Ballin’ through the Baltics

July 19, 2019 – July 24, 2019

If you would have told me a few years ago that I would visit the Baltic countries of Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia, I probably would have been astounded and confused. These countries were never really high on my radar because I simply hadn’t heard much about them (besides from New Girl when Winston goes to play basketball in Latvia). I have to report that I was pleasantly surprised with how much I enjoyed our road trip through the Baltics. Although these countries are relatively young, gaining their independence within the last 30 years, they have a lot to offer.

Our itinerary went like this: Fly into Vilnius, spend 2 nights -> drive to Riga, spend 2 nights -> drive to Tallinn, spend 2 nights -> ferry to Helsinki, spend 1 night -> train to St. Petersburg, spend 3 nights. Helsinki and St. Petersburg to be covered in separate post.

Although you can easily get between Vilnius, Riga and Tallinn by bus, we decided to rent a car so that we could make a few side trips along the way. In hindsight, we probably should have chosen to just take the bus because the rental car ended up being very expensive with all of the hidden costs, confusing speed limits, and parking. Anyway, here’s the highlights of the trip!

Vilnius

The capital city of Lithuania is home to over 500,000 people and is supposedly the center of Europe. However, it didn’t feel like such a big city to me, because we only visited the Old Town. After arriving at the airport, we quickly picked up the rental car and drove for 20 minutes to our hotel. Let’s just say that parking in the Old Town was a bit ridiculous. Our hotel gave us the runaround on where to park and finally one of the valets drove with us to a lot nearby that ended up costing us EUR 75 for two nights. Oh the perils of car rentals and European parking.

All this rigamarole made us work up an appetite (or maybe the fact that it was now approaching 2pm and we had not eaten breakfast), so we found a cafe on a quiet street near our hotel and sat outside, enjoying the perfect weather. Here we decided on a game plan for the rest of our day, starting with the Gates of Dawn. This is the walled entrance to the Old Town, complete with holes where defenders of the city could shoot their guns out.

Then we went inside a church. It was different than most churches we’ve seen because it didn’t look old and it wasn’t very pretty.

Our final stop on the very short, self-guided walking tour was the Girmaldi Tower. Located on the other side of the Old Town, on top of a hill, this old fortress offered amazing views of the city. Unfortunately, it was under construction, but we could still walk up the treacherous, uneven gravel to the top. The tower doubled as a museum where you could read about the history of Vilnius.

The top of the tower was breezy and a welcome reprise from the heat. As a bonus, you could see for miles – the business district with it’s towering skyscrapers, the Hill of Three Crosses, and a myriad of churches. We admired the view and enjoyed the gusts of wind until the high vantage point became crowded.

On our way back through town we stumbled upon a crowd of hundreds gathered in the center of the city watching teenage girls and boys dressed up in their finest parading around in a circle. It looked like some sort of European prom. We never figured out what was going on because the announcements were not made in English, but it was fun to watch.

Before our trip, we did some research on restaurants and chose Bistro 18 for dinner on our first night. I loved the cuisine we encountered on our trip through the Baltics, plenty of fresh seafood and healthy options. We finished the night at The King and the Mouse, a fun little whisky bar.

The next day, we had a full day to take advantage of everything that Vilnius has to offer. Of course, we started off with a free walking tour of the Old Town.

The tour started in Cathedral Square, and we saw where the old walls of the city would have been. The city was established in the 1300s by a pagan guy named Grand Duke Gediminas who had a dream about an iron wolf. Since Lithuania is surrounded by two strong powers, Germany and Russia, the people got tired of being invaded and in the Middle Ages, and became their own state. The 1500s were good to the Lithuanians who became a very strong country, but during the 1700s it was incorporated into Russia. The country had two days of independence in 1918 after WWII and then resumed independence again in 1990. We learned all of this within 3 minutes of starting the tour.

My favorite stop of the tour was a Uzupis, an unofficial “separate country” within Lithuania that was started by two guys that drew up a constitution with their own laws. Some were silly like “a cat is not obliged to love its owner, but must help in times of need”. There were quirky art exhibits all over the town with things like books growing out of trees, or pianos with weird decorations on top. My favorite was an energy stick that is said to send out good vibes into the universe for all who place a hand on top of it.

After Tyler visited Moscow, he came back to Amsterdam with a love for Georgian food. We tried a Georgian restaurant in Amsterdam, and I also developed a love for the cuisine. This was great news in the Baltics where Georgian food is aplenty. In Vilnius, we ate at Chacapuri, a little outdoor stand in the middle of the city center, with amazing Khachapuri (basically the most delicious thing ever – egg in a bread bowl with butter and cheese).

Our afternoon consisted of a visit to the Occupation Museum, which detailed the history of Lithuania during the 20th century. Throughout the years, Lithuania had periods of independence, followed by Russian occupation, then German occupation, then once again Russian, until finally finding true independence in 1990. The museum did a good job of explaining what life was like under the various occupations. We also visited the old KGB headquarters, including the jail where citizens were sent after being spied upon. The museum was definitely eye opening, and worth a visit.

After a heavy day of sightseeing, we wanted to experience the local beer scene and went to Bambalyne, an underground beer cave with a large selection of delicious brews. Everyone was super chill, and it was a great spot to relax and rest our weary feet.

For dinner, we selected Lokys, a restaurant with traditional Lithuanian cuisine. We sat outside in a courtyard surrounded by old buildings and flowers, with a slight chill in the July night air. We ordered some crazy Schnapps – bacon flavored for Tyler, and horseradish for me. They were so gross. Do not recommend. However, I would recommend the beet soup, which is a typical Lithuanian eat. The main courses were pretty standard, but overall, I enjoyed the experience.

Post dinner cocktails took place at Who Hit John, a cocktail bar that happened to be showing Star Wars on the tv. Needless to stay, Tyler wouldn’t let us leave until the battle scenes were over. I enjoyed this place because it had an extensive menu of inventive mixes.

Riga

We left Vilnius to head towards Riga early in the morning. The scenery through Lithuania was basically just farmland, no trees, no animals, just wheat/corn/soy. It reminded me a bit of the Midwest. We planned to stop at the Hill of Crosses along the way to break up the drive.

Hill of Crosses

The Hill of Crosses is a place of Christian pilgrimage and a symbol of peace, housing thousands of crosses posted up on a hill. People travel from all over the world to write a message on their cross and place it in the perfect spot. We bought a EUR 2 cross at a stand outside of the tourist center, and I wrote a message honoring our friends and family that we’ve lost.

We walked to the site and I was overwhelmed. I had seen pictures, but it was more extravagant than I imagined. There were so many crosses, in all shapes and sizes, all with messages in many different languages. I walked through a few rows before picking the perfect spot to plant my cross into the Earth, nestled between a few other crosses. We walked up the main hill and marveled at all of the crosses and the people who traveled from near and far to place them here. It definitely felt like a holy place, and it was nice to reflect about loved ones.

Jurmala

Instead of heading directly to Riga, we decided to go to the small beach town of Jurmala that Tyler’s colleague recommended. It was easy to get to and we found a parking spot easily along the pine trees. We noticed that everyone had a sticker on their car, but didn’t think much about it. Instead, we went on our merry way to a beachside restaurant for delicious oysters and mussels which were super fresh.

Post dinner, we walked along the beach, which had smooth sand and clear waters, resembling more of a Florida beach than European. I enjoyed putting my toes into the Baltic Sea.

It was nice that we had such a relaxing experience at the beach, because the way to Riga was anything but. Our original estimate said it would take 20 minutes to get back to Riga, but due to everyone leaving the peninsula at the same time, and there being only one road out, our trip took 1.5 hours. To make matters worse, we finally learned that the stickers everyone had were due to a new initiative that started a few months earlier where you have to get a sticker to get on the island. The stickers are EUR 2, but if you are caught without them then it is a EUR 50 fine.

Old Town

Because we had learned our lesson about parking in Vilnius, we called our hotel in Riga on our way and inquired about the parking situation. They also kind of gave us the runaround and we ended up having to move our car several times throughout the two night stay and paying quite a hefty fee. That was my only complaint about Riga.

The Old Town of Riga felt so much bigger than Vilnius. The building were also a different style, and it was much more of a party. Lots of live music and bars, and everywhere you looked people were getting rowdy. Since it was still daylight, we went to the sky bar on the top floor of the Radisson to get a good view of the city. We could see for miles, as we sipped a local liquor drink called balsam.

We ended the night at a local brewery called Labietis. It was so local that we were the only tourists around. Tyler and I played cards while we had some beers, and a Latvian man asked if he could join us. He had maybe had a bit too much to drink, but we tried to teach him the rules. His brother-in-law who he was with at the bar also wanted to play, but it was getting too confusing with the new people, so we just chatted with them for a while. They were very friendly, and mostly non-creepy, and gave us some good recommendations for what to do the next day. Sometimes it pays to talk to strangers at the bar!

Our first full day in Riga started with a free walking tour. The guide was hilarious, and I enjoyed it much more than the tour we did in Vilnius.

Some highlights:

Riga was established in 1201 by Bishop Albert, a Catholic man from Rome. At the time it was Pagan, but the 2,000 soldiers with the bishop convinced the locals to convert. Riga became a successful city of commerce due to its location on the water and the Hanseatic League treaty.

Because of its wealth, everyone tried to conquer it for the next 800 years. First the Germans, then the Polish, then the Swedes, then the Russians. Similarly to Lithuania, in 1918 Latvia gained independence, and then was conquered by the Germans then Soviets during WWII, finally becoming fully independent in 1991.

House of Blackheads or merchants guild, complete with Berlin Bear out front.

Riga is famous for inventing the Christmas tree in 1510. It was the first place where Christmas trees were decorated.

The Three Brothers – three houses built in entirely different centuries

Baltic Way – on August 23, 1989, citizens from Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia formed a human chain from Vilnius -> Riga -> Tallinn with 2 million people to protest the Soviet rule. The Soviets didn’t break the chain because they were losing strength, and it was seen as a sign of good things to come for the Baltic countries.

House of cats – a man who couldn’t get inducted into the guild across the street bought up the whole block next to the guild and put a statue of a cat on top with its butt facing the guild. He was petty AF.

We finished the walking tour in time to go to an organ concert at the Dome Cathedral. The cathedral’s claim to fame is that it was once home to the largest organ in the world … for a few days until a larger one was built elsewhere. The church was ornately decorated, but the organ stole the show. The concert only lasted about 30 minutes, but I really enjoyed my first organ show. The song choice was very dramatic, alternating between soft and slow and loud and fast. I didn’t realize how much effort it takes to play the organ, but the organist had an assistant who was tasked with changing certain settings on the organ by turning specific knobs. When the organist wanted to be really dramatic, she would throw her hands up in the air and stomp on the foot pedals to amplify the effect.

At the recommendation of a colleague, we went to Folkklub ALA for a traditional Latvian lunch. It was a huge underground restaurant with several stages for live music. The fried rye garlic bread with creamy dipping sauce quickly became one of my favorite Baltic dishes. I also very much enjoyed carrot and potato pancakes dipped in sour cream. There is something about the sour cream in the Baltics that I just couldn’t get enough of.

After seeing most of the Old Town during the walking tour, we headed towards the Art Nouveau district after lunch. This part of town has houses built between 1890 – 1910 in a very decorative style and pastel colors. The buildings were kind of big and boxy, but definitely beautiful. The main streets to walk down are Alberta Iela, Antonijas Iela, Dzirnavu Iela, and Elizabetes Iela.

It was convenient that we could pretty much walk between all of the sights. On the way to check out the Riga Central Market, we walked through a beautiful park and to the top of Bastian Hill where we sat on a rocky ledge and people watched.

The market was easily the biggest I have ever been to housing a variety of fruit stands, veggie stands, meat stands, bar stands, and a whole food court. I loved walking around and checking out the different offerings.

We had some free time before our dinner reservations, so we checked out the spa in our hotel. Spas are very big in the region and I think almost all of the hotels we booked had a spa included on their premises. I will say it was not very relaxing with all of the kids running around jumping in the pool, but I enjoyed some quiet time in the sauna.

The locals we met the night before recommended Rozengrals for dinner, and maybe we should’ve looked it up before we went, but we walked right into a tourist trap. The servers were dressed in medieval attire and the only light was candle light. The food was alright, and that’s all I have to say about that.

After dinner it was pouring rain, a legit downpour. We ditched our carefully thought out plans and ran to the closes bar we could find down the street. Sometimes stumbling into a random place really works out, and we ended up in a hostel bar with shot specials, lots of colored lights, and killer Latvian techno music. A great place to people watch and wait out the rain.

Tallinn

Our goal was to hit the road by 10 to get the rental car to Tallinn before 2pm. If it weren’t for the traffic, we probably would have made our goal, but instead got charged for an extra day for being 15 minutes late. Another reason why the rental car wasn’t a great idea. Lessons learned.

We had to be efficient with our time in Tallinn, having only an afternoon and one full day to explore the city. The Old Town in Tallinn is pretty small, and doesn’t have many hotels, so we stayed about a 10 minute walk away. I loved the old, winding streets that were full of colorful buildings. A lot of the wall that surrounded the city was still intact, and you could even go for a walk along it. We visited the Old Town for a quick lunch at a place called Noku.

Since we knew we would explore the Old Town the next day, we took an Uber to Kadriorg Palace to walk through the park. There were tons of little ponds and beautiful flowers in the garden grounds. A great place to get out in the nature and enjoy greenery, but not much else to do.

One of our favorite stops of the trip was at Pohjala Brewery. It is a bit outside of the city center in the warehouse district in a hip old building. The BBQ we had here was delicious as well as the flights of beer. It reminded me a bit of some of the breweries we had visited in Asheville and had such a fun vibe.

We ended the night with a stroll through the Old Town during golden hour and captured some great pictures of the city. The crowds had died down by the point and it was cooler. We just strolled along with no end goal, admiring the architecture.

This time when we stepped into a random bar, we really lucked out at the Sigmund Freud cocktail bar. The menu was a comic book of sorts that was actually hilarious. The decor was funky with genitals covering the wall. And the drinks were absolutely incredible. A great way to end the night.

As creatures of habit, I guess it is not surprising that the next day started with a walking tour in the Old Town. As it was the third walking tour in like 6 days, my attention span was weary. A bit of the same information was repeated from the other tours, but we still saw some cool shit and learned a bit of history.

Similarly to Lithuania and Latvia, Estonia has a tumultuous history of being conquered and finally gained independence in 1991. The flag was originally designed by students at the university who were using the colors before Estonia was even a country. The Finnish and Estonian national anthem are one and the same.

Maiden / Virgin Tower – One of the watch towers along the old city wall where fathers would lock up their young daughters who didn’t want to marry their betrothed until they came to their senses. Later it was ironically also used to imprison prostitutes.

Toompea Castle – the Parliament building whose name literally translates to “building on a hill”. Most of it looks modern now, but a section of the old castle still remains.

Alexander Nevsky Church – A Russian church built during the 1900s when Russia was asserting control over Estonia. When the Estonians took back their independence, they were too poor to tear down the building. Nowadays, they have no desire to destroy the building.

Dome Church – Estonians aren’t particularly religious. Many believe that trees have souls, so maybe spirituality is more important.

I came to the conclusion during the walking tour that Tallinn was the prettiest out of the 3 cities.

Since the Old Town was pretty small, we headed to an alternative part of town called Telliskivi, to check out the local street art. We also strolled through a huge antique market with a bunch of crazy things like SS uniforms and pictures of Hitler and Stalin. There were also the regular antique mall finds like knicknacks, coins, dining sets and cameras.

Outside of the flea market we enjoyed some ice cream and street art viewing.

Two of our friends from Amsterdam were in Tallinn at the same time, so we met them at an arcade bar called Depeche Mode for a drink. There were pinball machines and foosball tables in the basement, perfect for Tyler’s inner child. We also went to a bar in the central square and had a EUR 10 cider, which was way more expensive than any beer we had the whole trip. I would recommend just walking through the center square instead of stopping for an outrageously expensive drink.

For dinner, we had reservations at the #1 restaurant in Tallinn called Rataskaevu 16. The food was delicious and inexpensive. It was nice to have company and we learned all about our friend’s experience on House Hunters International when they first moved to Amsterdam. Still wishing we would have done that! We ended the night with a pub crawl through Tallinn, hitting some really cool places.

The next morning, we awoke and took a ferry to Helsinki … To Be Continued

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