full of vendor stalls where you can pick up a few souvenirs, taste local beers, baked goods, fresh produce, visit one of the many butchers, cheese, or pickle counters. Or simply spend some time people watching the blend of locals and tourists alike. From there, circle around through Bastaljkana Park, which straddles both sides of the Riga canal and has nice walking paths scattered with bridges and sculptures. Be sure to pay a visit to The Freedom Monument, commemorating Latvia’s fight for independence, and guarded by an honor guard since the fall of Soviet reign in 1991. Head back in to Old Town for the best pizza at The Good Father. Then, pay a visit to Riga Castle. Built in the 1300s, now the residence of the Latvian president. Behind Saint Peter’s Church, there is a little playground for afternoon or post-nap wiggles. When you’re thirsty and need a rest, happy hour at one of the brew locales like Distillers Republic. Have traditional Latvian dinner at Folkklubs ALA Pagrabs. Try the fried garlic rye bread and different pickles and smoked meat risotto. Stay for live music and a shot of Riga’s traditional liquor, Riga Black Balsam (tastes like bitter Christmas don’t say I didn’t warn you), or roll your stuffed self home to put the kids to bed.
Day 10: Kaunas, Lithuania and the Hill of Crosses
It is approximately fours hours drive from Riga to Kaunas, Lithuania. At the halfway point is a landmark you simply cannot miss on this trip, the Hill of Crosses. A small hill in the middle of Lithuanian farmland, it has been a site of pilgrimage for hundreds of years. Crosses were originally placed in remembrance of deceased family members and as a sign of faith. The hill and all its crosses were bulldozed several times in the Soviet era, yet the crosses always started to slowly, secretly, reappear. Now there are hundreds of thousands of crosses placed by pilgrims and tourists from all over the world. Spend a peaceful hour, or so wandering this little bump of a hill. You can even bring your own cross (or buy one at the visitor’s center) to leave behind. Pro tip: parking at the visitors center for a charge, and along the roadside for free.
Kaunas, Lithuania is a mid-sized city, not too big, not too small, just right. It is the second-largest city in Lithuania. Kaunas is perfect for an afternoon, plus morning of exploring on foot. If you’re looking for refreshment upon arrival, try Kavos Klubas. A restaurant cafe on a peaceful street with a covered patio, where everyone in your party will find something they like. Nearby is red-brick Kaunas castle. Beyond that lies a big, grassy, abstract triangle shaped park lined by the Nemunas and Neris rivers, coming to a point where they meet. Playground alert! There is a good one here, just down the sidewalk from the big statue in front of the castle. Wander in to the photogenic town square, surrounded by restaurants and a couple churches and a town hall that towers over everything, with a small fountain on one side for cooling hands under on a hot day. Pick a place for dinner there, or around the corner on one of the cutely cobbled streets. In the morning, take a peek in Kaunas Cathedral and grab breakfast at one of the cafes. It is about an hour and a quarter drive from Kaunas to Vilnius.
Day 10 Alt. or, additional stop if you have enough vacation days:
Let me drop in here to remind you to use every single one of your vacation days. Druskininkai is a small spa-town, not far from the Belarus border. It makes a nice spot to pause and catch your breath after your whirlwind adventure. The whole place feels like an oasis. Don’t feel obligated to do much here, other than chill out. If you do want to do something, check out the Church of Saint Mary’s Scapular, and bright blue Joy of All Who Sorrow. Find The Gates of Hospitality horseshoe statue, walk under it three times and touch your country’s emblem for good luck. Stroll around the lake parks and get some ice cream and sit on a bench and watch the sunlight glowing through the fountain in the middle. There’s a really sweet pedestrian street, lined with bright flower beds, perfect for stretching legs after a car ride. If you’re lucky, a weekend market might pop up there and you’ll be able to browse local goods. I hear there’s a water park and with a reputation like “spa town” I assume you’ll find some of those as well, if you’re interested. I was interested, but the road (and my children) were calling. If you do investigate, let me know what you think!
This is where I leave you to your exploring, but a few things before I go that you may find helpful. Misc info/what to expect: Currency is the Euro. Lithuanian, Latvian and Estonian are the languages, but most locals we interacted with could speak at least a little, if not perfectly fluent English. The driving is flat, with mostly two-lane highways, divided highways only around the major cities. The cities and in-betweens were quite navigable, and traffic wasn’t crazy. If you’ve never driven in a foreign country, this would be a less intimidating place to do so for the first time. You’ll cover a ton of ground, and see so much more of the Baltic States with your own set of wheels, than if you were flying between, or even taking a bus or train. Stay in, or near, the Old Towns, when you can, to save time, but be sure to turn your search filters for accommodations to include parking. If parking is not available at a place you want, message the host as they might be able to recommend nearby parking, either street, lot, or garage.
More adventures from this trip . . .
Patarei Soviet Prison here!
Augustow, Poland here!