Discover the Baltics. Credit: Shutterstock

An expert guide to the Baltics

Author: Ben Olsen

Published on:

Travelling to Europe’s northeastern shores offers
a thrilling immersion in one of the continent’s
most underrated corners, says Ben Olsen

With a vibrant present shaped by a turbulent past, the charismatic trio of countries that flank the Baltic Sea in northeastern Europe share a rich cultural heritage, providing a fascinating option for travellers seeking a less trodden alternative to the continent’s better known destinations.

Having declared their independence from Soviet occupation in the early 1990s, today Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania offer diverse food and drink scenes, architectural grandeur and artistic legacies – remnants of their prosperous past – as well as a stunning shared coastline defined by its pine forests, birdlife and shifting sand dunes.

It’s a region just begging to be explored, so read on to discover the best of the Baltics.

One of the continent’s most powerful and affluent nations in the Middle Ages, Lithuania once ruled an empire that stretched far across eastern Europe.

Like its neighbours, the southernmost Baltic state endured spells of Nazi and Soviet occupation in the 20th century – both of which left their mark – yet the country today has reclaimed its swagger. Its dense forests and wild coastline are heaven for nature lovers, while its cities offer visitors a cultural and culinary richness that reflects Lithuania’s storied past. Most people arriving here on a cruise will land at Klaipeda, an elegant maritime city on the Baltic Sea.

A trading hub and transport connection between eastern and western Europe, this sophisticated port bears strong traces of its time as part of the German empire, with characterful 18th century timber-framed buildings.

Radiating out from Theatre Square, the cobbled streets of its old town are scattered with evocative sculptures that tell tales of the city’s past. Friedrich’s Arcade is a popular spot with locals, lined with boutiques, bars and restaurants, while the Dane River guides visitors between botanical gardens and the castle.

Elsewhere, the Lithuanian Sea Museum showcases the nation’s maritime past within a 19th century fort, while the city also hosts a lively roster of jazz, folk and film festivals throughout the year. Sarunas Dargis has lived in Klaipeda for eight years and recommends exploring Melnrage Beach, just north of the city, in summer.

Bask on Lithuania's Melnrage Beach. Credit: Shutterstock

“Here you can lie on the beach, swim or go for a long walk,” he says. “You’ll find wellness trails, lined with pine trees, which are popular with joggers. There’s also a surf camp, where you can rent equipment, and the restaurant Baltas Ruonis, which serves nice food with sea views.”

Klaipeda is also the jumping-off point for one of the Baltic region’s most beautiful secrets, the Curonian Spit. A ferry ride south of Klaipeda, this 98km-long strip of drifting sand dunes, wetlands and forests buffers the Curonian Lagoon from the Baltic Sea and is a Unesco-protected paradise for thousands of migratory birds.

Along this pristine stretch of wilderness, visitors will find colonies of cormorants and herons, sleepy fishing villages and towering dunes. Most spectacular of all is the 52m-high Parnidis Dune near the colourful village of Nida, whose lighthouse offers panoramic views. Although the towns and villages along the spit can get busy in summer, its long sandy beaches swallow up the crowds.

Heading inland, Lithuania’s capital, Vilnius, showcases Baroque architecture with lavishly decorated palaces, churches and townhouses shaping the skyline of its old town, which sits to the south of the Neris River. Across the bridge of a tributary lies Uzupis, a bohemian artistic enclave that styles itself a ‘republic’, while the up-and-coming Station District is a vibrant destination after dark.

Designed by the architect Daniel Libeskind, MO Museum has added gravitas to the city’s art scene, while the sobering Museum of Occupations and Freedom Fights, housed in the KGB’s former headquarters, gives a stirring account of Lithuania’s struggle for independence.

Vilnius is rightly known as the “pearl of eastern Europe." Credit: Shutterstock

Wherever you land in Lithuania, expect to sample hearty culinary staples such as smoked fish or Zeppelin potato dumplings – named after their resemblance to airships.

And don’t miss a chance to try the country’s iconic pink soup, saltibarsciai, which gets its vivid hue from a blend of beetroot, cucumber and kefir. More recently, a fine dining movement has brought additional flair to Lithuania’s restaurant scene, often featuring produce such as mushrooms and berries sourced from the country’s abundant forests.

Lithuanians love their Saltibarsciai soup which is made of kefir, cucumbers, beetroot, and dill. Credit: Shutterstock

Sailing into the picturesque Gulf of Riga, where the Daugava River meets the Baltic Sea, brings Latvia’s charismatic capital into view. Since emerging from behind the Iron Curtain, this cosmopolitan city has been transformed into one of the region’s most compelling destinations, with its dynamic mix of classic and contemporary architecture and a thriving cultural scene.

Further afield, the country offers plenty to discover, with a wealth of white-sand beaches on the Baltic coast, market towns that originated during the medieval trading days of the Hanseatic League and swathes of unspoiled nature reserves and national parks.

For those arriving by sea, however, Riga remains the primary port of call – and for
good reason. Graham Greene called Latvia’s capital “the Paris of the north”, and this effortlessly refined city features a Unesco-listed old town centred around Cathedral Square, while its ‘new’ town, known as the Quiet Centre, is defined by some of the world’s finest examples of Art Nouveau architecture.

Riga's charming old town is ripe for exploring on foot. Credit: Shutterstock

Compact enough to explore on foot, Riga’s cobblestoned core is a charismatic blend of museums, traditional cafés and independent shops, with landmarks including the ornate House of the Black Heads – destroyed during the Second World War but rebuilt in replica during the 1990s – and the Three Brothers, a trio of pastel-coloured houses said to be the city’s oldest. For a bird’s-eye view of it all, climb to the top of St Peter’s Church.

For art lovers, the Latvian National Museum of Art provides an excellent primer on the country’s output, with 52,000 works spanning the 18th century to the present day. Elsewhere, the Riga Art Nouveau Centre gives a comprehensive guide to the creative movement that did so much to shape the city, while the Zuzeum Art Centre shines a light on the expansive private art collection of Dina and Janis Zuzans in a lively space that also hosts screenings and music events.

As with all three Baltic nations, independence from the Soviets in the 1990s and accession to the European Union in 2004 have led to a proud reclamation of national identity. As younger generations have come of age, new districts have emerged to offer a fresh perspective on contemporary Riga, among them Andrejsala – a thriving waterside area of bars, restaurants and street art – and the Spikeri creative quarter, a hip destination known for its flea markets and music festivals.

Housed in five former aircraft hangars, Riga’s Central Market makes an excellent introduction to the city’s traditional cuisine, with hundreds of stalls selling classic dishes including dumplings, pickles and smoked meat, joined more recently by new-wave breweries and pop-up restaurants.

For Martins Sirmais, chef and co-owner of the Michelin-recommended three chefs, this is an excellent place to experience a real slice of Latvian life. “It’s huge and good for people- watching,” he says. “You will find the best of the seasons here – from flowers and herbs to vegetables and freshly landed fish. My tip is don’t go super-early – 11am is perfect – and try the local alder wood-smoked chicken.”

Riga’s dining scene has diversified a great deal since Latvia gained independence, with
a wealth of international cuisines now on offer. Among the city’s top destinations, Barents is a fine-dining institution, serving a Nordic-inspired take on local ingredients. Cocktail bar Gimlet is equally impressive, with a drinks menu shaped by seasonal ingredients –try Forest Vibes, a blend of vodka, vermouth and cypress.

Riga Central Market is one of the largest markets in Europe. Credit: Shutterstock

Summer’s long days and warmer temperatures see city life spill out across terraces and into parks, of which Bastejkalns is among the best. Dissected by the winding city canal, this beautifully designed green space features tree-lined walkways, manicured gardens and a scattering of striking sculptures, including Riga’s soaring Freedom Monument, a focal point since 1935.

Visitors seeking a sense of calm should also consider an excursion to the coastal town of Jurmala on the pine-fringed sandy shores west of Riga. Its long history as a wellness resort endures today, with a broad sweep of spas and sanatoriums ready to welcome weary travellers in search of a little R&R.

While sharing history and geography with its Baltic neighbours Latvia and Lithuania, Estonia stands apart due to its significant cultural and linguistic connections with Finland to the north.

This nature-seeker’s idyll is defined by unspoiled countryside, dense with coniferous forest, and a coastline flecked with hundreds of islands, lighthouses and windmills. Its longstanding folk tradition – spanning music, art and craft – survived Soviet occupation, and today plays out across scores of atmospheric annual festivals. Its cities pair impressive architectural heritage with sophisticated dining options and cutting-edge creative communities, which have helped redefine Estonia since its independence in 1991.

Second city Tartu, in the east of the country, is this year’s EU Capital of Culture, but for many visitors Estonia’s graceful capital is the star attraction. Shaped by its role as a Hanseatic trading hub and ringed by a defensive wall, Tallinn’s beautifully preserved old town is a vision of narrow streets and vividly painted merchant houses, crowned by a skyline of Gothic spires.

Folk traditions are alive and well in Estonia. Credit: Shutterstock

Starting out from Raekoja Plats (Town Hall Square), the city is a joy to navigate on foot. The imposing Toompea Castle, Alexander Nevsky Cathedral and St Nicholas Church are among its landmarks, while a throng of buzzy bars and restaurants bring the streets alive after dark.

Away from Tallinn’s historic heart, the former industrial district of Telliskivi is the perfect place to explore the best of the city’s contemporary cultural scene. Here, start-up incubators and boho cafes sit alongside artists’ studios, second- hand markets and a thriving streetfood scene, while the famed Fotografiska Tallinn hosts contemporary art and photography exhibitions, as well as a bar and restaurant boasting excellent views across the city. An equally rewarding district is found on the waterfront, where the former submarine shipyard of Noblessner houses a buoyant blend of bars, restaurants and cultural institutions, including the impressive Kai Art Centre.

To make the most of the city’s varied charms, Dan Renwick, the owner of Tallinn’s Heldeke Bar, suggests taking to the streets on two wheels. “There are bike-friendly tracks along the seafront and inland, opening up plenty of places to explore,” he says. “With the city being quite flat, it’s an easy and fun way to get around for all ages and sizes.” As one of the organisers of Tallinn Fringe, Renwick also recommends timing your visit to coincide with the festival, which sees a mix of international and local artists showcase their talents in comedy, music, theatre, cabaret, burlesque, dance and circus each year between 18 August and 18 September.

For a break from the city bustle, Kadriorg Park – established by Peter the Great in 1718 – offers a blend of formal gardens and woodland trails, and you can tap into the city’s long-established wellness tradition at a public sauna. The historic Kalma Sauna in the Kalamaja district is one of the most popular.

On the city’s fringes, Stroomi Beach comes into its own in summer and is popular with surfers, while the Paljassaare Peninsula nature reserve, in a former military zone nearby, has become a utopia for birdwatchers.

Beyond the capital, Estonia’s sweeping coastline comprises scores of islands and traditional spa towns. The historic resorts of Haapsalu and Parnu on Estonia’s western shores make popular summer destinations, while Saaremaa and Hiiumaa are the two largest of hundreds of islands that offer a change of pace from city life and a secluded setting for seal-watching and saunas along forest-lined shores.

Tallinn is best known for its old town of cobbled streets and conical, red-tiled roofs. Credit: Shutterstock
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