5 Reasons the Baltics Should Make Your Bucket List
Maybe you’ve been hearing about Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania as one of the new “hot spots” for travel and wondering why… or maybe you’ve never even heard of the Baltics. Either way, here are 5 reasons the Baltics should make your bucket list.
Midsummer’s Night Festival
Undoubtedly the best (though most crowded) time to visit the Baltics is in late June to overlap with the Midsummer’s Night Festivals. Estonia and Latvia are well known to have been the last remaining pagan countries in Europe. During the last crusade, Germans invaded these lands and forced the villagers to convert. Christianity took a few hundred years to really sink in, and just as it was gaining steam, the region fell under control of the Russians and religion as a whole was history. This history allowed many pagan traditions to remain quite strong. Some even say midsummer’s night festivals are more celebrated than Christmas!
You can expect to experience seeing people in flower crowns and other natural garb, fire jumping, feasting on beer and cheese, and partying all night long. Going now might feel like visiting Oktoberfest 30 years ago.
Oldest Medieval Towns in Europe
All three capital cities in the Baltics have medieval old towns, with the most well preserved being Tallinn. Here you can stay in apartments built into the town walls which are at least 600 years old. The town hall is the oldest intact Gothic town hall in all of Northern Europe.
In Riga, much of the medieval architecture was burnt during WW2 but has been rebuilt true to style. Take a city tour to hear stories of the medieval guild and how the city changed its architecture to boost business. Another popular tour is a tour of Soviet Riga to understand the dark history of the KGB and Russian occupation.
If you have time to step outside the major cities, you’re really in for a treat. Stunning castles dot the countryside throughout the Baltics – my favorite being Trakai Castle in Lithuania.
Street Art and Alternative Culture
Street art is really taking off in the region. “Alternative” tours are available in both Riga and Vilnius that take guests to see the more modern, hip parts of town. Vilnius has been especially forward thinking. The city has brought in famous street artists to paint facades and beautify old neighborhoods.
Other quirky things about Vilnius include its “mobile phone walking lane” – a special area of the sidewalk where you can walk and text with access to a free hotspot, and it’s enclave “country” of artists called Užupis. The city also gained recent fame when it ran marketing campaign built by students who dubbed Vilnius “The G Spot of Europe.”
Learn First Hand About the Singing Revolution
In Riga I did a fantastic full day tour on the Soviet occupation of the Baltics. While it was certainly not the happiest of tours, it brought to life the struggles of the region and taught me a portion of history I didn’t know.
Latvia gained independence from Russia in 1918. It became one of the fastest growing economies in Europe and remained free until the Germans and Soviets entered into an illegal pact in 1939. In this pact, Germany “gave” the Baltic countries to the Soviets in return for non-aggression. The brutal Soviet occupation in 1940 is now known as the “year of terror.” The Germans then invaded nullifying the pact and occupying the region until the end of the war. At that point the Russians returned and occupied the region from 1945 until 1991.
However, what I learned next was one of the most amazing, heart lifting historical stories I’ve ever heard. In an effort to regain independence, citizens staged a series of peaceful protests. They would meet spontaneously in public places and sing traditional, nationalistic songs that represented their identities. This was truly an act of defiance in the USSR. Then on August 23, 1989 on the 50th anniversary of the illegal German/Russian pact, OVER 2 MILLION people formed a human chain and held hands connecting Vilnius to Riga to Tallinn, a line of over 600km.
Not long after this stunning feat of human organization (pre-internet and smart phones!), all three countries finally regained independence. You really must go and hear the locals’ stories for yourself.
Untouched Villages and Coastlines
Many package tours take tourists only to the three Baltic capital cities, but with just a bit more time you can visit original windmills, charming villages, and rugged Baltic coastline. During the summer these areas are packed with locals soaking up as much sun and nature as possible. If you prefer solitude, go in the fall. I visited in mid-September and had entire coastlines all to myself!
Don’t miss renting a car and driving the coast of rugged Saarema Island. Here you can see windmills, bird life, and even seals, along with ancient castles. On the drive down to Latvia, make sure to stop for a beach day in Parnu. It is one of the most popular beach destinations on the Baltic Sea and is quite the cultural experience if you’re used to tropical beaches.
In Latvia, spend a day exploring Sigulda and staying at a real manor house. Finally, in Lithuana visit the isolated Curonian Spit and whatever you do, don’t miss Labanoras. It’s a tiny town within the national forest. One guest house and one restaurant (with surprisingly excellent food) sit amongst a handful of charming thatched roof houses.
Interested in learning more about the Baltics? Give Bell & Bly Travel a call or contact us here!