Vilnius, Lithuania (2 Nights)
Vilnius is unlike most European cities with its tourist attractions scattered all over instead of concentrated around the main square. This allows you to explore the city on foot and see the city and how the people live first hand.
Its Baroque style architecture in the old town, Orthodox and Catholic churches and the independent republic of Uzupis full of artists and creatives are among the best things to see in this city.
First up, be sure to visit the Vilnius cathedral and make a small climb up the Gediminas Castle tower for a morning view of the city (as of March 2018, the tower is closed for renovation).
The three crosses, Vilnius
Another great climb, which will take a little longer and I would recommend going in the evening before sunset is the climb to the Three Crosses where you will be rewarded with a view of the Old Town and the entire city. Definitely worth the climb!
Once you are done with the hills, make your way to St. Peter and St. Paul's church and check out the stunning Roman Catholic church, a masterpiece of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth Baroque. The inside is even more impressive with its all white interior contrasting with the wooden decors. Really worth a walk all the way up to the church.
St. Peter and St. Paul's Church Vilnius
From the church, make your way back to Vilnius cathedral and go down south toward the independent republic of Uzupis. Be sure to check out the stunning red brick church of St Anne's on your way to the neighborhood.
Uzupis is a unique neighborhood wherein in 1997, the district declared itself the independent republic of Uzupis which then attracts many creatives due to its bohemian and laissez-faire atmosphere. The district consisted off cool cafes, old cobbled alleys and crumbling walls full of stunning graffitis. The district is definitely worth a visit if you are interested in the modern take of Vilnius.
Frank Zappa statue, Vilnius
Be sure to also walk the old square (more like a long oval) and check out the town hall square (Vilniaus rotušė), the church of St. Johns and the Saint Parasceve Orthodox Church, all in the same street leading up to the Gates of Dawn (Aušros vartai).
Trakai (Half Day)
It won't take you long the see Vilnius city so if you started the day early and have half a day left, I would suggest you take a bus from Vilnius bus station to Trakai town, where you can walk 30 mins from the town to the famous castle on an island and learn about the medieval history of Lithuania and how the Trakai became the center of a wide range of communities of Karaims, Tatars, Lithuanians, Russians, Jews to the Poles.
Trakai Island Castle, Lithuania
Riga (3 Nights)
Riga, a stunning medieval capital city of Latvia is our next destination as we make our way across the Baltic countries. Now, we are getting into a more familiar territory with the medieval old town with large cathedral and tall towers surrounding it.
Riga is easily navigatable and quite rewarding to explore on foot. First, visit the spacious square around one of the most notable landmarks in the city, the Riga Cathedral. The cathedral is considered to be the biggest of its kind in the Baltic. From the cathedral, you can make your way towards the Swedish gate and walk around the old walls of the city.
House of the Blackheads (Riga)
If you wake up early, you can head over to the Freedom Square and witness the routine guard changing ceremony. You will also get to go people watching and see the lively locals exercising, and socializing out by the square.
Have a look at the House of the Blackheads, another famous landmark of the city. It is a gothic style property that was recently rebuilt in 1999, home to the president. The stunning facade of the building is quite a sight to behold.
One thing I like to do in a European city is to go up a tower and check out a view of the city from the top and one of the best place to go up in Riga is the tower of the St. Peter's church where you can get an entrance ticket with the tower access so you can see the beautiful Baroque-style interior and take the elevator up to the platform and get a 360 view of the city from above.
View at Riga from the tower of Saint Peter's Church
If you are interested in the bloody history of Latvia during its multiple occupations by foreign lands, be sure to drop by the Museum of the Occupation of Latvia, nearby the Daugava river.
Museum of the Occupation of Latvia
One of the best views you can get of the city is from the opposite side of the Daugava river, and the best time is in the early morning when the sun is still not too strong.
The opposite side of the Daugava river
A little morning stroll across the Akmens Tilts stone bridge will reward you with the Old Town's view from afar where you can see all the stunning architecture of Riga castle and the high steeples of churches piercing the sky.
If you are looking for a nice place to eat traditional food, we will make a reservation in Lido restaurant located near the Riga Cathedral. The restaurant has a medieval style to it, with live acoustic music and wooden furniture. It serves homemade food where you can share plates. All of the food provided is reasonably priced and delicious.
Local Specialities in Lido Restaurant, Riga
Cesis (Half Day)
After spending a day exploring the city, it is time to go out and explore smaller towns. Cesis makes a great day trip from the capital, which is only 2 hour's bus ride away. Cesis is a beautiful old town known for its medieval castle.
The castle features wall paintings, dungeons, towers, a romantic castle park, and the old crumbling Lutheran church of Saint John the Baptist located nearby. You can also go up the Lademaher tower to get a view of Cesis from above, but unfortunately, it was winter when I was there, and the access to the tower was closed.
Tartu (1 Night)
Following a brief but rewarding time in Latvia, we continue on to Estonia and introduce ourselves to the final country in the Baltic with a visit to the university town of Tartu, considered to be the intellectual center of the country.
Tartu is located on the way between Riga and Tallinn and makes quite a good one-night stop before we head toward Tallinn. Due to its population being young and creative, the city is filled with stunning art installations like the accidental National Geographic prop seen above and cool cafes and restaurants that are cheap and delicious.
Tartu Dome Church
One of the things worth checking out is the Tartu Dome Church on top of the hill. The beauty of this church is not that it has been beautifully renovated.
On the contrary, the church is mostly left in ruin, which was a good change from all the renovated churches you find all over Europe. You can also go up one of the towers, but unfortunately, it was closed in winter when I was there.
Tallinn (2 Nights)
Famous City Wall of Tallinn
Last but not least, Tallinn is one of the most fairy-tale-like medieval cities of all. Every tourist attraction is all located in the center, so the city is easily covered on foot in a day. First off, drop by the Old Town Square and visit the Tallinn Town Hall.
There are plenty of cafes, restaurants, and beautiful architecture surrounding the square, so be sure to spend an hour or two exploring the square. The square is nice, and all, but the highlight of the city is the medieval castle on top of the hill and its surrounding. Before we make our way up there, be sure to drop by the St Nicholas church on your way towards the hill.
From the church, you can go west and continue up the hill to the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral, one of the most beautiful orthodox churches I have seen in the Baltic. A truly stunning piece of architecture towering over the city is also the most renowned landmark of Tallinn.
Alexander Nevsky Cathedral, Tallinn
There are plenty of places to see on the hill, such as the Toompea castle and the St Mary's Cathedral, but two of the most photogenic places to go on the hill is the Kohtuotsa and Patkuli viewing platforms.
From both of these points, you can see the city from a different perspective, toward the sea and into the city's heart, respectively. I would recommend you to visit these viewing platforms in the early morning when the sun is not too bright and areas are not too crowded.
View from Kohtuotsa and Patkuli viewing platforms
If you have some time to spare, places further away, like Freedom Square and St Olaf's church, are also worth visiting. From Tallinn, you have the option to either leave the country for Russia or Finland.
If you are planning to visit Scandinavia next, be sure to contact us as the next guide I will write about is a brief visit to Scandinavian capital cities. I hope you will find this helpful guide, and if you do, feel free to leave your comment below.