Taking A Road Trip Through The Baltic’s – Plus VISA FREE St Petersburg and Minsk
Why visit three countries when you can go to five? The Baltic’s are an epic road trip by themselves but added with their Russian neighbours, St Petersburg and Minsk, they are an insight in to a totally different side to the Europe you know. Here are the places not to miss on a road trip through the Baltic’s as well as how to do two more cities totally Visa Free!
Tallinn feels more Scandinavian than Eastern European. Hipster district Telliskivi is filled with street art, trendy bars and pop up restaurants whilst the state of the art Seaplane Museum shows off its place as an important sea port throughout history.
The old town is postcard perfect with colourful houses and wonky cobblestone streets. A walking tour is a great way to see the sights and learn the quirky facts that make the city unique. Don’t miss the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral and Patkuli viewing platform for the best photos of the city.
Top tip – Buy a magnet from a souvenir stall and find the matching house in the city for a great photo and fun way to explore.
Top eats – F-hoone is the trendiest spot in the city to grab a bite. Rukis is a great place for lunch and mouth watering delicious cakes.
Out of the city
Estonia is home to a population of approximately 700 bears and has the highest brown bear population density in Europe! Visit Alutaguse in the northeastern region for a chance of spotting one. Find out more here.
Ever dreamt about visiting Russia but thought the visa process was too complicated? Not anymore! A cheap overnight ferry from Tallin can get you up to 72 hours Visa Free in Russia’s European city, St Petersburg. Read more on how and what to see once you get there below.
Getting from Tallin to Riga is easy via public transport if you can’t afford the hefty one way car rental fees. Take a bus like the Lux Express for a quick and comfortable 4 hour ride. Alternatively spend a day exploring with a one way tour, breaking the journey up with sights along the way.
Latvia immediately feels a lot more ex Soviet than Estonia. Big concrete buildings, large boulevards with imposing monuments. There’s a lot going on and no wonder as it’s the largest city of the three Baltic countries.
Visit the Central Food market to feel the buzz of local life as well as sampling the food at some pop up restaurants from around the world.
Take a cruise for a different view of the city. For €15pp you can see the main sights of Riga in a 1hr round trip starting just opposite from the University of Latvia. Visit the Three Brothers believed to be some of the oldest buildings in the city.
Top tip– Head to the Latvian Academy of Sciences Observation deck at sunset for a great view over the city for just €5.
Top eats – Some of the best local cuisine can be found at Lido, grab a beer and some potato pancakes while taking in the atmosphere.
Out of the city
An hour east of Riga is the small town of Sigulda in Gauja National Park. Visit castles like Turaida, a Bobsleigh, Luge and Skeleton track and even an Aerodium (think skydiving but on the ground).
Where to next?
There’s plenty to see on the way down to Vilnius and it’s well worth having your own transportation.
Make a stop at the Hill of Crosses near Siauliai to see a unique memorial dedicated to the many unknown deaths of the uprising against Russian rule.
Visit an old nuclear missile silo, one of only three left in the world, that’s been turned into a Cold War Museum. It’s deep within Žemaitijos nacional park, down bumpy gravel roads, where you can also get a chance to spot wild animals such as Lynx.
Klaipeda is the base for heading out to the Curonian spit, a large sandbar covering Lithuanias coastline. The town is famous for it’s spa’s and long open beaches.
Kaunas is Lithuania’s second largest city and is becoming well known for its street art. The Ninth Fort Museum is worth a visit for an insight into the countries dark past while the Devil museum is a lighter look at evil if you’ve had enough death and despair for one day.
Top tip – A great place to stay near the Hill of Crosses is Hotel Žvejų Užeiga which overlooks a beautiful lake near Siauliai and serves up some amazing dinners.
Top eats – Uoksas in Kaunas serves up typical Lithuanian dishes with a modern twist. Save room though as the desserts are outstanding!
Vilnius has all of the charm of any old town in the Baltic’s with an added dash of style. Climb to Gediminas Castle Tower for a panoramic 360 view of the city (€5 entry). Sights like the Three Crosses and St. Francis of Assisi Church are all very impressive but, for something truly unique, head to the autonomous region of Užupis. A community seperated from Vilnius with their very own constitution and world heritage status, inhabited mainly by artists and free thinkers.
For another slice of culture cross the river to find Halle market. It’s been around since the early 1900’s providing locals with meat and veg but now houses some modern twists. With jerk chicken, bagels and BBQ on the menu there’s something for every taste bud.
Out of the city
Trakai castle is awesome. If you do just one castle on this trip make it this one. It sits on an island out on a lake where you can pedalo and paddle board in the summer months. The museum itself is stacked with all sorts of artifacts and recreations telling you everything you need to know about Lithuanian history at that time.
Top tip – Visit the most popular bar in Vilnius, Piano Man, for the best cocktails around and to learn how to party like a local.
Top eats – Try kibinai at Markizas restaurant when you visit Trakai castle, a local pastry filled with sausage meat or vegetables.
You can fly from Vilnius to Minsk in just 40 minutes, so why not? As one of the least touristed cities in Europe you have to work a little harder to find things to do in Minsk. While getting there is easy now, you can travel 5 days visa free if you enter and exit via the airport, there still isn’t a heap of tourist magnets ready to welcome visitors. It’s more a collection of cool Stalinist Architecture with some trendy cafes and street art.
There’s a KFC which doubles as a Soviet monument, the Belarusian war museum and Liachaŭka. An old industrial suburb hidden on the peninsular in the city centre. Head to October Street with its huge street art murals where you can enter into abandoned red-brick factories that have become top rave destinations and hipster hangouts.
Probably the best way to experience Minsk is with a local with a walking tour.
Or check out this page for all the best tips!
Just make sure not to take photos in certain places as their are strict censorship rules. Read the rules here.
Top tip – Download the app Yandex Taxi, Russias version of Uber. A fun game is to see who can spot the most hammer and sickle images while exploring the city (as I said, you have to make your own entertainment!)
Top eats – Depo sell the most amazing pancakes with all kinds of filling while Enzo has the burger market covered with some of the best buns in the city no to mention carrot fries!
For all of the places mentioned above and more check out the maps of the best bits of the Baltic’s here.
This itinerary took around two and a half weeks with two night stays in most of the major cities and a night here and there in places like the Hill of Crosses and Kaunas. Really it’s up to you how long you want to spend in the Baltic’s but I would definitely recommend doing this road trip in the summer as tourist numbers are much smaller than in Western Europe. In October it was viable but got down to -6°c some mornings!
It’s a really interesting region with both a shared and unique history in each country. Visits to St Petersburg and Minsk “Europe’s last dictatorship” really enhance what you can gain in understanding of the culture in this region. It’s Europe meets Russia, which often has negative connotations, but it also has beautiful architecture, hearty food and vibrant districts with creative art. Definitely a trip not to miss.