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

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

Sep 27th, 2016, 11:17 AM
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Great photos as always, isabel. Thanks!
Leely2 is offline  
Sep 27th, 2016, 12:37 PM
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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).
isabel is offline  
Sep 27th, 2016, 12:38 PM
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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.
isabel is offline  
Sep 27th, 2016, 01:19 PM
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Thanks for the information.
Michael is offline  
Sep 27th, 2016, 03:31 PM
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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).
Andrew is offline  
Sep 28th, 2016, 03:02 AM
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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…
isabel is offline  
Sep 28th, 2016, 03:05 PM
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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.
isabel is offline  
Sep 28th, 2016, 03:32 PM
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the center almost entirely ‘intact’ with virtually no 20th-21st century buildings to detract from the ambiance.

But what there is has appeal:

Michael is offline  
Sep 28th, 2016, 04:03 PM
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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.
Andrew is offline  
Sep 29th, 2016, 03:27 AM
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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
isabel is offline  
Sep 29th, 2016, 03:28 AM
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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.
isabel is offline  
Sep 29th, 2016, 07:41 PM
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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.
Andrew is offline  
Nov 4th, 2016, 09:05 AM
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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.
irishface is offline  
Nov 4th, 2016, 07:43 PM
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Thank You for posting and for the pictures.

I have been to all those places so Thanks for the trip down Memory Lane.
Percy is offline  
Nov 5th, 2016, 06:00 AM
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Good trip report, thank you for taking the time to write it.
cafegoddess is online now  
Nov 9th, 2016, 10:13 PM
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so helpful! planning a trip now, and love all your details and tips!!
kawh is offline  
Nov 17th, 2016, 01:55 AM
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Beautiful batches of photos, isabel.
I've been to Riga, and you really capture the essence of it
FuryFluffy is offline  
Nov 18th, 2016, 12:37 PM
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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.
isabel is offline  
Nov 18th, 2016, 04:12 PM
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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!
gertie3751 is offline  
Nov 20th, 2016, 09:59 AM
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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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