The Baltics were always high on my list of places to visit in Europe. It’s a lesser traveled (although rapidly changing), cheaper, and equally as beautiful area of Northern Europe. The history of this region is very unique As the Baltic countries are small and neighbor each other, I always wanted to do the countries at the same time.
The Baltics comprises three countries: Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia. Finland is part of Scandinavia but for the purposes of this itinerary, it is part of the Baltics as there is an easy ferry connection between Tallinn and Helsinki so I couldn’t pass up adding this to my trip! This itinerary is for anyone that has roughly 8-10 days to visit this beautiful area of Europe.
Essentially, I allocated 2-3 nights per city which is enough in my opinion. If you have less days, this itinerary is also possible depending on which city you want to spend less time in. I also give ideas for those that have more time as there are so many charming little cities that are well worth the stop as well.
Where I went in the Baltics
I visited the Baltics for just over a week. As it is Europe, most of the sightseeing is done in the cities (with a few things to see in between). I went in end of April, beginning of May which was great because I got quite lucky with the weather. It was record temperatures in Riga and I could wear shorts for most of my trip. However, as this area is not know for its warm weather, expect volatile weather pretty much all throughout the year.
The summer months of course are most ideal as you get super long days and warmer weather but then you also have far more tourists. Even when visiting in April/May, the sun would set after 9pm and the temperature was a very comfortable 20-25 degrees while I was there.
In total, this itinerary is for anyone that has 7-10 days. Of course this itinerary can be shortened or lengthened depending on your schedule. I visited the following areas on this itinerary
- Vilnius, Lithuania
- Kaunas, Lithuania
- Hill of Crosses, Lithuania
- Riga, Latvia
- Tallinn, Estonia
- Helsinki, Finland
If these places ring a bell and sound like the places you want to visit, this is the perfect itinerary for you! Also, the Baltics can easily be combined with other countries like Poland to the south, Belarus, or Russia where you can easily combine St. Petersburg and Moscow. Of course, make sure you have your Russian visa before visiting.
Getting around the Baltics
The Baltics are small countries and getting around the countries is easy. There are numerous ways to get from one capital to the other and almost all these options are quite affordable. The Baltics are cheaper than Western Europe as they were under Soviet occupation less than 30 years ago, but it is not as cheap as say the Balkans.
Most people that I met got around the Balkans with Bus. There is solid bus service that connects Vilnius to Riga to Estonia and vice versa. There are also numerous bus companies that you can choose from but I mainly went with LuxExpress as they have a good website online. I’d definitely recommend booking your bus tickets a month in advance if possible. I checked bus tickets for same day departure at the Riga bus station and they were going for €20-30 whereas buying them in advance was under €10 euros.
The bus ride is 4-5 hours between Lithuania and Riga, as well as to Tallinn.
Flying with AirBaltic
Air Baltic is the national airline of Latvia (and de factor airlines of the other Baltic countries). They have multiple daily flights between Vilnius, Riga, Tallinn, Helsinki in all different combinations. Prices are also very cheap for under €50 one way. This is especially useful if you’re flying into Riga for example, going by land to Vilnius, and then you can fly AirBaltic from Vilnius to Tallinn and not have to take a 8-9 hour bus ride.
Getting around within the cities
All of the cities are very small and if you’re in the Old Town, you won’t need anything besides walking. However, if you need to go to the airport or some further away destination like the Marine Museum in Tallinn, then I can recommend using the ride share apps. Sure the public transport is fantastic in these cities but if you’re multiple people, ride sharing apps will be even cheaper than taking the metro. I’m a huge fan of ride sharing apps in foreign countries because it makes sure you don’t get ripped off.
Bolt (formerly Taxify) is a startup out of Tallinn that has a major presence in the Baltics. I used it for all my airport transfers and a few other rides and it is super cheap. From Vilnius to the airport, it was 20 minutes and only €4-6. Whatever you do, do not take the official taxi services because it is many times more expensive. For example, the metered taxis in Riga charged almost €30 for a transfer to the city when Bolt was €6!
There is also Uber in the Baltics, but not in Riga (yet).
Of course there are plenty of very cheap hostels that you can stay in, but if you are two or more people and want some privacy, the Airbnb options in the Baltics is fantastic. We stayed in huge and centrally located penthouse style accommodations in Vilnius and Riga for €100/night or so.
This itinerary starts in Vilnius, Lithuania. Generally, most people start in Vilnius and work their way north to Helsinki, or vice versa. There is really no advantages/disadvantages to where you start, just a matter of which flights make the most sense at the time of travel.
I started in Vilnius where I spent two nights exploring the Old Town. From Vilnius, I took a full day tour from Vilnius to Riga that stopped at various locations in the countryside including Kaunas, and the Hill of Crosses (super cool). From Riga, I spent another 3 nights exploring the capital of Latvia. I took a day trip to Jurmala which is a beachside town about 30 minutes away. From Riga, I took a bus to Tallinn, Estonia for 2 nights. Finally, I took the ferry from Tallinn to Helsinki where I spent 2 quick nights before flying home from Helsinki.
Day 1-3: Vilnius, Lithuania
The itinerary starts in Vilnius, Lithuania! Like I mentioned before, if you’re landing at the airport, skip the taxis entirely and go straight for Bolt or Uber as it should be no more than €6 for a trip to the old town. Otherwise take the bus which is also quick for just €1.
Vilnius is perhaps of the least known capital cities in Europe, but it won’t be for much longer. It’s old town is a Unesco protected heritage site and boasts an endless maze of cobblestone streets, cafes, restaurants, museums, and bars. It is also adorned with beautiful baroque and neoclassical buildings with colorful stucco rooftops.
What to do in Vilnius
As I like to do for all my trips around Europe, I always start with the free walking tour in a new city. This always gives me a good flavor and the highlights of the city that I can choose to re-visit later on in the trip. There are a few free walking tours in the city leaving at various times throughout the day. We visited all the highlights of the city and got in depth history lessons as well.
It seems that the three countries share similar history in that they were all pagan at one point before being forcefully converted in some degree by Germanic missionaries in the medieval ages. In more recent history, all three countries were controlled by the Nazis during world war 2 before succumbing to generations of Russian rule in the Soviet Union. One of the most interesting things I learnt was that the Baltic countries cannot understand each other. Latvian and Lithuanian are similar but not enough where they can hold a conversation, while Estonian is completely different and more similar to Finnish but also not similar enough to make conversation.
For views of the city, visit the Belltower of St. John’s Church
For the best views of the city, go to the Belltower of the St. John’s Church. It is just a €3 entrance fee and there is an elevator taking you to the very top. The belltower offers panoramic views of the old town where you can see the hill of three crosses and the Gediminas Castle. I prefer this view to the one at the castle because the belltower is in the city center giving you better views Vilnius’ red rooftops.
Vilnius is a beautiful city on the ground. The buildings are all in fantastic condition and the architecture of beautiful baroque variety. From the air, you can see that all the buildings are adorned with orange stucco rooftops that make it look like a Baltic version of Dubrovnik. The church also doesn’t see that many tourists so we had the entire viewing platform to ourselves for much of the day.
Visit the neighborhood of Uzupis
Užupis, a cool and edgy neighbourhood on the wrong side of the Vilnia River, declared itself an independent republic on April 1, 1997. Say what you will about autonomous hipsters, but the postcode is awash with trendy bars, shops (conceptual shoe shop, anyone?) and restaurants. Make sure you have a pint in the country’s “parliament” by the river, where the state’s constitution is on display.
Eat some Lithuanian Food
The Baltics are not known for their culinary prowess and I’m here to say that you won’t be wowed by the food but there are a few items that you must try. My favorite thing that I had in the Baltics is also the most simplest, fried rye bread with cheese sauce or kepta duona in Lithuanian. It doesn’t sound that appetizing but this is the ultimate bar food after a good chicken wing. I’m not sure why this hasn’t been adopted anywhere else because it would be incredibly successful. If you don’t eat this here, don’t worry as they have it all over the Baltics.
Another food I enjoyed was the cepelinai, or stuffed potato dumplings. These are special soft potatoes that have been boiled and stuffed with ground meat covered with a sour cream and bacon sauce. It is tasty, incredibly filling, and certainly not healthy.
Day 4: Day Trip from Vilnius to Riga with Riga Travellers
Day 4 is about getting from Vilnius to Riga. Most people will elect for the bus services between the two cities but I stumbled upon a much more interesting and innovative concept.
Riga Travellers started out by doing small tours around Riga before coming up with the idea of doing a full day trip between Riga and Vilnius and stopping at the numerous sights in between. There are a few very cool things to see in the Lithuanian countryside that you would need to travel the whole day for anyway so why not see those things and end up in the next destination of the itinerary in Riga!
The total cost of the trip was €65 which is considerably more than the regular bus but I think it is well worth it. Our guide was very engaging and had a lot to tell us about the culture of the two countries. All in all, we made 5 stops along the way and it was about 11-12 hours in total. We left at 9am and arrived just before 9pm. You can also do this trip in reverse, Riga to Vilnius.
They also offer Riga to Tallinn tours (and vice versa) so this is a great way to get around the Baltics!
Trakai Castle is the first stop of the day. Located on Lake Galve, the Trakai castle was built by Lithuanian Dukes in the 14th century and was used as a residence. It is the only island castle in Eastern Europe. Nowadays it is a big tourist attraction and serves as perhaps one of the most epic settings for summer music festivals. If you have more time in Vilnius, I would recommend coming here on your own for sunset as I hear the views are spectacular.
Kaunas, Lithuania’s second biggest city was the second stop fo the day. During the past couple of years, Kaunas has invested heavily into tourism and infrastructure making it an attractive city for all travelers. The old town is much smaller than Vilnius but boasts the same beautiful buildings and cobblestone streets.
We didn’t have much time here unfortunately and if I had more time, I would definitely have stayed here for a night. There are loads of craft breweries in Kaunas producing delicious local brews that I wanted to try.
Hill of Crosses
The Hill of Crosses was next on the list after lunch. A Christian pilgrimage site with hundreds of thousands of wooden crosses erected on a small hill in Lithuania. The crosses start appearing as a protest to Russian occupation of Lithuanian lands. Families would plant crosses as a way to remember those sent to Siberia to their inevitable deaths. During soviet occupation, religion was of course not a thing so they bulldozed the site on numerous occasions and put soldiers to guard the site from future crosses.
Lithuanians continued sneaking in and planting rogue crosses until it was bulldozed again. And again. Nowadays, the Russians are no longer there and the amount of crosses have increased to the point where all walks of life are remembered here. It is supremely impressive to look at. I had no idea that this was on the itinerary and was completely wow’d at the sheer amount of crosses and the attention to detail of many of them. This was probably the highlight of the day in my opinion. We also visited on a sunny day but I can definitely see this place being super creepy on dark cloudy winter day. In fact, it would be the perfect place for a horror movie setting!
The next stop was the Rundale Castle, crafted by one of Lithuania’s dukes. It’s a nice palace with a big garden but if you’ve been to the Schonbrunn Palace in Austria, or the Palace of Versailles in France, then this will just look like any other palace.
Salaspils Soviet Memorial
The Salaspils Memorial Ensemble was erected where an extended police prison and labour correctional camp of Nazi Germany was located from 1941 to 1945. The memorial consists of a museum housed in a large open-air rectangular structure, and many statues. These statues showcase the struggle of the Latvian people, as well as the stoic might of the Soviet liberators. I found the statues to be a big creepy but overall, the memorial was very unique.
The museum inside the wooden building is also quite interesting as it shows the conditions that people had to endure here. A grim view for sure but a reminder of what much of Europe had to endure in the 1940s.
After this last memorial, we were only about 20 minutes from Riga where we ended our tour just before 9pm. Just in time for dinner in the city.
Day 4-6: Riga, Latvia
The next part of the itinerary centers around Riga. With around 700,000 people, Riga is the largest city in the Baltics. In its 800 years of turbulent history, everyone from German knights to Swedish kings and Soviet commissars have left their footprints, and today Latvia’s capital is an exciting European metropolis at the crossroads of eastern and northern Europe.
Riga is a UNESCO World Heritage site of cobblestones and breathtaking river views, as well as Europe’s Wifi capital with almost 1,000 spots to get online for free.
Walking Tour of Riga
As always, I sought out the free walking tour which is offered by multiple companies at multiple times throughout the day. Our guide was a big quirky taking us too way too many Guild houses that were the meeting points of Latvian fisherman in the past. Nevertheless, we visited all the main churches and buildings of Latvia, and received a lot of history lessons along the way.
Visit the food market
Riga is an adventure for the taste buds too. The enormous Central Market is a treasure trove of earthy sausage, cheese and black bread, smoked fish, and much more. Sample the goods on a picnic in one of Riga’s lovely parks, or enjoy a hearty meal in many great value bistro and cafes.
To wash it down, sample intriguing local beers in the brew pubs along hipster strip Miera iela, or a cocktail with the mysterious Riga Black Balsam in fun-filled bars across town.
Visit St Peter’s Church for Panoramic Views
Like I did for every other Baltic country, I always look for viewing points. St Peter’s Church is the best place to do this in Riga. Located at the top of 9 floors at the spire of St Peter’s church, you have 360 degree views of the city. The entrance fee is €9 and is well worth it.
Rooftop drinks at the Galleria Mall
While most people recommend the rooftop at the Radisson Blu, I would whole-heartedly recommend you skip that and walk down the street to the Galleria Mall. The Radisson Blu is much higher and the view is spectacular but it is enclosed. The rooftop at the Galleria Mall (on the 8th floor) is completely open so you can watch the sunset, feel the air, and an overall much better experience.
Cocktails here are a very reasonable €7.5 and they are delicious. Grab some cocktails and watch the sunset!
Day 6-8: Tallinn, Estonia
Tallinn is the last stop in the Baltics. From Riga, you can take a quick bus ride or an even quicker plane ride to Tallinn.
The Old Town consists of the Upper Town or Toompea located on a hill, currently housing the parliament and the government of Estonia, and the Lower Town with many wonderful theatres, cafés, restaurants and pubs in addition to its sights. The Old Town is surrounded by the fortifications of the medieval Tallinn city wall and a green area that runs along the former esplanade.
Free walking tour in Tallinn
The free walking tour in Tallinn goes every day and meets in the city center square at multiple times during the day. Starting from May, they meet at 10am, 12pm, and 3pm. As always, I find that free walking tours are always very interesting and this one was no different.
Our guide really knew her stuff and had great stories to tell about the history of Estonia, the culture, language, food etc. The walking tour was about 2 hours and we visited many of the highlights of the city including numerous churches, fortified walls of the city, viewpoints, and much more.
I learned a lot from our guide. Estonia is one of the, if not the least religious countries in the world. The Baltics were one of the last areas of Europe to “convert” to Christianity and Estonia was never really all about it. In fact, after their independence from the Soviet Union, they had plans to take down some of the churches in the city as no one ever used them. They realized they were iconic landmarks to foreign tourists and would be better served as such.
Visit the Creative neighborhood of Teleskivi
Everyone should pay a visit to the neighborhood of Teleskivi just outside of the old town of Tallinn. Think of this neighborhood as the nouveau, industrial, and ultra hipster neighborhood of Tallinn. There are loads of craft beers, restaurants in converted train cabins, and more.
It was once Soviet origin factories and nowadays is the center of the vibrant artist and startup communities in Estonia. Estonia is the startup capital of Europe nowadays and Tallinn is the epicenter.
For views, visit the Kohtuotsa Viewing platform
For the best views of the city, head over to the Kohtuotsa Viewing platform. It is completely free and it was part of the walking tour I did. I came back later and spent more time here as the crowds were less. This would also be a great place to bring some drinks and enjoy the sunset over Tallinn’s skyline in the summertime.
Day 8: Ferry from Tallinn to Helsinki
The next step on the list is Helsinki, Finland! While Helsinki is not a part of the Baltics but rather Scandinavia, it is super close to Tallinn. From Tallinn, it is just a 2 hour ride to the capital of Finland.
Which ferry company should I use from Tallinn to Helsinki?
There are three companies that service this route: Viking Line, Eckero, and Tallink. Tallink has the newest boats and is the most expensive, while Eckero is the cheapest. The three companies seem to use the same type of ships which are the size of small cruise ships. They are all car ferries so you’d expect the boats to be large.
I saw pictures of the new Tallink Megastar and it looks absolutely stunning. When looking for tickets, Tallink charged €30-40 per ticket, Viking was €25-30, and Eckero was the cheapest at €20 or so. These prices probably fluctuate greatly but I ended up just booking the cheapest ticket which was with Eckero. You can buy your ticket online or at the ferry terminal.
It is such a short ferry ride that it doesn’t matter what you end up using. Ferries are pretty frequent and you can find one of the companies ships once an hour that do this route.
I was very impressed with the Eckero ferry. I went straight to the top of the boat to the sun deck to enjoy the views. They had a bar outside where I could sample some of the local Finnish beers. There is free wifi but the signal was pretty spotty at best. They also have what looks to be a delicious buffet for €24 per person.
Day 8-10: Helsinki, Finland
Helsinki is a beautiful and peaceful capital, famous not only for its history and heritage but for its Old Town, coastline and archipelagos. The city offers a wide range of historic attractions, top museums, art galleries, tours and experiences for everyone to enjoy.
I was very impressed with Helsinki. It is totally an underrated city that I feel like many people forget about when visiting Europe. When people visit Scandinavia, they tend to gravitate to Oslo or Copenhagen. If they visit the Baltics, then Estonia, Latvia or Lithuania because it is significantly cheaper. Helsinki is kind of somewhere in between. This is good because it means less tourists and especially less drunk Brits on their Stags.
I came away totally impressed with the city. The architecture and buildings are stunning, the streets are super clean and orderly as you would expect from Northern Europeans, and the views from the harbor are fantastic. If Helsinki is the last stop on your Baltic itinerary, one thing to note is that it is considerably more expensive in Finland than it is in the Baltics. Beers are €8-10 on average, and food is twice the price. Starting from Vilnius, you can expect your trip to get gradually more expensive with Finland being the biggest shock to the system.
Free walking tour of Helsinki
I did the free walking tour with Green Cap tours, which appeared to be the only outfit in Helsinki doing these free walking tours. They only do it once a day at 11am and expect it to be packed. My Finnish guide was one of the most knowledgeable and interesting guys I’ve had. He had a lot to say about Finnish culture, like why the language is so different than their Scandinavian neighbors, the Finn’s obsession with karaoke, and all your standard history tidbits.
Here are some highlights of the Helsinki Free Walking by Green Cap Tours
- Senate Square
- Helsinki Cathedral
- University of Helsinki
- Wellfare State functions
- Bank of Finland
- The Mecca of the Finnish Karaoke Scene
- Uspenski Orthodox Cathedral
- Presidential Palace
- Sauna Centre
- Market Square
- Epicenter of National Celebration called Vappu
- Esplanade Park
Old Market Hall
The old market hall is one of the most popular sights in Helsinki. Located next to the main harbor, come here to sample some delicious local Finnish cuisine like Salmon soup, open faced sandwiches, and Reindeer meat. They also have other cuisines here as well like kebabs and Vietnamese food.
The food is not cheap however, as you can expect to pay upwards of €70/kg of salmon. I sampled a bit of everything from the salmon to the reindeer, but found that the best deal was the Bahn Mi sandwiches at the Vietnamese shop that was only €5.5 per sandwich.
Day trip to Suomenlina
One of the most popular historic attractions in Helsinki is the UNESCO World Heritage Site, Suomelinna Fortress Island, which played an integral part in the naval history and defense under Swedish, Russian and Finnish rule. A visit to this fascinating island includes a guided tour, three museums, and a submarine! Another historic landmark not to be missed is the stunning Rock Church for its awe-inspiring architecture.
The ferry to Suomenlina Island leaves from the Helsinki harbor every 20 minutes and the cost is €5 for roundtrip tickets. Make sure to take the public ferry for the cheapest price as opposed to the smaller boats nearby that advertise this as a tour.
Day by Day breakdown of Baltics Itinerary
Here is a day by day breakdown of the Baltics itinerary. It is pretty straight forward trip as it mostly focuses on visiting the big cities.
Day 1: Land in Vilnius to start the trip
Day 2: Full day Vilnius
Day 3: Full day Vilnius
Day 4: Vilnius to Riga full day tour stopping at various locations along the way
Day 5: Riga full day
Day 6: Riga to Tallinn
Day 7: Full day Tallinn
Day 8: Tallinn to Helsinki ferry
Day 9: Full day Helsinki
Day 10: Depart Helsinki
Two week Baltic Itinerary
If I had another 4-5 days, I would structure my trip like this as I could spend more time in some of the smaller cities which also deserve some time:
Day 1: Land in Vilnius to start the trip
Day 2: Full day Vilnius
Day 3: Full day Vilnius
Day 4: Vilnius to Kaunas, spend the night in Kaunus
Day 5: Kaunus to Riga, with stops at Hill of Crosses
Day 6: Full day in Riga
Day 7: Riga to Jurmala beach town
Day 8: Riga to Tartu, spend night in Tartu
Day 9: Tartu to Tallinn
Day 10: Full day in Tallinn
Day 11: Full day in Tallinn
Day 12: Tallinn to Helsinki
Day 13: Full day in Helsinki
Day 14: Helsinki to Turku
Day 15: Turku back to Helsinki for a flight home
Combining The Baltics with Russia
I have not visited Russia yet as the visa is a huge pain to obtain but if you have even more time, this itinerary would be perfect in combination with Russia’s highlights including St Petersburg and Moscow. From Tallinn or Helsinki, there are trains and ferries that make the journey into Russia in a matter of hours. I will eventually visit Russia and make another itinerary combining these destinations!
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