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The Essential Guide to the Baltic States

By John Newton

Aug 26, 2019

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Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania, has a history that stretches back to the Stone Age.

Photo by Diego Flore/Shutterstock

Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania, has a history that stretches back to the Stone Age.

Here’s what you need to know about traveling to Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania—and why you should be bound for the Baltics on your next trip.

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Strung along the Baltic Sea, Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania are small nations with long and complicated histories. Nearby larger powers, especially Russia and Germany, have long shaped their cultures, politics, and commerce, but despite being part of the Russian and Soviet empires at different points, each nation has managed to maintain its distinct character and language.

The three Baltic countries also possess an appearingly paradoxical balance: Although highly urbanized in certain areas, they’re mostly forested or agricultural. Their capitals offer the appeals of other northern European cities—lively restaurant and bar scenes, galleries, museums, and shopping—while their national parks help preserve the beauty of the region, from the birch forests dotted with lakes and streams to the vast stretches of dunes occasionally interrupted by centuries-old castles. 

The capital of Latvia, Riga is known for its beautiful art nouveau architecture.
Occupying the northern end of Eastern Europe, the three countries have been at the center of many historic moments. While nominally independent since World War I, they remained firmly under Soviet influence long after Word War II, even though they never officially joined the Soviet Union. On August 23, 1989, 2 million protestors formed a human chain across the Baltic republics and set in motion the official withdrawal of the Red Army. In the years since, these nations, and the more than 6 million people who call them home, have seen a burst of entrepreneurial energy, making them more exciting than ever to visit.

When to Go to the Baltic States

The Baltic States are countries best visited in summer, when temperatures are mild and the sun shines for 18 hours on the longest days. Taking advantage of off-season deals may backfire: Spring is often brief and wet, fall is chilly, and winter is dark, cold, and challenging for travel, especially to rural areas. Even if you stick to the milder coastal regions (where Tallinn and Riga, the Estonian and Latvian capitals, are located), you’ll often find yourself facing snowy forecasts in the colder months.

Tallinn, the capital of Estonia, boasts a bustling restaurant and bar scene.
Getting Around the Baltic States

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Tallinn, Riga, and Vilnius—the capitals of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, respectively—all have major international airports, though there are no direct flights from North America. If you intend to explore beyond the capital cities—and there are many reasons to do so—know that bus service is more extensive than train, but both are limited and a rental car will make traveling much easier. Another way to see the region is by cruise, many of which provide a great introduction to Tallinn, Riga, and Klaipėda (Lithuania’s major seaport).

Food & Drink

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The cuisine of the Baltic countries has much in common with that of Russia—beets and potatoes, delicious dark breads, and a variety of dumplings are served at restaurants throughout the region. You’ll also find fish and shellfish, however, because cooks here take full advantage of the bounty of the Baltic Sea. Game is popular, too, and if you visit in the summer, you’ll get to indulge in the area’s short but spectacular growing season. Fruit wines are a favorite, so toast your adventure with a glass of cherry or black currant wine. 

Culture

All three capitals have existed for centuries, with Vilnius’s history stretching back the furthest (a settlement was there as early as the Stone Age). In each city, the old towns are ideal for wandering among medieval, Gothic, and Renaissance buildings. Riga is famous for its many art nouveau structures, while Vilnius has recently begun to recognize the beauty of some of its Soviet-era architecture. Cheap flights from elsewhere in Europe have helped fuel bar, music, and restaurant scenes, though more so in Tallinn and Riga than Vilnius.

Time travel back to the Middle Ages with a visit to Lithuania’s Trakai castle.
Can’t Miss

Beyond touring the historic sites in the capital cities, you’ll want to visit the medieval castles that dot both the coastlines and interiors of the Baltic States. Trakai, a castle on an island in Lake Galvė, is especially stunning, recalling the height of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. Also worth seeing is the atmospheric Sigulda in Latvia, where 12th- and 13th-century crusaders lived while attempting to convert the Baltic region’s then-pagan population. 

For culture outside the capitals, head to Lithuania’s major seaport of Klaipėda, a city strongly influenced by Germany (it was politically part of the country until 1923, when it was annexed by Lithuania). Also visit Estonia’s second largest city, Tartu, home to important history and the country’s largest university. When you’re craving nature, Lahemaa, Estonia’s largest national park, features a variety of landscapes, from forests to dunes to alpine lakes. 

Practical Information

U.S. travelers to Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania do not need to obtain any special visas, but their passports must be valid for at least three months beyond the end of their planned stay. Each country has its own language and, while locals will appreciate any effort to learn a few phrases, you’ll find that most people who interact with travelers speak at least some English. All three countries are in the eurozone, with Lithuania the last to adopt the euro as its currency in 2015. C and F plugs are common in all three states and the standard voltage is 230—the adapters you would use when traveling in Western Europe will work in these countries, too.

>>Next: The #1 Reason You Need to Hit Up Latvia This Summer

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