About one month before I had planned to be in Copenhagen, I was in Belgium, drinking some coffee at a café and planning my next few weeks out for my trip. At some point I was playing around on SkyScanner.com (my favorite travel airlines website and a particularly good website for the budget traveler on a flexible timeline), and I came across the city of Kaunas, Lithuania. Now, before my trip I had had absolutely no intention of travelling to the Baltics mainly because they are quite far north and I’d hoped to spend more of my time down south. However, after discovering a newly created flight between Copenhagen and Kaunas for $11, I couldn’t resist the opportunity to buy the plane ticket out east to see what the former Soviet Union, Baltic states were all about. After two weeks there, I can safely say that I was pleasantly surprised by these three small yet culturally packed countries.
Once arriving in Kaunas, a city I knew absolutely nothing about, I figured out my way to my hostel downtown and got settled in with the city. Honestly, I don’t plan out much of my trip ahead of time, but the Baltics topped the cake when it comes to lack of preparation, as I headed into an area of the world where English among the 25+ community is limited at best and I knew NOTHING about the countries I was visiting. Here’s what you can expect when visiting Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia
Lithuania: Lithuania is unlike any other European country in that they are OBSESSED with basketball and very proud of it. I was lucky enough to be there during the EuroBasket championship and was able to watch three separate games at Lithuanian bars. This was an awesome experience. While in Lithuania I visited Kaunas, Klaipeda, Nida, and Vilnius. Highlights about each are included below.
- Kaunas: The education and cultural capital of Lithuania is an amazing city with limited tourists creating a very authentic experience. Be sure to check out the castle ruins and the Ninth Fort museum outside of the city. They are great places to visit and a chance to learn about Lithuanian history during the dark periods (1930s-1990s).
- Klaipeda/Nida: I came to this western part of the country with the sole purpose of visiting the Curonian Spit and I was not disappointed. I was lucky enough to have matched up with an awesome guy on Couchsurfing.com and had an incredible time staying with him and his family. One of his friends graciously came with me on the day I drove to the Curonian Spit, an isolated piece of land off the coast of Lithuania and part of Russia that was full of forests, sand dunes, beaches, and the tiny town of Nida. This was probably the highlight of my entire time in Lithuania.
- Vilnius: The capital city and largest in the country, Vilnius was an incredible place to visit. The city is full of rich history, and I was lucky to be there on a weekend during a big street festival with street vendors and concerts everywhere. Be sure to check out the KGB museum and the Three Crosses monument for a historical lesson in how messed up the Soviets were and an amazing view of the city from above.
Latvia: My least favorite of the three Baltic countries, Latvia is a very young and seemingly isolated country. There is still a heavy Soviet influence on the people, architecture, and culture in the country (just like Estonia and Lithuania, but I felt it most here). I visited Riga (the capital), Ventspils, and Sigulda during my four days in Latvia and enjoyed most of them.
- Ventspils: I started my time in Latvia here as it was only a short drive up the coast of the Baltic Sea from Klaipeda, Lithuania. I drove here with the sole purpose of wanting to see the Baltic Sea and hoping to have a nice ocean view the entire time. I was thoroughly disappointed when the majority of my drive was spent only 50 meters from the sea with a thick line of trees blocking my view the entire time. Once I reached Ventspils I spent time walking around the city, getting dinner, and figuring out my sleeping arrangements for the night. Eventually I was able to lock down another couch surfer (one who couldn’t speak much English as well), and thankfully got a place to sleep for the night. My host, Igor, was awesome though, very welcoming, and he tried really hard to speak with me. We definitely resorted to having a computer next to us while we spoke so we could translate words from his native Russian to English and vice versa.
- Riga: My least favorite capital city of the Baltics, I found Riga to be a bit boring. Yes, there were great building all around, but the people seemed very unfriendly compared to Lithuania and Estonia, and I found it very offputting. I did enjoy visiting St. Peter’s Basilica and some of the museums in town, though, and would still recommend visiting this city despite my negative impression of it.
- Sigulda: An amazingly nature-y place to visit if you’re into hiking and forests. Sigulda is a short bus or train right northeast of Riga and is in the middle of the Guajas National Park. I spent the day hiking to an old castle outside of the city and wandering through other old castle ruins dispersed through the woods. There is an extensive set of trails (very poorly marked, though) that will take you hours to hike. I only spent time on one half of the trails, but would have hiked the others the next day had it not rained nonstop.
Estonia: My favorite country of the Baltics and a must see on everyone’s list, Estonia was absolutely incredible. Though I only saw one city, Tallinn, I enjoyed my time here immensely and would love to go back in the future. Tallinn is by far the most developed city of the Baltics, feeling more like you’re in the middle of Scandavia than the Baltics. Estonia itself was stunning as well, with forests scattered all over the country. I stayed at an amazing hostel outside of the main Old Town, and spent my two days in the city roaming through the oldest preserved castle complex in Europe. My last day was capped with some incredible views of the city from the tallest tower in the city on top of one of the many churches in the old town. Though I didn’t get to visit it, Helsinki is also just a short two-hour ferry ride away from Tallinn and would be an easy day trip for anyone to take if you’re willing to spend three times as much money as you would in Tallinn (and five times as much as you would in Riga or Vilnius).
Overall, my time in the Baltics was amazing. Though difficult at times due to the language barrier (these countries definitely spoke less English than any other European country I’ve been to), I was still able to communicate with most locals and learn a little bit about the culture and people. As always, I did a walking tour in all the capital cities and was amazed to learn about incredibly difficult past all of these countries suffered. From Soviet occupation (1940-41), Nazi occupation (1941-45), and Soviet occupation part two (1945-1991), each country is still celebrating their recent independence of just 24 years. Estonia in particular is happy to still be celebrating their longest period of independence in history, and that was still something I could tell the locals were particularly proud of. I was happy, overall, with my stay in the Baltics, and I’m glad I was able to visit here before the inevitable tourism boom begins here. It’s cheap, beautiful, old, and a relatively quiet region of the world with a lot to offer!