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

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Sep 22nd, 2016, 02:35 PM
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Trip Report and Photos - The Baltics – Tallinn, Riga and Vilnius

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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Sep 22nd, 2016, 02:36 PM
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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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Sep 22nd, 2016, 02:38 PM
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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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Sep 22nd, 2016, 03:20 PM
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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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Sep 23rd, 2016, 12:41 AM
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Stunning photos, as always.
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Sep 23rd, 2016, 06:36 PM
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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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Sep 24th, 2016, 04:57 AM
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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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Sep 24th, 2016, 05:41 AM
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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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Sep 24th, 2016, 10:44 AM
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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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Sep 24th, 2016, 12:38 PM
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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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Sep 24th, 2016, 06:45 PM
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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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Sep 25th, 2016, 09:51 AM
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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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Sep 25th, 2016, 03:55 PM
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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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Sep 25th, 2016, 04:22 PM
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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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Sep 25th, 2016, 05:21 PM
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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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Sep 26th, 2016, 03:57 AM
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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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Sep 26th, 2016, 05:46 AM
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Very interesting regarding the city symbols...what are their significances?
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Sep 26th, 2016, 11:57 AM
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Isabel,

I just purchased a FZ300. I am wondering if you use RAW or fine Jpeg when you take your pictures.
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Sep 26th, 2016, 12:56 PM
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Love all the pics!!
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Sep 27th, 2016, 02:14 AM
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Never on my radar.... now you make me want to go!
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