Travel notes: Discovering the less-visited Baltic countries

Song Festival grounds today.
Poster photo of Song Festival Grounds when full of people singing.

Visiting the three Baltic countries of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania was an eye-opener. Under Soviet occupation from 1945 to 1991, they achieved independence from the USSR via the Singing Revolution and the Baltic Chain – accomplishing a virtually bloodless break-away.

The Singing Revolution was a series of events and protests in the late 1980s centered around the Song Festival Grounds in Tallinn, Estonia. Here, thousands of Estonians repeatedly gathered and sang for independence from the Soviet Union.

Photo of the Baltic Chain on Aug. 23, 1989.

The Baltic Chain was an even more amazing event: about two million people formed a human chain spanning 430 miles between Tallin, Estonia, Riga, Latvia and Vilnius, Lithuania on Aug. 23, 1989. This represented one-fourth of the then-eight million residents of the three Baltic countries.

Like many visitors, I traveled to Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania knowing almost nothing about these events or the countries themselves. Each is a small nation, the three tucked close together in a corner of north-central Europe. Yet Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania are quite distinct – culturally, ethnically and linguistically. Which made their unity to achieve independence all the more impressive.

Latvians and Lithuanians speak Indo-European languages, similar but not mutually understandable. Estonians are a Finnic ethnic group, speaking a language close to Finnish but unrelated to all other European tongues. There are also religious differences. Lithuania is Catholic while Latvia and Estonia are Lutheran and Orthodox. However, in all three Baltic States, singing is considered an art form and a key element in public performances.

Plague mask at the 1422 Town Hall Pharmacy in Tallinn. Dried herbs were put in the long “beak” to stave off the smell of death.

My trip with Overseas Adventure Travel highlighted the Baltics’ three capitals of Tallin, Riga and Vilnius, plus countryside experiences. The medieval Old Town section of each capital is a UNESCO World Heritage Site preserving hundreds of years of history and culture. There were fun discoveries such as the Town Hall Pharmacy of Tallinn, Europe’s oldest, continuously operating pharmacy dating to 1422. Here you see displays of medieval medicinal cures (dried toads, “unicorn” horn, etc.) and a bizarre-looking plague masque. The pharmacy also vies with Lübeck, Germany for the invention of marzipan, originally created here as a medicine.

One entrance to Tallinn’s Old Town.
Main Street in Tallinn’s Old Town.
Explring small lanes in Tallinn’s Old Town.

Tallin is Estonia’s largest city, perched on the Bay of Finland a two-hour ferry ride from Helsinki. Its Old Town is a wonderful maze of cobbled streets lined with 14th- and 15th-century buildings. Impressive fortification towers, cathedrals and churches, Hanseatic merchant houses, the 1404 Town Hall and central marketplace make for a full-day exploration. Near Old Town is Kadriog Park with the baroque Kadriog Palace built by Russian Tsar Peter the Great I in 1718. Also in the park is Estonia’s impressive KUMU Art Museum.

Riga’s Old Town combines medieval, gothic and baroque styles along its cobbled streets. Town Hall Square – with the imposing House of the Blackheads – recalls the era of merchant guild halls. An amusing counterpoint is the “Cat House,” where the owner placed cat sculptures on the turrets – in peeing stance toward the Great Guild Hall across the street that denied him membership. A judicial ruling eventually made him turn the cats around, but they remain a Riga landmark.

Kadriog Palace.
House of the Blackheads in Riga’s Old Town.
One of the cat sculptures on turrets of the “Cat House.”

Riga is also known for its stunning Art Nouveau architecture, recognized by UNESCO as unparalleled elsewhere. Art Nouveau flourished here briefly from the late 19th to early 20th centuries and left a major imprint in the area near Kronvalda Park. Here buildings sport lavish ornamentation ranging from nudes to sphinxes and gargoyles. Visit the Art Nouveau Museum to learn about this period and see interior Art Nouveau décor.

An ornately decorated Art Nouveau building.
Spiral staircase inside the Art Nouveau Museum.
Inside one of the Zeppelin hangars that house the huge Riga Central Market.

In complete contrast are the five, huge, 1930s-era Zeppelin hangars that house Riga’s Central Market. This may well be Europe’s largest market with more than 3,000 vendors selling every possible foodstuff and delicacy.

Vilnius, Lithuania also features an extensive farmers’ market at Hales Turgus and an Old Town encompassing Vilnius University. Founded in 1579 by Jesuits, it is one of the oldest universities in the world – and the oldest in central/northern Europe. Baroque buildings, street cafés and shops selling amber (“Baltic gold”) fill nearby cobblestone streets.

Street lined with cafes in Vilnius, Lithuania.

This year marks the 700th anniversary of Vilnius, founded in 1323 by Grand Duke Gediminas. The Grand Duchy of Lithuania was the last pagan country in Europe. It resisted Christian crusaders’ many attempts to conquer and convert over several centuries. Finally a Lithuanian alliance with Catholic Poland began the introduction of Christianity in 1387.

West of Vilnius is Trakai Island Castle, the seat of Grand Duchy power until 1323. Situated on a scenic lake, the castle has been authentically reconstructed from defense towers to royal quarters. A small Karaim community still flourishes in the adjacent village; their Turkic ancestors came from the Crimean as bodyguards to a grand duke, following his military venture there in 1397.

Trakai Castle island.
Inside the royal quarters of Trakai Castle, top levels.

Another must-see is Rumšiškės Open-Air Museum of Lithuania, one of the largest such museums in Europe. It depicts life in Lithuania’s five ethnographic regions during the 18th and 19th centuries. Reenactors dressed in period garb bring history to life in thatched-roof farmsteads; old village buildings, mills and forges illustrate traditional lifestyles.

Other museums in Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia portray a very different history. Each country has a museum remembering their brutal 1940-1991 occupation. In Vilnius, the Museum of Occupations and Freedom Fights (“KGB Museum”) is housed in the former Soviet KGB headquarters. Here you learn about the reign of terror under Stalin, mass deportations to Siberia and futile resistance of the “Forest Brothers.” You also tour the grim, former KGB prison underneath.

Guide in period dress at Rumsiskes Open-Air Museum in Lithuania.
Reactor playing traditional musical instrument at Rumsiskes Open-Air Museum.
Prison cell in the “KGB Museum” in Vilnius, Lithuania.

In Riga, the Museum of the Occupation of Latvia tells a similar story, starting with Nazi occupation before the Soviets took over. Photographs, eye-witness accounts, and a replica of Gulag barracks depict the Siberian deportations and political repression. In Tallinn, the Vabamu Museum of Occupations and Freedom presents the Estonian experience. A related exhibit nearby is the notorious KGB Prison Cells.

The message of each museum is clear: Past oppression and occupation must be remembered to ensure the current freedom of the Baltic peoples. Occupation memories are too recent for them to take democracy for granted.

More information:

— By Julie Gangler

Julie Gangler is a freelance writer who has worked as a media relations consultant for the Snohomish County Tourism Bureau. She began her career as a staff writer at Sunset Magazine and later was the Alaska/Northwest correspondent for Travel Agent Magazine.


  1. My wife and I were there in Sept and we loved it. In addition to the three capitol cities, we would also recommend a day each at three beautiful smaller cities: Tartu, Estonia; Cesis, Latvia; and Kaunus, Lithuania. Also, If you’re into more active vacations, there are many hiking trails and bike paths including a coastal route that connects all three along the Baltic Sea. In the summer, don’t forget you’re swimsuit. There are miles of well maintained public beaches.

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