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Trip Report St. Petersburg, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia + Helsinki, Delft, & Amsterdam

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Baltics Trip Report Summary

In May and June 2016, I took a 2.5 week solo trip to the Baltic States – Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia - and then from Helsinki took a ferry to St. Petersburg, Russia for three days. Then I took the ferry back to Helsinki, flew to the Netherlands for a few days, then flew home to the US.

I have posted a detailed “travel blog” (trip report) on my website below, including more detail, pictures, etc:

www.europeinpictures.com/baltics-trip-report/

I'll post just a summary trip report here.

Here are links to view my photos from various cities:

Lithuania:
Vilnius: www.portlandbridges.com/00,M25D0IMG35139,442,1,1,0-vilnius-lithuania.html
Trakai: www.portlandbridges.com/00,M25D0IMG34953,443,1,0,0-trakai-lithuania.html
Kaunas: www.portlandbridges.com/00,M25D0IMG35420,444,1,0,0-kaunas-lithuania.html
Šiauliai: www.portlandbridges.com/00,M25D0IMG35512,445,1,0,0-siauliai-lithuania.html

Latvia:
Riga: www.portlandbridges.com/00,M25D0IMG35698,446,1,0,0-riga-latvia.html
Sigulda: www.portlandbridges.com/00,M25D0IMG36268,448,1,1,0-sigulda-latvia.html

Estonia:
Tallinn: www.portlandbridges.com/00,M25D0IMG37146,450,1,1,0-tallinn-estonia.html
Haapsalu: www.portlandbridges.com/00,M25D0IMG37279,451,1,1,0-haapsalu-estonia.html

St. Petersburg:
St. Petersburg: www.portlandbridges.com/00,M25D0IMG38915,453,1,0,0-st.-petersburg-russia.html
Inside Winter Palace (Hermitage): www.portlandbridges.com/00,S1100IMG05729,454,1,0,0-hermitage.html
Ferry to/from St. Petersburg: www.portlandbridges.com/00,S1100IMG05695,452,1,0,0-s.-petersburg-ferry.html

Helsinki: www.portlandbridges.com/00,M25D0IMG39419,455,1,1,0-helsinki-finland.html

Netherlands:
Delft: www.portlandbridges.com/00,M25D0IMG39943,456,1,1,0-delft-netherlands.html
The Hague: www.portlandbridges.com/00,M25D0IMG40182,457,1,0,0-netherlands.html
Amsterdam: www.portlandbridges.com/00,M25D0IMG40452,458,1,0,0-amsterdam.html

The primary purpose of my trip was scenic photography. I love history but have a short attention span and get bored in museums quickly. (In St. Petersburg, though, it's almost mandatory to visit the Hermitage – and I did.) Mostly I walked around, explored the towns, and took lots of pictures.

In May, one of my biggest worries was rainy weather; historically, most of the cities I was to visit were prone to a good amount of rain. But I was very lucky: I had almost perfect weather most of the trip, with only a few brief rain showers on a few days (I did not even open my umbrella, maybe the first trip I since about 2007!). While I was in Europe, Paris for example experienced awful flooding.

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    Basic Itinerary:

    Fly US to Amsterdam
    Fly immediately to Vilnius
    Vilnius (2 nights)
    Day trip to Trakai (by train)
    Train Vilnius to Kaunas
    Kaunas (1 night)
    Bus to Šiauliai, Lithuania
    Local bus to Hill of Crosses and back (2 hours)
    Mini-bus to Riga
    Riga (3 nights)
    Day trips to Jūrmala (Baltic Coast) and Sigulda
    Bus to Tallinn
    Tallinn (3 nights)
    Day trip to Haapsalu by bus
    Ferry to St. Petersburg (1 night)
    St. Petersburg (2 nights)
    Ferry to Helsinki (1 night)
    Day stop in Helsinki
    Fly to Amsterdam
    Delft (1 night)
    Amsterdam (2 nights)
    Fly home.

    I flew to/from Amsterdam via direct flights on Delta, on an Alaska Airlines award ticket. I booked my own flights from Amsterdam to Vilnius (same morning, via airBaltic prop plane) and Helsinki to Amsterdam (FinnAir, regular jet), then spent the last three nights in the Netherlands before flying home.

    I didn't rent a car – I took public transportation everywhere. Although there are local trains in Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia, there aren't good train options between countries. Fortunately, there are numerous direct express buses every day between the major cities.

    I took a ferry from Tallinn to Helsinki, then the same day took another ferry between Helsinki and St. Petersburg on the 72 hour “visa free” option. I had been planning just a Baltics trip initially but kind of tacked on the St. Petersburg trip near the end of planning. I decided just to taste Russia on this trip and skip getting a Russian visa – which would have cost about $400 USD.

    I had an Android phone with T-Mobile that worked everywhere with unlimited data, and I used Google Maps to navigate everywhere. I used my chip credit cards everywhere and used my credit union ATM card to get Euros (all countries except Russia, where I got Rubles) from ATM machines, without issue.

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    Lithuania (3 nights – 2 nights Vilnius, 1 night Kaunas)

    Pictures:
    Vilnius: www.portlandbridges.com/00,M25D0IMG35139,442,1,1,0-vilnius-lithuania.html
    Trakai: www.portlandbridges.com/00,M25D0IMG34953,443,1,0,0-trakai-lithuania.html
    Kaunas: www.portlandbridges.com/00,M25D0IMG35420,444,1,0,0-kaunas-lithuania.html
    Šiauliai: www.portlandbridges.com/00,M25D0IMG35512,445,1,0,0-siauliai-lithuania.html

    I stayed two nights in Vilnius and one night in Kaunas, the “second city” of Lithuania. I did a day trip to Trakai (castle) and stopped in Šiauliai on the way to Riga so I could visit the Hill of Crosses.

    Vilnius Hotel: Centro Kubas – Angel (great location in the old town)
    Kaunas Hotel: Amberton Cozy (great location, a bit run down but cheap and comfortable)

    Vilnius has a huge old town and lots and lots of churches! The town is built on hills and is kind of rambling. The focal point of the old town is the enormous Cathedral Square, with it cathedral and bell tower. Just above the square is Gediminas hill, with the remains of the old Gediminas castle there and views down. The old town is mostly fixed up very nicely, with the standard cobblestone streets and restaurants with outdoor seating, etc. But parts of Vilnius are a bit run down.

    Mostly I walked around, saw the sites, and took a million pictures. I found the the Frank Zappa monument, explored the impressive Antakalnis Cemetery just outside the old town, and explored the Uzupis bohemian neighborhood.

    I didn't fall in love with Vilnius, but it is a neat city.

    Trakai is a town about a half hour by train (or mini-bus, but I took trains back and forth) from Vilnius. The town has huge lakes for boating and water recreation activities, but the focus of town is the beautiful castle at the north end of town. It reminded me of Malbork castle in Poland. I didn't go inside but was content to take pictures from the outside.

    I visited the city of Kaunas for just one night. The primary reason to visit was to take night photographs of the Vytautas the Great Bridge. A day trip from Kaunas really would have been adequate for me, but with the late sunsets in May, it wasn't practical for me to shoot night pictures and make it back to Vilnius by bus or train, so I spent a night. Kaunas was OK but not a place I'd want to visit again. It is a pleasant, relaxed town (more relaxed than Vilnius it seemed) that is probably a great place to live in Lithuania but not of obvious interest to the average tourist, in my view.

    My final stop was in Šiauliai, kind of a grim city in northern Lithuania. The primary reason to visit was to explore the famous Hill of Crosses just outside of town. This site was an empty field in the 1980s until locals starting putting up crosses in defiance of the Soviet prohibition on celebration of religion; today it has thousands of crosses and is a big tourist attraction. I was able to take a direct bus from Kaunas to Šiauliai, leave my bags in storage at the bus station, take a local bus to the Hill of Crosses and back (about two hours with about 40 minutes at the Hill), then explore Šiauliai for a few hours before catching a mini-bus up to Riga.

    Šiauliai itself is interesting and worth an hour or two to explore – there's a cathedral maybe a 15 minute walk from the bus station and a town center, etc. - but otherwise isn't a place I'd feel any need to spend a night. Stopping on the way to Riga worked out fine, though my only option to Riga was a mini-bus with a company called Ollex, and the mini-bus (about a two hour ride) was cramped and not very comfortable, but it got me there!

    Vilnius was by far my favorite of the four towns I visited in Lithuania – not a surprise, really. But even Vilnius is not a place I'm dying to return to. It's an interesting place, though, and I don't regret my time there.

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    Latvia (3 nights in Riga)

    Pictures:
    Riga: www.portlandbridges.com/00,M25D0IMG35698,446,1,0,0-riga-latvia.html
    Sigulda: www.portlandbridges.com/00,M25D0IMG36268,448,1,1,0-sigulda-latvia.html


    Hotel: Hotel Edvards (OK location, good value for a small hotel, kind of in the business/diplomatic district, 15 min walk from old town, 5 minute walk from Art Nouveau district)

    The primary reason to visit Latvia was the city of Riga, which was most definitely a highlight of my trip. Riga is the biggest city in the Baltics and feels like a modern metropolis compared to any city in Lithuania, and it felt enormous (until I got to St. Petersburg). There's a pleasant old town that doesn't feel very authentic but has some nice buildings like the House of Blackheads. The old town has chain restaurants like TGI Fridays as well lots of touristy pubs catering to visitors from the UK, perhaps.

    There are a couple of beautiful bridges across the Daugava, notably the impressive cable-stayed Vanšu Bridge. There are big churches in old town with huge bell towers, notably St. Peters and the Riga Cathedral, plus many other smaller churches.

    There is a unique central market housed mostly inside huge old Zeppelin hangers – an impressive selection of fruits, vegetables, meat, fish, etc. This is a real market, not just a tourist attraction. If you had an apartment with a kitchen while visiting Riga, you might enjoy buying your food here and cooking a meal.

    There are nice parks inside the city, making Riga feel like a fairly “green” city.

    Finally, and perhaps most impressively, there is a sizable collection of Art Nouveau buildings in Riga. Unless you are an architecture buff, you might not even know what “art nouveau” is – I didn't (nothing to do with “art deco” which came later). It's a style of architecture which includes unique statues and figures, some of them kind of creepy but very impressive at the same time, unforgettable.

    My first day, I took a free walking tour of Riga, which was great. And two of the nights, I stayed out late taking night pictures. I think I got some of the very best pictures of my entire trip in Riga. And I explored the Art Nouveau district – near my hotel – twice. Riga is not really a compact walking city – you could manage without taking public transportation, but I bought a three day bus pass to get around. (Riga has a good bus/tram system, but bus stops seemed far apart; the city blocks are big and I still had to do quite a lot of walking.)

    I took two day trips by train from Riga. One day, I took a day trip to the Jūrmala area on the Baltic coast, about a half hour by train each way. This area known to be an old beach resort still popular with Russians. I hated it immediately for some reason – it seemed like a dull town with a boring beach - and even though I had planned to spend a few hours doing a walking tour, I changed my mind and took the train back to Riga only about an hour in the town of Majori.

    Another day, I took a day trip east by train to the town of Sigulda, which is a town inside Gauja National Park. This park is probably beautiful in the fall when the leaves turn, but in May it was pretty green and nice but ordinary, to me. The town of Sigulda was pleasant but not particularly memorable. There are a couple of pleasant but forgettable castles in the area and a “hike” that can include a cable car over the river valley, but when I saw the view I decided to skip the cable car and the rest of the hike. I tried to catch another train up to the town of Cesis, but I got on the wrong train, and it would not have been practical for me to catch the next one due to the scheduling, so I just continued back to Riga.

    Honestly, none of my day trip options from Riga had seemed very appealing ahead of time, but I felt compelled to get out of Riga, anyway. So it's hard for me to complain that I was disappointed in my day trips. I love train travel and part of the appeal for me was to be able to ride some trains, given that I would have to take buses between the Baltic capitals. Latvia's trains are old and not very impressive (or feel very “retro” if you prefer to look at it that way), compared to Lithuania's modern, clean trains. The views from the trains were not bad but not very nice – just kind of boring.

    One scary aside: I was almost pickpocketed as I carried my bags from the train station area up some steps on the way to the bus station leaving for Estonia. I had my hands full and was careless – and even though I was not in a crowded area people, a young couple dressed as tourists brushed past me, and the woman subtly reached her hand into my front pants pocket and tried to lift my passport and wallet. I knew instantly what she was up to and reacted violently without even thinking, pushing her away and almost down the steps. They protested that they were innocent but quickly split after a local came up to ask what they were up to. (“Those bad people,” he told me.) I was careless but lucky.

    Otherwise, Riga was surely my favorite city in the Baltics. It felt substantial and real, and I would like to return someday to see more. I never stopped finding things to photograph.

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    Estonia: (3 nights in Tallinn)

    Pictures:
    Tallinn: www.portlandbridges.com/00,M25D0IMG37146,450,1,1,0-tallinn-estonia.html
    Haapsalu: www.portlandbridges.com/00,M25D0IMG37279,451,1,1,0-haapsalu-estonia.html

    I figured I didn't really need three nights in Tallinn – it seemed small from what I had read. But I was arriving late the first day and leaving early the last day, so I'd really have only two full days. I considered stopping at another town on the way like Pärnu or Tartu, but it seemed easier just to base in Tallinn and do a day trip or two.

    I took a direct Ecolines bus from Riga to Tallinn – just over four hours. It was comfortable but long – whereas four hour train rides are usually a pleasure. Tallinn's bus station is somewhat outside of town. I bought a 72 hour bus/tram pass and took a tram from the bus station to my hotel.

    Hotel: the Baltic Hotel Imperial, which is a great spot at the edge of the old town (near the train station even though I didn't take any trains in Estonia), sometimes expensive, but I checked rates a few times and booked it when the price went down.

    Tallinn was pretty much what I expected: charming but far smaller than Riga. The old town (lower town) is touristy but felt more authentic than Riga's for sure. I didn't see any chain restaurants in town hall square in the lower town, though I saw a few on the outskirts.

    Tallinn felt like a compact walking city compared to the much larger Riga, and I quickly felt a sense of relief not needing to walk so far to take pictures. At the same time, I seemed to run out of obvious photo ops in short order, whereas in Riga I just kept finding them. I loved Tallinn for what it was, though. The best places to shoot photos are from the viewpoints at the top of Toompea Hill in the upper town, where you can see great vistas of the tall church spires in what looks like a fairy tale town.

    Night shots became quite a challenge the further north I got in the Baltics. I had to stay up late in Riga to shoot at night, but in Tallinn, it was barely dark by midnight (this was at the end of May). I got a few “night shots” from Toompea hill, which was a conveniently short walk from my hotel, but from the viewpoints there just aren't that many different shots to get. And I didn't feel like waking forever that late at night, even though I felt quite safe in Tallinn at night.

    I took another free walking tour on my first full day in Tallinn (you tip at the end; our group was large but I enjoyed the tour). Other than the old town (lower town and upper town), I got out a little, to Kadriorg Park, to the Song Festival Grounds (where Estonians gathered en masse at the end of the 1980s to sing banned Estonian songs), and out to the beach of sorts by the harbor.

    On the second day, I took a day trip by bus to the town of Haapsalu, which is on the west coast of Estonia, about 1.5 hours each way by bus. (I considered a train to Tartu but didn't feel like yet another “big city.”) Haapsalu is more of a spa town on a bay than a “beach” town, and I loved it for some reason. It doesn't feel especially picturesque, but it had a pleasant, relaxed feel to it. There's a little castle in town (didn't go inside), some interesting houses, a pleasant promenade along the bay. I spent a few hours walking around, taking pictures, exploring. There's a wildlife viewing area with a viewing tower on the bay, but there weren't many birds to see (just a few swans) in late May, and the tower seemed too far away even to see them very well, even with my zoom lens.

    I stuck mostly to American-style, pizzas, and Italian food on my entire trip (and I don't drink), and I ate at “burger restaurants” (a step above fast food, some with table service) a few times on my trip. These places, basically “burger pubs,” seem to be a newer trend in Europe. The best burger I had by far was at the Estonian Burger Factory in Tallinn. It's just outside of the old town but very worth it, if you are tired of “European” food and have a yearning for a good burger while traveling. I ate there two nights in a row!

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    Ferry from Helsinki to St. Petersburg and back (1 night each way)

    Pictures:
    www.portlandbridges.com/00,S1100IMG05695,452,1,0,0-s.-petersburg-ferry.html

    I have written a longer trip report just about my ferry experience getting between Helsinki and St. Petersburg, focused on the logistics mostly:

    www.fodors.com/community/europe/visa-free-72-hour-ferry-excursion-to-st-petersburg-via-helsinki.cfm

    But I loved the ferry experience, far more than expected. I had never slept on a ship overnight before so was a little wary about it, but it was great, and the whole experience was probably the highlight of my whole trip. Ironically, I would have skipped the ferry entirely if I could have visited St. Petersburg by train without a visa.

    As a quick summary: I took a short 2.5 hour ferry ride from Tallinn to Helsinki, then took an overnight ferry to St. Petersburg (about twelve hours), spent two nights there, and then took the same ferry back overnight to Helsinki at the end of the third day. This let me visit for just under 72 hours without being required to get a visa. I took the St. Peter Ferry line on the Princess Maria, a huge multi-deck ship with restaurants, etc., and I had my own cabin with two tiny beds and a tiny bathroom and shower. It cost me only 119 Euros round trip including the “city tour” (just a shuttle bus between the ferry port and the center of town) technically required to avoid the visa because I was “on a tour,” so it was quite cheap.

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    St. Petersburg (2 nights)

    Pictures:
    St. Petersburg: www.portlandbridges.com/00,M25D0IMG38915,453,1,0,0-st.-petersburg-russia.html
    Inside Winter Palace (Hermitage): www.portlandbridges.com/00,S1100IMG05729,454,1,0,0-hermitage.html

    No, two nights and three long days weren't nearly enough time to explore huge, beautiful St. Petersburg other than getting a quick overview. I could have gotten a visa (about $400 USD) and stayed longer, maybe added Moscow, but as I said above, I decided to add St. Petersburg only near the end of planning my Baltics trip (when I realized I could add it so easily). I just wasn't going to have time to add Moscow without dumping half of the rest of my Baltic stops.

    Hotel: The Library (next to the W Hotel across from St. Issac's square; excellent location near Nevsky Prospect and The Hermitage; air conditioner was musty so I didn't use it, and hot water had a mildew-y odor to it, but great price for the lcoation!)

    My short visit to St. Petersburg turned out quite well for me, though – the ferry experience was great, I got a taste of Russia, and I imagine I'll go back and visit again and add Moscow. One thing I did learn: next time, I'll go in the early spring or fall, when the days aren't as long! Some people might enjoy the “white nights” of summer but for night photography, it's a terrible time to go! I stayed out taking pictures only one of my two nights, and I didn't get back to my hotel until after 1AM! (St. Petersburg felt quite safe at night, though.) I wanted to go out again the second night, but I was too exhausted.

    But compared to anywhere else on my trip, there are just an endless number of things to photograph in St. Petersburg – amazing buildings, churches, palaces, squares, and bridges. Because the city is so huge, there was simply no way I could get great pictures of most of those places in the best light with barely three days, and that was a bit frustrating. I got a few really nice pictures but mostly a bunch of OK snapshots in St. Petersburg.

    But I did the same thing in St. Petersburg I did everywhere else: I walked around and took pictures. I used Google Maps to navigate walking directions on my Android phone (T-Mobile, unlimited data) and took buses, too. I didn't need a map because I had the phone, and I didn't have to struggle with the language or the words (I used Google Translate a few times on my phone). I felt very comfortable exploring St. Petersburg on my own.

    I explored the typical tourist sites along the busy Nevsky Prospect. I saw the eye-popping Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood (didn't go inside), and I actually visited two museums: the Russian Museum and (of course) the Hermitage, where I spent barely three hours on my final day before catching a shuttle back to the ferry to leave town. (Yes, I know, people can spend days in the Hermitage.) I climbed to the top of St. Issac's Cathedral and took in amazing views of St. Petersburg. I explored the Peter and Paul Fortress. And I tracked down a good number of unique bridges I'd read about ahead of time.

    I didn't go to Peterhof, Peter the Great's big complex of gardens and palaces that is supposed to rival Versailles (if you've seen one palace...). I didn't go to a ballet or a theatre. And I didn't go inside many churches. I focused on the outdoors.

    St. Petersburg was more touristy than I expected. There weren't nearly as many Americans as you'd find in Italy or France (because of the visa requirement, no doubt), but there were lots of big Asian tour groups, most of them carrying selfie sticks. Not man locals spoke English, but I did not have any trouble getting around at all. I was surprised how friendly the locals seemed – the night I was out late taking pictures, people approached me in a friendly way but only spoke Russian, so I wasn't really able to converse with them. I was surprised how safe St. Petersburg felt at night and how many people seemed to be out late – socializing more than acting rowdy.

    St. Petersburg is stunningly beautiful at night – it seems everything is lit up, and the view along the Neva River is really something. Had I not been exhausted, I might have stayed up past 2AM one night to photograph the bridges, many of which go up for a few hours in the middle of the night every night to allow cargo ships to pass through.

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    Helsinki (few hours between ferry and plane)

    Pictures: www.portlandbridges.com/00,M25D0IMG39419,455,1,1,0-helsinki-finland.html

    I could have planned a night or more in Helsinki, because I had to pass through on the way to/from St. Petersburg, but the city didn't sound that interesting to me ahead of time. So I opted to spend just a few hours on the day I arrived back from St. Petersburg early in the morning before flying back to Amsterdam late in the afternoon.

    My instincts were right – I found Helsinki pleasant and very modestly charming but not especially interesting or photogenic. I spent a few hours exploring the square near the train station then walking down to the market square by the main ferry port, from which I took a short ferry ride out to Suomenlinna (an old fortress consisting of several islands) and spent a few hours there, too. It was a pleasant morning and afternoon, but I wasn't sad not to have more time. My only real regret was not being able to take night pictures, which I like to take everywhere I visit. At the same time, I'm glad I visited Helsinki for half a day – for what it was it was great.

    I took the airport train from the Helsinki main train station and caught my plane on to Amsterdam on Finnair – a routine flight.

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    The Netherlands (3 nights: 1 night Delft, 2 nights Amsterdam)

    Pictures:
    Delft: www.portlandbridges.com/00,M25D0IMG39943,456,1,1,0-delft-netherlands.html
    The Hague: www.portlandbridges.com/00,M25D0IMG40182,457,1,0,0-netherlands.html
    Amsterdam: www.portlandbridges.com/00,M25D0IMG40452,458,1,0,0-amsterdam.html

    I needed to fly home from Amsterdam, and I probably needed at least one night there just to make the flight connection work. I had been to Amsterdam a few times before and it honestly isn't my favorite place, but I managed to score two free Hyatt hotel nights at the hip, beautiful (and expensive!) Andaz hotel right on the Prinsengracht, a nice spot near the center of Amsterdam. But with the way the ferry and my flights were scheduled, I had one extra night before the final two nights in Amsterdam. I could have spent that night in Helsinki or somewhere else in/near Amsterdam, but I opted to spend it in the town of Delft, about a 40 minute train ride from Amsterdam.

    Delft Hotel: Hotel Grand Canal Station Delft (great location, close to train station, nice enough for the money but with a few blemishes).

    Delft is one of those towns that people rave about but I couldn't quite get why from the pictures and their descriptions. I've been disappointed more than once when visiting places other people loved. So I felt like I was taking a chance with a night in Delft.

    But I loved Delft – a charming little town with canals, cute little bridges, lots of bikes, and huge churches, almost like a mini-Amsterdam. It is touristy but didn't feel touristy at all, at least to me. (Yes, people visit for the Vermeer connection or because of Delftware – not reasons I visited.) It is so much more laid-back and relaxing than busy Amsterdam that I imagine I'll stay in Delft again when I need to stay a night or two before flying into/out of Amsterdam. It's an easy direct train ride from Schiphol airport. On my brief stay, all I did was – naturally – wander around and take pictures, including some night shots. It's the kind of place where it's hard to take a bad picture; there are so many neat little bridges and canals.

    After my night in Delft, I did a quick day trip over to The Hague, which I was curious about imply because It is the headquarters of, for example, the International Court of Justice. I've seen The Hague mentioned over and over again over the years in news reports and books. So what is this town like? Other than that, I didn't expect much. It was an easy train ride from Delft and a slightly longer (but convenient) tram ride back to pick up my bags in Delft before heading on to Amsterdam.

    The Hague was pleasant but certainly lacking the obvious charm of Delft. I spent only a few hours walking around by the old castle and lake in the center of town. I wandered up to the Peace Palace, which was closed to the public on the day I visited – somehow, I found irony in a “peace palace” being closed to the public (that day) and surrounded by a gate and barbed wire.

    Then I took the train to Amsterdam and checked into the fancy, hip Andaz and mostly chilled out, because I had been to Amsterdam a few times before. I left my big DSLR camera at the hotel most of the time (except at night) and took only my pocket camera for a few pleasant walks along the Prinsengracht and the Keizersgracht. Both of those canals are stunning at night with all of the little bridges decked out with lights, and the Andaz was in a great spot that allowed me to go out and shoot some nice night shots without walking too far.

    I considered doing a day trip to Haarlem (where I'd been before) or Utrecht on the final day, but I decided instead to chill out in Amsterdam, and I had a pleasant, relaxed day. I took an hour detour to visit the Poezenboot, a cat shelter on a boat in the canal (open to the public only a few days a week – yes, you can pet some of the cats). I'd been before, back in 2002 on my first visit to Amsterdam.

    I enjoyed my return to Amsterdam and loved Delft.

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    Final Thoughts

    Overall: great trip. The highlights were Riga, St. Petersburg, Delft, and the ferry ride between Helsinki and St. Petersburg. I hope to return to both Riga and St. Petersburg someday. Tallinn was charming but small; I might want to return to Estonia again (maybe more time on the coast) but am not dying to return to Tallinn itself. I doubt I'll return to Lithuania again, but I'm glad I visited. I'm fairly sure I'll visit lovely Delft again when I have to stay near Amsterdam on a future trip.

    Again – see my expanded trip report at

    www.europeinpictures.com/baltics-trip-report/

    for more details, pictures, etc.

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    Thanks, everyone! You're right, Treesa - I had amazing weather, even while Paris was being flooded. Very lucky! This was the first trip I can remember to Europe where I never needed my umbrella.

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    Andrew, I'm bookmarking this as St. Petersburg and the Hermitage have always been on my list.

    Since your photos are great and your info is also, I'm looking forward to reading everything at leisure.

    I did skim the St. Pete. portion above and your mention of google helping with maps and translating was reassuring!

    I can't wait to read about this trip.

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    thanks, Andrew, for your warts and all report.

    We've toyed with the idea of doing the Baltic states' capitals, but given the other wonderful places we've not visited yet, I think that they might slip a little further down the list. I'm buoyed in this by your views about Delft - we stayed there for 3 nights a few years ago and loved it, so if you liked it too, the chances are we would agree with your views on other places too.

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    Thank you both!

    TDudette, language definitely wasn't a real issue for me in St. Petersburg, though I admit I am used to encountering people who don't speak English when I travel and don't get flustered - I'm just patient and roll with it. And I really don't try to talk to the locals much if I don't speak their language. Google Maps/Google Translate on my phone did make things far easier, especially with walking and public transit directions.

    annhig, I wouldn't rank the Baltic States at the top of my favorite places - but I myself have gotten down my list. Riga was my favorite capital but, sadly, I wasn't not especially enamoured with the other parts of Latvia I saw. I didn't leave wanting to see more of the country, though I would like to return to Riga itself someday. (True, I didn't see much, but I did travel a few hours by train in two directions.) Estonia is the one country I thought I might enjoy returning to, particularly to see the coastal islands.

    If someone asked me, "Where should I go next?" I'd recommend Slovenia and Croatia above the Baltic States if you haven't been there - personal preference.

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    Thanks, Andrew, food for thought.

    We went to Slovenia and Croatia many years ago, when they were both in Yugoslavia, and before Dubrovnik was "redesigned" in 1991. I'm sure that there was lots we missed but I don't have any particular yen to go back. What I should like to do is to see some of the towns of the Veneto, Trieste, etc. and/or Lisbon - basically anywhere that I can go from our "local" airport!

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    Thanks for posting

    "But compared to anywhere else on my trip, there are just an endless number of things to photograph in St. Petersburg – amazing buildings, churches, palaces, squares, and bridges. "

    You would find much to photograph in Moscow...
    (I visited for the second time this July ..a great city)

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    Thank you!

    Danon, I'm sure you're right about Moscow - hope to get there someday as well as get back to St. Petersburg.

    CollK, no idea where my next trip will be at this point! Time to start thinking about it...

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    Excellent write up, sounds like a great trip.
    I wanted to make a few comments. The visa for a 3 year multiple re-entry Tourist, Business, Private or Humanitarian visa is $160 which is quite a good deal, allowing each stay up to 6 months before getting another entry stamp in the passport for another 6 months.
    There is a visa application fee of $30 for a visa application center which handles public contact by contract with the consulate.
    Early summer is a terrible time to come here to St Petersburg for photographers except from 03:30-06:30 when the light and lack of traffic/pedestrians allow great exterior photography. After about 8, the city center streets and sidewalks are full and block the best sightlines. Since everyone stays out so late, locals tend not to get up too early and empty streets, parks and plazas are the norm until 9am or so. Due to the ruble being weak, Russia is the best bargain in European travel but will likely be more expensive in coming years as the economy is recovering and showing good growth.
    Mid day is not a good time for photography because of the hard shadows on people and buildings but fine in lush parks where the colors are still vivid in the shadows.
    About 40% of the population speak English and almost all under 25-30, as it is a required subject from the second grade. During the summer, many of those speaking Russian on the busy center streets are not locals but visitors themselves from other regions of Eastern Europe since it is the number 1 tourist destination for Russians. Moscow gets more visitors but many of those go for business.
    As you mentioned, people are friendly and the streets are safe. In the peak of tourist season, particularly June and July, pickpockets are a problem like every European city. But a few simple precautions eliminate the problem:wallets in front pockets, not rear, nothing of value in backpacks unless swung around to the chest, and carrying purses with strap over the head across the body and not hanging from one shoulder. Same with cameras, alth the biggest threat there from hanging a camera strap over the the same shoulder is simply dropping it. The pickpockets work in very limited areas, immediately around Church on Spilled Blood, on a 200 meter section of Nevsky Prospect, around St Isaac Square and in lines of group tourist entering the Hermitage. Otherwise it is very rare to hear of street crime.


    For less packed streets and sidewalks just travel 1-2 blocks on either side of Nevsky Prospect, or visit in April, May, Last week of August, and any time after September 1st(School Day; September 1st, where all kids have their favorite day of the year when they return to school...really, they love school and their teachers)
    September and early October have good calm weather, no real lines for the 354 museums or hundreds of drama theaters and easy getting good seats for ballet, concerts and opera. the pace is slower, socializing it still in full time mode but more relaxed than in the summer.
    One additional reason to come to St Petersburg is now food. It has become a real foodie city with over 10,000 restaurants and wine cafes opened in the last 10 years. A new passion of creative dishes using freshest ingredients has become the norm. Now it is easier to find a very good meal than cities like San Francisco which had that reputation of good food at all price ranges. Due to the competition and depressed value of the ruble, a visitor with euros or dollars is going to be dining very well for very low prices.
    So come back after getting the 3 year visa, and let me know if you want some specific photo tips since it is something I am actively involved with and moderator for the largest Nikon on-line community.

    My own experience in Riga and Vilnius is to visit in mid winter and stay in old town in each. Really nice experiences. St Petersburg is stunning in the snow but recent years have gotten so warm that little if any snow falls and there is not enough ice for winter sports. We had only 6 weeks of winter last winter and each year of the last 8, with the exception of 2010 when it snowed record amounts but still not not very cold.

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    Andrew, as always, a wonderful blog. Will be on a Baltic cruise next year, so really enjoyed your input on St. Pete, Tallinn and Helsinki, and of course Amsterdam. Now, if we could only get some lovely pictures like you have.

    Your travel style is so foreign to me, yet I envy it. A couple of carry on bags, buses and trains and ferries. More of a checked bag plus carry on, taxi and tram girl. But I envy your easy of travel.

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    Thank you, rncheryl! Yes, we probably do have different travel styles. I am pretty used to getting around just fine without a taxi, though. I used to carry a big bag but have found it so much easier to get around in recent years with less luggage.

    am_expat, I would probably enjoy St. Petersburg more at a different time of year, no doubt. I added it to my itinerary near the end of planning. I tend to return to places I like so don't mind a quick sampling at a non-ideal time of year.

    The cost of a multi-entry Russian visa seemed a bit higher than you say, though, in part because I was also assuming fees to mail your passport, etc. Agencies will handle everything for you but charge for it, of course. I had some friends who just visited Russia and paid something over $400 per person to get their multi-entry visas. Perhaps I could save a few bucks to do it myself.

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