Discover a Trio of Baltic States
Part of the former Soviet Union from 1940 until independence in 1991, the Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania are a treasure trove of culture, history and natural beauty.
Since throwing off the shackles of the Soviet era, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania have become something of a high-octane trio when it comes to targeting travellers. And with healthy economies, captivating capital cities and vast swathes of untouched nature it’s no surprise.
Neil Taylor spent 30 years as director of a travel company specialising in the Baltic States before going on to write extensively on a region he visits regularly. He’s also the author of guidebooks to Estonia and the Baltic cities.
“This year marks 100 years since Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania declared independence from the USSR, so it’s birthday time! A whole year of celebrations is taking place in museums and art galleries and, during summer, on beaches and by lakes and rivers,” says Neil, whose new book Estonia: A Modern History will be published in July.
“Go to Estonia for its islands and Teutonic Castles, to Latvia for its grand Victorian houses and beaches, and to Lithuania for its Mediterranean feel with its light colours and ornate churches,” he advises, adding June is a great time to visit as the sun hardly sets, while in July and August the countries provide an escape from Mediterranean heat, crowds and prices.
When it comes to highlights of the capitals, Neil recommends the Seaplane Harbour in Tallinn, that also exhibits an Estonian submarine manufactured in Barrow-in-Furnace, the Motor Museum in Riga with cars used (and crashed) by the Soviet elite, and the Treasury of Vilnius Cathedral – where not a single glistening item is less than 300 years old. He is also keen to stress the accessibility of the Baltic countries.
“Everybody in tourism speaks English. It’s the bond more than any other linking the three countries to the West and puts the Soviet era behind them. Prices are reasonable, and shopping is excellent, from colourful fabrics, elaborate glass and juniper wood, which boast a light brown colour that gives a Scandinavian feel to table mats, coasters and trays. And its berries produce more varieties of gin than you’ll have time to test.”
With almost 1,500 islands and islets, Estonia’s coastline has been described as ‘hauntingly wild’, and with less than one-and-a-half-million people it’s one of the least populous members of the European Union. Almost half the country is covered by forest, while the capital Tallinn is one of turrets and spires, bustling squares, cobbled back streets, traditional stone pubs and museums.
A short bus ride from the city, Pirita makes for a pleasant day trip. You’ll not only experience views of Tallinn’s skyline and harbour from an attractive promenade but can enjoy a rather fine spa hotel (once accommodation for sailing teams during the 1980 Moscow Olympics) and be reminded of the Russian influence at the Maarjamae war memorial with its concrete sculptures of fallen Red Army soldiers.
• Marvel at the beauty of Alatskivi Castle.
• Tallinn’s old town.
• Viljandi in the south of the country, a charming little town of hilltop ruins and host to the country’s largest music festival each July.
• Otepaa is one of the Baltics’ best places for winter sports.
• For sweeping city views head to the 22nd floor of the Tallinn Television Tower.
Lithuania sits on the eastern coast of the Baltic Sea and is the largest of the Baltic countries with a population of 3.2 million. A land of forests, rivers and gently rolling hills, it boasts five national parks covering a remarkable 33% of the country’s territory. The capital Vilnius is noted for its baroque architecture and medieval old town.
The national sport is basketball; Lithuania is the only country in the world with its own official scent and, somewhat randomly, there are more hot air balloons per head of population than in any other country!
• Amble around the stunning medieval old town.
• The lakeside resort and historically important town of Trakai (a perfect day trip from the capital).
• Curonian Spit, a long strip of sand between the Curonian Lagoon and the mighty Baltic Sea, and Kursiu Nerija National Park.
• The Hill of Crosses, a memorial to those who died over years of uprisings and civil strife, and the Gate of Dawn, part of Vilnius’ original walls of defence dating back to medieval times.
Neighbouring Russia and with population of 2.1 million, Latvia is ranked one of the world’s greenest countries whilst its capital, Riga, is the largest in the Baltics. Its natural beauty features pine-fringed beaches of white sand that often see it dubbed the ‘Baltic Riviera’.
The country is a heavy hitter when it comes to the natural environment – evident across open spaces that take in four national parks, seven protected marine areas and more than 250 nature reserves.
Latvia turns out more fashion models than almost any other country in the world (Estonia does beat it!). And the Latvians have a great love of beer. In fact, Riga even has a ‘beer spa’, while Black Balsam – a liquer of 24 different plants and berries fermented in oak barrels is said to have cured a cold of Catherine the Great.
• Rundale Palace – nicknamed the ‘Baltic Versailles’.
• The seaside resort of Jurmala (20 minutes from Riga).
• From medieval castles to bungee jumping, head for Gauja National Park.
• Kuldiga is a beautiful town harking back to a quieter age.
• One of the largest in Europe, visit Riga’s central market.
• For a spot of culture head to the Latvian National Opera and Ballet.
Image: Latvia Travel, Visit Estonia, Lithuania Travel, Tonu Travel, The Verdenus Co. I Media & Travel, aid photography