Right up in the Northeastern corner of Europe, just before you reach Russia, are the Baltic countries – Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania.
If you don’t know much about this region but do quite fancy a relaxing (short-haul) getaway to somewhere new that resembles the pages of a fairytale, read on and get ready to fill your stomach with carbs…
In April 2017 I had my first taste of this charismatic corner of Europe. We landed in Riga, Latvia’s capital, and jumped in a car straight out of the city. It wasn’t high season, and with Latvia being a country of less than 2 million people, we were soon driving through super quiet highways with tall forests either side. We headed north-west, following the Gulf of Riga, all the way up to Slītere National Park and the tiny village called Kolka. For anyone wanting to escape hectic city life, head to a village in a Baltic country. It’s like travelling back in time.
We were the only guests in a Guest House just a minute from the sea. There were no restaurants around so it was the tiny supermarket in the village and a fully equipped kitchen that saved us. I did a chilly morning run along the sea up to Cape Kolka (the point at which the Gulf of Riga meets the Baltic Sea) and didn’t see another soul for half an hour. We wandered through the silent forest of tall spindly pines totally undisturbed, stumbling upon abandoned buildings and lookout towers. Even when we went for a longer drive to find more food, we found virtually nothing. Okay you get it, it was eerily quiet.
I’m pretty sure in the summer it’d be much more lively as there was a camping ground right next to the house and being 60 seconds walk from the sea, I can’t imagine the spot is quiet in high season. We hadn’t planned on spending two days in isolation but it was so peaceful, I’d definitely do it again.
On the drive back to Riga we stopped at a local food fair where our host had a stall. It turned out she was a bit of a local celeb and well-known for her Sklandrausis (pie below made of rye flour with a filling of potatoes and carrots). She’d baked one for us the day before and I was so surprised to find it completely sweet and not at all like the cheesy tart it appears to be. We had more of it at the fair as well as salty little fish and a tasty Latvian broth with rye bread.
We spent the next few days in Riga, staying in it’s pretty Old Town. Like good tourists, we climbed St Peter’s Church, waited for our photo outside Three Brothers (the oldest houses in Riga) and danced on speakers in one of the cities nightclubs now full of Europeans on cheap weekends away.
I always feel that Baltic cities, even more than other European cities, are like cute little toy towns (especially when seen from above) and although I love this for photo opportunities, it’s not long before I’m done with the ‘made-for-Instagram’ facades and want something a bit more… real life.
What I often love finding more than candy-coloured toy towns are the less picturesque parts of town that transport you back to Soviet times; the Latgale flea market for instance, riddled with war memorabilia, and the old Soviet bars with a funny smell where you order your pint from a little hatch. I also enjoy perusing a foreign charity shop and on this trip I purchased a lovely mint green blouse for €1 that I still wear and fondly refer to as my Latvian Mom top.
The next two days in Latvia were spent in another National Park, to the west of Riga. It was an hour on the bus to Sigulda, on the edge of Gauja National Park. We’d booked a homestay here which, again, we had all to ourselves due to it being low season. The fact that we were there in early April also meant that we could explore the National Park without anyone really following our trail, though admittedly this one might have been nicer in summer.
Our final day in Riga was spent finding cool places to eat, (like Miit Coffee where we had a great veggie brunch buffet) and nosing around the old abandoned wooden buildings in the Miera district. The Central Market near the river was also pretty cool and handy to pick up local snacks if you’re heading in or out of the bus or train station!
This year, on a Midsummer trip, I hopped back ‘up north’ for a week in Estonia and Finland. I’d heard loads of good things about Estonia so was really excited to visit. It was actually one of the places that, before I’d even got there, I wish I’d had longer in.
Our first night was spent about 40 minutes east of the city to a tiny village again (actually outside of a village, a house on it’s own). The family had a small wooden cabin at the end of their garden which they’d turned into an Airbnb rental. Having to cross a tiny stream via a wooden bridge to get to it made it feel totally secluded. It was literally just a bed, armchair and wooden chest which had a few cooking things in. There was no water supply or actual light fittings in the cabin, just some fairy lights and candles.
We learnt from our host that in Estonia, nature is very important and traditionally people would tie bandages to sacred trees, believing that the healing power of nature would cure them. In the afternoon we walked in the forest and came back to freshly baked cinnamon buns and a plate of wild strawberries. The whole experience, including a traditional breakfast in the family home, was a hundred times better than I’d expected when finding this hut with no reviews on Airbnb! You should go.
After a night in the silence of nature, brushing our teeth in the stream and using an outdoor toilet, we drove back to the city and checked into a slightly more luxurious apartment, complete with sauna.
Tallinn, as you’d expect, has a wonderfully colourful Old Town, with Alexander Nevsky Cathedral stealing the limelight (above). However, we chose to stay in an apartment in the Telliskivi area just outside of the Old Town, and I’m really glad we did. We started our stay here by exploring the Balti Jaama Turg, a huge converted railway station turned market selling everything from fresh berries to Estonian formal dress and antiques. Behind that was a complex of restaurants, bars and creative spaces; the heart of Telliskivi. Ice-cream at La Muu was a highlight, as was the bread from Muhu Pagarid.
Tallinn appeared very environmentally conscious and altogether was a lot more Scandinavian than I was expecting, which was reflected in its food. There were definitely Baltic influences too but the cuisine (at least what we tried) was far less stodgy than what we had in Latvia and Lithuania. It was more modern and often lighter.
A few places I’d recommend for food (mostly in Telliskivi area):
Sesoon (fresh Baltic dishes with interesting ingredient combos)
Muhu Pagarid (for the best fresh rye bread and buns)
Boheem (comfort food)
F-Hoone (just go)
N.B If you also visit at the end of June, on the longest days of the year where the sun doesn’t set until gone 11pm and is rising a few hours later, pack an eye mask.
A quick September weekend away took me to the third and final Baltic state, Lithuania. A 2.5hr flight from London with Wizz Air and you’re in lovely Vilnius. Vilnius was calm, charismatic and probably slightly cheaper than its other two. The airport is so close to the city you can transfer in under 10mins and it costs just €1.
As we were only there for a weekend, we stayed in the city centre both nights but knowing what I do about the countryside of Latvia, I imagine Lithuania to be similarly sparse and relaxing.
The city itself is small and you can see it all in a day, or two if you want to be more leisurely. I lost count of the number of times I said the word ‘majestic’ as we wandered through the cobblestone streets of the Old Town. And I definitely lost count of the number of churches. If you like marvelling at impressive buildings as much as I do you’ll be in your element exploring Vilnius on foot, with gothic, renaissance, baroque and neoclassical architecture sitting side by side (or so Wiki tells me…).
While most of it resembled other Northern European cities in one way or another, I really enjoyed finding quiet little corners that transported me back to Southern Europe…
Just over the river from the main part of the Old Town you’ll find the bohemian neighbourhood of Uzupis, an independent republic with its own constitution including things like ‘A dog has the right to be a dog’, ‘Everyone has the right to celebrate or not celebrate their birthday’, and other sensible declarations. You can also walk from this area up to the Three Crosses high above the city to get a great sunset view.
For once we didn’t stay somewhere where we could experiment with local ingredients so we ate our hearts out around the city. Lithuanian cuisine reminded me in many ways of what you find in neighbouring Poland. Quite heavy, very potato-based and meaty. Our first feast was at a great pub called Snekutis (there are 3 in the city so if you visit Vilnius, definitely swing by one of these!) We tried the countries favourite bar snack – deep fried rye bread with garlic and a cheese dip. We also had a nice cold beetroot soup (the Baltic nations love their beetroot) and some potato pancakes with cheese in the middle.
The next day I ordered Cepelinai for lunch, a potato dumpling stuffed with meat and covered in sour cream. A lot of stuff is covered in cream. On our final day we took the train to Trakai, the best place to get Kibinai as it’s where the Kariate people settled in Lithuania. As well as the pastry, Trakai was a nice place to spend half a day, with its lakeside walking paths and castle to explore.
Two days in Vilnius and an afternoon in Trakai was perfect but if you have longer in Lithuania, I’d definitely recommend exploring more of the country!
Though I’ve visited these 3 countries in spring and summer, I’m sure they’d be just as beautiful in winter if you don’t mind packing 3 or 4 more layers. The days will be shorter and darker but fortunately there are plenty of bars, restaurants and cute cafes to keep you fed and watered, a few we visited are below:
Senkutis (cosy pubs with local food, now a small chain of three)
Uzupio Klasika (small restaurant in Uzupis to try traditional dishes)
Who Hit John (tiny little bar right in the centre)
King and Mouse (whisky bar, tasty cocktails)
Pinavija (try the amazing pear and goats cheese pastry below)
Indeed this post is mainly photos of buildings and comments on the amazing stuff I ate, but you’ll also find tonnes of interesting history in each of these cities as well as all the normal stuff you’d get in any European capital. With these ones though, there aren’t huge lists of sights to make your way around and queues to waste your days waiting in, making an escape to a Baltic city really quite relaxing. Oh and if you do go wild and book a flight to Riga, Vilnius or Tallinn, let me know! I’d love to hear what you discover there ♥