Travel in the Baltic Countries: A Beginner’s Guide

Many people group the three Baltic states of Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia into one trip, which makes sense! They’re close together, easy to travel between, and small enough to sample all at once during a single vacation.

They can also be enjoyed separately or as a part of a broader exploration of Northern and Central Europe, depending upon your preferences. Travel in the Baltic countries has a lot to offer—discover what you need to know, find out what you can look forward to, and learn how you should plan using this guide.

map for travel in the Baltic countries
Photo 124362654 © Michele Ursi | Dreamstime.com

Table of Contents

Where Are the Baltic Countries Located?

The Baltic countries are located in Europe in the northeastern part that borders the Baltic Sea. Lithuania is the southernmost of the Baltic countries and borders Poland, Belarus, and the Kaliningrad exclave of Russia, with Latvia to the north.

Latvia borders Belarus, Russia, with Estonia to the north. Estonia additionally shares a border with Russia. So, on a map, the Baltics are situated one right on top of each other from north to south—Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania. The Baltic Sea lies to the northwest, and all of these countries have Baltic sea coastlines.

While these countries are considered to be in what is most broadly known as Eastern Europe, Estonia has also taken the designation as a Nordic country and Lithuania and Latvia consider themselves to be Northern European countries.

How Much Time Should I Spend to Travel to the Baltic States?

You can, theoretically, do the three Baltic states in a little over a week, spending a couple of days in each country and focusing on the capital cities of Vilnius, Riga, and Tallinn. If that’s all you’ve got, you can certainly make the most of it!

But if you have more time—two weeks or a little more, you’ll be able to explore the countries more thoroughly, discover hidden gems, and have an overall better impression of these countries when it’s time to head home.

Traditional Baltic architecture

Are the Baltic States Cheap?

Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia were once budget destinations, with everything from hotels to restaurants cheap compared to the rest of Europe. The cost of living and travel in the Baltic states has increased in recent years, particularly since the introduction of the euro, which means that they are no longer as inexpensive as they once were.

However, they still compare favorably to Western European countries in terms of prices for accommodation, cultural activities, and food as well as public transportation.

Are the Baltic States Safe?

Travel in the Baltic countries is safe, but as always, it pays to be smart. Be sure to watch your belongings when you are in crowded areas and on public transportation, and avoid being taken in by over-eager taxi drivers, who may try to overcharge an unsuspecting tourist, or people at bars who buddy up too quickly, who then may leave you paying for an outrageous tab.

It’s also best to check what vaccinations are recommended for travel to Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia and make sure you are up to date with those. For example, if you plan to hike, camp, or otherwise visit outdoor areas, a tick-borne encephalitis vaccine is a good idea.

Where to Stay in the Baltic States

Where to stay when you travel in the Baltic countries depends upon where you’re going and what kind of experience you would like to have. For the capital cities of Tallinn, Riga, and Vilnius, it can pay to stay in a centrally located hotel or apartment—the cities are easily walkable, and you’ll have easy access to sights, restaurants, and shopping.

While it may seem most expensive to stay in the central part of the city, good deals may still be had in the old town and other popular locations, particularly if you are seeking out Airbnbs or accommodations in the off-season.

If your journey takes you off the beaten path, you’ll have plenty of beachside accommodations available to you as well as snug cabins in the forest or countryside. Many locals have summer houses or beachside flats that they don’t use year-round and help balance the cost of maintaining them by renting them out for short-term periods to tourists.

However, you’ll want to book seaside accommodations in Nida, Jurmala, or other coastal towns well in advance for summertime travel because both the owners of the houses or flats in these areas as well as locals take advantage of the short, warm season for sunbathing and relaxation.

Furthermore, spa towns such as Druskininkai offer all-inclusive deals that allow visitors to stay in hotels that offer a full range of spa and other types of therapy services. If this idea appeals to you, be sure to review the spa-hotel’s range of services as well as guest feedback about rooms and meals. You may choose to stay somewhere else and book spa services independently.

Which Is the Best Baltic State to Visit?

Which Baltic state is best to visit is a difficult question to answer because they all have something to offer, and when you list the pros and cons of each, they all come out about equal. All are developing their hospitality and tourism sectors as they become better known as unique travel destinations.

Most visitors discover their favorite only after visiting all three—some people like the slick and high-tech side of Estonia, while others swoon over Latvia’s castles, and still others love the cozy old town of Vilnius with its neighboring attraction, Trakai.

Most people will tell you that the nature of the Baltic countries is beautiful and pristine, the people helpful, and the history interesting. Because they’re so close together and can be visited in a single trip, why not discover them all to find out which one suits you the most?

How to Get There and Around

Your options for entering these countries are plane, car, and bus, and sometimes ferry. Most people fly in to one of the capitals, though if you’re coming from the US, you’ll have to stop at larger airport first, where you’ll go through passport control—these include Copenhagen, Warsaw, and Frankfurt, but your route will depend greatly upon your other stops and your point of departure.

By Plane

Riga has become a major hub for plane travel for all the Baltic states because its airBaltic airlines have a good selection of connections throughout Europe. Flights between the three countries of Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia are also short and affordable, with budget airlines Wizzair and Ryanair servicing the region.

By Bus

Bus is an easy and convenient way to get between the Baltic states, but traveling by bus from another European country can be arduous. Consider Lux Express, Eurolines, Ecolines, Flixbus or other bus services, which allow you to relax between the relatively short distances between capital cities.

By Ferry

Ferries connect Helsinki, Finland, and Tallinn, Estonia. Ferries also connect Estonia with Russia and Sweden. If you’re looking for a wider-ranging travel experience in the greater region, you may consider using one of these options to traverse the Baltic Sea.

By Car

Car is always a great way to travel Europe—renting a car will allow you to visit out-of-the-way places in the Baltic states that you might not be able to get to easily otherwise. Furthermore, if you’re keeping within the Schengen Area of countries, which allow for border-free travel, you won’t have to deal with checks at borders. Only if you come from a non-Schengen country will you have to stop at a border checkpoint while traveling by car.

Train

Rail Baltica is a project to connect Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania that is projected to be completed in 2026, so in the future, rail travel between the three countries will be possible.  However, trains do not connect the three countries currently. On the other hand, you may choose to get around Lithuania, Latvia, or Estonia via their domestic rail service. For example, many people use these options to get to the coast affordably and with ease.

When to Visit the Baltic States

During what season should you visit the Baltic states?

Summer – Most people choose to visit Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia in the summer—summers here in the northern part of Europe are mild with long, beautiful days.

Spring or Fall – If you prefer to visit when fewer tourists clog old town areas or when you’ll enjoy a pleasant, chilly nip in the air, choose spring or fall. Spring may be rainy and damp as snow from the winter melts off, but flowers and trees will begin to be in bloom, while fall offers the golden colors of this season and creates a beauty all its own.

Winter – If you aren’t afraid of below-zero temperatures or if you love seeing rooftops dusted with snow and forests frozen white, winter is a great time to visit! Just be sure to dress properly for the cold!

Planning your travel around traditional holidays is also a good idea because each country has its public events that allow visitors and locals alike to partake in culture. For example, Christmas is a wonderful time to visit because Christmas markets, Christmas trees, and Christmas lights turn cities into winter wonderland.

Other holidays, such as All Souls and All Saints, St. John’s Day, or Easter may also offer opportunities to witness and participate in local customs.

Summertime in the Baltics

Do They Speak English in the Baltic Countries?

English is widely spoken in Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia, especially in tourist areas and by younger people. Russian may also help you in a pinch.

However, many other languages are also spoken in the Baltic countries. If you know Russian, Polish, or German, you may be able to practice here.

Itinerary

Itineraries for the Baltic states vary according to your interests, but each of the Baltic capitals deserves at least two days, which makes for a decent 1-week itinerary if you need to limit your travel to a single week.

The rest of the countries of Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia can be explored much more thoroughly than the two days allotted for the 2-week sample itinerary below, but you can get a taste of each country if you allow yourself at least two days to escape the capital and get into the countryside or visit other cities and sights.

If you have more than two weeks, you may have more flexibility. If you feel you’ve seen as much as the capital cities as you’d like, you may also adventure into the rest of the country early. Depending upon your interests, you’ll find nature, the coast, castles, manor houses, and more.

One Week Itinerary:

  •      2 Days in Vilnius, including a half-day trip to Trakai
  •      2 Days in Riga with a half day to explore Jurmala or Rundale Palace
  •     2 Days in Tallinn with a half day in Tartu

Two Week Itinerary:

  •       2 Days in Vilnius, with a look at Old Town Vilnius, Uzupis, and Zverynas, with a half-day in Trakai
  •       2 Days to explore Lithuania, with stops at Kaunas, Kernave, the Hill of Crosses, and Palanga and Sventoji.
  •       2 Days in Riga, including a visit to the Market Hall, the Bergs Bazaar area and the Kalnciema Quarter.
  •       2 Days to explore Latvia, which could include a trip to Rundale Palace, Jurmala, and Cesis.
  •      2 Days in Tallinn to explore both the upper and lower parts of the old town area as well as Kadriorg and Kalamaja.
  •       2 Days to explore Estonia, which could include a bog walk in Lahemaa National Park, a visit to Tartu, or an exploration of some of the country’s manor houses.
  •       Optional: One or two days to visit one of Estonia’s islands, such as Saaremaa or Hiiumaa.

You may either book tours/tour guides to see the most important sights during your travel in the Baltic countries or you can venture out on your own using bus and train services, where available, or car.

Sights

Of course, no trip is complete without checking off important and interesting sights, and each country has those that you shouldn’t miss. But you can also customize your travel plans to include those sights or types of sights that you’re particularly interested in. For example, maybe you’re interested in Soviet history, Teutonic Castles, or Jewish culture.

Maybe you crave long hours spent in nature or by the seaside, or you are the type of traveler who seeks out the weirdest and most obscure sights, including outdoor art installations or monuments. Identifying exactly what you want out of your trip will help you narrow down the wide range of choices of attractions in the Baltic region.

Historic Cities and Towns: From the old towns of the capital cities to ancient towns scattered throughout the Baltic countries, each one has a story. For example, Kaunas is Lithuania’s interwar capital city and a popular stop a tour of the country. Ventspils, in Latvia, has a history connected with its port. Estonia’s Viljandi is famous for its culture and has several historic monuments to visit.

Castles: The castles of Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia range from lakeside fortresses that are now museums to treetop-skimming towers deep in the forest to island strongholds.

  •       Lithuanian castles – Trakai is Lithuania’s most famous castle and is surrounded by lakes and a town that keeps up medieval tradition.
  •       Latvian castles – Latvia’s castles include Cesis and Turaida as well as Riga Castle, the latter located in the capital.
  •       Estonian castles – Tallinn’s old town contains the remains of defensive structures, but Narva Castle and Kuressaare Castle are also formidable.

Manor Houses: Manor houses are unique features of the Baltic countries, some in beautiful repair and some crumbling. Some have been turned into event venues, others are hotels, and still others preserve a way of life for educational purposes.

  •       In Lithuania – From the haunting Belvederas Manor to elegant Burbiskis Manor near Anyksciai, Lithuania’s manor houses tell the story of the country’s landed gentry.
  •       In Latvia – Latvia’s most impressive “manor” is Rundale Palace near the Lithuanian-Latvian border, but Liepupe Manor, with its Baroque decorations, and Mezotne Palace, with its ode to Classicism, are also worthy properties to put on your list to visit.
  •       In Estonia – Estonia’s gentry left behind many, many beautiful and well-preserved manor houses. From Palmse to Vihula to Padaste, many of Estonia’s manor houses sit on beautiful plots of land and represent a variety of architectural persuasions.
Baltic manor house

Outdoor Museums and Points of Interest: The outdoor points of interest in the Baltic states range from solemn and beautiful to weird and wonderful.

  •       In Lithuania – Rumsiskes Open-Air Museum is the place for learning about Lithuanian folk culture and enjoying traditional celebrations. For a peek into Soviet history, visit Grutas Park. And don’t miss the Hill of Crosses, a major point of interest in Lithuania.
  •       In Latvia – The Ethnographic Open-Air Museum of Latvia preserves Latvian tradition and history with authentic architecture as well as festivals and fairs. In Jurmala, climb the viewing tower by the ARHIS architecture firm for views of the surrounding area and Riga in the distance. The Salaspils Memorial Ensemble remembers a former labor camp in the area with Brutalist-style sculptures.
  •       In Estonia – Traditional-style windmills on the island of Saaremaa, Oru Park with its topiary and fountains, and the Narva River promenade are some of the attractions that will keep you out-of-doors in Estonia.

Jewish Heritage: Jewish heritage can be identified throughout the Baltic region. Vilnius is famous for having been “the Jerusalem of the North” prior to WWII, but Jewish sites can be found throughout the country. Both Latvia and Estonia had smaller historical Jewish populations than Lithuania.

However, the countries of the Baltics have dedicated museums and tour routes for people seeking out Jewish heritage in the region. One of the best ways to see these sights and learn more is through a guide who knows the history and current and former sites related to Jewish heritage here.

Remnants of the Soviet Era: The Soviet era left its impression on Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia. While some monuments have been demolished or removed, others remain. Architecture from that era continues to serve originally intended or other purposes.

What Foods Should I Try in the Baltics?

Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia all have their traditional cuisines, which widely feature potatoes, cabbage, pork, and fish as well as bread and dairy products. While some similarities may be found between the cuisines of the three countries, each one has dishes that are integral to their national heritage and may be found on menus serving food prepared in the local style.

Lithuanian foods include saltibarsciai, a cold pink soup served in summer; cepelinai, or large potato dumplings filled with meat or cheese; and fried bread appetizer served with garlic.

In Latvia, a peas-and-pork dish called pelēkie zirņi ar speķi is popular, as is meatball soup and sorrel soup. The Latvians serve a cold pink soup similar to the ones Lithuanians enjoy called auksta zupa. In the springtime, Latvians make a fresh cheese with caraway seeds.

Visitors to Estonia will be able to enjoy herring on rye bread; mulgipuder, a dish made of mashed potatoes and barley; and kama, a finely-milled flour that can be made into a sweet or savory snack or drink or incorporated and/or made into other foods such as chocolate. It’s an interesting component to Estonian desserts!

Each of these three countries has its own beer and spirits that will be well represented in restaurants and shops.

Fresh Latvian cheese and currants

What Can I Buy in the Baltics?

If you love buying souvenirs of your travels, you won’t be disappointed at what the Baltic countries have to offer.

  •     Baltic amber is a highly popular, valuable, and beautiful gift or souvenir that can be passed down the generations.       Traditional crafts include baskets, knitted items of clothing, pottery, and items made of wood.
  •      Clothing from local designers shows the creativity of Estonian, Lithuanian, and Latvian designers and allows you to add unique pieces to your wardrobe.
  •       Jewelry either in pagan designs that recall the region’s past or updated and modern forms makes a long-lasting and meaningful souvenir.
  •      Linen is widely used and worn throughout the Baltics and is made into towels, sheets, accessories, and clothing.
  • Folk art from Lithuania, folk art from Latvia, and folk art from Estonia makes for excellent souvenirs. Baltic folk art makes a beautiful addition to the home!

What Other Countries Should I Visit When in the Baltic Region?

If you find you have more time or you’d like to visit as many countries as possible on your trip to the Baltic states, you may consider one of the following logical options:

Poland—Poland has cultural and historical links with Lithuania, with Warsaw under an hour away by plane. Poland is a beautiful, interesting country with many, many points of interest. It’s within the EU’s Schengen area, so you don’t have to worry about visas or passport control when visiting from Lithuania, Latvia, or Estonia.

Belarus—Belarus is a less-visited country for many Westerners, which means, in a large part, it remains a mystery. However, visitors to Minks and beyond are impressed by its cleanliness and order, and even though the government is a dictatorship, the Belarusians are warm and helpful people. A visa-free policy (valid for up to 30 days) is applicable to American travelers arriving and departing from the Minsk International Airport.

Russia—From Tallinn, it’s possible to take a ferry into St. Petersburg, a jewel in the crown of Russian cities. Though tourists can visit via this route by ferry for up to 72 hours without a visa as a part of a group, it may be wise to get one anyway to have all of your bases covered.

Finland—Finland and Estonia maintain cultural, linguistic, and other ties, and it’s easy to get from Estonia to its northern neighbor by ferry or plane. Finland is also a part of the Schengen zone, so no visa is required.