Despite the fairytalish historic centres, good accesses and great value-for-money deals, the Baltic remains a largely unknown and relatively unexplored region for most common tourists. Aside from Tallinn’s admittedly touristy Old Town, most of the remaining cities – even its neighbouring capitals – still feel largely authentic and undiscovered. That might be changing though, as more and more travellers are being drawn into the area each year! If you’re one of these lucky bastards (such as ourselves) making your way to Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia, then you should probably keep an eye out for this one week Baltic travel itinerary.
Since we could never recommend a plan we wouldn’t commit to ourselves, our guide, which covers the 3 nations’ capitals, is actually a pretty accurate replica of the travel itinerary we designed for the 7 days we spent in the Baltic countries last October (though we eventually made our way up-north to Helsinki).
ONE WEEK BALTIC TRAVEL ITINERARY BREAKDOWN
- Day 1 – Flying In
- Vilnius, Lithuania – 2 days
- Riga, Latvia – 2 days
- Tallinn, Estonia – 2 days
As you can see, our Baltic travel itinerary involves a lot of hopping around from city to city! Luckily, the region’s main cities are very well-connected and you can rely on both buses and trains to commute between Vilnius, Riga and Tallinn. In our case, we used Lux Express and we couldn’t be happier! Their buses are modern and clean, free wi-fi is available (tough sometimes frustratingly slow) and – most importantly – tickets are dirt-cheap, especially if you book ahead!
DAY 1 – FLYING TO VILNIUS
Although you might be lucky enough to land in Vilnius in time to enjoy your first day, there is a good chance you’ll be arriving in the afternoon or late at night, especially if you need to do a layover somewhere else. With that in mind, we chose not to plan any activities for the first day on our one week Baltic travel itinerary, allowing you plenty of time to get to the city centre, find your hotel and maybe do some groceries.
FROM VILNIUS AIRPORT TO THE CITY CENTRE
Getting to the city centre after arriving at Vilnius International Airport is quite easy. The airport is actually connected to a train station that will drop you in Vilnius Central Station in just under 10 minutes, with tickets being sold on the spot for just 0,70€.
Since we arrived during the evening and night trains are quite scarce from 8pm onwards, we ended up taking the bus. There are several vehicles departing from the arrival’s terminal and one-way tickets cost 1€. Just make sure to ask the driver whether the bus is heading to the city centre or not before boarding.
DAY 2 – VILNIUS – THE LITHUANIAN CAPITAL FROM ABOVE
For your first real day in Vilnius you might want to get ready for a lot of climbing, as the city’s most iconic hills and viewpoints are waiting for you! This will also be a good way to get acquainted with Vilnius’ beautiful Old Town, considered the biggest in the Baltic. Feel free to explore the area on your own pace and rhythm, but if you want a proper introduction by someone who knows the city like the palm of their hands, booking a Walking Tour may well be a wise choice.
What better way to discover a new city than enjoying a walk along its main street? Running between the Lithuanian Parliament and the Vilnius Cathedral, Gediminas Avenue is one of the prettiest, classiest and liveliest streets in the city. Besides, the avenue is surrounded by beautiful architecture and encompasses other city attractions, such as the KGB Museum, the Lukiškės Square or the spooky Three Muses Sculpture.
Much like their Polish enemies/brothers (they’re still trying to figure it out), Lithuanians are famous for being quite passionate about their Catholicism. While in most European countries churches are getting emptier as older generations die out, in Lithuania that doesn’t seem to be the case. As the city’s main church, Vilnius Cathedral gets packed every Sunday morning (trust us, we happened to be there!) for the weekly mass, making for a fantastic people-watching session. The cathedral itself is a thing of beauty, and along with its separate bell tower, forms what is probably the most recognizable building in the entire city!
PALACE OF THE GRAND DUKES OF LITHUANIA
Located right behind the main church, the Palace of the Grand Dukes of Lithuania is the missing piece in the Cathedral Square’s ensemble. Once home to local Grand Dukes and future Kings of Poland, this palace is actually a reconstruction of the 15th century original, after the latter was destroyed following Russia’s overtake of Lithuania. Luckily, your visit to the country couldn’t be better timed, as the brand-new structure was officially finished in July 2018 and all of its wings are finally open to the public. If you’d like to take a self-guided tour of the palace, tickets can be bought onsite for 3€.
Time for the first climb of the day! By now, surely you will have noticed the bright orange tower peeking from atop a hill – and that’s where you’re heading next. Called Gediminas Tower, in honour of the city’s founder who built the original castle, this lonely structure was formerly a part of a major fortification which overlooked and protected the city. Nowadays, and though it was actually rebuilt in 1933, it stands as one of the very few surviving elements of the Upper Castle section, providing amazing panoramic views over the Old Town and the city’s outskirts.
HILL OF THE THREE CROSSES
While you’re at it, take advantage of your body’s momentum and get ready for yet another climb (I promise it will be the last)! Though second in popularity to Gediminas Tower, I must say I preferred the city view from atop the Hill of Three Crosses, as you can get a better overview of Vilnius and its Old Town’s countless towers and spires. Plus, you can actually see the castle tower as part of the landscape from here!
CHURCH OF SAINT ANNE
After walking your way down, a visit to the Bernardine Gardens is in order! This quaint park is a great place to rest your legs and help pass the time after so much climbing, with local families playing around with their little ones and an atmosphere of pure calmness. Besides, it’s located right next to one of the prettiest and most welcoming worship sites in Vilnius – the Church of Saint Anne – where we could find entire families and groups of friends having picnics and enjoying a sunny Autumn day within the church’s outdoor backyard.
SAINTS PETER AND PAUL’S CHURCH
First, let me point out that we could have easily made a full list of places to see in Vilnius with nothing but churches – that’s how prominent and amazing these are in Lithuania! That being said, I recommend capping off the second day on your Baltic travel itinerary with a small detour and a visit to what is probably the most impressive church in the city. Although the Saints Peter & Paul’s Church is quite pretty on the outside, its façade doesn’t really prepare you for the jaw-dropping interiors it hides. With over 2000 figures sculpted into the all-white walls and ceiling, this will surely be a place that will leave you in awe.
DAY 3 – VILNIUS – DAY TRIP TO TRAKAI
Now that you’ve seen Vilnius’ most famous tourist attractions, it’s time to get lost within the city’s immense historic centre. For your last morning in the city, you should allow yourself to wander freely while exploring the Old Town’s beautiful streets, tiny alleys and quirky details. Once you cross all the remaining sites off your list, you will then be ready to board the bus and take a lovely day trip to Trakai, where you can visit its scenic castle and experience a different side to Lithuania.
It’s certainly not a coincidence that Pilies Gatve is considered the Old Town’s most popular street, as it includes a little sample of all the things that make the historic district such a tourist draw. Lined with restaurants, souvenir stands, ancient buildings and – of course – legendary Baltic amber shops, this pedestrian street is the city’s pumping heart and one of the must-see places if you want to experience the Lithuanian hustle and bustle.
Surprisingly, this turned out to be one of my favourite places in Vilnius! Dating from 1579, this reputable institution features some well-kept secrets and a thriving student community that will make you wish you had had the chance to study there. Popular for its countless inner courtyards and architecture worthy of a palace or museum, the University is home to the awe-inspiring painted ceilings of the Literra Bookstore, and the insanely beautiful (meaning it is literally as insane as it is beautiful), Faculty of Philology hall – a small room painted with some bizarre nightmare-inducing frescoes depicting tales of Baltic folklore. Entrance to the university’s premises costs 1,50€, but getting to see the Grand Courtyard and the Church of Saint John is more than worth the price of admission.
Why do anarchic communities always seem to be dotted with dodgy-looking people? The more I visit this kind of self-proclaimed republics, such as Metelkova in Slovenia or Christiania in Denmark, the more I feel their essence and original purpose have long been lost for the sake of profit. Plus, you can be a progressive left-leaning individual and still take a shower, right? Personal opinions aside, Uzupis is nonetheless an extremely interesting place to visit. Enjoying their own set of rules and some bizarre sights, this should definitely feature in your one week Baltic travel itinerary!
FORMER VILNIUS JEWISH GHETTOS
It’s morbidly ironic that an area which stands as a symbol of segregation and a remembrance of mankind’s darkest hour, can nowadays flourish as the loveliest and most adorable part of a city. Between 1941 and 1943, these two areas – which were split into the Big Ghetto and the Small Ghetto – were home to 40.000 Jews, who had to endure the ghetto’s harsh conditions and the ruthlessly oppressive treatment at the hands of the Nazi occupation, before being murdered or sent to nearby concentration camps. If only walls could talk, they would tell you heart-breaking stories of loss and death, but also inspiring and uplifting stories of resistance, union and resiliency. Sadly, walls do not talk, and not many were left to tell the Ghetto’s story. However, the very few descendants of those who witnessed these crimes ensure the world’s collective memory doesn’t fade, and if you’d like to learn more from them, we recommend taking a Jewish Heritage Walking Tour.
GATES OF DAWN
Before venturing on to Trakai, you’ll bid farewell to Vilnius’ magical Old Town by crossing its only surviving city gate. A reminder of the old defensive fortifications which used to protect the city from foreign invaders, the Gates of Dawn miraculously escaped the wall’s dismantlement in the late 18th century, standing nowadays as a recollection of past times. Not trying to go for the conspiracy theory here but… doesn’t that remind you of the Illuminati symbol?!
Trakai Castle turned out to be one hell of a surprise! Got to admit we weren’t expecting much of the place – just another pretty castle to add to our list – but we were terribly wrong. First, the setting is absolutely gorgeous! Located on a tiny island over the picturesque Lake Galve, the castle is surrounded by the lake’s tranquil waters and the mainland’s scenic shores, which, as we were visiting in the fall, were filled with yellow and orange leaves as half-naked trees dotted the area. There is a stark contrast between the crowded and energetic nation’s capital and the tranquility you will find in Trakai, and that is exactly why you should experience both realities within the same day in order to compare them both. You are free to wander the castle grounds, but if you wish to visit its permanent exhibition, you can check ticket prices in the castle’s official website.
HOW TO GET TO TRAKAI CASTLE FROM VILNIUS
As Trakai and Vilnius are only 30km apart, moving between the two is fairly simple. Although you can also do the trip on a train, we chose to use the bus (well, more like a van) instead, as Trakai’s bus station is a bit closer to the castle than its railway counterpart. Just pay a visit to Vilnius Bus Station, go to one of the desks and ask for a ticket to Trakai – as simples as that! The person on the other side of the counter will then hand you your ticket and tell you which platform you should head to, as well as the bus’s departure time. You can check bus schedules and even buy your ticket (depending on the company) at Autobusubilietai.lt
One-way tickets cost 2€ and the entire trip takes about 30 to 40 minutes, but keep in mind the local bus station is located about 2,5km away from Trakai Castle and you’ll have to walk the remaining distance yourself. If that sounds like too much of a hassle or if you simply want to have a better and more informative experience, getting a Half-Day Sightseeing Tour to Trakai might be your best option!
DAY 4 – RIGA – ARRIVING AND EXPLORING THE OLD TOWN
Although you will wake up in Vilnius, the 4th day on your one week Baltic travel itinerary will be all about the beautiful Old Town of Riga. In order to make the most of your afternoon, you’ll be better off by booking a hotel room located in the Old Town – prices are still fairly decent and you’ll manage to save a lot of precious time.
If you want to cut straight to the chase and discover the best of Riga on a pretty tight schedule (you’ll still have a full second day for the Art Nouveau quarter), then it might be a good idea to book a Riga Private Walking Tour or, if you’re on a quest to save your legs, a Hop-On Hop-Off Tour of the city.
BUS TRIP FROM VILNIUS TO RIGA
As the bus trip between the two cities will take about 4 hours, we suggest booking an early ride with Lux Express in order to be able to enjoy the afternoon in the Latvian capital. In our case, we took a bus from Vilnius Bus Station at 10am and arrived in Riga at 2pm (we could have taken a sooner bus, but at 5€/ticket we simply couldn’t overlook this one). This meant we still had some 3 hours of sunlight left to explore the local Old Town and get acquainted with its famous edginess.
RIGA CENTRAL MARKET
The Central Market will be the only place outside of the Old Town that you’ll visit throughout the afternoon. However, considering its location right next to the city’s main bus station, this is an obvious first stop for newcomers arriving to Riga by bus! Comprising an indoor market and an outdoor bazaar, the Central Market in Riga is actually considered the biggest market in Europe, which means you’ll still have a lot to see, even if you’re not visiting in the morning when the market is at its busiest. Besides, this market is also famous due to its pavilions original purpose. Think about it – it’s not every day that you get to shop inside 5 of the only 9 remaining Zeppelin hangars in the world!
SAINT PETER’S CHURCH
Now that you’re finally ready to explore the Old Town we have so fondly mentioned, you must start with what is probably its most prominent attraction. Towering over the historic centre and dominating the city’s skyline, Saint Peter’s Church is a standing symbol of Riga, with the earliest reports of this worship site dating all the way back to the 13th century. Still, and despite such ancient reports, it has been destroyed and re-erected multiple times, with the current building having been finished only in 1973. When in the city, taking the lift to the top of the church’s tower is a must, as the 360º views are simply amazing! Admission to the church and the tower costs 9€.
RIGA TOWN HALL SQUARE
Don’t tell anyone, but the Old Town’s main square is kind of a beautiful mess. Completely destroyed during World War II, local authorities decided to rebuild several features of the square, while including some new additions to the mix. The end result is a weird mix of Baroque buildings (Town Hall), stone statues, insane guildhalls (House of Blackheads) and soviet structures (Museum of the Occupation of Latvia) that somehow manage to coexist within the same frame. In fact – as you can see by the photos – they actually end up working together!
From the Town Hall Square, you should take the picture-perfect Jauniela street and make your way to Riga Cathedral. Though very simple on the inside, this church – the largest in the Baltic states – is absolutely massive and beyond imposing, occupying a huge open area in the Old Town. Much like Saint Peter’s Church, the Cathedral’s tower can also be seen from afar, standing as one of the most recognizable features in the city’s landscape.
With its colourful buildings and lovely flower-beds reminiscent of a Disney movie set, this adorable yet criminally overlooked square ended up becoming one of our favourite places in the Latvian capital! While looking around, make sure to spot the famous Cat House – just follow the elder Asian ladies and their mobile phone cameras and you’ll find it right away!
SWEDISH GATE AND OLD CITY WALLS
Finally, cap off your day with a visit to the city walls that used to surround and protect the Old Town. Although most of the original wall has been torn down, this small stretch – renovated during the soviet period – has survived the test of time. While you’re there, don’t forget to cross the Swedish Gate!
DAY 5 – ART NOUVEAU AND OTHER WONDERS
You may feel like you’ve just arrived in the city, but this will be your last day in Riga already! Now that you’re perfectly comfortable walking around the Old Town, the time has come to explore the city’s super-famous Art Nouveau District, discovering quaint parks, inspiring monuments and beautiful cathedrals along the way. Don’t forget to ask the hotel staff if they have some kind of storage room where you can save your stuff after you check-out. This way, you won’t need to carry all your gear throughout the day!
LATVIAN NATIONAL OPERA
Originally built in 1863, the Latvian National Opera building is a beautiful classical structure which – astonishingly considering the city’s history – has never been destroyed! You know your ancestors have gone through some bad times when this is reason for celebration. However, my favourite thing about it is actually its setting. Surrounded by the Bastejkalna Park, the Opera stands side by side with a scenic canal, picturesque gardens and historical statues.
The Baltic states have some seriously f****d-up history, but Latvia probably stands out as the most “difficult” of the bunch. Strenuous relationships with its neighbouring empires ensured a history of hardship, invasions and oppression, while the attempted russification of the Latvian society throughout the 20th century resulted in a country struggling with a huge identity crisis. Although we definitely won’t be discussing politics here, a quick research about Latvian history and you can easily understand why the Freedom Monument is such an important symbol for ethnic Latvians living in the country.
NATIVITY OF CHRIST CATHEDRAL
Speaking of the Russian influence in Latvia, the country’s most important Orthodox worship site will be your next stop! With its imposing domes towering over the area, the Nativity of Christ Cathedral is one massive church whose photos don’t really do it justice. It just looks a lot bigger (and more impressive) in person. Entrance is free, but unfortunately they won’t let you snap any pics inside, which means you’ll have to take our word for it when we say this has got to be the most underrated attraction in Riga!
ART NOUVEAU DISTRICT
Hate to play the devil’s advocate, but I was actually kind of disappointed after visiting Riga’s Art Nouveau District. For all the praise it gets, I was expecting some out-of-this-world architecture, with streets filled with grandiose buildings and quirky details. Don’t get me wrong – it’s still a cool experience to walk around the likes of Albert Street, Jugenda Stila Nami or Elizabeth Street – but unless you’re an architect or currently studying to be one, chances are that you won’t be too impressed. Either that, or I am just an insensitive ignorant who can’t recognize great architecture – take your guess!
KGB BUILDING MUSEUM
Have you ever felt like a city doesn’t want your money? I was pretty eager to visit the facilities where Latvian prisoners and other protesters were kept and tortured throughout the Soviet regime, but the building was unfortunately closed for renovations when we went there. Still, I thought about walking all the way back to the Old Town and pay a visit to the Museum of the Occupation of Latvia. The fact that there was no prison to see kind of took away some of the excitement, but Latvia’s history is a pretty interesting one so expectations were still high… until I got there. Once again, the building was closed for renovations and the main exhibition had been moved to a temporary location outside the historic centre. Well, some things simply aren’t meant to be!
BUS TRIP FROM RIGA TO TALLINN
At the end of the day, make your way to the local bus station and hop on the bus to Tallinn. Once again, we recommend using Lux Express (link for their website shared above) for the trip. This one turned out costing us a bit more, but 14€/ticket still felt like a pretty good deal for another 4-hour journey. Upon arriving in Tallinn, you can take the tram to the city centre or do it the good-old way and walk the 3km distance length. That’s what we ended up doing and – surprise, surprise – it was totally not worth the 4€ we saved on the ride.
DAY 6 – TALLINN – A FAIRYTALE BEHIND THE WALLS
After spending the night in the city, get ready to wake up early and discover what is widely considered to be the most beautiful city in the Baltics. Tourists do love Tallinn and you’ll instantly notice there is a lot more tourism here than anywhere else in the region. However, credit where its due – Tallinn is beyond gorgeous! In fact, if you want to see the best the city has to offer, you should definitely look out for a Walking Tour upon arriving in the Estonian Capital. With its fairytale streets, idyllic little houses and incredible viewpoints from atop Toompea Hill, you better make sure to charge your camera the night before.
KOHTUOTSA VIEWING PLATFORM
Perhaps the most famous attraction in Tallinn, walking all the way up to the Kohtuotsa Viewing Platform is the perfect way to fall for Tallinn at first glance. With the picturesque Old Town laying in front of your eyes, you won’t even mind having to fight with fellow tourists for every inch of space only to get a half-decent photo! For a less crowded experience, try out the Patkuli Viewing Platform, located just a 2-minute walk away. Equally stunning views and more space to breathe!
SAINT MARY’S CATHEDRAL
Though usually outshone by the nearby Alexander Nevsky Cathedral or the huge St. Olaf’s Church, Saint Mary’s Cathedral is a place you do not want to miss! For starters, it’s the oldest church in the city – and trust us – this is one old city! Besides, its interiors are actually quite unusual, as huge coats-of-arms are used to decorate the cathedral’s rather empty white walls, making for pretty unique visuals. Tickets to visit the Dome Church (as it’s also known) are available for 2€.
ALEXANDER NEVSKY CATHEDRAL
Located right next to Toompea Castle, this orthodox cathedral is the flashiest sight in all of Tallinn. Easily spotted from afar due to its elevated location (atop Toompea Hill), onion-shaped domes and bright colours, the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral will have you feeling like you’re visiting good-ol’ Mother Russia! In fact, that was precisely the cause for many problems for a long time, as Estonians would more often than not look at it as a symbol of Russian oppression and control. Be that as it may, demolition plans never came to fruition, and considering the church’s popularity among visitors, I doubt they ever will!
TOWN HALL SQUARE
Now that you’ve descended from Toompea Hill, it’s time to visit the Old Town’s lower city – so let’s start with a bang! Surprisingly tucked in-between narrow streets and hidden passages, the Town Hall Square is an awe-inspiring sight, surrounded by colourful houses, stalls and – of course – the ancient Tallinn Town Hall.
By now, your stomach will probably be begging you for some food, so why not trying something different? Consider hiring the services of a local and take a Walking Food Tour. You’re granted a pretty cool experience hopping from restaurant to restaurant in the heart of Estonian life.
SAINT CATHERINE’S PASSAGE
One thing you’ll notice about Tallinn’s Old Town, is that some streets appear to be “secret”. Resting side-by-side with major streets and wide squares, these unassuming narrow lanes are easily missable if you don’t pay proper attention, and often you’ll find them a lot less crowded than the rest of the area. Saint Catherine’s Passage is by far the most famous of all the walkways in the Old Town. Dotted with artisan shops and ancient tombstones from the adjacent St. Catherine’s Church, this has to be Tallinn at its most medieval!
Wherever you find a city wall, there has to be a gate somewhere! Considered the main entrance to Tallinn’s historic centre, the Viru Gate is the most beautiful of all the surviving city gates. Though partially destroyed, this gate remains in pretty good condition, and still offers the perfect welcome card for those wishing to wander through the magical streets of the capital’s old city.
This may not be the prettiest sight Tallinn has to offer, but it’s definitely hard to find one bearing more importance to the Estonian people. Home to the Victory Column, this is the place locals flock to when they want to honour all those who died fighting for the country’s liberation in the Estonian War of Independence. Once there, it is also worth checking out St. John’s Church – that pretty yellow building you see on the photos!
DAY 7 – TALLINN – AN EDGIER SIDE TO THE CITY (AND IT’S TIME TO SAY GOODBYE)
Got to admit I had first thought two days in Tallinn was too much. Aside from the Old Town, what else could the city bring to the table? Well, as it turns out, there’s more to the Estonian capital than its admittedly lovely historic centre. In fact, the second day in the city made me realize Tallinn is not only a beautiful fairytalish place, but also a pretty cool and alternative city!
Still, this will be the least packed day in your one week Baltic travel itinerary, since you’ll be flying home at the end of the day!
LENNUSADAM SEAPLANE HARBOUR
We were so lucky on this one! We had read great reviews about this maritime museum, but the 14€ rate for the tickets had us wondering if it was all worth it. Since our hotel was located in the historical fishermen area of Kalamaja (famous for its countless wooden houses), 5 minutes away from the museum, we agreed to go there and take a look before making a decision. As it turns out, the museum-ships moored at the docs were actually open to everyone! We ended up exploring a 100-year old icebreaker, with free unsupervised access to every area of the ship, including the engine room and the crew’s cabins. Needless to say, we ended up loving it!
KADRIORG PALACE AND PARK
Next up, we recommend taking the tram and paying a visit to Kadriorg Palace and its magnificent gardens. In case you’re wondering if this park is worth the detour, just keep in mind it was commissioned by Peter the Great, the same guy who built Saint Petersburg from scratch – so you know it has to be good! Plus, the gardens have some really instagrammable spots!
Although located right next to the Old Town, your last stop in Tallinn is a far cry away from the picture-perfect world lying behind the ancient walls. Considered the city’s cultural and artistic hub, the Rotermann Quarter represents the “New Tallinn”, an edgy and modern city aiming to show how much the country has developed since its independence. If you want to catch a glimpse of local life and take a look at some pretty cool architecture, this is the place to go!
FLYING HOME FROM TALLINN AIRPORT
It’s finally time to face the sad truth – you’re going home! Your time in the Baltics may have come to an end, but at least you’ll get to save some amazing memories – and hopefully some flashy snaps – of your adventures there. Besides, the region is now more open and accessible than ever, so returning is no longer the difficult task it once was!
How to Go from Tallinn City Centre to the Airport
Located just 4km away from the city centre, getting to the airport in Tallinn is easy breezy! Just take the tram line nº 4 at Viru Gate towards Lennujaam (Airport in Estonian) and leave at the terminus. The entire journey takes between 15 to 20 minutes, and one-way tickets bought directly from the driver cost 2€.
Quick, cheap & easy!
That was it guys – hope you enjoyed our One Week Baltic Travel Itinerary! We enjoyed an amazing week there before crossing the Gulf of Finland on a ferry and continuing our adventure through Helsinki (which we also recommend btw). However, if 7 days is all you got, rest assured this guide will help make the most of your time in the region.
Have you ever visited the Baltic countries? Which other cities and landmarks do you recommend? Let us know on the comments below!