Boring, the Baltic states? At first glance, the three countries lining up the Baltic Sea to the East – Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania – may not seem like the most obvious or exciting of European destinations… but they have a lot more to offer than you probably think. In fact, they may just be among the best places to backpack in Europe. Whether you’re an adventurer, culture vulture, beach bum, or food enthusiast, there’s something for you in one of those small but-vibrant countries.
I personally fell in love with the Baltic states after deciding to go on a whim, and I developed such a crush on them that I convinced my parents to return with me the following summer!
So before you get your yawns out or swipe left, check out those top 11 reasons you should visit the Baltic states ASAP.
- 1 1) The Baltic States Are Young And Dynamic
- 2 2) They’re Cheap And Easy To Travel (Both To And Within)
- 3 3) They’ve Not Been Invaded Yet (At Least By Tourists!)
- 4 4) The Colourful Old Towns
- 5 5) Their Rich, Multicultural History
- 6 6) Yummy Food And Brews!
- 7 7) They Make Perfect Summer Destinations
- 8 8) Europe’s Most Underrated Adventure Destination Is In Latvia
- 9 9) You’ll Be Awed By The Awesome Nature
- 10 10) You Can Visit An Abandoned Soviet-Era Prison In Estonia…
- 11 11) You Can Peek Into Finland
- 12 Where To Stay in the Baltic States
1) The Baltic States Are Young And Dynamic
If you’re picturing dull, sleepy lands filled with old people singing Soviet chants in traditional dress, think again! Maybe it’s because they only regained their independence in the 1990s and are still trying to define themselves as free modern nations, but there’s a strong wind of cool blowing through the Baltics. Urban transformation, alternative culture, arts, festivals, entrepreneurship… there’s a lot going on, and the population is strikingly youthful.
Case in point: Estonia has been emerging as one of the world’s most connected countries and a hub for technological innovation. Did you know it gave us one of travellers’ best friends, Skype? Oh, and even the Estonian Prime Minister is only 36 – a toddler by political standards!
But really, nowhere is the energy more palpable than in Vilnius: the Lithuanian capital’s streets bustle with students and young people. Join them at a café and soak up the atmosphere.
2) They’re Cheap And Easy To Travel (Both To And Within)
All hail the travel gods for the gift of low-cost airlines! With the proliferation of cheap flights from most European cities, a Baltic break is almost as accessible as a weekend in your country home. Once there, the manageable distances and networks of comfy, affordable buses make roaming the Baltic states a very easy and budget-friendly affair. In fact, GoEuro ranked Latvia the world’s 7th cheapest country to travel in. And that doesn’t mean you can’t move in style: even the “economy” buses are equipped with reclining seats, free wifi, and individual entertainment screens – luxury!
Of course, it’s not just the transport: food and accommodation follow Eastern European prices, so you’re getting a lot for your money.
3) They’ve Not Been Invaded Yet (At Least By Tourists!)
Okay, so they may have been occupied by Denmark, Germany, Russia, Sweden, and Poland over the centuries, but today the Baltic states are relatively overlooked by travellers. Actually, most people don’t know the first thing about them, let alone have been – which in our days of travel-everywhere-all-the-time is kinda refreshing!
The locals are still happy to introduce you to their wonderful little countries, and will proudly and gratefully ask what brought you to them (at which point you can of course mention this blog post ?).
4) The Colourful Old Towns
You know what’s likely to put a smile on your face? Wandering the quaint streets of a fairytale-like historic centre straight out of a picture book! And in that respect, the Baltic states deliver: the UNESCO-listed medieval towns of Vilnius, Riga, and Tallinn compete for attention with their paved alleyways, fortress walls, bright buildings, cellar restaurants, and terraced bars.
5) Their Rich, Multicultural History
The aforementioned waves of invasions have shaped those strategic nations into a melting-pot of cultural influences. If point 1 above left you thinking “damn, I’d love to watch people sing in traditional costume”, rest assured you’ll have plenty of opportunities! Check the events calendar and try to time your visit to coincide with one of the ethnic festivals.
But the Germanic, Russian, and Nordic forays have also left their marks on the native pagan cultures, contributing to the diversity of religions and architecture. This means that beyond the cutesy medieval towns, you’ll also find superb castles, colourful wooden houses, cake-like Orthodox cathedrals, and elaborate Art Nouveau districts.
6) Yummy Food And Brews!
You know what else this diversity means? A wide range of delish culinary specialties!
Soups are a particular strength, and they are best accompanied by the ubiquitous rye bread and sour cream. In the summer, it is hard to resist cold soup, a pink concoction made of beet, dill, small cucumber cubes, and slices of boiled egg. Other winners include the hearty Latvian national dish, grey peas and bacon, Polish-inspired ravioli, pearl barley risotto, Lithuanian cepelinai potato-based dumplings, and all types of German-inspired meats.
You can wash down these delicacies with traditional local beers or ciders, a glass of Riga champagne…or even one of the countries’ (in)famous spirits: Lithuania’s Krupnikas, Latvia’s Balsam liqueur, or Estonia’s Old Tallinn. Cheers!
7) They Make Perfect Summer Destinations
Six words: pleasant temperatures and less-crowded beaches! While your friends are fighting for towel space in a Mediterranean tourist hotspot, and slowly turning lobster from the 35+°C-strong sun, you could be enjoying the relaxed beaches and milder temperatures (usually in the high 20s) of the Baltic states.
Whether you choose Jurmala in Latvia, Palanga in Lithuania, or Pärnu in Estonia, it’s easy to weave a side trip to one (or all!) of the fine sand beaches in the region into your itinerary. You’ll be mainly hangin’ with locals and their Finnish neighbours. In August, party with them at the Pärnu Weekend Festival Baltics (headlined by big names!) or the Karkle Live Music Beach Festival.
But fear not: if you can only visit in winter or in shoulder season, you’ll be happy to know that each Baltic state has its own sauna and spa tradition. (That’s a good excuse to try it everywhere to compare!) There are also skiing opportunities in every country. And those beaches? This is what they look like when they freeze over in winter:
Not bad, Baltic states, not bad!
8) Europe’s Most Underrated Adventure Destination Is In Latvia
And it’s called Sigulda! This little town on the banks of the Gauja River is the gateway to Latvia’s largest national park. Rent a bike, a kayak, or use your own two feet to get lost in this hilly hinterland sprinkled with castles and caves. Even better: bring a tent and make it a multi-day trip.
Looking for something a little more extreme? Your only problem will be choosing among the plethora of options: in Sigulda, you can test your Tarzan skills on a tree-top adventure course, free-fly in the first vertical wind tunnel in Eastern Europe, learn to throw axes and spears in a medieval castle, bungee-jump from 42m over the river, or ride a bobsleigh down an Olympic track for a mere €10.
9) You’ll Be Awed By The Awesome Nature
Good news, nature-lovers: there’s plenty of wilderness beside the Gauja National Park in the Baltic states! In Lithuania, get wowed by the Curanian Spit, a stretch of forests and Sahara-like sand dunes bordering a lagoon (are you wanderlusting yet?).
Meanwhile, in Estonia you can explore the Sooma National Park on bog shoes – a type of snow shoes for wetland environments, and a typical local pastime.
10) You Can Visit An Abandoned Soviet-Era Prison In Estonia…
…and relive the Cold War, and be mock-sent to Siberia, and… The list goes on. If it’s the bizarre and alternative you’re looking for, jackpot again! The Baltic states offer an impressive number of opportunities for dark and weird tourism.
For €2, you’ll get into Tallinn’s Patarei prison, where you can roam the precincts – from the chilling “hanging room” to the dreary “infirmary” – freely. Yes, it’s just as creepy and surreal as it sounds; in fact, this is one visit you may want to enroll a few friends for!
Just as arresting is Lithuania’s Hill of Crosses, a pilgrimage site where fervent believers have stacked up giant crosses over the years. Want more? Lithuania’s black-humoured Grutas Park is a sort of anti-theme park built to resemble a concentration camp that showcases the grimmest aspects of Soviet ideology.
Meanwhile, if you’re keen to learn more about the KGB’s spying techniques, you’ll find an interactive museum dedicated to just that in each capital.
11) You Can Peek Into Finland
If you have the time and budget to spare, how about making this a 4-for-3 deal with a side trip to Helsinki? The Finnish capital is only a short and cheap ferry crossing away, so hop on a boat and round off your journey with a Nordic experience!
Where To Stay in the Baltic States
Websites like Booking.com allow you to book many good-value, affordable hotels and hostels in the Baltic states, as well as one of my favourite alternatives: serviced apartments right in the center of the capitals’ old towns!
Here are some of my highlights that come personally tested and recommended:
As its name suggests, the Novotel Vilnius Centre is a great modern choice bang in the centre of Vilnius. Housed in a historical building, it’s the best of both worlds: at once charming and convenient!
Some of the rooms on the upper floors have stunning panoramic views of the city.
This one is for history and luxury lovers! If you want to feel like royalty in the heart of Old Riga, Hotel Gutenbergs is your go-to. Located in 17th and 19th century buildings, this 4-star hotel with an affordble price tag was renovated in 2015 and combines a cosy atmosphere and comfy furniture with the grandeur of period features, arts, and antiques.
Plus, it’s right in the middle of the action!
Consistently rated as of the best-value options in Sigulda, the Livonija is a lovely guesthouse a 5-10 minutes’ walk from the center that offers single, double, and triple rooms starting around 20 euros.
The sauna, quiet garden, and opulent buffet breakfast – salmon sashimi, Latvian chocolate cake anyone? – make the Livonija guesthouse a winner.
How about having your own temporary home in Old Tallinn? Delta Apartments offer a number of serviced apartments of different sizes on some of the Estonian capital’s most-prized streets. My parents and I stayed in an impeccable Old Town Deluxe apartment (at the link above) for around 100 euros per night – if your party is smaller or bigger, browse the website to see all the options, including studios and family apartments.
Have you been to the Baltic states? What is/would be your top reason to visit? I love chatting with you, so let me know in a comment below! 🙂
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