Nestled around the Baltic Sea, Estonia, Lithuania and Latvia make up Europe’s stunning Baltic region. They’re some of the most beautiful countries in the world and are growing in popularity as tourist destinations each year, drawing more and more people to this northeastern corner of Europe than ever before. And when you combine their fairy-like architecture (you almost expect to see Rapunzel letting down her hair in those towers), tasty food, friendly people and incredible culture, it’s easy to see why!
The increase of affordable flights from well-known budget airlines across Europe have made the Baltic capitals an attractive option for those looking for a short, off-beat city break. All three cities have unique offerings and cultures and it can be tricky to decide between visiting Tallinn or Riga or Vilnius. Luckily, I have spent a few days in each capital and can help you figure out which is the best Baltic city to visit!
Tallinn, the capital of Estonia and the most northerly of the Baltic cities, is located on the Baltic Sea’s Bay of Finland. It has a busy port and has frequent ferry connections to its Scandinavian neighbours Finland and Sweden as well as bus and train connections to St Petersburg in Russia.
The city of Tallinn itself is fairly walkable and, especially if you’re only planning on visiting the Old Town, it is entirely possible to get to a wide array of attractions on foot. However, if you’re keen to explore some sites a little bit farther afoot, there is an extensive, affordable, and easy-to-use bus and tram network. All in all, Estonia’s capital is a pretty accessible place both in terms of getting to the city and around it once you’re there.
The historical centre is completely surrounded by medieval town walls, interspersed with circular watch towers – that conjure images of Rapunzel letting down her hair – some of which are open to visitors. The upper town, originally home of the upper classes, is now the seat of the government of Estonia, and is considered the heart of the country. Tallinn’s Old Town is one of the best preserved medieval cities in Europe and is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
All of the main sites in the Old Town, including the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral, the Patkuli Viewing Platform, and the Town Hall Square can all be seen in the span of a few hours but there is so much more to the city than this. Tallinn is a modern, high-tech, and thriving city with a number of great things to do both in and out of the Old Town.
The trendy neighbourhood of Kalamaja is well worth exploring, with many nice shops, restaurants, and cafes to pop into. This is also where the popular Seaplane Harbour Museum is located and the best area for discovering the beautiful traditional Estonian wooden houses.
Other points of interest outside of the Old Town include the hip Telliskivi Creative City and Balti Jaama Turg, which has both traditional market stalls and some fantastic street food. If the weather is fine, there is a nice city beach just a short bus ride from the city centre in the suburb called Pirita. Tallinn’s nicest park, and one of the most beautiful historic parks in the entire Northern Europe, Kadriorg Park, is a bit away from the centre, but surely worth a visit.
If you’re looking for locally produced souvenirs from Estonia, Tallinn doesn’t disappoint. Artisan shops selling handicrafts and jewellery are found along its main streets or hidden within courtyards. Wool products, wooden kitchen utensils, leather work, and even chocolate are produced by hand by local craftspeople.
Tallinn has a number of great things to do, so it is easy to spend at least two days in the city — though I would probably recommend three or four. Relatively cheap accommodation can also be found pretty close to the Old Town, if one knows where to look!
The largest of the three Baltic capitals, Latvia’s Riga is well known for its beautiful Art Nouveau architecture, believed to be the largest collection of buildings of this style in the world. In the early 20th century, between 300 and 500 new buildings were constructed each year, melding with earlier architectural styles, such as the medieval guildhalls, in the Old Town.
Latvia is located in the centre of the Baltic States and Riga has a strategic position on the mouth of the Daugava River going out onto the Gulf of Riga. This means that the city is easy to reach from a number of surrounding countries. Riga has frequent bus connections between most major Baltic cities and also cities like Warsaw and St Petersburg. There is also a daily ferry connection with Stockholm in Sweden.
In the city itself, there is an extensive bus and tram network that will easily and affordably take you anywhere you might want to go. However, the centre and old town are very walkable and it’s best to get around on foot. If you plan to only spend your time here, you will likely only need to use public transport to get to and from the airport.
The most popular area of Riga would be its Old Town, where attractions such as the Gunpowder Tower, the House of the Blackheads, and the Riga Castle draw tourists in with their historical significance and stunning architecture. And due to it’s proximity to the coast, Riga is also the perfect place to have a taste of the Baltic Sea.
One thing not to be missed is a visit to Riga’s eclectic central market, housed in and around former zeppelin hangars; it’s one of the largest markets in Europe, and offers just about anything you could possibly want. In fact, I spent quite a while in this market walking around the stalls and did quite a bit of shopping here too!
This Baltic gem is also lush and vibrant thanks to an impressive abundance of city parks and my recommendation is the pretty Bastejkalns Park, complete with its Bridge of Love, which is smothered with padlocks from lovers who want to show the strength of their love!
Latvian food differs slightly from that of Estonia and is more heavily influenced by its Eastern neighbours rather than those to the north. To understand Latvian culture and traditions better, you must get to know the cuisine with all the unique dishes. Some of the dishes might seem odd, but if you are open to an unforgettable gastronomic journey in Latvia, you’ll want to take all the food back home!
One such dish is beetroot soup. At first, it might taste and look a little odd because let’s be honest; no one expects a soup to be pink! However, things can get even crazier when you try cold beetroot soup, prepared using kefir, beetroots, cucumbers, eggs, and herbs.
If you’re trying to compare Riga vs Vilnius or Tallinn, then certainly the affordability of the city needs to be taken into account. And luckily for the budget-minded traveller, Riga is quite an affordable place to travel!
Just like most every other major city in Europe, the Old Town does tend to be a bit more expensive than the rest of the city purely because it is where most tourists tend to spend their money. However, the prices in Riga’s Old Town are significantly less expensive when compared to Tallinn. That being said, if you’re trying to save some money, I would recommend looking for accommodation and restaurants away from the main tourist centre, as I did. It will both be more affordable and likely of better quality too!
Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania is the cool kid on the block. While its Old Town may not be as impressive as the ones in Riga or Tallinn, Vilnius churches are crown jewels of baroque architecture. I was surprised by the number of beautifully decorated cafes and bars that dot Vilnius streets. Of course, I had to sit down and enjoy delicious coffee and cakes while watching charming modern Lithuanians walk by.
Contrary to the other Baltic capitals, Vilnius is located about 300 kilometres inland and therefore cannot be reached by ferry. However, there are frequent direct bus and train connections from just about every major city nearby, including Warsaw, Riga, Tallinn, Kaliningrad, and Minsk. In Vilnius, there is an extensive bus and tram network that is affordable and fairly easy to navigate. On the whole, however, most of the main sites in Vilnius are easy to reach on foot and the city is incredibly walkable.
Compared to Tallinn or Riga, the Old Town of Vilnius will seem positively gargantuan. In fact, the Old Town is one of the largest in Europe. Fewer tourists visit Vilnius when compared to the other cities as well, with most foreign visitors making a beeline for Lithuania’s exquisite coast rather than taking the time to head inland and explore the beautiful baroque charms of the capital. So if you want to get further off the beaten tourist path, I would recommend travelling to Vilnius vs Riga or Tallinn.
There are a number of things to do in the city, but certainly one of the best things is to just get lost and wander through the wonderful cobbled streets. There are a number of lush, green parks, great street-side cafes and interesting museums to pop into as well, particularly the fascinating Museum of Illusions found in the Old Town. Vilnius is also famous for its myriad churches, the most notable of which is the Gothic St Anne’s Church, which stands in contrast to the rest of the architecture of the city.
The Republic of Uzupis, a neighbourhood on the other side of the river and within easy reach of the Old Town, is another tourist highlight, especially if you’re interested in seeing Vilnius’ alternative side. Seen as the bohemian part of town, there is a lot of street art in this area along with some cool, independent shops, trendy cafes and craft beer bars, and some of the best restaurants in the city.
Vilnius is also an excellent place to buy amber, which washes up on the Baltic shore and is polished and mounted into almost fantastical jewellery creations. Linen and ceramics are also popular souvenirs, with Lithuania’s artisans using traditional techniques to create functional and beautiful items that suit a contemporary lifestyle.
If you’re on a tight budget (as I usually am) and want cheap(er) accommodation, you need to stay somewhere a bit far out from the Old Town. However, don’t worry too much about distances as public transport by bus is efficient and relatively fast.
If you’re stuck trying to decide between Tallinn, Riga or Vilnius, then it can be helpful to know that Tallinn tends to be the most expensive of the three Baltic capitals. While prices are still considerably less than those of large Western European cities, it is worth noting that spending a significant amount of time in the Old Town is not going be much of a budget experience.
Where Vilnius boasts Baroque architecture and Riga has Art Nouveau buildings, Tallinn is one of the best-preserved medieval cities in Europe. After having visited all three Baltic capitals in the space of nine months, I recommend visiting ALL THREE OF THEM, staying three or four days in Riga, two or three days in Vilnius and at least three days in Tallinn as it’s very pretty and there’s a lot to see.