3 Weeks in Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia – June/July 2017

In June and July 2017 I spent three weeks exploring Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia.

Itinerary

DayDaytimeNight
1Fly to Vilnius from DüsseldorfVilnius
2VilniusVilnius
3VilniusVilnius
4VilniusVilnius
5Day Trip - TrakaiVilnius
6Travel -> KaunasKaunas
7KaunasKaunas
8Travel -> KlaipedaKlaipeda
9KlaipedaKlaipeda
10Travel -> NidaNida
11NidaNida
12NidaNida
13Travel -> KlaipedaKlaipeda
14Travel -> RigaRiga
15RigaRiga
16RigaRiga
17Day trip - CēsisRiga
18Travel -> TalinnTalinn
19TalinnTalinn
20Day trip - Western EstoniaTalinn
21Day trip - LahemaaTalinn
22Fly from Talinn to Amsterdam

Timing

A summer's day at the beach, Lahemaa National Park, Estonia

A summer’s day at the beach, Lahemaa National Park, Estonia

My Lithuanian relatives strongly advised me to come in July or August to maximize my chances of good weather. Also, I wanted to visit the Curonian Spit on Lithuania’s Baltic coast, which essentially shuts down outside of summer. Unfortunately, Northern Europe has recently experienced unusually cold and rainy summers, and this trip was no exception. As I moved further north to Estonia, temperatures dropped, and I needed a light jacket even on sunny days. My umbrella and raincoat were essentials on this trip!

Transportation

Getting There and Away: I started in Germany, where I was visiting family. I opted to fly to the Baltics since flights are faster and often cheaper than bus, train, or ferry. I flew Air Baltic and was impressed by their efficiency and low cost.

Getting Around: Long-distance trains in the Baltics are rare, so I took buses the majority of the time. When possible, try to take a large bus with a company such as Eurolines instead of a microbus. The ride is smoother so you can sleep and there is an on-board toilet. Fortunately, the Baltics are small and my bus rides were never more than about four hours.

Consider also taking a sightseeing bus with an indie tour company such as this one between Riga and Talinn, which stops at interesting and offbeat sights along the way. I didn’t find out about this option until I was already in Talinn or I would have taken it — beats a boring bus ride any day.

The Baltic capitals are small enough to be very walkable, but when needed public transport in the cities is generally excellent. One word of warning: Google Maps did not work very reliably in Riga for mapping bus routes.

Uber is also now available in the major cities. In smaller towns, try local taxi service apps such as Taxify and eTAKSI (Lithuania only).

Accommodation

Airbnb in a traditional wooden house, Riga

Airbnb in a traditional wooden house, Riga

I stayed with relatives in Vilnius, but otherwise overnighted in Airbnbs. The Baltics offer some incredible bargains, especially outside the tourist hubs.

Super-cute welcoming committee at my Airbnb in Nida, Lithuania

Super-cute welcoming committee at my Airbnb in Nida, Lithuania

Mobile connectivity

Google Fi screenshotI used Google Fi on my Nexus 5X, and it worked well in all three countries. Make sure to follow these instructions before you leave home so your phone will roam internationally.

Vilnius

Vilnius Old Town, UNESCO World Heritage site

Vilnius Old Town, UNESCO World Heritage site

Vilnius Old Town, UNESCO World Heritage site

Vilnius Old Town, UNESCO World Heritage site

View over Vilnius

View over Vilnius

Delicious Lithuanian food. Clockwise from top left: blynai (potato pancakes), šaltibarščiai (cold beet soup), cepelinai (stuffed potato dumplings), gira (fermented drink made from rye bread), and kepta duona (fried garlic bread with cheese).

Delicious Lithuanian food. Clockwise from top left: blynai (potato pancakes), šaltibarščiai (cold beet soup), cepelinai (stuffed potato dumplings), gira (fermented drink made from rye bread), and kepta duona (fried garlic bread with cheese).

Delicious homebrewed variations of kvass, called gira in Lithuania, a fermented bread beverage available throughout the Baltics and Russia

Delicious homebrewed variations of kvass, called gira in Lithuania, a fermented bread beverage available throughout the Baltics and Russia

The Museum of Illusions in Vilnius is a fun stop and offers a lot of great photo ops.

Museum of Illusions, Vilnius

Museum of Illusions, Vilnius

Museum of Illusions, Vilnius

Museum of Illusions, Vilnius

Vilnius is a good place to buy amber, especially if you want quality higher-end pieces. I found the selection of inexpensive amber jewelry even better though on Klaipeda’s main square.

Kitty snoozing on amber, Vilnius

Kitty snoozing on amber, Vilnius

The KGB museum provides an excellent if harrowing introduction to Lithuania’s darkest years of repression. All three Baltic capitals have a KGB museum, but this one is considered the largest and most informative.

Eavesdropping room, KGB Museum (Museum of Genocide Victims), Vilnius

Eavesdropping room, KGB Museum (Museum of Genocide Victims), Vilnius

Padded torture cell with straitjacket, KGB Museum (Museum of Genocide Victims), Vilnius

Padded torture cell with straitjacket, KGB Museum (Museum of Genocide Victims), Vilnius

My relatives and I also took a day trip to northeastern Lithuania. The scenery is gorgeous.

Forest observation platform, Anykščiai, northeastern Lithuania

Forest observation platform, Anykščiai, northeastern Lithuania

I also recommend a day trip to Trakai to visit the castle and try kibinai, locally famous savory pastries.

Kibinai, traditional savory pastries from Trakai

Kibinai, traditional savory pastries from Trakai

Kaunas

Kaunas is Lithuania’s second city and former capital. It’s got a more gritty, authentic feel than Vilnius and far fewer tourists. Some fantastic Airbnb deals here: I stayed in a spacious, modern apartment just off Kaunas’ main pedestrian avenue for 30€ per night.

Kaunas' main pedestrian avenue. My Airbnb was off to the right. Yes, it was raining again.

Kaunas’ main pedestrian avenue. My Airbnb was off to the right. Yes, it was raining again.

Music students playing accordion for some extra cash, Kaunas

Music students playing accordion for some extra cash, Kaunas

Funicular, Kaunas

Funicular, Kaunas

Monumental Functionalist Roman Catholic church from the 1920s. Lots of great interwar Modernist architecture in Kaunas. The Nazi occupational authorities used the church as a storeroom; during the Soviet period, Stalin decreed it be used as a radio factory.

Monumental Functionalist Roman Catholic church from the 1920s. Lots of great interwar Modernist architecture in Kaunas. The Nazi occupational authorities used the church as a storeroom; during the Soviet period, Stalin decreed it be used as a radio factory.

Walking to Nemunas Isle, Kaunas

Walking to Nemunas Isle, Kaunas

Traditional Lithuanian wooden crosses, Kaunas

Traditional Lithuanian wooden crosses, Kaunas

The Kaunas Synagogue, built in 1872 and now the only functioning synagogue in the city, a reminder of the vibrant Jewish community that once existed in the city before the Holocaust

The Kaunas Synagogue, built in 1872 and now the only functioning synagogue in the city, a reminder of the vibrant Jewish community that once existed in the city before the Holocaust

Klaipeda

Klaipeda is a charming seaport and gateway to the famous Curonian Spit.

Klaipėda, port on the Baltic Sea coast, former capital of German Prussia, with the ship Meridianas, symbol of the city

Klaipėda, port on the Baltic Sea coast, former capital of German Prussia, with the ship Meridianas, symbol of the city

My spotless, cozy Airbnb hosted by a really lovely Russian woman was in one of these apartments on Klaipeda's main street.

My spotless, cozy Airbnb hosted by a really lovely Russian woman was in one of these apartments on Klaipeda’s main street.

Klaipeda harbor

Klaipeda harbor

Klaipeda sculpture park. Formerly the city cemetery, demolished by the Soviets.

Klaipeda sculpture park. Formerly the city cemetery, demolished by the Soviets.

From Klaipeda I took a day trip to visit the towns of Šilutė, formerly Prussian Heydekrug, and Pagėgiai, formerly Pogegen, where my mother and her family were from. Like most ethnic Germans in Lithuania, they fled to Germany at the end of World War II when the Russians moved in.

Disclaimer: There is absolutely no reason for anyone to visit these towns unless they have a family connection or a strong interest in Prussian history. However, it was a good reminder that often the most interesting and authentic travel experiences happen when you venture off the beaten tourist track.

Old courthouse and prison, Šilutė, formerly Prussian Heydekrug, where my mom was born

Old courthouse and prison, Šilutė, formerly Prussian Heydekrug, where my mom was born

Rabbits on stilts in the Šyša River, Šilutė, formerly Prussian Heydekrug, near the hospital where my mom was born

Rabbits on stilts in the Šyša River, Šilutė, formerly Prussian Heydekrug, near the hospital where my mom was born

House in Pagėgiai (formerly Pogegen) where my great-grandparents Helene and Gustav Bieber had their textile shop. Now a supermarket.

House in Pagėgiai (formerly Pogegen) where my great-grandparents Helene and Gustav Bieber had their textile shop. Now a supermarket.

Evangelical church, Pagėgiai

Evangelical church, Pagėgiai

Public toilets, Pagėgiai. Noteworthy for how spectacularly disgusting they were... among the top three worst toilets I have used in the world - and that's saying a lot. ;)

Public toilets, Pagėgiai. Noteworthy for how spectacularly disgusting they were… among the top three worst toilets I have used in the world – and that’s saying a lot. 😉

Nida

Lovely Nida is the biggest settlement on the Curonian Spit. It has a relaxed vibe and has long been a magnet for artists and writers.

Typical house, Nida

Typical house, Nida

Parnidis Dune in Nida. Russia is the dark spit off to the right.

Parnidis Dune in Nida. Russia is the dark spit off to the right.

The dune walking trails in Nida are so close to Russia that my phone roamed on a Russian provider.

The dune walking trails in Nida are so close to Russia that my phone roamed on a Russian provider.

Delicious berry pancakes, Nida

Delicious berry pancakes, Nida

Pagan burial markers called krikštai in Nida's old graveyard. Lithuania was the last European country to be Christianized, and many pagan traditions persist.

Pagan burial markers called krikštai in Nida’s old graveyard. Lithuania was the last European country to be Christianized, and many pagan traditions persist.

Famous view from German novelist Thomas Mann's summer house, Nida

Famous view from German novelist Thomas Mann’s summer house, Nida

Studio museum of local artist in Nida who worked to preserve traditional folk art like the pagan burial markers

Studio museum of local artist in Nida who worked to preserve traditional folk art like the pagan burial markers

Bicycle path from Nida to the nearby village of Juodkrantė, Curonian Spit. A nice day trip and an easy, flat ride.

Bicycle path from Nida to the nearby village of Juodkrantė, Curonian Spit. A nice day trip and an easy, flat ride.

Baltic Sea near Juodkrantė

Baltic Sea near Juodkrantė

Hill of Witches sculpture park, Juodkrantė

Hill of Witches sculpture park, Juodkrantė

Fun with Snapchat at the Hill of Witches sculpture park, Juodkrantė

Fun with Snapchat at the Hill of Witches sculpture park, Juodkrantė

From Nida, I did a five-hour boat trip along the Curonian Lagoon with the Romas Slezas Company. It was very well-organized and enjoyable despite the rainy weather. We visited the village of Mingė and the captain made us his famous fish soup for lunch. We also got a tour of Ventės Ragas, the biggest bird catching and ringing base in Europe.

Tour of Ventės Ragas, the biggest bird catching and ringing base in Europe. Demonstration of releasing a banded bird.

Tour of Ventės Ragas, the biggest bird catching and ringing base in Europe. Demonstration of releasing a banded bird.

Tour of Ventės Ragas, the biggest bird catching and ringing base in Europe. They even tag and release dragonflies!

Tour of Ventės Ragas, the biggest bird catching and ringing base in Europe. They even tag and release dragonflies!

This tagged dragonfly rested on this pregnant lady's bosom for a bit before flying away. You can see the numbers written on its wings.

This tagged dragonfly rested on this pregnant lady’s bosom for a bit before flying away. You can see the numbers written on its wings.

From Nida I returned by bus and ferry to Klaipeda, and from there caught a bus to Riga, Latvia.

Riga

Riga was my favorite of the Baltic capitals. Loved the Art Nouveau architecture and the traditional old wooden houses.

House of the Blackheads, symbol of Riga

House of the Blackheads, symbol of Riga

Stairway in Art Nouveau museum, Riga

Stairway in Art Nouveau museum, Riga

Traditional wooden house, Riga

Traditional wooden house, Riga

City park, Riga

City park, Riga

Traditional meal in a cellar restaurant, Riga

Traditional meal in a cellar restaurant, Riga

Gentrifying warehouse district, Riga

Gentrifying warehouse district, Riga

Old town Riga

Old town Riga

I took advantage of the sunny weather one day to make a trip to Jūrmala, a nearby seaside resort popular with Russian tourists. I’m not really a beach person, but Jūrmala has enough attractions and nice walks to make a pleasant half-day outing.

View from forest observation platform, Jūrmala

View from forest observation platform, Jūrmala

I also took a day trip by bus to Cēsis to see the castle and medieval church and wander around its charming streets. Sadly, my explorations were eventually cut short by a massive rainstorm.

Castle, Cēsis, Latvia

Castle, Cēsis, Latvia

Castle, Cēsis, Latvia

Castle, Cēsis, Latvia

Castle, Cēsis, with St. John's Church, one of the oldest medieval architectural monuments in Latvia

Castle, Cēsis, with St. John’s Church, one of the oldest medieval architectural monuments in Latvia

I took a regular Eurolines bus direct from Riga to Talinn, but you could also consider taking a sightseeing bus with an indie tour company between Riga and Talinn, which stops at interesting and offbeat sights along the way. I didn’t find out about this option until I was already in Talinn or I would have taken it — beats a boring direct bus any day.

Talinn

Talinn is the most touristy of the Baltic capitals, due to the large numbers of cruise ship visitors that often crowd its narrow medieval lanes. Talinn’s old town still has an undeniable fairy-tale quality, though. I recommend also taking a day trip or two to visit nearby attractions like Lahemaa National Park.

Talinn's old town

Talinn’s old town

Talinn's old town

Talinn’s old town

Talinn's old town, with the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral, a Russian Orthodox church

Talinn’s old town, with the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral, a Russian Orthodox church

Enormous abandoned arena built for the Moscow Olympics in 1980, Talinn

Enormous abandoned arena built for the Moscow Olympics in 1980, Talinn

I took an excellent small group day tour around western Estonia with Tallinn Traveller Tours. The tour visits a variety of natural and historical attractions with a focus on abandoned Soviet sites. We enjoyed a delicious lunch of traditional Russian food in Paldiski.

Keila-Joa manor complex and waterfall, Estonia

Keila-Joa manor complex and waterfall, Estonia

Pelmeni, traditional Russian dumplings

Pelmeni, traditional Russian dumplings

The ruins of an abandoned prison camp in Rummu, Estonia are drowning in the quarry lake where the convicts were once forced to work. The lake has been transformed into a popular beach attraction. One of the most surreal places I have ever visited.

The ruins of an abandoned prison camp in Rummu, Estonia are drowning in the quarry lake where the convicts were once forced to work. The lake has been transformed into a popular beach attraction. One of the most surreal places I have ever visited.

Rummu underwater prison, Estonia

Rummu underwater prison, Estonia

Rummu underwater prison, Estonia

Rummu underwater prison, Estonia

Exploring an old Soviet military airplane

Exploring an old Soviet military airplane

A fun, international group on the Coastal Cliffs & Soviet Paldiski tour with Tallinn Traveller Tours

A fun, international group on the Coastal Cliffs & Soviet Paldiski tour with Tallinn Traveller Tours

The next day, I did an eight-hour small group tour of Lahemaa National Park with EstAdventures. We also went on the Viru Bog Walk and visited Palmse Manor House. I thought this indie tour company was equally as excellent as Talinn Traveller Tours. Unfortunately, we didn’t have as much luck with the weather, so my photos didn’t turn out great.

Typical coastline, Lahemaa National Park

Typical coastline, Lahemaa National Park

From Talinn I caught a non-stop flight on to Amsterdam to visit friends. Talinn airport is small and super easy to reach by public transport from the center. I wish all airports were this stress-free!

4 Comments on “3 Weeks in Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia – June/July 2017

  1. Amazing photos … loved seeing the ones I hadn’t seen before especially. Thanks for letting me experience your trip vicariously! 🙂 The kitty sleeping on amber has to be my favorite. 🙂

  2. As usual, this post is chock full of gorgeous photos and useful info. I’d go for all the reasons you share here: the scenery, architecture, museums… and OMG, the food! Too bad the weather wasn’t great. Speaking of which, we had dinner with one of Steve’s colleagues last night (whose ancestors are also from Ostpreußen btw, though he grew up in the Ruhrgebiet) and he mentioned that it seems like climate change is also bringing Northern/Mid-Germany much more summer-rain and chill. Looking forward to traveling vicariously to Mexico with you again 🙂 !

    • Hi Rainier, thanks for your kind comments! I hope you get to go sometime… I would love to hear your impressions of Kaliningrad. It’s fascinating to me how many Germans have East Prussian ancestry. I remember my aunt and grandmother used to do little comedy skits in East Prussian dialect as part of the Kölner Karneval. And really bummed to hear that about the weather! Fingers crossed next summer will be better.

Leave a Reply