The Great Baltic Road Trip

Exploring the Baltic states of Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia had been on our wish list for a while, and when we were trying to plan a late summer vacation last year we decided it was finally time. Looking to avoid hot temperatures in southern Europe, the Baltics seemed like the perfect destination to combine great summer weather, delicious food, interesting history, and time spent in nature.

We love traveling by train, and tried to map out an itinerary traveling solely by public transportion. We quickly learned, however, that there were no direct trains between the capital cities of Tallinn, Riga, and Vilnius. The train options all required connections, some of which didn’t run every day, so we would be spending more time on trains than we anticipated to string together our travel. Bus options were available, but if we had to travel by road we decided we should just rent a car and be in total control of our schedule, our destinations, and our pace.

We had the option of starting in any of the three capital cities and renting a car from there. We looked only at round-trip rentals, returning the car to the same place where we started. (That ended up being one of our biggest oversights…more on that below.) After pricing out car rental and flight options from Vilnius, Riga and Tallinn, Vilnius came out on top. We traveled to Minsk before starting our Baltic road trip, and the easy 35-minute flight from Minsk to Vilnius also helped to influence the decision to start there.

We arrived in Vilnius late on a Saturday night after spending the full day in Minsk, picked up our rental car, and stayed overnight at an airport hotel so we were ready to hit the road first thing the next morning!

Day 1 | Vilnius to Palanga

Distance: 408km (254 miles)
Sights of interest for this day are the blue icons on the embedded map

For the first day of the road trip, we decided to bypass Vilnius and head straight across Lithuania, stopping at some points of interest along the way (we doubled back to Trakai Castle and Vilnius at the end of our trip). After a restful night near the airport we hit the road early for what ended up being our longest day of driving. We made a quick stop at one of the spots purported to be the geographic center of Europe, just north of Vilnius.

Somewhat off-the-beaten path, there’s a nice monument in a small park—although how people define the geographic center of Europe and its precise location is a big topic for debate! (Inclusion or exclusion of various European-controlled islands has a major impact on this.)

From there we drove to the Hill of Crosses, a unique memorial site on a hill outside the city of Šiauliai. There are various stories about the origin of the site and why crosses have been placed there, but we know definitively that crosses began appearing on the hill at some point in the 19th century. Since then, people have continued to make a pilgrimage to the site to place their own crosses—even despite the Soviets banning access to the site and bulldozing and burning the hill five times during the 1960s and 1970s.

Each time, people came back to the hill under the cover of darkness to rebuild. It is estimated that there are over 100,000 crosses of all sizes and materials on the hill today. Visitors can even buy their own cross from one of the many vendors near the parking lot and place their own cross on the site. The Hill of Crosses is certainly a unique attraction—we spent a lot of time wandering around and looking at all the unique crosses, many of which seemed handmade.

Leaving the Hill of Crosses, we continued on to the Cold War Museum located in the old Plokštinė Missile Base in the heart of Žemaitija National Park. This ended up being one of the most unusual and interesting stops of our entire trip. In 1960, the Soviets identified this location in central Lithuania as being the perfect location for an underground military base and missile silos. Four massive underground silos were dug, and a nuclear warhead was placed in each (from this geographic location, the missiles could reach any point in Turkey or western and southern Europe). Additional underground areas were built connecting the silos together, and providing control rooms, electrical and radio stations, and recreational areas for the soldiers who would be on duty underground. (The site could be sealed off and any soldiers could have survived for 15 days in this underground space, if necessary.) Thankfully, the site never ended up being used for a missile launch, and after U.S. reconnaissance discovered the site in 1978 the missiles were removed. After the fall of the Soviet Union the site fell into disrepair, but was reopened as the Cold War Museum in 2012.

At the time of our visit, tours were only offered in Lithuanian. Since we don’t speak the language, we had the advantage of being able to enter the site without the guided tour and move through the exhibits at our own pace. The displays were extensive and in English. You can tour through many of the underground rooms that were used to control and monitor the site, and actually access one of the missile silos as well. Visitors are allowed to climb up to the top and peer down into the 27m (89’) cavity that used to house a nuclear warhead. Given our interest in Soviet times, this museum was a fantastic hidden gem that was well worth the detour on dirt roads through a pretty national park.

From the Cold War Museum we drove further west to the coastal town of Palanga where we spent a night near the beach. We chose a small hotel, Guest House Aštuoni, on a quiet street in town, but within easy walking distance of the beach, pier, and main pedestrian shopping area. The guesthouse was a great choice—rooms were spacious and comfortable, and there was a great breakfast included which we were able to eat outside on the terrace the next morning. We spent our evening in Palanga walking the beach and the pedestrian street. Given the great summer weather, the town was vibrant and filled with many local families on vacation. If we had more time in our road trip, this is an area (plus the Curonian Spit) we would have liked to explore more.

Day 2 | Palanga to Riga

Distance: 301km (187 miles)
Sights of interest for this day are the green icons on the embedded map

After breakfast in Palanga, we headed north towards Liepāja, crossing the border into Latvia. After driving through Liepāja, we cut inland towards the town of Kuldīga. Kuldīga is famous for having Europe’s widest waterfall—which, coincidentally, you can also walk across! Ventas Rumba spans 240m (787’) across the river in town but is only a few meters tall. Visitors swim and wade in the waters above and below the falls, and we, of course, took the time to walk across the top of the waterfall as well. (We crossed the old red-brick bridge to the opposite side, and walked over the waterfall back to town.)

Besides the draw of the waterfall, Kuldīga is a charming town full of historic wooden houses, castle ruins, and picturesque squares. We found free public parking near the town library and were able to walk everywhere from there.  

On leaving Kuldīga we made a detour about 5km (3 miles) outside of town to visit the Riežupe Sand Caves. Sand was once mined here for making glass, and now there are 2km (1.2 miles) of underground tunnels, of which visitors can see 460m (3/10 mile) on a guided tour. Unlike other natural caves, this one was not carved by water, and instead you find yourself walking through dry sandy ground. Tours are led by candlelight and although there isn’t much to actually see underground except the carved out caverns, it’s a interesting site which we found was worth the diversion.

Late afternoon, we headed east towards Riga. We had hoped to make a stop at Ķemeri National Park, but we found ourselves in that area later than we expected and just decided to continue on to Riga.

Day 3 | Riga

Cover PhotoAfter arriving in Riga the prior evening, we spend the full day (and half of the next day) exploring Riga’s greatest sights. Read more about the city’s fantastic art nouveau architecture, historic churches, and complex history in our 48 Hours in Riga blog.

Day 4 | Riga to Tallinn

Distance: 314km (195 miles)

We spent the better part of the day in Riga seeing some sites we couldn’t get to the day before. After a delicious lunch in the city, we hit the road for our drive to Tallinn. The drive took about four and a half hours, including a quick stop at the border for photos.

Day 5 | Tallinn

After arriving in Tallinn the night before, we spent two days sightseeing in the city. Read more about our favorite viewpoints, the medieval walled city, and all the fantastic food we had in our 36 Hours in Tallinn blog.

Day 6 | Tallinn to Cēsis

Distance: 297km (185 miles)
Sights of interest for this day are the orange icons on the embedded map

We had two days to get from Tallinn back to Vilnius to return our rental car, and we decided driving straight through would have been too long (and boring) of a day, so we looked for places along the way to break up the trip. After spending the morning and having lunch in Tallinn, we headed out of town, making our first stop in Viljandi, Estonia.

The town has the ruins of a Teutonic Order castle set in a park which we walked around, plus a 19th century suspension bridge spanning a nearby ravine. We didn’t make it in time to climb the town’s historic hexagonal water tower, which apparently offers great views over the nearby countryside.

From Viljandi we continued south, crossing back into Latvia and heading to Cēsis, where we overnighted at a small new boutique hotel called Vanadziņa māja. The hotel was simple but very stylish and suited our needs for a quick overnight stay (although at the time of our visit they still seemed to be working out some of the nuances of being a new hotel, including some aspects of customer service). We unfortunately arrived too late to eat dinner in the on-site restaurant (which looked fantastic), and ended up down the street at Cafe 2Locals, which seemed to be the only thing open that evening (and served a fine meal with good local options like cold beetroot soup and potato pancakes).

Day 7 | Cēsis to Vilnius

Distance: 395km (245 miles)
Sights of interest for this day are the red icons on the embedded map

Before leaving Cēsis, we took the time to see the city’s two main sights—St. John’s Church and Cēsis Castle. St John’s Church was an important 13th century church used by the knights of the Livonian Holy Order, and is the second largest medieval church in Latvia after Riga’s cathedral.

Although today the church is used by the city’s Lutheran community, it still contains tombs of the Livonian Order’s grand masters. We were the only visitors there on the morning we visited and were also able to climb up the belltower for great 360 degree views of the castle and surrounding town.

Just down the street from St John’s Church is Cēsis Castle. The castle grounds contain both the remains of the old Livonian castle (destroyed by Ivan the Terrible in 1577) and a newer 18th century manor house, both of which you can tour. Only one of the towers of the original castle is open to visitors, and you get a candle-lit lantern to explore the nooks and crannies of the building, much of which are dark and shadowy. The newer building contains stately rooms once belonging to a German count, and some other exhibitions related to the castle complex. Given that we stayed in Cēsis somewhat randomly (looking for a way to break up the drive from Tallinn), the castle proved to be well worth the visit to town.

After leaving Cēsis we drove south towards Vilnius, making one last stop at Trakai Castle before returning our rental car. Trakai Castle was built in the 14th century but fell into disrepair in the 17th century. It wasn’t until 1953 that extensive reconstruction efforts re-built the castle to its former glory. Today the castle has a number of exhibits about the history of the building and the greater Trakai region. The setting of the castle is certainly stunning—right on the edge of a lake accessible by a footbridge—but there was something about the reconstructed nature of the place that didn’t fully resonate with us (I think we just prefer our historical sights more in their natural states and not substantially rebuilt such as the case of this castle).

Leaving Trakai, we headed back to Vilnius International Airport to return our rental car (we booked a round-trip rental from this location). After returning our rental car we took a short taxi ride to the city and spent the next day and a half exploring Vilnius.

Days 8-9 | Vilnius

Vilnius seemed to be the most underrated city on our agenda from among the three Baltic capitals. We were pleasantly surprised to find great Baroque architecture, beautiful churches, and great food in this gem of a city. Read more about our time in our 36 Hours in Vilnius blog.

Road Trip Take-Aways

When we planned this trip we priced out various rental car options, and round-trip options were much more affordable than a one-way rental. In hindsight, we probably should have considered a one-way rental only. We expected our drive to take us through picturesque towns and varying landscapes, but we quickly discovered the reality was somewhat different. We often found ourselves on two lane highways through the countryside which ended up being fairly monotonous. Unless we made a detour, we weren’t driving through towns and sights of interest. Giving the monotony of the drive, the days in the car felt long. Automobile drivers tend to stick to a speed just below the speed limit, and with few easy opportunities for passing (although that didn’t deter truck drivers) it tended to be slow going for the most part. By the time we reached Tallinn, we were wishing we could leave the car there and not have to work our way back to Vilnius.

We also found that we needed to be strategic about where to park the car when visiting the capital cities. Our hotel in Riga assured us that we could park on-site (even though they were in the old city center) but after several frustrating attempts of actually trying to reach the hotel using a GPS, we bailed out of that idea and found a municipal parking garage within walking distance. Many of the roads in the historic city centers of Riga, Tallinn, and Vilnius are small, one-way, or pedestrian only, and we found the GPS didn’t always take us on a route that took these things into account. After the mistake we made in Riga of trying to reach our hotel, we proactively parked at a municipal garage outside the old city center when we reached Tallinn.

The upside of driving ourselves was that it really did allow us to move at our own pace and detour when we wanted to see something interesting. We were, perhaps, overambitious in thinking we could see more along the way than we really did. There were lots of points of interest between the capital cities we would have liked to have explored, but because of our limited time frame and desire to really see the cities for at least two days each, we had to continue on our route without too many diversions. Of all the countries, we feel we shortchanged Estonia. There was so much there we would have liked to see, but we beelined it to Tallinn and leaving there we were rushing back to return to Vilnius.

Another benefit of having the car is that we could pick up food at the various markets and carry road snacks with us. We stocked up on fresh berries and cucumbers at Riga Central Market, and there were other opportunities to buy and carry food with us so we didn’t have to stop for every meal while we were on the road.

All in all, we loved traveling through the region. The history, culture, food, and people were highlights of our time in Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia. When we planned to spend nine days in the region it felt like ample time to see a lot of the things we were interested in, but in the end we definitely felt a bit rushed getting from point A to point B. In hindsight, we maybe should have narrowed our focus to just one or two countries, but the temptation of seeing a large swath of the region was just too great. The trip did provide a really nice overview, however, and gave us lots of ideas for locations we would like to explore in more depth in the near future.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s