My Top Five of the Baltics
Thinking of heading to the Baltics? This is a little different from my other Top Fives because I’m combining Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia into a Baltics adventure addition. Please don’t hate me! We spent such a short time in the Baltics, but they’re so interesting that I wanted to write something. Each Baltic country was great, and I wish we had more time to do them each justice. So without further ado, my favourite spots we visited in the Baltics!
Who doesn’t love a beach side vacation? Jūrmala is famous for miles of beautiful, white-sand beaches and we loved taking walks between our community, Sloka, and the touristy district of Majori (whose beach has “Blue Flag” designation). We came kind of at the wrong time of year to do much swimming (as you can see by how covered-up I am above), but we did have a nice day where we managed to go in and the water was great! No seaweed in sight! The neighbourhoods of Jūrmala have different things to offer, my favourites were Kemeri, for the hot springs and parks, and Majori, for the wooden houses and restaurants (read more here). An affordable place to have a wonderful vacation while in Latvia, you should definitely check it out!
Riga is a really funky city with a relaxed vibe that we both loved. You can find markets with local creations and music, cathedrals with fairytale statues out front, historical buildings and monuments (including a plaque to the first Christmas tree!), and lovely parks with locals sitting around having a beer. My favourite building was the House of the Blackheads because of the interesting and exquisite detailing on the exterior. And don’t forget to try and find the mysterious Black Cats hiding on the rafters! We managed to take advantage of the music scene at the Latvijas Nacionālā Opera House, which has a balcony overlooking a beautiful garden. We also attended a (slightly) less sophisticated, but far more fun, free concert at Kalnciema Fair. Festival season was in full swing when we arrived, so the city was alive with musical events, craft markets, and shows to keep us busy. If you’re heading to Latvia, make sure you set aside plenty of time to appreciate this dynamic city.
Medieval Tallinn, Estonia
We loved Tallinn enough to visit it twice! Winter or summer, it has an amazing energy to it. The Old Town is picturesque and amazing to walk around down all the cobblestone streets. We took a walking tour, which I would recommend to everyone, and it was a great starting point for orienting us around the area and giving us a quick run-down of the city’s history. A neat spot to visit is the Bastion Passages below Kiek in de Kök (meaning, “Peek into the Kitchen”, not what you were thinking, you dirty bird). Constructed in the 1630’s, they’ve turned the passages into a museum displaying all the uses of the tunnels through the centuries. From prison cells to storerooms, air raid shelters to shelter for the homeless, the tunnels have seen it all.
Sitting a short ride outside of Vilnius, Trakai is a multicultural gem on the historical landscape of Lithuania that a friend of our had recommended. The town was built up by communities of Karaims, Tatars, Lithuanians, Russians, Jews, and Poles, each leaving their mark on the town’s history. Today, Trakai is a big tourist attraction both for the island castle and the Karaim community. The current Castle of Trakai was built in the 14th century and with its beautiful red-brick design it reminded us of Malbork Castle (apparently its even nicknamed “Little Malbork”). Trakai castle was a lot busier than Malbork had been, but we still had fun wandering around the castle and exploring the little island it had all to itself. The Karaim community was really interesting to explore too, even if we were seeing a touristic version. At one point in time Trakai was actually considered to be two separate cities, a Roman Catholic and a Karaite. While the Karaite community now numbers just around 50, you can still find a functioning Kenesa (Karaite temple), beautiful wooden homes, and even a couple of restaurants featuring kibinai (my favourite food from Lithuania!) and a shot of krupnik. Trakai had a little bit of everything Nat and I were interested in seeing, perfect!
Bernardine Cemetery, Vilnius, Lithuania
Bernardine cemetery sits demurely in the heart of the artistic district of Užupis and is the oldest cemetery in Vilnius, dating back to 1810. Home to an estimated 14 000 burial sties, it has been popular for a long time as a place to take a romantic walk. You might be thinking, “Hang on, romantic? A cemetery? Lithuanians are creepy,” but give it a chance! Sure, the inyourpocket guide to Vilnius warns you to watch out for bones protruding from the ground in the springtime, but that shouldn’t make you change your mind about having a walk around. Most of the cemetery is overgrown with wildflowers, giving it the feel of some sort of forgotten city. Many grave markers are still lovingly tended, some even have benches for loved ones to sit and spend a bit of time under the trees with the one they’ve lost. Nathanael and I got lost just wandering the overgrown paths looking at all the sculptures and unique tombstones. Trust me, if cemeteries can be enchanting, this one belongs in a fairytale.