If you could only visit one Baltic capital city, which would it be? I just returned from stays in all three: Tallinn, Riga, and Vilnius…and I’m here to answer that question. So here they are, from north to south:
Summary: This capital is the medieval jewel of the group, with a very compact walled-in Old Town that just oozes “Game of Thrones” ambience. If you’ve ever wanted to feel what it’s like to wander through cobblestone streets straight out of the Middle Ages, Tallinn’s your town!
Biggest pluses: Old Town without a doubt. Per square meter, there’s more authentic architectural eye candy than any other medieval destination in Europe, and it practically begs to be explored- slowly, and on foot. There are lots of evocative names as you meander these ancient byways: Fat Margaret Tower, Church of the Holy Ghost, Brotherhood of the Blackheads, and even Kik in de Kok…which sounds worse than it is, but whatever you do, I wouldn’t miss the Russian Orthodox Cathedral, which held a beautiful liturgical service while I was there. But mainly my advice is to just wander around, grab a beer, people watch, and chill out-it’s that kind of place.
Biggest drawback: You’ll need to rub shoulders with cruise ship passengers and tour groups at every street corner, turret, church, road house, castle, or dungeon you come across-lots of them. Of course, that’s only to be expected, especially in September, which is prime time for visiting all 3 of these Baltic cities. It’s just that in tiny Tallinn it’s worse. If you can, wait ’til the sun goes down. By that time the day-trippers will be gone, and you’ll practically have the place to yourself!
How to see it: To see Tallinn, I’d skip the Hop-on, Hop-Off bus (and other motorized tours) unless you want to see the Kumu Art Museum or Kardriorg Park, (which I didn’t because I despise modern art and I was burned out with palaces by this point on my journey). Instead, I’d just use my feet and take the Rick Steve tour of the Old Town.
How long should you stay? You can do Tallinn in a day, but two or three would provide for a better pace and maybe allow for a field trip or two.
Summary: Riga is a charming mix of Art Nouveau apartments and hotels, medieval churches and squares, a nice little park that rings the city, and reminders of the war that raged there not so long ago. It embraces both the old and the new with equal parts pride, poignancy, and passion.
Biggest Pluses: Riga probably has the best examples of Art Nouveau architecture outside of Prague. The town center is “real” in the sense that you could actually work and live in what is basically a self-contained island, so there are many fine restaurants and bars within the city center… there’s even a shopping mall, 24 hour flower stalls, and a bustling farmer’s market! The city is 800 years old and has changed hands many times, so you can find great examples of Gothic and Orthodox churches, the headquarters of the Blackhead guild, and you can stay in some fine Art Nouveau hotels. There are whimsical statues scattered around the city, which is compact enough to walk, yet doesn’t feel small or provincial.
Biggest drawback- Depressingly bland Soviet-style architecture is prominent, even in or near the City Center, and there are tensions between what passes for native Latvians and the substantial minority of ethnic Russians living in Riga. From a tourist standpoint, I suppose this isn’t a huge concern, but I would be very wary of any information I received from either “side” of the divide. An example of this animus is that a monument to the Soviet victory over the Nazis is colloquially called “Russia’s finger” held up to Latvia, a reference to the subsequent occupation.
How to see it- Do a walking tour of the city center. I cannot recommend the “Free Walking Tour” that I took, wherein 60 of us huddled around the guide straining to hear, but there are plenty of other highly-rated tours to take. The downtown area is horrible for bikes because of the cobblestone streets, but outside of that perimeter you can cycle to the island of Kipsala and its restored homes or the Nativity of Christ Orthodox Cathedral just beyond the Freedom Monument. I can also recommend the streetcars, which I took to the excellent zoo and nearby Japanese garden. It’s almost impossible for an English-speaker to decipher the route, but Latvians are generally approachable and eager to help.
Summary: Even though Lithuania (with Poland) was once the seat of empire, it’s the least visited of the three capitals, and that’s really too bad, because in many ways it’s the most cosmopolitan of the group. There’s plenty to see and do in and around the city center, which has a youthful vibe and is a frequently a venue for concerts and celebrations.
Biggest Pluses: Far more baroque buildings than the other two cities, plus a nearby photogenic island castle (Trakai) that’s worth a day trip. It also features a gothic masterpiece (St Anne’s Church), the remnants of an old city wall and bastion, and the National Cathedral, which is the Lithuanian equivalent of Westminster Abbey. The Uzupis district is Vilnius’ own version of the Conch Republic in Key West. Festivals run almost all summer long, so the streets are frequently filled with pedestrians and partiers.
Biggest drawback: Not as walkable as the other two towns. I took a walking tour which hit on most of the best attractions in a few hours, but that was only because we didn’t really stop to smell the roses. You need to cross more heavily trafficked streets to see everything. Although Lithuania has a rich history as an empire and was independent far longer than the other Baltic countries, more of Vilnius was destroyed in WWII than either Tallinn or even Riga.
How to see it: I took the free walking tour and it was satisfactory, but done so quickly that really you need to plan to go back to further explore items of interest. If I did it over I might rent a bike afterwards or maybe take a deeper dive with a full-day tour. Trakai castle is an easy day trip and worth seeing. I took public transportation and the connections are poor. If I went again, I’d take some kind of tour with transportation arranged.
If you have to drop one of the three, I’d skip Vilnius. It doesn’t have the eye candy or charm of its sister cities. Riga is the second choice. It offers plenty to see and do but isn’t as compact or atmospheric as Tallinn. If you can only see one of these cities, make it Tallinn. The medieval allure is impossible to resist.
I’m tempted to say that these cities are ranked in order of their destruction during WWII, and there’s some truth to that, but it’s also important to note that the surviving architecture is quite different. Riga and Vilnius both have a fairly eclectic collections of architectural styles built over an 800+ year period, while Tallinn remains firmly moored in the Middle Ages. I love the fact that wherever you go inside the walls of the Tallinn Old Town you’re walking around in a living museum rooted in the 13th century. There’s a reason it’s been declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
My recommendation are as follows:
If you have…
- 2 days, 3 nights or less-see Tallinn only
- 4 days, 3 nights or less-see Tallinn and Riga
- 6 days, 7 nights or more-see all three
If you’re the kind of person that gets up at 8 and runs all day you can subtract one day from each of these. I’m not. I like to relax and take the time to smell the roses when I’m on vacation.