If you only have a day to explore Estonia’s capital then be sure not to miss these five sites.
With a unique fairy-tale old town, Tallinn is one of my favourite cities to explore in Europe. If you are staying for a few days, I’d also recommend venturing out to the lesser known parts of Estonia on alternative day trip or visiting the eastern city of Tartu. If you only have a day or two, then be sure not to miss these five sites in the capital.
1. Explore abandoned Linnahall
This huge Soviet style building was completed in 1980 as a venue for the sailing events of the Moscow Olympics. The hall then became an entertainment complex and was finally closed in 2010. Despite recent plans for renovations, the area remains derelict, with grass growing through the concrete steps, graffiti on the walls and an a somewhat eerie feel- although these days it’s quite a popular tourist attraction.
2. View the old city from above
The old town of Tallinn (Vana Tallinn) has a magical fairy-tale feel to it, in part due to the well preserved town wall and castle on Toompea hill. To get the best view of the old town (and to get your bearings for further exploring) head up the tower of St. Olav’s Church or the town hall in Raekoja Plats. Both are 3€ entry and require climbing of over 100 narrow stone steps!
3. Visit the markets in Raekoja Plats
At the center of the old town you’ll find Raekoja Plats– the Town Square. As with many towns, the main square is the heart of the city. Here you’ll find regular weekend markets, plenty of restaurants, cafes and interesting museums.
Since 1441 the old Raekoja Plats has been home to a magical Christmas Market. It’s even been said that the Brotherhood of the Blackheads erected the world’s first Christmas Tree here, although others claim that neighboring Riga holds this title.
4. Wander through Toompea Hill
Positioned above the rest of the old town, Toompea (Cathedral) Hill boasts impressive views of the city, the old castle- which is now the Estonian Parliament building and the stunning Alexander Nevsky Cathedral.
5. Head to Telliskivi
If you want to see a different side of Tallinn then head out of the Old Town time-warp to Telliskivi, an inspiring “creative city for everything new”. Here you’ll find second-hand shops, homeware and arts stores, food and thrift markets and plenty of trendy cafes and bars. My favourite is F-Hoone.
Vilnius blew me away. For many reasons. Firstly, it’s incredibly beautiful. The baroque old town is full of intricately detailed and colored buildings, with church towers dominating the skyline. Yet the town is also close enough to nature that you don’t feel overwhelmed by city life and can readily take a stroll by the river, through a forest or up a hill (the city is founded on 7). Then there’s the tangible youthful student vibe, with locals exuding elegance, intelligence and class. Despite being a capital city, Vilnius has more of a small town feel, and the size makes it perfect to get around on foot- my favorite way to explore. Here are 5 unmissable things to do in my favorite Baltic city.
1. Wander the Old Town
Founded on the Gediminas Hill in the 1320s, on a site already settled for 1,000 years, Vilnius is rich in history. In fact, the whole old town is world heritage listed. And it’s the largest baroque old town in Europe. If that wasn’t enough to tempt you, there are great cafes, elegant hotel bars and plenty of cosy stores selling local handicrafts- linen, amber and handmade chocolates.
2. Explore the University’s 13 Courtyards
The Vilnius University was founded in 1579 and is not only the oldest university in the Baltics but one of the oldest in Northern Europe. There are 13 interconnecting courtyards to explore, with the Grand Courtyard the most impressive. It’s also possible to visit the University Library which houses the oldest book written in Lithuanian.
3. Discover Abandon Buildings
While the most famous abandoned building is probably the Sports Palace, just across the river from the Castle Tower, my favourite place to experience the remnants of a bygone era is the area of Užupis. It’s well worth spending a morning or afternoon exploring this district, I couldn’t get enough of the area. If this is your type of thing then check out this blog– a curated list of abandoned places in Lithuania.
4. Climb Cathedral Tower and Gediminas Castle Tower
The Castle Tower, dating back to the 16th century, is all that remains of the old Vilnius castle. It can be reached by a short climb up a hill overlooking the town. The view from the top is well worth the walk. Below the hill, the stunning cathedral has a bell tower you can climb for more 360° views, as well as headphones throughout with various historical information. It’s well worth the 4.50€ entrance fee. Finally, Cathedral Square at the base of the tower is the perfect place to relax in the afternoon sun and watch the world go by.
5. Catch Sunset at the Three Crosses
A longer hike up to the Three Crosses Monument is best just before sunset. For the perfect evening, pack a picnic and drinks and watch the sun come down over the city.
I stayed at Downtown Forest Hostel and Camping and it was perfect. Just out of town but a 5 minute walk to Užupis. The staff were friendly, and there were great communal spaces and bets of all free coffee in the morning!
The currency is Euro and I found the town to be great value- for budgeting info check out this post
In terms of transport, I found Uber to be exceedingly good value; a 15 minute ride from the airport after midnight was 7€ and only 5€ on the way back. As the old town is relatively compact walking is best and when venturing to Trakai a local bus is 2€ in each direction. The bus station and train station are next to each other.
For each country I visit over the next few months I’ll be writing a budget post detailing where I spent my money and how much my daily spend was. I hope these posts will give an indication on how much to save and budget for travel to these countries.
Travel Style: Budget
Daily Spend: 40€
Accommodation:4 nights = 40€
10€ per night for a 6 bed dorm room at Downtown Forest Hostel
Transport:4 days = 16€
Uber to and from the airport: 7€ + 5€
Walking around the city
Bus to and from Trakai: 4€
Food:4 days = 80€
Breakfast: hearty slice of quiche for as little as 2€
Lunch: 5-10€ for a filling lunch at a local eatery
Dinner: 10-15€ for 2 courses at a touristy place
Drink:4 days = 15€
Coffee- free at hostel. 2-3€ elsewhere for proper barista coffee. Not much extra for Irish coffee!
Wine around 4€ a glass
Spirits- around 4€
Cocktails- 5€ at the hostel, 8-10€ at the fanciest hotel
I’m a sucker for castles, and those surrounded by water have an even greater appeal. So visiting the 14th century castle at Trakai was a must during my stay in Vilnius. Perched on an island in Lake Galvė, the red bricked castle with it’s fairy-tale turrets can be reached by a footbridge from the nearby peninsula. It’s 8€ to go inside the castle, so I preferred to wander the grounds and take in the exterior in the afternoon sun.
While Vilnius is not a bustling city, visiting Trakai still felt like the perfect escape to quiet nature. The bus from Vilnius takes you to the head of the Trakai peninsula- a 2km stretch of land between two lakes. It’s then a half hour walk to the castle, either by the foreshore or through the town center.
I’d recommend walking along the foreshore on the way to the castle and through the town on the way back. On the western side there are paddle boats for rent and a long footbridge provides a perfect view of the castle and leads to further walking paths.
Within the town there are some beautiful old buildings like the Trakai St. Virgin Mary Church and appealing cafes, like the chocolate shop AJ Šokoladas which has incredibly well priced delicious chocolates and hot drinks.
A train or bus from Vilnius to Trakai takes 30 minutes and costs a mere 2€ one way. The bus and train stations are next to each other in the city center. Buses are more numerous and stop a little closer to the castle than the train.
Exploring Užupis, the bohemian art district of Lithuania’s capital city
Upon waking on my first morning in Vilnius, I was excited to hear from the hostel staff that my first day in Lithuania coincided with the Independence Day of Užupis. A self-proclaimed republic within the capital that I didn’t even know existed. Perfect! I headed off to explore. Here’s what I found out.
Located just across the Vilnia river from the old town, the name Užupis literally means ‘behind the river’. The independence day that I’d heard about is celebrated on April Fools Day and is mainly tongue in cheek, as are most aspects of the republic. Nonetheless, it still brings fun, colour and activity to Vilnius’ artist district. The republic has it’s own anthem, president and constitution- which you can read in numerous languages on silver plaques. The constitution includes phrases like “Everyone has the right to make mistakes”, “Everyone has the right to be happy”, “Everyone has the right to cry” and “A dog has the right to be a dog”.
While the district has undergone a revival in recent years, it’s actually one of Vilnius’ oldest districts, dating back to the 16th century when it was one of the city’s poorest areas. During the Soviet era the district went to ruin and was known as one of the roughest areas of the city. These days, the bohemian neighbourhood is full of murals, cafes and artist studios.
Maybe it’s because I grew up in a land of summer Christmases spent at the beach, with endless seafood and fresh cherries, or maybe it’s because I watched too many romanticized American movies as a kid. But for as long as I can remember, I’ve been obsessed with the idea of a snowy, white winter Christmas with all the Northern Hemisphere traditions. So as Helsinki experiences it’s first snow of the season and the temperatures plummet into negative degrees, I decided to get excited about winter by putting together some photos from two Christmas markets I visited last year and two I’m excited to visit this year. I hope you enjoy and get some ideas about where you could go for some European Christmas cheer!
Helsinki: Senate Square and surrounds
The annual Helsinki Christmas Markets, often referred to as the St. Thomas Market, is held at the famous Senate Square from the first weekend in December up to the Friday before Christmas. With the majestic all white Helsinki Cathedral standing tall above the square and a beautiful old carousel in the middle of the market, this is one elegant affair, with 100 well-organised stalls and many places to sit and drink. As well as delicious sweet and savoury food there are also many Finnish craft and design stores. A little further down Aleksanterinkatu, outside the famous department building Stockmann, there’s also a small cluster of Christmas stalls during the festive season, with many cheery lights, spruce trees, roasted chestnuts and hot Glögi on offer.
Must try:Smoked reindeer meat and hot Glögi- the Finnish version of mulled wine, served with raisins and slithered almonds in the cup.
Prices:On the expensive end, as Helsinki is in general. A hot mug of Glögi is around 5€.
Further Details: For the Helsinki market and here for more information about Christmas markets and other festive events around Finland
Tallinn: Raekoja Plats
Tallinn is one of my favorite cities in Europe, and around Christmas time the enchantment of the old town is at it’s highest. Since 1441 the old Town Hall Square has been home to a magical Christmas Market and it’s said that the Brotherhood of the Blackheads erected the world’s first Christmas Tree here, although others claim that neighboring Riga holds this title. Either way, the Tallinn market is full of old world charm.
Dates and Opening Hours: 16th November – 7th January: Open every day 10am – 8pm with hot Christmas drinks till 11pm. There’s also a Christmas program every Friday from 5pm – 7pm and on Sundays from 12 noon – 2pm.
Must try:There’s plenty of delicious smoked and spiced nuts and very strong mulled wine! I found the food in Tallinn to be slightly heavier and heartier than that of Helsinki, with many hot pastries on offer. The handicrafts include a lot of amber and wood carvings as well as many hand knitted goods.
Prices: much cheaper than Finland but still more expensive than normal Estonian non-touristy prices. You can get strongly alcoholic mulled wine for around 3€.
As most of my trip will be after Christmas and the German markets tend to finish a little earlier than most, I will only have time to squeeze in two markets- but as one of them in Nuremberg I am confident that I’ll get my fair dose of German festive flare!
Initially I didn’t realise this… but there are many, many Christmas Markets in Berlin. This website lists four of the most popular ones. As I only have a few days in Berlin I’ll likely only check out the one in Schlossplatz in the old town Köpenick area of Berlin. Located amidst cobbled streets, a Baroque palace and the town hall, with traditional food, drink and gifts, the atmosphere is sure to be just what I’m after.
Riga is both effortlessly cool and elegantly rustic. I didn’t plan anything before I arrived, but here are 5 things I stumbled onto and am so glad I didn’t miss!
With a lively and effortlessly cool atmosphere, Latvia’s capital, Riga is the largest city in the Baltics.
Founded in 1201, the city has a rich history, with the old town listed as a UNESCO world heritage site. Unlike Estonia’s medieval fairy-tale town of Tallinn, Riga is entwined with more modern architecture, and diverse local culture.
Here are 5 things you should do if you visit the Latvian capital
1. Stay in the Art Nouveau Area
Riga’s Art Nouveau district is full of beautiful, intricately detailed buildings and trendy restaurants, cafes and shops. Street names to look out for include Strelnieku iela, Dzirnavu iela and Alberta iela.
The best eateries I found were Mr. Fox for breakfast, PiraniJa for pizza and board games, and Burga for excellent value drinks, burgers and traditional dishes.
2. Explore the Old Town: Vecrīga
On the east side of the Daugava River, this UNESCO world heritage site is full of beautiful churches, colourful buildings and many pedestrian-only streets to wander down.
Full of a huge variety of delicious, cheap local food, this is a must for any foodie. The market is open 10am – 4pm on Saturdays and is a 40 minute walk across the river from Riga’s Old Town.
If you want a market a little closer to the Old Town then head to the Central Market. With over 3,000 stalls covering 72,000 square meters, this is Europe’s largest market! To top it off, the market is housed in old German Zeppelin hangers which are now World Heritage listed. The central market is open daily from 7am – 6pm.
5. Take in the View of the City From Above
There are several locations throughout Riga where you marvel at the layers of history below, whilst also getting your bearings of the somewhat chaotic city.
St. Peter’s Church offers views from near the top of it’s 123 meter tower for 9€. A little expensive compared to other touristic attracions in Latvia.
Vertigo Bar, at the top of a cinema complex in Forum offers discount cards for 2 for 1 cocktails. A cheap and wonderful way to watch the sunset over the spires of Riga!
Skyline bar on the 26th floor of the Radisson Blu hotel also has reasonable drink prices and an unparalleled views.
The Academy of Sciences Building was by far my favourite place to view Riga from above. It has a decidedly Accidentally Wes Anderson look about it, and the building itself is as spectacular as the view from the top of it’s 17th story.
While Tallinn’s old town provides an enchanting time-warp, if you’re visiting Estonia and want to get out of the city to see an alternative side of the area then here are a few lesser-known options. As each place is quite far from the next, you will either need to hire a car for the day or join an organised day tour. I decided to do a day trip with Traveller Tours and had a wonderful experience.
1. Keila-Joa Manor House and Waterfall
Built by a German aristocratic family on banks of the Keila river in 1833, the neo-gothic manor house and surrounding walking paths provide a beautiful place to relax on a sunny day.
Just up stream you’ll find a wide waterfall- touted as Estonia’s most romantic. In winter the waterfall often freezes over, creating a beautiful icy curtain.
2. Padise Abbey and Manor house
In the 14th century, monks who had been dispossessed from their Latvian Dünamünde Abbey founded this Cistercian Monastery. Over the years it became a fortress and then a country house in the 18th century. Now, abandoned ruins are all that remain.
Like most places in Estonia, you have free reign to explore the site, including the musty dirt-floor cellars and high tower, reached by old wooden and stone steps.
3. Rummu Sunken Prison
Rummu quarry was formed in the late 1930s, with prisoners from nearby prisons used in the excavation of limestone until the 1990s. To stop flooding, groundwater was pumped out during the quarry’s operation. However, after it’s closure the water built up to form a lake, submerging part of the utility buildings and machinery.
The quarry is not accessible to the public as it is now private property. However, tour companies do offer diving and kayaking in the lake during summer, and day tour options in colder months. By far my favourite alternative site!