There's no doubt about it, the Balkans had definitely been a highlight on my four month tour of Europe. Bulgaria, Albania and Macedonia had totally surpassed my expectations and I was ready to explore the rest of Europe. This time though, it was the turn of the Baltic states made up of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia in northern Europe, near Russia.
These former Soviet states are fast becoming the new hot spots for European breaks. Cheap drinks and a variety of nightlife attract groups of lads replacing Prague as a stag do location. Although there are a shortage of girls travelling alone here, the Baltics are incredibly safe, great for those on a budget, and are popular with travellers who travel from north to south or vice versa.
You’ll find all sorts of activities here from staying overnight in a former Soviet prison (unfortunately only available from the summer months as I soon found out), bobsledding, husky dog sledding, paintballing or shooting an AK47 – yes, you did hear right! Latvia even has an Australian Backpackers Bar – a stationary campervan cleverly fitted out into a bar. Estonia offers party hostels with evening bar crawls where hoards of travellers descend upon the city drinking shots, snorting Absinth and drinking until 6am in the morning.
Transport is cheap, getting from capital to capital costs approx €15 with Ecolines or Simple Express. The food is cheap. Eat in traditional restaurants and you could spend less than €7 for a two course meal, or you can always try their own version of fast-food – Hesburger, their equivalent of Macdonald’s (although this has made its way across the Channel and does make an appearance). If you prefer coffee shops, Coffee Inn has scrumptious veggie wraps and mango smoothies with comfy seats to people watch and wile away the hours.
If you prefer somewhere a little less quiet, more authentic with a European charm then I definitely recommend Lithuania. The city of Vilnius with its Baroque style buildings and cobbled streets is the place to go to for those wanting to avoid the tourists. It’s more untouched by tourism than Latvia and Estonia and is my favourite capital out of the three.
Take an alternative walking tour to explore a different side of Vilnius. Visit the quirky area of the Republic of Artists, only entered by those who promise to be creative. A road sign of the Mona Lisa before you cross the bridge is a warning for those who do not smile whilst entering. Lithuanians definitely have a sense of humour; from the statue of Jesus wearing a backpack (Lithuanians say he was the first backpacker) to the Square of Genocide with a cat’s nose with the tale that once rubbed, promises to grant your wish.
Although small, it has a Little Manhattan with skyscrapers that you can see from the panoramic view of Vilnius Hill and a Little Shanghai – home to the gypsy population with shabby chic buildings. Although Lithuania neighbours Poland, its language is closer to that of Latvia – a great country for my second stop.
Just a few hours by bus is Riga, the capital of Latvia with a stunning old town and a huge indoor market which was once the biggest in Europe. Most of the produce here is locally grown and if you visit at 6pm you’ll be able to pick up a bargain cheaper than any Latvian grocery store. No where is far here and it seems that just around every corner is another area to be discovered.
There’s an Italian courtyard, modern shops, a peaceful park, and even a Moscow-style town just a short tram ride away, transporting you back one hundred years. If you stay in Riga, you should definitely stay in the Old Town. It’s cosy, colourful and has a really comforting feel to it.
Imagine being back in the Medieval times, playing archery, drinking hot wine and meandering around an old fortress. Well you can in Tallin, the capital of Estonia. Only 4.5 hours from Riga by bus, Tallin appears to have the largest Old Town where you can spot people dressed in traditional costumes and feel as though you have been transported back centuries before. It’s a picturesque city to walk around in and has the same style colourful buildings in pastel pinks and yellow which seem typical for the Baltic capitals.
So how do they compare to the Balkans? They are definitely much colder (now I know where the saying “It’s Baltic” comes from), and the Russian influence is there. But being only a 2.5 hour flight from the UK, they are perfect for a long weekend. Just don’t forget to take a fleece with you…
If you are looking for some company on all or part of your trip, G Adventures is a responsible tour company and has group tours in The Baltics from 11 days with prices starting at £1399 including Latvia, Finland, Lithuania, and Estonia.
Accommodation in the Baltics
I stayed at Centre Stay Hostel in Vilnius, Lithuania, which, to be honest wasn't that great. If you are heading to Vilnius I would definitely recommend Fabrika Hostel instead which is in a great location and popular with solo travellers.
In Riga, Latvia, I stayed in the coolest hostel called Seagulls Garret Hostel. It was in a pretty part of the city and walking distance from a supermarket which had an amazing salad bar. It was really sociable and I managed to get a big group of us together to check out the Latvian nightlife.
Tallinn in Estonia has lots of hostels and again I picked a not very good one to stay in which had long-term residents living there (they are always a bit hit and miss). But I did visit The Monk's Bunk Party Hostel for their bar crawl. This hostel was incredibly sociable (hence the name ‘party hostel') and although I did feel a little bit old, it was great for those who wanted to party. (I imagine it can be a bit noisy though).
Have you ever been to the Baltics?