How to make the most of a 14 day itinerary in Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania
If you find yourself with a few weeks to spend anywhere in Europe, you certainly wouldn’t be at a loss for choices. After giving thought to a few options ourselves, we recently traveled through the Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania after celebrating a family wedding in Ireland. Sean charted his interest back to 1991 when all three countries became independent from the U.S.S.R., but, as for us as a couple, I dug up an email I wrote in early 2013 about finding reasonable flights that might give us reason to consider making the trek, then from New York.
Why you should visit the Baltics
Even though Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania are small countries, in terms of both landmass and population, they contain a rich tapestry of history and distinct national identities. The manageable size of each country makes it all the more possible to visit all three within a single trip without feeling like you’re cutting it too short. (Of course, you could also spend much longer and still feel like there’s more to see and experience.) If travel is about wining and dining, you may opt for beer over wine, but you’ll happily be able to eat and drink to your heart’s delight. (And do you like marzipan, might I ask?) We spent most of our time exploring the major Baltic cities, but if hiking or beach time is your cup of tea, there are ample choices too. And if you’re traveling as a family with young children, you might be pleasantly surprised by how child-friendly the countries are. Restaurants featured children’s play areas and often had training toilets in the bathrooms. There seemed to be a palpable and public embrace of bringing your children out for meals or events. And it certainly doesn’t hurt to consider that all three countries tend to be reasonably priced compared to many other parts of Europe during the high season of summer.
As far as planning, you’ll want to sift through travel guides and online resources for everything you can do as you work your way through the Baltics. A few highlights were the food in Riga, the Old Town in Tallinn, and walking at dusk on the streets of Vilnius. Overall, Vilnius was my favorite of the lot for a few reasons. It felt incredibly metropolitan but still a bit ‘undiscovered.’ We didn’t find throngs of tour groups and the prices for entry to activities were quite reasonable. (The Gediminas’ Tower of the Upper Castle and the Museum of Occupations and Freedom (aka the KGB Museum) were both highlights). I have family roots there too that were fun to explore and made our visit to Vilnius even more meaningful.
Consider beginning in Finland and ending in Poland:
Since we were traveling from Ireland, it would have been entirely possible for us to fly Ryanair directly into Estonia and back again from Lithuania, or vice versa; however, we needed to make our way back to the U.S. at the end of our Baltic travels. This changed our considerations.
The flights we found departing from any of the five busiest airports in the region — Riga (Latvia), Vilnius (Lithuania), Tallinn (Estonia), Kaunas (Lithuania), and Palanga (Lithuania) — all featured connections with extended stopovers and/or a need to fly multiple carriers, so we looked into the possibilities through Helsinki, Finland and Warsaw, Poland as well.
Flag carriers Finnair and LOT have multiple direct flights to U.S. cities, and both cities are relatively well connected to their Baltic neighbors (more on that shortly). Ultimately our choice was easy as soon as we began checking fares and learned it would cost us about one-third the price to fly into Helsinki and out from Warsaw than flying into Warsaw and out from Helsinki.
Plotting your time from Helsinki to Warsaw:
We spent 2 nights in Helsinki after flying from Dublin, Ireland. We then took the Viking Line ferry to Tallinn; the 10:30am departure meant we arrived in Estonia at 1pm and had the majority of the day to savor. Then, our 14 days in the Baltics looked like this:
- 4 nights Tallinn, Estonia
- 1 night Pärnu, Estonia
- 3 nights Riga, Latvia
- 4 nights Vilnius, Lithuania
- 2 nights Kaunas, Lithuania
After Kaunas, we took another bus (this time, a segment on the Eurolines route from Tallinn to Warsaw) and spent a night in Bialystok, Poland (yes, the birthplace of bialys) with Sean’s lovely cousins. The next day, we boarded our train to Warsaw, where we spent 2 nights beating the heatwave and having an all around great time. We finally took our flight to Chicago from Warsaw and vowed to visit the Baltics again, and soon.
Getting from Helsinki to Warsaw
We took the Lux Express bus on each leg of our journey through the Baltics, and it turned out to be excellent and well worth the money. Each seatback had a television screen, they offered free headphones, and each seat had a seatbelt, which is important to note when traveling with a little one.
Since we focused our travels on the Baltic capital cities (Tallinn, Riga, and Vilnius), we left a lot of each country unexplored, but it gave us an excellent taste of each place and was by far the most efficient option. Still, allow some time to get to and from the bus stations, as almost all of them were some distance from where we were staying in each city. The lone exception was in Pärnu, where we happily learned we had booked a hotel literally across the street from the station.
Saving something to go back for:
I have to say I wish we had even more time, especially to get out into the countryside more than we did, but as the saying goes, it’s always good to save more for next time. Whenever that next time is, I’ve already mapped out my wishes to get to Saaremaa Island in Estonia, a town in Latvia named Sigulda, and an area in Lithuania called the Curonian Spit.