Medieval yet modern, the intriguing national capitals of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania make some of the best small-city breaks in Europe. United by geography and a common history, yet proudly unique, they combine tightly packed, picturesque old towns with first-class museums, hip neighbourhoods, stylish bars and a burgeoning food scene. As all three countries celebrate 100 years of independence in 2018, here is our first-timer's guide to the highlights of Tallinn, Rīga and Vilnius.
Tallinn’s picturesque Old Town, the densest of all the Baltic State capitals and a UNESCO World Heritage site, is crammed with churches, towers and Hanseatic houses. But it is the onion-domed Russian Orthodox Alexander Nevsky Cathedral that is one of the most interesting landmarks of Estonia. Over the-top ornate, its dark interior thick with incense, Nevsky is a functioning reminder of the city’s turbulent time in the Soviet Union.
The most dominant building in Vilnius is its muscular block of a cathedral, but this is a city defined by Baroque. On the outskirts of the Old Town, another World Heritage site, the Church of St Peter and St Paul is the most famous example of the local style of “Vilnian Baroque”. Its starkly white walls and ceiling are awash with some 2000 stucco symbols, from sunflowers and saints to cherubs and centaurs.
Rīga’s Old Town is equally church-laden, but you’ll need to head to Centrs for its most emblematic architecture. The streets here serve as a showcase for Jugendstil, or Art Nouveau, an elaborate floral style that reached its zenith in Rīga in the apartment at Elizabetes iela 10b. This richly decorated building is instantly recognisable thanks to the two huge sculpted faces that top its facade.
The Art Nouveau movement influenced the design of around a third of Rīga’s buildings, but only one still retains its interior of the times. The ground-floor apartment at Alberta iela 12 – the former home of Latvian architect Konstantīns Pēkšēns, the man who designed the building itself – now serves as the Art Nouveau Museum.
It is beautifully kitted out with period features such as original stained-glass windows, stucco ceiling decorations and an incredible spiral staircase, as well as renovated ornamental friezes and antique furniture.
Part of the appeal of Tallinn’s striking art museum, KUMU, is the equally eye-catching building it occupies, a starkly modern curving block of limestone set on a bluff in Kadriorg Park. Four floors of exhibits trace the history of Estonian art from the 18th century to 1991, with surrealism and pop art gaining a stronger hold as the country approached independence.
Far more sombre, but most vital of all, is the deeply moving Museum of Genocide Victims in Vilnius. Like similar occupation museums in Tallinn and Rīga, the comprehensive exhibitions here offer an essential insight into the country's half century of suffering under Nazi and Soviet rule.
The poignant setting, in a building that served as headquarters for both the Gestapo and the KGB, enhances the effect of the chilling films, photos and personal testaments to a time that saw hundreds of thousands of Lithuanians arrested, killed or deported to labour camps in Siberia. The bare cells and execution chamber are left as they were, and there's a single room dedicated to the Holocaust, the impact of which on Vilnius was to completely desolate one of the most important Jewish cultural centres in Eastern Europe.
Northwest of Tallinn’s Old Town, the hipsters' enclave of Kalamaja makes a welcome change from the souvenir shops inside the old city walls. The focal point among the disused railway tracks here is Telliskivi Loomelinnak, a “creative city” of former factories that now house a variety of entrepreneurial start-ups, workshops, theatres and funky cafés. Laidback F-hoone is a great place to while away brunch on a battered old Chesterfield.
Užupis, on the eastern fringes of Vilnius’ Old Town, takes the community vibe one step further. A self-declared republic – it “broke away” from its mother city on April 1, 2000, and has its own constitution and anthem – the quirky district is home to a number of studios and alternative art galleries.
As the largest city in the Baltic States and a former European Capital of Culture, Rīga boasts several fashionable neighbourhoods, but your best bet for a bit of bohemia is Miera iela, northeast of the Art Nouveau District. The resident painters and writers of Peace Street, as it’s otherwise known, hang out in vintage shops, dark bars and cosy cafés; stop off at DAD Café, which brilliantly combines veggie cooking with acoustic sets.
Forget what you think you know about Baltic cuisine, the entire region is undergoing something of a foodie renaissance. Tallinn is leading the way, with Ö at the head of the pack – it's pronounced “Eugh”, though the food is anything but. In a dining room done up with a forest-foraged feel, and under clusters of winged light bulbs, tuck into a nine-course Taste Exploration that takes in elk from Saaremaa, blackened garlic and smoked beetroot dust.
In Vilnius, sweetroot’s modern minimalist space of muted greys and greens matches its pared back alternative take on rustic Lithuanian cooking. Each dish comes with an interesting little cultural backstory, whether it's pear barley and gizzard (traditionally a cheap cut for countryside peasants) or sea-buckthorn and goats’ cheese.
The best place to try modern Latvian cuisine in Rīga is Restorāns 3. With floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking pretty Kalēju iela, it's a relaxed setting for imaginative tasting menus that include succulent duck cooked at your table over flaming spruce pines.
While there's more than enough to keep you busy for several days in each of the Baltic State capitals, you should try and get out into the countryside to experience something of the contrasting landscapes – and life – beyond the city limits.
An hour’s drive east of Tallinn lies picturesque Lahemaa National Park, whose forests, reed beds and rugged plateaus are home to wild boar and moose. A similar distance northwest of Rīga, visiting Ķemeri National Park is one of the best things to do in Latvia. It offers an excellent introduction to the mossy wetlands that cover much of the region, with a 3 km-long boardwalk that leads through the Great Ķemeri Bog.
You’ll have to travel further out of Vilnius to appreciate Lithuania’s rural beauty. The best day trip is to nearby Trakai, an attractive 14th-century red-brick castle perched on an island in the middle of Lake Galvė, 45 minutes west of the city.
Tallinn’s Old Town isn’t short of characterful hotels, but it’s worth taking the opportunity to spend the night in a medieval merchants’ house. Or three. The tastefully converted Three Sisters Hotel occupies a trio of sloping 14th-century warehouses and carefully combines modern decor with period features, such as exposed brickwork and ceiling frescoes.
The renovation of family-owned Neiburgs, in the heart of Old Rīga, is equally impressive, so much so that the Art Nouveau hotel was named Latvia’s Building of the Year when it opened. The stylish (and spacious) rooms all have a kitchenette, and most enjoy lofty views of the spire-studded skyline.
The best hotel in Vilnius, and arguably the entire Baltic States, is the Kempinski Hotel Cathedral Square. This Neoclassical beauty enjoys a superb setting on the edge of this landmark square, and many of the plush rooms look directly onto the city’s immense whitewashed cathedral and its stocky bell tower.
Top image: Tallinn Old Town © ESB Professional/Shutterstock
A former Rough Guides Managing Editor, Keith Drew has written or updated over a dozen Rough Guides, including Costa Rica, Japan and Morocco. As well as writing for The Telegraph, The Guardian and BRITAIN Magazine, among others, he also runs family-travel website Lijoma.com. Follow him @keithdrewtravel on Twitter and @BigTrips4LittleTravellers on Instagram.