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Trip Report Trip Report and Photos - The Baltics – Tallinn, Riga and Vilnius

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This summer I did a five week trip (last week June and all of July) which took me from the top of Europe (Finland) to the very bottom (Crete). My basic itinerary was England (cheap flight to London so added 4 days to do some day trips) - flew to the Baltics – 4 nights Tallinn (with a day trip to Helsinki), bus to Riga for 3 nights, bus to Vilnius for 3 nights – flew to Italy for 10 days (Venice and several other towns in Lombardy and Veneto) – flew to Crete for 8 nights and a 2 night stop back in England on the way back to the US. I’m going to post it in three separate trip reports to make it more useful for people when researching trips since I doubt there are too many people who will be visiting these three different areas all in one trip. The Baltics portion of my trip I was solo (my poor husband doesn’t get as much vacation as I do so he didn’t join me till I got to Venice).

Rather than a minute by minute accounting of what I did, I’m just giving some basic impressions and some logistical information that will hopefully be helpful to people planning to visit the area. Really, I take better photos than I do writing trip reports . The photos really tell the story.

www.pbase.com/annforcier/the_baltics

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    There is guidebook information out there on the Baltics, but not all that much. I relied a lot on trip reports and Internet research. Each town had tourist offices and maps available and there were walking tours you could sign up for but I prefer to explore on my own and that was easy to do in all three cities.

    Getting to Tallinn, Estonia from the US is not easy. The only flights I found entailed two stops, taking 16 or more hours, and cost close to $2000. So I flew to London and from there to Tallinn on easyjet. (Iceland Air to London for $420 and easyjet to Tallinn for £99). I decided to add a few extra days and do some day trips (Arundel, Rochester and Hever). Tallinn has just about the cutest airport I’ve ever seen – very tiny but brand new. It was gorgeous weather – sunny and high 70s. I knew to take the #2 bus to the city center but when I got outside the terminal the sign said “2A” – but that’s where most of the people were and the few I asked seem to think that was the correct one. It was really hot and crowded on that bus, the traffic was horrible so even though it was a very short distance, it took a while. It was pretty obvious which stop to get off, (Viru Center). I walked around the Center and then saw the steeples and towers across the street. The main street through Viru Gate is all torn up, major construction, so not a very pleasant introduction, but my map got me to the hotel no problem. Distances are way shorter than they look on the map.

    I spent four nights in Tallinn, but didn’t get there till late afternoon on the first day, so only had time for dinner and an introductory (self-guided) walk around the old town. One day I did a day trip to Helsinki and the other two just explored. One full day (especially if you had good weather and no cruise ship groups to contend with) would be enough – but you can’t count on that. So three full days turned out to be just right, and gave me enough time to explore a little of the new city.

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    TALLINN is certainly picturesque, some absolutely beautiful medieval buildings. This is an enchanting old city with the center almost entirely ‘intact’ with virtually no 20th-21st century buildings to detract from the ambiance. The oldest capital city in northern Europe, Tallinn¬—or Reval as it was known for most of the last 600 years— first appeared on a map in 1154 and its Old Town is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. There are a few buildings that are baroque or Victorian but mostly it’s the much older architecture that sets the picture, including several sections of the old town wall with towers and gates, a gorgeous main square with town hall, and several churches, all with tall spires. The town is somewhat divided into the larger lower town (with the town hall square, Raekoja Plats, at it’s center) and Toompea Hill with the ‘castle’, Russian orthodox Aleksander Nevski Cathedral, quieter streets and wonderful views of the lower town. The whole old town is less than a mile from one end to the other and half that from side to side and the climb up to the Toompea Hill is really not very steep and takes less than 5 minutes. You could cover the whole town in an hour if you didn’t stop to admire things (and take a lots of photos). If you removed all the people and restaurant umbrellas it could be a movie set.

    The downside: the atmosphere is somewhat diminished by construction (the whole of Viru street on both sides of the Viru Gate was all torn up with construction equipment everywhere), the large number of tourists and the outside tables/awnings which obstruct the view of many buildings. I would think the ambiance would be even better off season as is so often the case with cities that get cruise ships. During the day when the cruise ships tour group amoeba-like blobs were slowly moving around in groups of 40, blocking entire streets as they obliviously follow their lollipop waving guide, it was much less pleasant than after about 5 when they left. One day there were no cruise ships in port (you can check on line to see what days various cruise ports will have ships there) and it was much nicer. However, I can see how this makes a good day trip/ cruise excursion as it’s the perfect size to spend about 6-7 hours – I would just advise doing it on your own and not in a group.

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    Isabel this is fabulous - great idea to break it up based on region and I love what you've written so far. The photos are beautiful as well. I'm posting to bookmark this for my own future research and to continue following along for the ride!

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    In summer it never gets really dark, between about midnight and 3am the sky is very dark blue, but the rest of the time it is very light out, called “white nights”. While this is interesting to experience (Tallinn is about the same latitude as Stockholm and Bergen) I think it would have been nice to see it lit up without having to stay up till the middle of the night.

    With all the towers and steeples there are numerous climbing opportunities. I choose St Olaf and the less busy section of the walls on the west side of the city.

    St. Olaf’s Tower is the tallest in town. St. Olaf’s is believed to have been built in the 12th century and to have been the center for old Tallinn's Scandinavian community before Denmark conquered Tallinn in 1219. It was dedicated to King Olaf of Norway and was extensively rebuilt in the 14th century. At 120 meters to the top of the spire (60 meters to the viewing platform) – that’s 275 VERY steep stone spiral steps, the last 25 are actually more of a wooden ladder than steps. It claims to have been the tallest building in the world for a while in the 16th century, but this is somewhat controversial as it has been hit by lighting at least 10 times and the spire rebuilt to various heights. Whatever, it is TALL. And the view is of course incredible. And it is interesting to see how the ‘old town’ fits into the larger city, with skyscrapers and suburban sprawl which you are really oblivious to when you are in the old town. 2€

    I also climbed a section of the Town Walls. There are sections on both the east and west sides of the old town, as well as the section leading up to Toompa Hill, that you can climb. The section on the west side of town doesn’t have particularly great views (it’s only about 75 steps up) but it’s interesting to walk along, and you can climb further into a couple of the towers. 2 €

    There are several museums including an Occupations Museum. I wanted to do at least one while in the Baltics since the time of soviet occupations is what I remember from my childhood. The three Baltic countries were occupied for about 50 years between the end of WWII and 1990 so when I was a child Estonia was part of the soviet union so while there is something like 800 years of history besides that time period, I was curious about it. However, reviews of Tallinn’s Occupations Museum were not good so I decided to do the one in Riga instead (which then turned out to be closed for renovations). So it turned out the only museum I visited in Tallinn was a kind of ‘non-museum’.

    The Pharmacy Museum building is one of the nicest on Raekoja Plats, which is saying a lot as they are all beautiful. The “museum” consists of two small rooms, one and a half of which contain ancient scales and containers, etc. used in various forms of medicine. There’s a baby crocodile hanging from the ceiling. I learned from visiting the Pharmacy Museum in Krakow (considerably larger, that one has five floors and many rooms), that crocodiles or lizards were used in medieval pharmacy. There were jars of brightly colored liquids in the windows, another common practice in medieval pharmacies. What makes Tallinn’s Pharmacy ‘Museum’ unique is that the other half room contains a case of modern day remedies such as aspirin and vitamins, which are still being sold. While I was there a man, who apparently did not speak either English or Estonian, was trying to buy something for a cold and the pharmacist was trying to help him. They took Visa and Master Card. Free Entry (since it’s as much a store as a museum).

    There are numerous other museums, towers to climb, etc. but for me the most enjoyable activity was just wandering around and discovering little alleys and passageways and admiring the architecture (with occasional stopping to shop for amber jewelry, which is by far, THE main thing for sale in the old town).

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    Prices were not outrageous, but no bargain either. Food around Town Hall Square was of course more expensive and less good than on the side streets, but even there it was European average at best – less expensive than the Scandinavian countries and Switzerland but more expensive than Italy, France, Spain, etc.

    Besides the old town, there is of course, a ‘new’ town (total city population is 436,000 but the old town is so small it feels way smaller), with several modern glass skyscrapers and plenty of shopping centers. Tallinn was described by The New York Times “as sort of Silicon Valley of the Baltic Sea” and the success of the IT sector there is reflected in the city’s modern business area. Tallinn was also named the European City of Culture in 2011, cementing its reputation as a cultural hotspot.

    Just opposite the Viru Gate is the Viru Center, a multi story mall with all the international chains and several cafes, but no real food court. In the lowest level is a fairly large grocery store. There is another grocery store just out side the old town a ways up from the Viru Gate and two tiny ones (Rimi is the chain name) inside the old town. One of which at least has a very decent salad bar, lots of fruits and veggies and pastries, etc.

    Logistics – the airport bus drops off and picks up right outside the Viru Center. It’s the #2 and leaves from right out side the adorable, tiny, ultra modern airport. Cost 2€. Short distance but a lot of traffic, took at least 20-30 minutes. It’s about the 5th stop I think, it did say “Viru”.
    The bus station for buses to Riga is at least a half hour walk from Viru Gate, not a bad walk, and you do get to see the glass skyscrapers, etc. and realize how much more there is to Tallinn than the old town, but it’s kind of a slog and the #4 Tram does the trip for 2€ (buy ticket from driver) in about 5 minutes. There is a tram stop right in front of the Viru Gate.

    The port is about a 20 minute walk from Viru Gate, through a shopping/restaurant area. You need to look on a map to see which way to go but once you get the idea it’s quite obvious and a pleasant walk. (Otherwise you would need a taxi). You pass another huge supermarket. There are 4 terminals at the port: A,B, and C, and D, which is separate from the other 3 so you need to know which one you are heading to. D is where the Tallink line docks.
    Food – as mentioned, restaurants are everywhere, and so are supermarkets. There is a chain of cafes called Revel and another (more Starbucks like, with takeout) called appropriately, “Caffeinate”.

    ‘My City Hotel’ (booked on booking.com) is lovely. Very snazzy both inside and out. The receptionist asked me if I wanted to upgrade to a superior room for 10€ a night but I said no thanks but then she did it anyway (free). The room was really nice – huge queen size bed, lots of dresser and table space, giant bathroom, TV got tons of stations, several in English, mini bar, free Wi-Fi, all in all a very nice place. Breakfast had extensive choices including ‘full English’. Unfortunately if you weren’t into that, the croissants and rolls and such were pretty boring and the yogurt watery but that might just be regional preferences. 90€ is not cheap but this hotel was worth it. Five minutes walk from the Viru Gate.

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    Thanks for sharing your trip with us. Your account of Tallinn reminds me of another small European capital city - Bratislava. It too has a compact city center made for strolling and a sprinkling of sights.

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    Bratislava is one place that's been on my 'list' of places to go. I considered going as a day trip when I was in Vienna a few years ago but didn't get to it. Did you stay there or visit it as a day trip? And what other places did you combine it with?

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    I'm enjoying your report and pictures, Isabel, comparing your experiences to my own just a month or two earlier in these same cities.

    In Tallinn, I stayed at the other end of the old (lower) town, closer to the train station, at the Baltic Hotel Imperial, for slightly less than 90 Euros, but I was lucky to get that price (hotel was great, normally a bit more expensive). It was not far from the main square in the lower town. Normally being close to the train station would be beneficial, but I never even used the trains in Estonia, kind of a shame, because I love trains. One big benefit to me of staying in that area, though, was that I was ridiculously close to the great viewpoints in the Upper Town; I could hike up quickly from the hotel, and I was close enough that my phone even tried to connect to the hotel's WiFi from up there(!) (Not successful, just a bit too far away.) I hiked up the steps to the upper town viewpoints four or five times at different times of the day, once at midnight, to attempt "night" pictures or what passed for night at the end of May.

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    Isabel, I visited Bratislava on a full day trip from Vienna, but could have easily spend a night. I was there in Vienna for eight night late last November and took a couple of day trips, including to Gyor, which I also enjoyed. Given the time of year, I was able to enjoy the atmospheric Christmas markets there. Even though Bratislava is a capital city, it has very much of a small town feel. There weren't very many tourists there when we visited; we felt like we had the town to ourselves. If you're interested, I wrote about my visit in my trip report on Vienna; just click on my user name for it.

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    tripplanner001 - thanks, I'll check out your report

    andrew - I got lots of good information from your report. I wish I had forced myself to stay up till midnight to get some shots of Tallinn at "night" but alas, I didn't. I'm going to keep chipping away at this report since there are so few of them to the Baltics I know people are looking for information so hopefully this will be helpful.

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    Day trip from Tallinn to Helsinki

    In the planning stages I was undecided if I wanted to go to Helsinki or not. It seems to be everyone’s least favorite Scandinavian destination and most trip reports seem to have people only stopping there on the way to St. Petersburg. But after my two days in Tallinn I had seen most of what I wanted to and I figured I was that close, why not. I bought the tickets the day before but I’m pretty sure you could have just showed up and gotten one.

    You need to get to the port (Terminal D for Tallink Line) 45 minutes before departure to check in (you show passport and reservation and get a ‘boarding ticket’ (you can get the return one at the same time). Then you are directed by signs to “Go to ship” where you wait, then the doors open and you walk through a very long (almost ¼ mile on the Helsinki side, somewhat shorter in Tallinn) jet-way like affair to the ship. The Tallink Line ferries are huge – 9 stories high (although bottom 5 are cars and cargo) with numerous bars, restaurants and lots of shopping (duty free type stuff – apparently some people make the trip just to stock up on booze and perfume, etc.). There were buffets, a nice restaurant, pizza and burger places. Prices about the same as in Tallinn. The seating is all restaurant type – some more comfy than others, but no airplane/train type seats. On the return trip there was a live band playing. So it was an interesting experience but not really ‘ferry like’ – the top deck is open but it was cold and cloudy so no one up there, not much to see anyway, just open sea. And this is the North Sea so not exactly like taking a ferry between the Greek Isles. Crossing took 2 hours.

    The Tallink ferries use the West Terminal in Helsinki which is quite a ways from the center, but Tram 9 or 6T does the route in about 10 minutes. You can buy a day pass from the kiosk right outside the ferry terminal for 8€ and that incudes the ferry to the Suomenlinna Islands. You need a chip card or coins. Some of the other ferry lines that go between Tallinn and Helsinki use the port that is in the center of the city, walking distance, so at first I was sorry I had chosen Tallink Line (my research was pretty minimal, like I said, I wasn’t even sure I was going to do this trip) but the tram was fine.

    I liked Helsinki better than I expected to. Every review I read was lukewarm at best. I do agree that 5-6 hours is enough and I had no regret that I wasn’t staying overnight (though it looks like it would be a perfectly comfortable place to do so). I also agree that if you had to choose between Stockholm, Bergen, Copenhagen, Tallinn and Helsinki, that Helsinki would be last choice.

    Helsinki is very much a 20th century city – apparently 90% of all buildings in Finland are 20th century. But there are several nice boulevards of pretty buildings and it has a harbor, an efficient tram system and prices were actually not bad for Scandinavia. A meal of grilled salmon and veggies at the Market Square was 12€ (I think I remember in Bergen two years ago it was more like three or four times that). They were also selling Belgian waffles for 3€, cream of salmon soup with coffee for 6€, reindeer meat balls for €9, etc. In a café in the center of town I got a giant croissant filled with mascarpone and berries for 4€. The souvenir stuff was priced on a par with Tallinn. So this was different from what I was expecting.

    I got off the tram at the Train Station, certainly one of the most impressive in Europe (and considering where you are, there aren’t that many choices of places you can go – the rest of Finland and Russia are about it). But the building is incredible. Next to the train station is a large square (where inter-city buses seem to stop) lined with numerous impressive buildings. Across the street starts the shopping district – several huge malls and department stores and pedestrianized couple blocks walk lined with stores and restaurants. This brings you to the end of the Esplandi Park which is a two-three block long park with benches and trees and fountains. On either side is a street lined with beautiful buildings. This ends in another square with a large fountain and in front of that the Market Square and harbor.

    This first harbor is where the ferry to the Suomelinna Islands leaves from, also several sightseeing boats, and off to the sides, larger ferries and cruise ship docks. There were many stalls selling fruits and veggies and well as plenty offering hot food with picnic tables and several with touristy stuff (and some with jewelry, scarves). The touristy stuff is pretty much anything you can make out of reindeer/moose antlers or anything in the shape of a reindeer.

    At the far end of market square is a small bridge to the Russian Orthodox Uspenski Cathedral and past that is another harbor, this one much longer and I thought, more interesting. It’s lined with sailboats including some really nice old wooden sailing ships. On the street side of this harbor are several blocks of nice early 20th century buildings.

    A couple blocks inland from the harbors is Senate Square with the very large and impressive Lutheran Cathedral. Much more so outside than in, insides it’s very plain, Lutheran austerity. Senate Square is essentially a tour bus parking lot.

    The ferry to the Suomelinna Islands leaves about every 20 minutes and takes about 15 minutes. If you didn’t get a day pass for the tram you can get a RT ferry ticket from a kiosk (or a person, actually) for €6. This is worth doing for the views of Helsinki from the water if nothing else (not the same view you get coming in on the Tallink ferry anyway). But the islands are a UNESCO World Heritage Site and are more interesting than they sound. There are several of them, connected by little bridges and have extensive fortifications all over them. Mostly these are underground (well, under hillocks actually) so there’s not all that much to see till you get into them, where they are dark and damp but still interesting. It would take a few hours to explore the whole place, but after about an hour I’d had enough.

    So back to the market square for an excellent salmon dinner and then back to the train station. The whole thing took about 5 hours (from leaving the port to getting back to the port). It does take a good half hour to disembark and get your tram ticket, and at least that long to get back to the ship (and going both directions the ferry left 20-30 minutes late). I took the 10:30-12:30 ferry to Helsinki and the 19:30-21:30 ferry back, all in all I had about 1 hour more than I ‘needed’, if you had a more leisurely meal it would be just right.

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    See, because you took the ferry to the west terminal in Helsinki, instead of the market square terminal, you got to see the creepy statue of the boy alien peeing in front of the mall by the west terminal. ;-) (See isabel's photos of Helsinki to see what I'm talking about.)

    Sometimes it helps to set your expectations low and then be pleasantly surprised. Sounds like that's what happened with you and Helsinki. I was more of the "lukewarm" opinion of Helsinki, though, after doing probably about the same itinerary as you did (except I explored Helsinki after I got back from St. Petersburg). I took the Eckerö ferry to Tallinn instead of Tallink - mostly because of the schedule and price (sounds like your Tallink ferry experience was otherwise about the same as mine with Eckerö, which also docked at west terminal in Helsinki). I did get my ferry ticket for only 19 Euros online the day before, whereas at the check-in desk the agent told me it was 30 Euros whether I bought it online or not (she lied or was wrong - it was 19 Euros when I bought it online a bit later).

    I would have enjoyed taking some night pictures in Helsinki, but otherwise I had no desire to spend a night there and didn't regret having only a few hours there. The train station was really cool, perhaps my favorite building that I saw in Helsinki. I'm glad I visited Helsinki for that short amount of time, though.

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    Still enjoying your report. I'm glad that the prices in Helsinki are manageable. I've largely avoided Nordic Europe on my trips to the Continent due to the perceived high costs; Norway, now, that's another story.

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    I agree that the prices were a welcome surprise - but still they weren't any better than anywhere else I went on the trip. The prices in Norway were horribly high but I thought it was a lot more interesting and visually appealing. So worth. I just keep my time in the Scandinavian countries to a minimum and save my 'relaxing' for southern Europe.

    So - on to Riga.

    Riga, Latvia

    The most efficient way to travel between places in the Baltic countries is by bus rather than train. I really like train travel, but in this case it is faster, less expensive and more comfortable to travel between cities by bus. There are a couple of bus companies and between them several trips in each direction daily between Riga and Tallinn. I used Luxexpress (also for the trip from Riga to Vilnuis). The ticket was 12€ and it took about 4 hours. The seats were at least as comfortable as any coach airplane seats and there was great seatback entertainment. Huge choice of movies and TV shows. I watched a movie that had been on my ‘list’ of things to see this year –so if I had gone to a theater to see two movies it would have cost more than the bus ticket. And just as the second one was ending we pulled into the bus station, which is right across a (very busy) street from the start of the old town.

    Riga is larger (641,000) than Tallinn (it’s not only the largest city in the Baltic countries, but the ‘old town’ section is also far larger). It feels like a real city, with people who live there going about their business, although there were plenty of tourists as well. The architecture is much more mixed – there are many medieval buildings but lots more from more recent periods, notably art nouveau for which Riga is best known. There are scatterings of 20th century buildings within the old town but almost everything is beautiful. There are at least 3 or 4 fairly large squares and 4 or 5 gorgeous churches. Most of them have Rooster weathervanes, so that’s a Riga symbol. There is also a house topped with cat sculptures, so cats are another Riga symbol. A skeleton key seems to be a third Riga symbol.

    The town’s towers were taken down in the 19th century, so just one Tower remains, but the old town is still clearly delineated. On one side of the old town is the Daugava River and on the other is a beautiful canal (with a number of fountains in it), which runs through a park that runs the entire length – the Bastejkalns. Just east of the Freedom Monument is an impressive Russian Orthodox Church. Just south of the old town is the Central Market (other side of the bus station), possibly the largest in all of Europe. It consists of five former German dirigible hangers. Each one devoted to a different food – an entire hanger full of meat, another full of fish, another cheese. There are also spices, nuts, candies, and of course fruits and veggies which are also sold in all the out-door areas surrounding the hangers (grapes for €1.20/kg – that’s 60 cents a pound! – less than a fifth of what grapes go for where I live). Exploring Riga was a joy; around every corner was another medieval building on a narrow alley, or a square with buildings covered with art nouveau art. Prices a bit lower than Tallinn.

    Riga is a UNESCO World Heritage Site – “The historic center of Riga is a living illustration of European history. It was a major center of the Hanseatic League, founded in 1201, deriving its prosperity in the 13th – 15th centuries from trade with central and Eastern Europe. The urban fabric of its medieval center reflects this prosperity (though most of the earliest buildings are now gone). Riga became an important economic center in the 19th century, when the area surrounding the medieval center was laid out with neoclassical and Jugendstil style – it is generally recognized that Riga has the finest collection of art nouveau buildings in Europe.”

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    Glad you like the photos. The Baltics are not quite as photogenic as some places, but were certainly interesting. I do think there are lots of places in Europe that are more interesting but I like to try new places.

    Michael - I usually shoot jpeg. I did shoot some in raw but haven't gotten around to processing them. It's such a pain that the software on the computer and the camera are never in sync. It seems like things could be simpler. So, the jpegs are really pretty good so haven't had much incentive but I'd like to try raw. It's just that it's more fun for me to plan my next trips than to learn a new technology.

    tripplanner - I think I read something about the significance of the rooster weather vanes but now I don't remember, but I know it is a 'thing' (not just a coincidence).

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    Riga Logistics – eating was easy in Riga. There are tons of restaurants in all price ranges, and not just touristy types. Prices are great. One meal I got a ‘designer’ pizza (Portobello mushroom, BBQ sauce, cheese and crispy fired onions) and a drink for under €8 – at a delightful restaurant with outside seating on Dom Cathedral square – with linen napkins even! There are coffee shops on every corner (even a Costa). In addition to the Central Market (which itself has two ‘supermarkets’ within it) there is a huge Rimi supermarket in the Galleria, which is a multi story mall (all the international chains) which has a salad bar as well as a ‘hot bar’ with numerous offerings.

    Even though Riga is a ‘real’ city, the old town is fairly small, can certainly be walked one end to the other in 30 minutes or so. The Central Market is right behind the bus station, which is just across the street/tram line from the bottom of the old town (so 15 minute walk from the ‘center of the center’). The art nouveau district is just north of the old town. There is a tramline circling the old town and going out into the suburbs.

    While there are many art nouveau buildings scattered around the old town, the ‘best’ and the most numerous are in the ‘district’ just northeast of old town. About a 20 minute walk. Along Elizabetes and Alberta and Steinieku Streets. The art nouveau museum is located there (€6) and consists of 6 or 7 rooms with a great collection of furniture and decorative items. There are a couple of costumed guides to explain things and there are laminated cards in each room in multiple languages with information as well. The outstanding feature is a spiral staircase in the entry way (that you can see for free, it’s before the ticket desk). There’s not really any gift shop in the museum, but across the street is a store selling art nouveau stuff.

    I had three nights/ two and a half days in Riga which was just right for what I wanted. Other than the Art Nouveau Museum, and going up to the top of the steeple of St Peter’s Church, I mostly just wandered around exploring and taking lots of photos. I had intended to do the Occupation Museum but it was closed for renovations.

    Radi Un Draugi Hotel, Riga - €85 –The hotel is within the old town, but at the southern end of it so just a ten minute or so walk from the bus station. Perfectly nice, décor is a bit ‘dated’ but quite clean, lift works great. The room was average single room size, plenty of space to lay stuff out, bathroom quite large. AC, TV and wi-fi all worked great. Breakfast was excellent including eggs, bacon and lots of choices of croissants, ham, cheese, etc. Coffee was excellent. Hotel is in an area of lots of restaurants/bars so with window open there was some street noise, but when windows are closed it was totally quiet.

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    Out of the three Baltic capitals, I found Riga by far the most photogenic, perhaps because of the neat bridges and of course the art nouveau buildings. Tallinn's old town seemed more "charming" but there really didn't seem to be lots of great photo ops, after you shoot from the top of Toompea Hill in the upper town. If churches are your thing, Villnius might seem the most photogenic to you.

    I didn't climb to the top of St. Peter's in Riga because it closed before dusk in May, and I really wanted to shoot night shots from up there, and it was not cheap to climb it. Would have been worth it at night.

    I think where isabel stayed closer to the bus station may have been better than where I stayed (closer to the art nouveau district), but Riga is so big and spread out that you'll need to get around to the various parts of town anyway. I stayed out late two nights taking pictures near the old town so it might have been easier to get home late than the hike I had back (although I took many buses and trams even late).

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    I definitely thought both Riga and Tallinn were more photogenic (and pleasant to be in) than Villnius. I also really liked all the hotels I stayed in, especially their locations. They were all quiet but just steps away from the center of things, and towards the transportation hubs (bus and train stations) so arrival and departure were no big deal.

    VILNIUS (and day trip to the castle in Trakai)
    This Lux Express experience was a bit different than the trip from Tallinn to Riga. First, it was 25 minutes late. The guy just took everyone’s bags and loaded them – on the Tallinn-Riga stretch they actually ‘checked’ the bags – put a sticker on the bag and gave you a copy. They didn’t look at passports (everyone had them out so clearly they usually do, but this guy just looked at the ticket and checked the name/number on his list). And third, somehow we arrived 45 minutes before scheduled, despite leaving late. Oh well. The ride was fine, I watched two movies including ‘Bridge of Spies’ which is about the cold war so kind of appropriate considering where I was. And since I had time (just barely) for two movies again, and given the price of a movie, even on Netflix, the bus ticket was essentially free.

    The countryside between Riga and Vilnius was pretty similar to that between Tallinn and Riga – like upstate NY – mostly flat, hay fields, some trees, not much to look at. As we approached the city there was a lot of ugly Soviet era apartment blocks. Tons of them. But then suddenly there was an area of very new modern glass high-rises. It was raining as we pulled into Vilnius, but stopped by time I got off the bus and out the front door of the bus station (the train station is right next door). It was slightly confusing which way to head for the old town. Actually I spotted a McDonald’s and it was on my Google map so that help orient me. Basically if you just head across the street and start walking down the hill you get to the old town.

    City Gate Hotel is only about a 10-minute walk from the bus/train stations but the area is a little run down, not sketchy but not attractive. But then there was the hotel and it really is right across the street from the main town gate, and the hotel itself is sort of set back off the street. Room was huge, with big sitting area, double bed, great AC, TV, free Wi-Fi. My room was on the ground floor but I did see a lift. The hotel is kind of spread out in different wings so even though it turned out to be full it was very quiet. Breakfast was decent with lots of selection, good coffee. 65€

    Interesting tid-bit: The hotel TV got about 50 channels including BBC, several Russian, German, Austrian, etc. plus “baby tv”, “god tv”, “fashion tv” plus several in Arabic titled “hot Arab sex”, Arab girls, Arab babes, Arab xxx, (though none of those seemed live, all featured an ugly man standing in front of a satellite dish), but still…

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    Vilnius (545,000) just doesn’t have the same ‘wow’ factor that both Tallinn and Riga have. Inside the town gates it’s quite nice but while the wide main street – which runs the length of the old town – is cobbled-stoned, it is not car free and the cars that are there – many of which are taxis – go incredibly fast. I have never experienced so many cars speeding so fast in a city center full of pedestrians. It really detracted from the experience of walking around. There was a smaller percentage of tourists than the other two Baltic capitals, but there were several tour groups and plenty of people who were clearly tourists. There was also more graffiti and trash and construction. The town is much more baroque looking, less medieval feeling. Plenty of amber stores, also a good number of clothing stores including designers (Burberry, etc.) Overall, much less touristy than Tallinn. I spent 3 nights, which gave me 2¼ days which was about the right amount of time to explore Vilnius and do a partial day excursion to Trakai. Still, it is a UNESCO World Heritage site.

    Lots of restaurants and cafes and prices were lower than Riga, which were lower than Tallinn. I found a restaurant - Gusto blynine – opposite Bastilian Gate which I loved. It has a sort of Alice in Wonderland theme décor and a huge menu, featuring pancakes (American, French crepes, potato latkes) with numerous sweet or savory fillings as well as salads, soups, and main dishes. Seriously, I liked that place so much and it had such a varied menu I ate there virtually all my meals all three days.

    Vilnius doesn’t have main ‘squares’ as much as one long wide ‘street’ that runs from the old main town gate, the “Gate of Dawn” down to the bottom of the old town where the Cathedral and the “Castle Hill” are located. About half way down is an actual ‘square’ (actually it’s a big triangle), Town Hall Square. There are no less than 7 major churches along this area. Both east and west are neighborhoods with smaller winding streets, (and to the east a large park) (and to the west some large pleasant boulevards) and in both directions, more churches.

    While churches (and especially their steeples) are major features of the city-scapes of both Tallinn and Riga, the churches in Vilnius seem more ‘religious’, probably because most are catholic or orthodox rather than protestant, and baroque rather than medieval.

    Guidebooks and Google have info on most of these but the one I found most interesting I had not read anything about. That is the Franciscan Church, on the west side of the old town. It’s in a small park like area and set off from the street so you almost don’t even notice it. The outside is rather plain and run down. It didn’t even look open, but the wooden main door was ajar so I went in. The vestibule was dark, and very worn wooden steps led to another door. And inside that was a huge, bright church, very worn and faded but wonderfully evocative. They are just beginning to renovate and a tiny section of the ceiling has been redone. The floor was covered with old oriental rugs, no art, crumbling stucco exposing brick. But just beautiful.

    The other highlight is the University (and this IS in all the guidebooks). There are several large courtyards, a magnificent church (St John’s), with a separate bell tower you can go up (climb 250 steps or take the lift, either way 2.50€ for the bell tower plus 1.50€ for the rest of the university). There’s also a fresco in one of the buildings "The Seasons of the Year" (painted in 1976-1984) with motifs from Baltic mythology at the Centre of Lithuanian Studies. The small bookstore has more, older frescoes.

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    I stayed closer to the center of Vilnius's old town, I guess (Hotel Centro Kubas - Angel), and didn't get the same "speeding taxi" experience, because where I was seemed more pedestrian-only. But I completely agree that Vilnius doesn't have the "wow factor" the other Baltic capitals have.

    I loved the university buildings, too.

    Vilnius's churches are certainly unique, but I went inside few of them - churches aren't my thing, though I like to photograph them. One of my favorite things to see in Vilnius was the Antakalnis Cemetery just outside of town - a sprawling cemetery in the woods with lots of unique headsones and monuments to war dead from various eras, including a memorial for Lithuanians who died in the brief struggle for independence from the Soviet Union at the end of the Cold War. But I like cemeteries.

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    The inside of churches aren't really my thing either, although the outsides certainly are. I love architecture and in times past, the 'best' buildings were usually churches. Most times I just peak inside to see if there is anything special (and I do like stained glass). So that's why I was very happy to discover the interior of St Francis in Vilnius. The fact that it was somewhat of a 'ruin' was what made it special. That and seeing the contrast of the newly renovated frescoes on the ceiling with the rest of the extremely faded interior. It made me realize how terribly uncared for many of these buildings were during the soviet time - probably many/most of the rest of the churches looked that way too twenty years ago and how much work goes into restoring them.

    Anyway, on to Trakai

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    One day I took the train to TRAKAI, a small town about a 40 minute (€3.14 RT) train ride from Vilnius. Not only does it have a decent castle, it was interesting to see a smaller town since all the rest of my time in the Baltics was spent in the capital cities. The train between Vilnius and Trakai makes a few stops but Trakai is the end of the line so no worries as to where to get off.

    The town is spread out along one main street that runs along a narrow strip of land, with lakes on both sides for almost 3 km from the train station to the castle. The street was relatively boring, you couldn’t really see the water most of the time, it had some prettily colored wooden houses which I assume are ‘typical’ Lithuanian residential architecture. It was an easy walk, but I wasn’t prepared for how long it was, it really took me about 45 minutes each way (and I was walking at an ‘average’ speed) based on the other people who got off the train, all of whom of course were going the same place I was. So even though the train is only 40 minutes, it takes close to 1½ hour to get to the castle.

    The castle is on an island connected by a wooden bridge and is quite scenically situated as it is across the water. It’s not terribly large, and it’s red brick which most castles that’s I’ve come across (and there are many!) don’t seem to be. But there are extensive rooms on three levels to explore – most of them feature historical displays, armory, etc., some with furniture. Most signs have English descriptions. If you really wanted to study everything there it would take several hours. I spent about 1½ hour in the castle (€6). On the mainland there’s an assortment of restaurants, cafes, food take out options, souvenir shops, amber jewelry shops and rowboat rentals. There were also some bigger boats you could take a ride around the lake on.

    All in all my excursion, including RT train, RT walk, castle and a bit of knocking around the ‘village’ took close to 5 hours, but it was a pleasant day and I though it added to the experience of Lithuania.

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    I agree with your assessment of Trakai the town. It seemed like a fairly ordinary, unmemorable town, and the lake scenery (other than the castle and the wooden foot bridges) was pretty but ordinary, too. If you are visiting Europe seeking some cute, picturesque town in Lithuania, Trakai probably isn't it.

    I didn't go inside the castle - I've been inside enough castles and was content to take pictures of it. From the outside, it reminded me a lot of Malbork castle near Gdansk (not surprising given the linked history of Poland and Lithuania for a few hundred years). Malbork was one castle I did explore and really enjoyed, though.

    I took the train to Trakai, too, and would again, but the Trakai bus station is slightly closer to the castle, and it seems many tourists take mini-buses from Vilnius instead. I considered taking a bus back to Vilnius as I walked past the bus station on the way back to the train station, but I couldn't tell how long the bus travel times were. Some of the buses go directly back to Vilnius; some make stops so take longer than the train. I prefer trains, anyway, and the Lithuanian trains I was on were all modern and nice.

    One thing I regretted missing out on was a stop off this train at Paneriai to see the holocaust memorial, where thousands of Jews and others were murdered by the Nazis during the war. Paneriai was on my list but I just didn't have enough time to fit it in with the trip to/from Trakai. The trains unfortunately don't run all that frequently, so it takes some planning to fit this in if you visit by train.

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    Isabel, I enjoyed your report and your pictures! Thanks for sharing! It was fun to compare your experience with mine as I was in those three capitals for the last two and half weeks of August.

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    Thanks, I appreciate the kind words. And nice to know other people are consider visiting these wonderful places. It was hard getting good info before my trip and I relied heavily on other people's trip reports so I'm glad this one might help others.

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    Hello Isabel!
    Just read your TR and it sent me back 4 years to my own trip to the Baltics. Sounds like we had very different experiences though both enjoyable in their own way. Lovely to read your thoughts!

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    Isabel,
    I LOVE your photos and your trip report! Helsinki looks very nice; you were wise in taking the opportunity to go there.

    My husband was in Tallin many years ago as part of a business trip to Russia, and he loved it! He would like to go back. so other than Tallin, neither one of us have been to the countries you went to, and they are now on my bucket list. I love to visit new and different places.

    Do many people in these countries speak English? If not, was it difficult traveling around?

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    All the people in the tourist business speak English so I had no trouble. I've found it to be the case that when the language is not very common world wide, like Estonian, etc. then more people speak English - as opposed to France, Spain and Italy. So language was no problem - although I can't say I had any in depth conversations with anyone.

    Hope you enjoy your trip.

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