What a strange white light, I thought, as I blinked, having a hard time keeping my sleepy eyes open. We had only been wandering the buzzing streets of central Riga for a short while but I could already feel the special atmosphere in the place. It was still winter here, as the chilly temperature and a few unmelted snowdrifts testified.
Taking advantage of the very cheap flights between Berlin and Riga, we planned to explore as much as we could in Latvia and Estonia in a week and enjoy a final day in Helsinki from where we would fly back to Germany.
The Baltic states weren’t my first choice when I was looking for the perfect destination a few months ago. I was dying to go to Scandinavia to explore the cool cities of Sweden and walk in the wild nature of Norway. Scandinavian countries are amazing – but they are also pricey.
The Baltic states were close enough geographically, much cheaper and from what I read seemed to offer vibrant cities and beautiful nature too. So, I expected our trip to be like a cheap Scandinavian venture.
But that wasn’t the case. The Baltic states convinced me on their very own. Here are five surprises waiting for your in the Baltic states, making sure that your trip is nothing like your expectation.
1) The architecture
While I really enjoy reading everything I can find about my next travel destination, I try to avoid to look at too many pictures. I want to discover and not recognize. I arrived in Riga, capital of Latvia, having no clue about what the city would look like. I was very soon amazed by the mix of architecture on the streets of Riga: modern, anonymous glass glass giants by the river, grey communist-looking blocks of buildings, colorful Orthodox churches with golden domes, Art Nouveau facades full of magical details and all those little wooden houses packed in between.
Riga’s Old Town is a maze of narrow cobblestone streets and medieval-looking houses, and all them lead to the central square surrounded by buildings in all kinds of styles and the town hall. No wonder then, that the historical center of Riga is registered with the UNESCO World Heritage Center – but I have to admit that it didn’t seem too special in relation to the rest of Central Europe.
The Old Town of Tallinn, capital of Estonia, on the other hand, was an incredible surprise. The city is relatively small and the majority of opportunities for shopping, eating and entertainment are happening inside the Old Town’s city walls. The historical center is located on a hill, surrounded by medieval walls, and gives you views all over the Old Town and the rest of Tallinn. By night the views are at their best, and the Old Town streets are finally free from crowds.
A few minutes outside the Old Town lies the Linnahall, an old communist concert hall that is now abandoned and covered in graffiti. It faces the water and its roof is the perfect spot to witness the sun rise or set!
I was particularly intrigued by the typical wooden houses that we found all over the Baltic states and Finland. While the ones we saw in Helsinki were perfectly painted in a beautiful dark red or black, the Estonian and Latvian examples came in all kinds of colors and very different states of restoration.
The beautiful buildings are scattered all around Riga and Tallinn, the homes of shops or people, and add a certain charm to any street. If you want to see more of them, take a stroll in the neighborhood of Kalnciema, situated in the western part of Riga. Leave the main street to discover the beautiful wooden houses and gardens of this residential area. I couldn’t believe how close we were to the city center, and yet the neighbourhood felt so calm, as if from another time.
2) The people
I wasn’t fully convinced by the people in the beginning – the long and harsh winter seemed to have taken its toll on their spirits. And yet, as the cold was lifting, so were their moods! Everyone we encountered was lovely, helpful and welcoming.
I think in particular of the waiter who had just closed the restaurant for the night, but invited us in either way to dish up the most delicious dinner while his colleagues were already cleaning the place.
In each country we tried to pick up some basic words and phrases, but in fact everybody spoke great English and welcomed us warmly.
3) The food
Fresh berries and homemade whipped cream, tasty soups, tender meat and local vegetables – it won’t come as a surprise that the food was one of the best parts of our trip. Wherever we went to eat in Estonia and Latvia we were served extremely fresh and tasty dishes – they’re real foodie destinations!
Food in Riga
Our Airbnb hosts in Riga had given us many recommendations for cafes and restaurants and we made a point of trying almost all of them. When wandering near the Art Nouveau neighborhood of Riga, grab a tasty coffee at the very hip Miit Cafe and later have lunch at Stock Pot, which is popular among students who come here to enjoy the slow-cooked curries, soups and salads full of fresh herbs. We had our first taste of traditional Latvia at Telpa restaurant located in a former factory. It was here that the staff invited us in after hours and served us some leftover delicacies. All their produce comes from organic farms and everything was so fresh, simple and delicious that we stuffed ourself without hesitation.
We had another very Latvian experience in the strange yet fascinating Kalnciema neighbourhood. We walked into Fazenda Cafe by chance and entered a room full of locals and families. The place served meals cooked from locally grown products and we were once again more than happily surprised by the taste and the freshness of the food.
Food in Tallinn
For a meal in the hip atmosphere of a little design gem, try Tallinn’s cafe Kohvik August. The colorful mix-and-matched furniture and the cosy benches by the big windows are a beautiful setting for the delicious brunch and cakes they are offering.
The Old Town of Tallinn is full of cafes and cheap places to eat, which you can easily discover by yourself or follow recommendations on the Locals Map distributed in hostels and tourist info points.
But there is more than the cobbled lanes of the Old Town! Head to Telliskivi, an old factory complex that is now home to several cafes, bars and restaurants. We ate at F-Hoone located in a renovated factory building and its high ceilings and windows give it quite an impressive atmosphere for dinner.
4) The nature
The one thing I didn’t expect as we were taking the bus from Riga to Parnu, a small seaside town, was how all the snow had turned into mud. The landscape was grey, flat and flooded. As the day light was slowly increasing and we caught glimpses of wooden houses in the never-ending forest, I couldn’t help but think that we were in another world. A creepy yet fascinating world.
While the winter was slowly fading in other places, the weather was still quite harsh on the Latvian seaside; the temperature dropped from 8?C in Riga to below zero and we froze while walking to the beach of Parnu. The town is a popular destination where locals go to sunbathe on the long sandy beaches during the summer, but on that day we were the only ones who could witness the impressive show of the frozen sea. In this typical northern white light, the pier made of rocks led us far away into the icy sea, with not a soul or sound in sight. It was mesmerizing!
5) The public transport system
To be fair, the train system wasn’t particularly good but the buses are incredibly cheap and comfortable. You can easily book tickets online or directly at the bus station. You will never spend more than EUR10 for reaching the next big city. While on the bus from Riga to Parnu I helped myself to plenty of hot chocolates and caught up on the latest science-fiction movies on my little private entertainment screen. Anyone fancy seeing X-men in Russian without subtitles?
The Baltic states did surprise me in many ways – and gave me some mixed feelings. Either way, this the most interesting trip of my year and so rich in new experiences. Riga and Tallinn have a certain vibe, somewhere between old and modern, stuck between Scandinavia and Russia, whose cultural influences can be found in architecture, nature and languages.
It made me want to come back during the summer, to meet more locals, enjoy the beautiful nature in all its glory and see the many sites we didn’t have time to discover in one week.
Have you ever been to the Baltic states? Which places should I definitely put on my itinerary?
This is a guest post by Marine Kervizic.
Marine Kervizic comes from the wild Atlantic coast of Brittany, France. While her love for nature is big, it equals the fascination she has for cities. After studying in the North of France, she lived in Berlin for two years and came back France to finish her studies. She’s now doing her master’s degree in Cultural Management in Paris and still wonders if she could find a job that would consist in roaming cities street and taking pictures. She documents the everyday student life, city strolls and travels on her blog: kervizicmarine.tumblr.com