The beautiful Baltic States…
Have you ever heard of the former USSR countries by the Baltic Sea? No matter the answer, these countries are not the most touristy destinations and that is a sin. They definitely should find a way onto everyone’s European bucket list. Some of the Baltic States have not yet been discovered like other countries have in Europe and they for sure have a lot to offer. Here comes a guide for a road trip through the unknown green lands of Finland, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania!
A touch of history
To begin with I feel like I should give you a historical overview of the area, so that you can build up a picture in your mind of the countries. I won’t bore you with historical dates and so on, I just want to describe the spirit of the countries.
First of all as I’ve mentioned before these are former USSR countries. What does that mean? They used to be dependent on Russia and be part of the Soviet Union. In 1989, when events considered to be the fall of communism started in Europe, in the Baltic states something magical happened. On the 23rd August approximately 2 million people took part in a peaceful demonstration. They joined their hands together and formed sort of a human chain across the three Baltic States with a longitude of wait for it…. 675,5 km! Unbelievable, right?
The event contributed to the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the Baltic states became independent in 1991. That’s it for the history part!
Since I was starting my road trip in Poland, Lithuania was the first stop as it shares a border with my, also very beautiful, country. With its capital in Vilnius, Lithuania has the biggest population of all the Baltic states.
For all the Poles visiting Vilnius the most important sight is the Gate of Dawn. It was mentioned in the polish national epode, by Adam Mickiewicz. In general though, not just for Polish people, the gate is very impressive and lush, as the main altar is covered in gold.
Once you find yourself strolling through the little streets of the old town, you should definitely make your way to the Jewish district and stop in one of the many cozy cafes.
If you are looking for a good viewpoint overlooking the city, give the hill where Gediminas’ Tower is a go. When the weather is sunny you will be able to admire the city in its full glory. One last recommendation for Vilnius, which you will probably also see in the tour guides, is the Church of St. Peter and St. Paul (the white church). The interior of the church is absolutely stunning and if you don’t believe me, just google it, although I’m pretty sure it’s much better to see it in real life.
While visiting Vilnius you have an unrivalled opportunity to visit a whole new country – The Republic of Užupis. Never heard about it? Well… On 1st of April 1997 (Aprils fools day) the neighbourhood claimed independence. Ever since, due to its constitution, it’s considered the most peaceful and tolerant country in the world.
Other interesting and/or worth visiting spots in Lithuania:
Trakai is a small village about 25 km from Vilnius with a castle on an island. Sounds very tempting but I must say the castle itself is rather boring but the surroundings are lovely, especially thanks to the Karaims influences. Once you visit Trakai you have to taste the famous Karaims delicacy – Kybyny, it is indeed de-li-cious.
Kaunas for a short period of time used to be the capital of Lithuania. The city itself doesn’t offer many attractions for tourists but has a really nice atmosphere, so if it’s on your way you can have a quick stroll through.
Hill of Crosses, I know it sounds a bit weird but in my opinion it’s worth seeing. What is it? Well, basically a hill and some fields COVERED in crosses (there is no official record of the precise number but they estimate it’s about 150k!). Nobody is quite sure of the history behind it , although the place was and still is, the site of many pilgrimages from all around the world.
Latvia is the Baltic State with the biggest Russian community and you will definitely notice it once walking through the streets of Riga.
Riga, the capital of the country is located by the Daugava river. The city’s lovely old town is full of colourful old townhouses and little charming streets. I’m sure you will find your way to the most important sights as it’s not the biggest city in the world.
The must do thing in Riga is to drink the Riga Black Balsam (a balsam that you drink… what the hell, right?). Well, the balsam is actually a traditional Latvian herbal liqueur. If you ever try it and you are not a big fan of herbs in alcohol, I recommend drinking it with blackcurrant juice, goes down veeeery smoothly.
The (my) points of interest in Riga, a little bit off the beaten track:
- For the ones who love city views, the Radisson Blu Hotel on Elizabetes street Skyline Bar is the place. Apart from wonderful city views they have quite a good selection of cocktails and the prices are very reasonable.
- For the architecture and art nouveau lovers, go to Alberta street and follow the beauty of the buildings in the district, which by the way has the highest concentration of Art Nouveau architecture in the world.
- And finally for lovers of the alternative. The 12 meter tall monkey astronaut sculpture is a must see. It may seem ridiculous but it really exists. Simply visit the Kronvalda Park but you better hurry up, as the statue was supposed to be there only for one month (more than a year ago so who knows when they will actually decide to take it down).
If you have more time and want to see a bit more than just the city, a little bit outside of the centre you can find the Latvian Ethnographic Open-Air Museum. Where, on a lovely day, you can walk around historical buildings from all around Latvia.
The first thing that got into my mind when I crossed the border between Lativa and Estonia was ‘Oh God, it’s so green here!’. About 50% of the territory of Estonia is covered by forests.
Tallin, the capital of the country is a city of contrasts. On one hand there is a beautifully constructed middle aged old town and on the other self-driving buses/trams! Yeah I’ve seen them in action, they seem to do their job well. I’m not a big fan of the medieval times but the city has its own charm. The little, narrow streets, thick, bare walls and gems hidden in the old town made Tallin my favourite stop during the trip.
What can’t be missed during the visit: St. Alexander Nevsky Cathedral, Raekoja plats (Town Hall Square), Katariina käik (St. Catherine’s Passage), Tallin Town Wall, Kohtuotsa view point and for the art passionate – St. Nicholas’ Church, the home of the famous Danse Macabre by Bert Notke.
Even though Finland is not a Baltic state it most certainly is by the Baltic sea and what’s even more important is it’s so close from Tallin that you just cannot miss it.
The best way to get to Helsinki is to take a cruise from Tallin. The trip takes about 2 hours and if you are lucky enough (of course I wasn’t, a really dense fog made it impossible to see further than 3 meters) you may get a chance to admire the beautiful Finnish coast around Helsinki with its many tiny, green islands.
Once you arrive I would recommend to first walk up to the “Uspenski Cathedral”, the largest Orthodox Church in Western Europe. Then walk down to the market and get into the city centre and old town. You will probably notice, just like me, that the architecture in Helsinki is rather ‘heavy’. All of the surrounding buildings are huge and the atmosphere reminds me of the not so pleasant times of communism.
On the other hand there are also some hidden, spiritual gems, which are rather unexpected. One of them is the Kamppi Chapel of Silence and the other is the Temppeliaukio Rock Church. The second one, as its name indicates, was excavated out of solid rock. If you are going to be lucky enough maybe you can get into one of the concerts as the church is known for its spectacular acoustics.
Have I encouraged you to discover the undiscovered? I hope you are already packing your backpack and getting ready to hit the road!