The geographic location of the Baltic countries consisting of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania; away from the major countries of continental Europe makes it intuitive to explore the three countries in one go. With a combined population of under 7 million, there’s not much that many outsiders know about the Baltic states except that these countries were once part of the Soviet Union and have since joined the European Union. On a recent trip to Europe, I explored the capitals of these three countries and spent about a week around Vilnius in Lithuania, Riga in Latvia and Tallinn in Estonia.
I have read a lot of questions online asking which is the best Baltic city to visit and I posed this question myself prior to my trip. Simply put, there is no one answer to the Baltics’ nicest capital. Each has its own quirks, its own attractions and its own charms. That being said, I must say I did have my own favorites so let me share them here:
A sleek and modern city with Nordic elements, Tallinn in Estonia is also the least populous of the Baltic capitals. Its old town – where tourists spend most of their time when in the city – is very medieval in feel – with picturesque stone walls enclosing the town as well as plenty of lookout points from which to survey the city. Many people say that Tallinn is the “prettiest” of the three capitals and even though it isn’t my favorite Baltic capital, I am inclined to agree
- With a higher standard of living, Tallinn is the most expensive of the three Baltic capitals but costs are still lower compared to cities in Western Europe
- Many of the attractions are within walking distance except for the Kadriorg Palace which is about a 10 to 15 minute cab ride away
- Personally, I found Tallinn to be the most touristy of the three capitals. Lots of people especially in the old town square dressed in medieval costumes and the number of tourists here is noticeably greater especially in the day when cruise ships from Helsinki or St. Petersburg dock at the port
- There are several spots from which you can get panoramic views of the city. This includes the Patkuli Viewing Platform, the tower from the old town hall, the sky bar at Radisson Blu Tallinn and the bell tower of St. Olaf’s Church
- That being said, Tallinn presents a number of day trip opportunities. Depending on the ship, Helsinki in Finland can be as little as 2 hours away
- Being a relatively small city, there aren’t a lot of chain hotels present in Tallinn but the locals ones are just as good – you just lose out on the loyalty points
The most cosmopolitan capital in the Baltics, Riga has a population of over 600,000 making it the largest city in the Baltics. In contrast to Tallinn’s medieval feel, Riga has an early 20th century vibe with its large collection of art deco architecture around the city. The ornate facades of the apartment buildings in the old town remind me of cities like Prague and Budapest though Riga in general has a more relaxed ambiance with plenty of green spaces. Certain areas such as the old town can get really popular with tourists though side streets usually offer some respite from the crowds. Architecturally, I thought Riga was the most outstanding of the three.
- In terms of cost, I would personally rate Riga somewhere between Tallinn and Vilnius
- If you are an architectural buff, you will like it here as many styles are showcased around the city. My favorite has got to be the Art Deco district. While there, don’t miss a visit to the Art Deco Museum
- Food can be quite expensive at the old town area but inexpensive meals can be had just as easily where locals frequent, such as in the central market so do take note of this wide disparity
- If you like to shop, Riga is perhaps the best place to do so among the three cities. It has the widest range of shops and largest number of malls – especially in areas where tourists frequent. There is even one inside the old town!
- To get a bird’s eye view of the city, head up to the sky bar of the Radisson Blu Latvija hotel
- Day trip opportunities include Sigulda in the west for some nature / hiking / outdoor activities and Rundale Palace down south for the Baltics’ most impressive palace
Where to stay in Riga: I stayed at the Mercure Riga Centre, a new hotel built in a historic Art Nouveau building. I chose it due to its strategic location – close to the central station and a few minutes walk from the old town.
Staunchly catholic, the capital of Lithuania is often referred to as the Rome of the North due to the myriad of churches located within the city. Many architectural styles are seen here, from baroque to renaissance, classical to neoclassical; Vilnius also lays claim to the largest old town in Europe. And it is humongous indeed. Vilnius is also in my opinion, the least expensive of the three cities. This is a city where a 4-star hotel room can be had for well under Eur 100 a night while good meals go for under Eur 15. All these elements make Vilnius my favorite among the Baltic capitals
- If you like to see religious architecture, Vilnius is the place. There seems to be a church in every other block as one walks through the old town
- Trakai Island Castle is located a mere 40 minutes from the city. It’s a wonderful day trip destination – one of the best in the Baltics in my opinion
- Vilnius overall does not feel as touristy as Riga or Tallinn. The city overall feels quite laidback
- The division between the old and new city is pretty clear. North of the river lies the modern part of town with all the skyscrapers while that of interest to tourists is the part of town south of the river
- Vilnius is known for its quirks and no visit to the city is complete without heading down to the self-declared independent state of Uzupis for some hipster cafes, bohemian shops and art galleries
Where to stay in Vilnius: I stayed at the Novotel Vilnius Centre, located right smack at the main (and shopping) street of Gedimino Avenue inside the old town. Most of the city attractions are just a few minutes walk from the hotel and there are plenty of restaurants and boutiques a block or two away. Overall quite well-appointed, it’s one of my favourite Novotels so far. Most importantly, room prices are relatively low.
Overall, I found the three Baltic capitals to be worth visiting. Despite their geographic proximity and lack of monumental sights to see, each city has its own unique identity and are worth at least two nights each minimally. The cities of Tallinn, Riga and Vilnius have been overlooked compared to other European capitals but they are no less impressive. I really loved my time here.