The Baltic States
The Baltic States are some of the most underestimated locations in all of Europe. They don’t really fit in any category. It’s not Western Europe, it’s not Easter Europe, and it’s not quite Scandinavia. Instead, this area has a charm and a vibe that is completely original. If you haven’t been to this region before, we would highly recommend a visit. And if you avoid traditional Lithuanian food we promise you’ll have a fantastic time. To help you out, we’ve mapped a course of our favorite cities in the neighborhood.
Gdańsk – While Poland is not technically a Baltic State, there are a few places in the northern part of the country that border the Sea and are worth a visit. Our first must see stop along the Baltic Coast is Gdańsk, Poland. It is a great city with a long, rich history. The entire Old Town of Gdańsk is really remarkable. Right along the water there is a beautiful and well-preserved medieval port crane. It was built in 1442, making it the oldest one in Europe. We would also recommend that you don’t miss the National Maritime Museum (where you can board and explore the SS Sołdek), The Green and Gold Gates, Artus Court, St. Mary’s Church, and the beautiful Amber shops. For a half day trip, you can sail (on one of the fancy ships in the harbor) to the Hel Peninsula. That’s right, you can take a Pirate ship to Hel!
The big highlight for our kids in Gdańsk was the Ciucui Cukier Artist Candy Factory. This shop is located at 64/64 ulica Dluga and every hour they do a free demonstration. Here, they hand make traditional Polish Rock Candy and sometimes lucky customers – like our 2-year-old daughter – get invited behind the counter to help! Every demonstration ends with big smiles and free samples. It’s a must see and a must taste on the bucket list.
Sopot- Just a quick half-hour train ride north from Gdańsk is the city of Sopot with its legendary Boardwalk. The Pier itself is totally empty and costs money to walk along (not worth it in our book). But everything leading up to it is full of fun and color. It’s a quirky little town with a whole lot of character. Street performers, vendors, and art fill up this little city with charm. The Sopot Beach is a beautiful (but crowded) place to relax on soft sand and swim in cold water. Try visiting in May or September when school is in session. That way the crowds are low but sun is still high and the weather is beautiful.
Malbork – In the opposite direction, another great day trip from Gdańsk is the Malbork Casltle. It’s just a half hour train ride to the south and well worth the short journey. Malbork is a Teutonic Knight Castle. It was built in 1406 and is the largest castle in the world of its kind. I would plan at least 3 or 4 hours to get through the whole thing. Make sure not to miss the Amber Museum that resides in the basement under the gift shop. It’s also nice to cross the bridge and get a view of the castle from across the river.
The city of Malbork itself is quite small and beside the castle you won’t find much to see. It’s mostly made up of overpriced vendors trying to capitalize on the castle’s presence by selling the same cheap and gimmicky clutter. However, there are some pretty great ice cream shops around town that make it worth an hour-long wander.
Kaunas – Just a bit inland and to the North of Poland is Kaunas, Lithuania. It’s a great place to stop for a day or two. The main street leading up to the town hall is lined with fun and traditional Lithuanian shops and art galleries. Some great things to see in this city include: The St. Michael the Archangel Church (pictured), The Žmuidzinavičius Museum (Also called the Devil Museum. This may be a little scary for the under 5 crowd), Ninth Fort, and The Kaunas Castle. Directly south of the Castle, you’ll find a lovely park. It’s great for a stroll on a sunny day. Just as the path curves, there is a little playground where the kids can stop and run around for a bit. If you continue on, you’ll eventually run into the river. Just across the bridge there is a tall staircase where you can climb to get a great view of the city. For an off-the-beaten-path experience, take a 20 min. drive east to visit the Pažaislis Monastery. Open Mon.-Fri. from 10am-5pm and Sat. from 10am-4pm.
The Hill of Crosses – One of the most interesting and unique places we’ve ever been to is the Hill of Crosses just outside of Šiauliai, Lithuania. A couple of years a go, we drove from Kaunas to Riga. This Holy site is about half way between the two cities. Travelers have been making pilgrimage to this hill for more than 200 years. There are now over 100,000 crosses that cover the site. It is honestly an amazing thing to see.
Vilnius – Truth: We’ve never actually been to Vilnius. Second Truth: We really really want to go. SO, if you make it to the Lithuanian capital before we do, let us know what you think. We’ve heard that the Uzgavenes festival held yearly in February is amazing. Lithuanian tradition says that you have to scare away the winter. So, every year men and women dress up in big devil masks and put up witches all around the city to fight off the cold winter spirits and welcome in the spring.
Riga – Riga is one of those cities that you visit and think “I can’t believe I never thought to come here before”. It’s not Paris, it’s not Rome. But it is worth a weekend stop. Every August, this city puts on the annual Riga City Festival. We’ve been 2 years in a row now. It is definitely the time to be there. During the festival there are lots of free performances and activities. All up and down the river you’ll find lots of booths selling yummy local street food. And in the main square, there are hundreds of vendors set up to sell hand crafts and homemade goods. It really brings the city to life.
Jūrmala – This city is about a half hour drive from Riga. It’s very reminiscent of the little coastal towns that dot Oregon and Northern California. The beach itself is great but it’s also fun to meander in and out of the little shops and farmers markets inside the city.
Tallinn – Tallinn is our very favorite of all these Baltic cities! This is one of those cities where it is best just to wander. Everything in the old town is worth seeing and exploring. While Tallinn was originally settled as early as 2500 BC, the old town has preserved most of its historic architecture from medieval times. The old town is divided into Upper-Town (Toompea) and Lower-Town and is best explored on foot. However, it is not all that stroller friendly. So, backpacks or baby carriers are advised. The views from Upper-Town are quite picturesque and make it worth the hike.
Outside of old town you might consider taking time to see the Estonian Open Air Museum, the Tallinn Zoo, or to have a beach day along The Gulf of Finland. While we were there in August, we also took a bus out to see the Tallinn TV Tower (about a 30 min. bus ride) which has a viewing deck on the 26th floor. On a clear day, you can see a pretty spectacular view from the top. It is a completely enclosed and very child friendly space. Just a couple of bus stops shy of the TV tower is a beautiful botanical garden as well as a ruined 14th century monastery. We cannot say enough good things about Tallinn and always recommend it to our traveler friends.