The Beautiful Baltic Capitals: Riga, Tallinn, Vilnius

Looking for an inexpensive, beautiful, and safe travel destination? Look no further than the Baltic capitals.

The capitals of the Baltic countries are Riga, Latvia; Tallinn, Estonia; and Vilnius, Lithuania. Each has its own character, history, influences, and style. Get to know the Baltic capital cities and explore this exciting travel region through food, culture, and history.

Table of Contents

            Riga, Latvia

            Vilnius, Lithuania

            Tallinn, Estonia

Baltic Capitals Overview

Riga, Latvia

Location: Riga occupies a central location in the Baltic countries, about halfway between Vilnius to the south and Tallinn to the north. Within Latvia, Riga sits on the coast of the Baltic Sea. What makes this location great? It means that you have easy access to both Tallinn and Vilnius via bus, plane, or car as well as a short journey to the seaside.

Population: As of 2020, Riga had 627,487 inhabitants, this compared to 1,886,198 people in all of Latvia.

Main languages used: Latvian, Russian, English

Why Travelers Love Riga

In short, travelers love Riga–it offers plenty of reasons to visit. It’s sprawling, with several districts that exude their own charm, without being overwhelming. Its wide pavements make it feel relatively more city-like than Vilnius, for example.  And it has a great mix of old, new, and vintage that brings history to the fore without sacrificing a cool vibe that gives Riga an unexpected edge. Art Nouveau in Riga is one of its most popular features.

Where to Start Your Exploration of Riga

If you are new to Riga, you will want to start in the old town, where winding medieval streets are lined with shops, restaurants, bars, and museums. You can spend hours wandering here while you shop for souvenirs such as Baltic amber, take in the layout of the old town, and grab a bite to eat.

Next, you’ll want to cross the river to take a look at Riga’s Orthodox cathedral and the beautiful examples of Art Nouveau architecture, a type of architecture popular during the early 20th century that focuses on curved lines, inspiration from nature, and nods to national symbols.

You must also pay a visit to the Riga Central Market, housed in former zeppelin hangars. You can grab a snack, shop for souvenirs, and people watch here.

For excellent food choices, head to Riga’s Quiet Center, a hip district where chefs and wine experts have set up establishments catering to those who appreciate fine food and drink.

The Baltic capital of Riga seen from a monument of a woman holding three stars
Riga is an incredibly beautiful Baltic capital city. Photo by Ivars Utināns on Unsplash

Vilnius, Lithuania

Location: Vilnius is the southernmost of the Baltic capitals, located inland in the southwestern part of the country. While it doesn’t have the access to the seaside that either Tallinn or Riga have, it will only take a few hours by bus, car, or train to arrive at the coast.

Population: As of 2020, Vilnius had 539,000 residents compared to a total population of 2,722,289 for all of Lithuania.

Main languages used: Lithuanian, English, Russian, Polish

Why Travelers Love Vilnius

Vilnius is a nice city! It’s cozy, safe, and easily walkable – only a few of the reasons to visit Vilnius. All high-rise buildings occupy a space across the river, so the old town is unspoiled and maintains its charming old-world feel. And people live and work in the old town, so when you go there, you won’t encounter only tourists.

Where to Start Your Exploration of Vilnius

Start your tour at Vilnius Cathedral, then work your way up to Gedimino Castle Tower, where you will be treated to a panoramic view of the old town and the financial district across the river. Then explore Old Town Vilnius on foot, noting the Town Hall, Gates of Dawn, Vilnius University, and Presidential Palace. Take a rest at an outdoor café or poke into shops selling Lithuanian linen.

If you have time, be sure to walk to the west end of Gedimino Ave. to check out the Parliament Building and cross the bridge into Zverynas, where adorable and ramshackle wooden houses are surrounded by tidy gardens—you’ll think time travel is really possible!

Uzupis is another district many travelers like to explore. This artsy district has loads of character—check out its “constitution” translated into several languages—and will win you over with its eateries, galleries, and shops.

Vilnius has invested a lot in making itself livable for residents and attractive to tourists, including renovated squares, such as Lukiskis Square and a beautifully reconstructed river promenade.

A view of historic and new buildings from the river in Vilnius, Lithuania
Vilnius captivates many travelers to the Baltic capitals. Photo by The Northern Vox

Tallinn, Estonia

Location: Tallinn is located on the northern coast of Estonia, on the Baltic Sea. As the most northern of the Baltic capitals, it will see extended winters and even more extreme variations in daylight hours than the more southern capital cities. It has good connections with Helsinki and Finland in general, and it’s also possible to take a ferry into St. Petersburg, Russia, from Tallinn.

Population: Tallinn is the smallest of the Baltic capitals by population with 437,619 residents compared to 1,326,535 people in all of Estonia.

Main languages used: Estonian, English, Russian

Why Travelers Love Tallinn

Tallinn can seem as if the timeline collapsed between the Middle Ages and today and forgot everything in the middle. That is an exaggeration, of course, but with Tallinn’s old city, its defensive structures still intact, and Estonia’s high-tech and futuristic emphasis, you’ll find the juxtaposition between the two—and the unique way they’ve been married—surprising in a good way.

But once you start exploring, you’ll find that Tallinn has preserved different eras of its architectural history in creative ways—the Seaplane Harbour Museum is only one example of a repurposed building that marries past significance with modern interests.

Where to Start Your Exploration of Tallinn

You must certainly explore the old town, both the lower and upper sections. Colorful medieval houses, towers with funny names, a Russian Orthodox church, and lookout platforms are only some of what you may see in Tallinn’s old town. Tallinn’s list of many things to do doesn’t stop there.

From there, you can venture out into Tallinn’s neighborhoods. For example, Kadriorg, where the Presidential Palace is located, is an elegant district with a connection to Peter the Great.

Kalamaja has a reputation as being a student district, and as you can imagine, that means you’ll find plenty to eat and be entertained by here, but you’ll also be able to explore the former Pratarei Prison and a submarine that is now a museum.

The Telliskivi area bustles with creativity and entrepreneurship. You’ll be able to see and buy art, sample locally distilled or fermented beverages, and enjoy music and food here.

Tallinn seen from a viewing platform at night
Tallinn is a Baltic capital that everyone must see at least once. Photo by Artem Sapegin on Unsplash

Where to Stay in the Baltic Capital Cities

Where you stay when you travel to Tallinn, Riga, or Vilnius will depend upon your budget and priorities.

While being centrally located is a good idea, generally, the area of exploration for each of these cities is small enough that even if you choose to stay in a hotel outside of the immediate center, you will still be able to walk to the main attractions and find dining nearby.

Hotel or Apartment?

The choice between a hotel or apartment is also up to personal preference and length of stay. Unless you splurge, hotels may not be very comfortable, particularly in the summer, when rooms can get stuffy without air circulation or Western-style air conditioning. On the other hand, hotels offer conveniences that you won’t get if you choose to stay in apartment-style accommodation—included breakfasts, a gym, or other amenities, as well as cleaning service.

Pros and Cons of an Apartment or Airbnb

A flat or Airbnb will almost certainly give you more space if you need it, though you may have the inconvenience of contacting and waiting for your host once you arrive in the city, which isn’t always pleasant if you’ve just endured the trials of a trans-Atlantic journey. A good tip is to look for contactless entry so that you can enter your booked accommodation on your own.

How to Get Around the Capitals of the Baltic Countries

Getting around the Baltic capitals can be done in a variety of ways, but you’ll experience the city best on foot. However, if necessary, you can choose to use a bus, tram, taxi, or ride-sharing service. It helps to use a map app if you’re just finding your bearings, but of course, most hotels will be happy to give you a paper map so that you can find your way around.

Ride-sharing and Taxis

If you’re unsure, one of the best ways to get around is by hailing a ride-sharing service or taxi via app, which eliminates any problems in communication. However, note that credit cards are not universally accepted with taxis and if you choose this option, you should have cash on you in the event that your driver has no way of swiping a credit card.

Popular ride-sharing services in the Baltic capital cities include Bolt, which serves all three cities, Uber in Tallinn and Vilnius, and Yandex Taxi in all three cities. Each city also has taxis that can be hailed by apps.

It’s often good to have a couple of options in the event that your driver is delayed or doesn’t show. Furthermore, you may have to hail a taxi from the airport if none are waiting at the taxi stand, so it helps to have your preferred app already loaded and your credit card information completed.

The guide to getting around Vilnius will help you navigate Lithuania’s capital city.

What to Do in Riga, Tallinn, and Vilnius

How you spend your time in Riga, Tallinn, and Vilnius will, of course, depend on the season and the amount of time you have. But some options may be to:

  • Check out the local food scene, particularly traditional specialties of food and drink.
  • Check the events calendar and attend outdoor markets or fairs.
  • Go on a walking tour, either a free one or one that has been created around a theme, such as ghosts or mysteries, Jewish history, or architecture.
  • Take a class in making traditional crafts.
  • Watch a flag-raising ceremony.
  • Tour the inside of important landmarks, such as an opera hall, presidential palace, or university library.
  • Attend a concert or performance, either free or paid.
  • Go on a day trip to nearby cities or attractions.
  • Take a boat ride.
  • Seek out high points and lookouts for amazing views.
  • Shop for souvenirs, local designs, or gifts for friends and family.
  • Learn about the city’s Jewish history as well as its Soviet history.
Old buildings on a square in Tallinn
Exploring each of the Baltic capitals’ old towns is a must! Photo by The Northern Vox

Looking for city-specific things to do, activities, and experiences? Consider diving deeper:

What to Eat in the Baltic Capitals

You may be curious about your food options in Vilnius, Tallinn, and Riga. While the cuisines in Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania have some overlap, you won’t be limited to traditional dishes. However, it is worthwhile to sample traditional cuisine, so look for menu items such as:

  • Herring and potatoes
  • Pink soup
  • Dark bread or even fried bread
  • Charcuterie plates of local meats and cheeses
  • Mushroom dishes
  • Smoked fish
  • Potato pancakes
  • Kvass or gira
  • Local beer

Best Restaurants Lists

You may also want to keep your eye out for best restaurants as awarded by local best restaurant lists for each country, which have a high concentration in the capital cities. These restaurants marry atmosphere, food, presentation, and service for exceptional dining experiences. Old town areas are likely to be home to these restaurants, but if you’re unsure, check with your hotel or ask a local for recommendations about the best places to dine.

A Great Brunch

Brunch is a concept that is beginning to be more widely appreciated in the Baltics. While brunch has long been aligned with the idea of simply “late breakfast”—meaning bacon and sausage, omelets, and pancakes—gradually, the notion of brunch as a mixture of breakfast and light lunch options is becoming more appreciated. Do be aware that some brunch restaurants work only on the weekends, however, and their opening hours may feel later than what you’re used to.

Consider starting off your day with one of the best brunch spots in Vilnius when you’re in the Lithuanian capital.

Cafe Culture

Of course, you will never be at a loss for a good coffee, with coffee shops and cafes seemingly every few meters. Most will serve pastries and other light bites, with others offering more substantial fare. Decaffeinated coffee is more widely available than it used to be, but if you ask for it, do be sure to be very clear because sometimes this detail can be lost when you’re ordering!

Other Tips for Travelling the Baltic Capitals

Are you looking for more information about Riga, Tallinn, and Vilnius? The following resources may be of help:

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