(Jen took this part of her trip solo in October 2018).
Recently, a friend of mine, who I met in Antarctica and who has traveled all over the world, asked for recommendations for a tour guide company for his trip to the Baltics (Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania). I was a bit surprised because I never considered those countries to be so difficult to travel to that a tour company was needed, but maybe I was wrong. So I figured I would write a trip report to help anyone else traveling there.
My trip to the Baltics (which also included Finland) was one I added on to a much larger trip to Ireland with my family. I originally wasn’t very jazzed about visiting these countries, so I didn’t plan much time in any one country. Basically one day in each country, just be there long enough to see a few things and mark it off, and then move on to the next country. In hindsight, I wish I had scheduled a bit more time in each place, especially in Estonia.
I booked my long-haul flight from Phoenix on a flight deal I found to London, arriving in the morning. I then booked an evening flight with Ryan Air from London to Riga, Latvia, allowing me to spend the day exploring Greenwich, England, a place I had missed when I was in London in 2012. As a side note, for the expensive flights I always research flying into a different, cheaper location and see if I can add on something else I haven’t done. It doesn’t always work, but in many places you can do a quick city tour on a long layover.
The three Baltic countries don’t use Uber to get around, but they do allow the Taxify App, which I used when I landed in Riga. This was the first time I’d really used any of the ride-sharing apps abroad and I really like it. You can type in the address or location you are going to, get your ride, and you don’t have to worry about the language barrier trying to tell the driver where to go. I was dropped off at the Red Nose Hostel, which was a nice, clean, and cheap place to stay.
The next day I decided to explore Riga on foot after I grabbed coffee at my favorite coffee shop, Costa Coffee. It was October and the leaves were turning colors, so it was a very pleasant walk around the city. In all of the places I went on this trip, Google Maps works well and I felt very safe walking around by myself all day. I’m a big World War II buff and I’m really getting into the Cold War as well, so many of the things I picked out in each city related to one of those two topics. There are a lot of great places to explore in all three of these countries that I don’t outline here, but given my short stays in each capital city, I picked the few things I really wanted to see to maximize the short amount of time I had.
The first place I went was the Latvia War Museum, whose aim is to outline Latvia’s complex military and political history, with particular emphasis on the 20th century, during which the Latvian nation had to twice fight for its independence. The permanent exhibition includes information about the art of warfare and Latvian soldiers, First and Second World Wars, Soviet occupation, and the gaining of independence in 1918 and 1991. (20, Smilsu Street; 10:00 – 18:00 April – October, 10:00 – 17:00 November – March; Free Admission). I really enjoyed this little museum and learned a lot about this small country’s difficult past.
I then wanted to go to the Museum of the Occupation of Latvia. The permanent exhibit is in the old KGB Building, which offers guided tours of the basement prison cells and an exhibition about the history of KGB activities in Latvia during the Soviet occupation. (Raiņa bulvāris 7; 11:00-18:00; Free Admission). You can opt to do a guided tour through the cell block, which cost 5 Euros in 2018.
The second part of the museum houses technically houses temporary exhibits; however, from the website it appears to be the same exhibit in February 2020 that was there in October 2018 – History of KGB operations in Latvia (Brīvības iela 61; 10:30-17:30; Free Admission).
Unfortunately for me, both of these locations had just closed the week before for renovations and I didn’t know that until I got there. So I was able to see the outside of the buildings and nothing more. I spent the remainder of the day exploring Riga’s Old Town – including “The Three Brothers” houses and the House of Blackheads, pictured below. If you were a single German merchant in the Middle ages, you’d have a room at the House of the Blackheads, which was built in 1334. After that, I decided I was “thoroughly lost” and had to “stop for directions.”
Early the next morning I walked to the Bus Depot from the hostel and took a bus to Vilnius, Lithuania. I booked my ticket ahead of time with Ecolines, which made it very easy to navigate and I had no difficulty finding the bus and traveling the four hours to Vilnius. Once in Vilnius, I walked around the Old Town. Again, having to stop and “ask for directions.”
In addition to finding the “Gates of Dawn,” the Vilnius Cathedral and Cathedral Square, I found this little memorial called the “Holocaust Exposition.”
After that, I also wanted to see the the Vilnius Museum of the Genocide Victims,which is in the former KGB prison, where the crimes of the Soviet regime were planned and executed for fifty years, including the implementation of death senteces. The exhibitions in the Museum outline the Lithuanian “loss of independence in the middle of the 20th century, repressions by Soviet authorities, and the self-sacrificing and persistent fight for independence.” (Aukų g. 2A, LT-01113 Vilnius; Wed-Sat 10:00-18:00; Sun 10:00-17:00; 4 Euro entrance fee; 2 Euro fee to photograph; 3 Euro fee for an audio guide in English). Unfortunately for me, as soon as I walked up to the gate to go inside, the employee closed early (literally locking the door in front of me and leaving the premises). Thwarted again on my goal to see a KGB site. At this point, the temperature outside was getting cold, so I just decided to get on the Taxify App and call my ride to the airport, where I could sit and enjoy another Lithuanian beverage.
I flew Air Baltic to Tallinn, Estonia, a budget airline that I really enjoyed. Once landing in Tallinn, I used the Taxify App to grab a ride to my hostel in Tallinn – Old Town Hostel Alur. This was a cute hostel in Old Town Tallinn that I would stay again in a heartbeat.
The next day, I decided to take a ferry to Helsinki, Finland, to explore. Even though Finland is more Scandinavia and not the Baltics, it is so close to Estonia I figured I would include it in this write-up. I walked from my hostel through the Old Town to the ferry dock – Tallink Ferry Lines are located in the D-terminal. It was a two-hour ferry ride and the ferry was very nice and comfortable. They had plenty of places to sit and relax, a nice coffee shop and small cafe, as well as a little store. The ride (both there and back) was very smooth and not rocky at all.
Before leaving the United States, I had purchased a Helsinki Card online so I wouldn’t have to waste time getting it when I got off the Ferry in Helsinki. Only being there for a day, I had limited time to see everything on my agenda. The Helsinki Card gives you free entry to over 28 of the best tourist attractions in Helsinki, plus a bus tour (18 Apr-Oct) and a travelcard for unlimited journeys on Helsinki public transport. The package also includes a free guidebook, as well as other special offers and discounted entries and the option to add on a Helsinki Region Card. It cost me 51 Euros for the day and it was absolutely well-worth the cost.
After docking, I took the Helsinki Tram to the Esplanade Park. (Tram: 2 (stop: Kauppatori) and 4, 5, 7 (stop: Senaatintori); Subway: Helsinki University). After grabbing a quick breakfast, I jumped on the Panorama Sightseeing Bus tour, which leaves at 11:00 from the Esplanade Park, Fabianinkatu (limited seating so get there early). The tour passes through the historical city center, past the Uspenski Cathedral, City Hall, Parliament House, Finlandia Hall and the Opera House. The tour stops at the Temppeliaukio Church (Rock Church) (free with the card), or if the church is closed, the tour will stop at the Sibelius Monument. We stopped at both. The tour lasts about 1 hour 45 minutes.
After the Sightseeing Bus Tour, I wanted to go to Suomenlinna Fortress, a fortress on an island whose construction began in the 18th Century when Finland was still a part of Sweden. To get there you have to take a fifteen minute ferry ride, which departs from the east side of the Market Square, opposite the Presidential Palace. In Suomenlinna, the ferry arrives at and departs from the main pier of Iso Mustasaari island, on the north shore of Suomenlinna. The ferry schedule is posted online, but goes generally 2-3 times per hour.
The ferry is part of Helsinki public transport. If you have a valid HSL ticket (AB, ABC or ABCD) you can use it in the ferry. Suomenlinna is in the HSL ticket zone A. The ferry is free with the Helsinki Card. If you don’t have a valid ticket you can buy it from the ticket machine on the departure pier or via the HSL app. In the summer, tickets are also sold at the ticket booth in the Market Square ferry terminal. An AB day ticket is the best option and it allows unlimited travel for 24 hours not only in the ferry but also on trams, buses, commuter trains and metro in A and B zones. Please note that tickets need to be purchased before boarding because they are not sold on board.
Once on the island, you can explore at your leisure. There is a free one-hour guided tour of the main sights of the fortress, which includes the main sights, barracks, museums and the submarine. I opted to just wander on my own and not do the tour. When it was time, I grabbed a Tram back to the West Terminal 1 (Länsiterminaali 1, Tyynenmerenkatu 8 00220 Helsinki), and the ferry back to Tallinn.
The next morning, I explored Tallinn, which I ended up falling in love with. I loved the old-world, yet laid-back feel of the city. It’s a place I would have loved to sit in the Old Town Square and people watch. But, I only had a full day, so I made the most of the time., First thing I did was to grab a ride on the Taxify App to the KGB Museum at Hotel Viru. I had booked a one-hour tour on the 10:00 English tour before I left the United States. (Third time was a charm on the KGB Museums for me this trip.) The tour costs 11 Euros, and the guide meets you at the guide´s desk in the hotel lobby (right in front of the luggage holding).
This tour did not disappoint and I think it is a must-do in Tallinn. This hotel was the required hotel for any foreigners during the Soviet era. The KGB helped design the building and imposed numerous listening devices and mechanisms throughout the hotel to spy on foreign guests, especially journalists and diplomats. We got a tour of the KGB headquarters on the top floors of the hotel, which is basically still as the KGB left it when they mysteriously left the premises one evening. We learned about the art of spycraft and seeing the tools the KGB used in the Viru Hotel.
After this great tour, I grabbed another ride on the Taxify App to the Museum of Occupations – Vabamu (Toompea 8, Tallinn; Mon-Sun 11:00-18:00; 11 Euro entrance fee). This is a museum on the Holocaust and Soviet occupation and outlines personal narratives about crimes against humanity. This was an interesting museum and it was worth a visit.
After visiting this museum, I wandered around Tallinn, making my way to the KGB Prison Cells (Pagari 1, 10133 (heart of Old Town) (entrance on Pikk Street 59); 10:00-18:00; 5 Euro Admission Fee). This is where the KGB held and tortured prisoners during the Soviet era. While small, the museum does a good job of teaching the visitor about the events that occurred and the victims experience within the prison.
After that, I continued to wander around the Old Town until it was time to grab my ride to the airport on the Taxify App, and fly on to Poland.