Tallinn, Riga or Vilnius?

I spent 5 days in the Baltics, exploring 5 cities/ towns in 4 different countries. Some may this a bit too intense for their liking, but as a lone traveller, I went where my heart fancied without feeling rushed at any point of time. The great thing about these countries is that they are all individually very small (exception being Finland), and with a bit of planning, 5 days is perfectly do-able.

While I did not spend a great deal of time in each country, being able to meet some locals (mainly hostel staff and owner) and other travellers gave me a good idea of what each is about. My favourite part of any travel is the time spent on local transports, in this particular scenario, buses and ferries, as it gave me time to appreciate the non-touristy part of any place. It is also a good time to reflect and to unwind from the stressful day job and other commitments I have in my daily life.

Here I summarise my thoughts of each city:

Tallinn, Estonia

Colourful streets of Old Town Tallinn
Colourful streets of Old Town Tallinn

Possibly the cutest and prettiest of the Baltics capitals, Tallinn most represent Amsterdam, if a Western European city comparison is called for. Its old town is petite, offering great views of medieval towers and imposing spires of churches in easy distance, the entire of which can be seen in less than a day. Its fairy town-esque demeanor is somewhat thwarted by the large numbers of stag and pen parties I encountered, though this is believed to have been improved over the years. Despite this, Tallinn is in my opinion a must-visit as far as Baltics cities are concerned.

Helsinki, Finland

Street market
Street market in Helsinki

The plan to visit Helsinki for a day trip was a last minute plan as I found myself lacking in things to do in Tallinn after a day, and how great a decision it was! Helsinki is a short ferry ride (the fastest in less than 2 hours) from the port of Tallinn. Finland and Estonia are culturally and linguistically the most similar of the countries in this region, but one may struggle to observe so arriving in Helsinki across the Gulf of Finland.

The capital of Finland resembles more the clean-cut cities of many Northern European countries of Scandinavia, though it is also more low-key and subtle. One would have to admire the high living standards of its people (its high cost, perhaps less so!). I made a last minute decision to visit the Kotiharjun sauna, which is the last standing public bath house remaining in Helsinki. All visitors to Helsinki should attempt doing the same.

Riga, Latvia

Old town Riga from across the Daugava river
Old town Riga from across the Daugava river

Riga is reachable from Tallinn by many of the excellent bus services in approximately 4 hours. Unofficially the capital of the Baltics, Riga is the big cosmopolitan city of the region. It is often compared to Paris for the elegance of its many streets, many of which peppered with stunning and haunting art nouveau architecture. As a fan of beautiful and interesting buildings, Riga is my firm favourite of the 4 capitals I visited. The Riga old central market is also vastly interesting, offering something different from the old town/ new town scene of typical European city travels.

Vilnius, Lithuania

Panoramic views of the Vilnius
Panoramic views of the Vilnius

Vilnius is similar connected to Riga by bus, and the travel time is also approximately 4 hours. Following the trend of comparing these cities to Western European counterpart, Vilnius will probably most resemble Rome, with its heavy Baroque architecture lining along the streets of its old town, one of the largest in Eastern Europe. Of the 3 Baltics capital, the capital of Lithuanian is probably the most sophisticated and subtle. Visitors used to mega sights or land marks may be disappointed by the decidedly laid back attitude of the city, but personally it was the perfect end to my trip.

In all, the Baltic region has been criminally overlooked in favour as a travel destination. It offers an interesting mix of Northern/ Eastern European and Soviet influences (most notably, Estonia), at half the cost of many other places. Other picture/ posts on my Baltics trip can be found here:

Exploring the Baltics 

Exploring the Baltics (continued)

Exploring the Baltics (end)

 

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Exploring the Baltics

The view outside is that of lush forest green, a remarkably different landscape to that of the old town of Tallinn, Estonia, which I spent much time in. It forms a contrast to the pale and grey sky; which is probably nature’s way of giving us a heads up to spring, but quickly reminding us that we are not quite summer yet. I am currently on route to Parnu, with Riga, Latvia being my destination- the third of four Baltic countries I am visiting this trip. The Lux Express bus is superb with free wifi, and while the morning coffee I took at the local canteen near the bus station is still taking its effect, I thought I can spend some time blogging…

While I’ve always knew that Tallinn is a beautiful city, I remained sceptical by what I see on travel websites. To an extent, I was quite right- the place that prompt marketing buzz words such as “disney-esque”, or “fairy tale land” seems a little oversold, especially when many of its streets become wrought with drunken British stag parties. That is not to say didn’t enjoy Tallinn; in fact I like it a lot. But having been to many European cities, I am unfortunately struck by a case of travel deja vu.

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Old town of Tallinn

What I definitely enjoy Tallinn is of its size. Small and compact, the old town can be seen in its entirety in probably 4 hours. It gives one the time to slow down foot steps, feel its medieval walls, and get purposely lost in the search for the next ‘wow’ moment upon a wrong turn. It also gave me the chance to sit down, sip a cup of coffee and read about its troubled history. With Estonia entering this century stronger than ever, I can’t help but admire the tenacity of its people.

The additional time also gave me the time to hop onto a ferry for a short ride toward Helsinki, Finland. Unlike Tallinn, I knew nothing about the country (besides its excellent educational system, the creation of the annoying Angry Birds, and for being a Scandinavian country; the last of which turned out to be factually ambiguous- Finland, while culturally similar to other Northern European countries such as Sweden, is sometimes regarded as a Baltic state).

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Helsinki Cathedral

 

With close to a million people, Helsink is a huge city (by European standards). I had a day, and covered its main sights, which includes the beautiful Helsinki Cathedral and the military fortress island of Suomenlinna. I also ventured out and visited the Kotiharjun sauna, which is Helsinki’s last wood burning public sauna (the word sauna, is originally a Finnish word). Being stark naked in a roomful of middle age Finnish men, all of whom seem to know each other, with me being the obvious odd one out- it’s an experience I won’t forget any time soon!