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)

 

Exploring the Baltics (continued)

I arrived at Riga, Latvia after spending 2 days in Estonia. The trendy hostel I checked into had the most convenient location of being on top of a MacDonald’s. I stopped and rested my feet,  had a few nice chat with some travellers, but soon realised that this was a place probably too ‘hippie’ for me. I then made haste to Alberta Iela, a street famous for its art nouveau architecture…

That was the point of time when I first decided on something- I like Riga very very much.

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Art nouveau
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Art nouveau 2

Riga has often been compared to ‘little Paris’, or ‘Paris of the North’. It is a little unfair, for while the city is beautiful, it doesn’t compare to the sheer elegance of the French capital. On the other hand, some of Riga’s architecture are simply stunning and unlike anything I have seen in other European cities (for which I’ve been many). Though in this regard, Barcelona of Spain with its heavy Gaudi influence forms a valid comparison.

From Alberta Iela, I took the suggested route from the Lonely Planet guide for checking out the notable art nouveau buildings. It wasn’t something I would usually do, but I would be damned to miss any of the sights!

The beautiful architecture of Riga extends to its old town, some of which has the most interesting of names (‘three brothers’, ‘cat house’ or the ‘house of the Blackheads’), and each one of them with its own story to tell. The house of the Blackheads is the most notable, with its beautiful gothic exterior facade, though the current building is a replica built from a blueprint after the original was destroyed. It is also famed for being the birth place of the modern practice of decorating Christmas trees during the festive season.

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Riga’s old town
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House of Blackheads

Visitors should, and most likely will also visit the Riga central market, its size said to be the largest in Europe. From fruits to electrical appliances, the market is a huge bazaar that seems to be selling almost anything imaginable. The market is mostly catered to locals, and will therefore offer a slice of what everyday Latvian life is like. The 5 bunkers used to house the main markets were ex-military air plane hangars, which is yet another reason to love the city for its architectural ingenuity!

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Riga central market

I spent my remaining Lats on some local baked goods, had a beer, and watched the day go by at 10 am in the morning, whilst waiting for my bus to arrive. I did not know what lies ahead in Vilnius, my next destination; nor did it really matter, for Riga had stolen my heart, and I just wanted to savour those very last moments.