Cobblestone streets meander along magnificently preserved old town squares that exude medieval grandeur. Elsewhere, Art Nouveau and Baroque architecture and imposing gothic cathedrals mingle with tiny Wi-Fi-connected cafés that offer an ideal perch from which to soak in centuries of history and culture. Beyond the city centers lie beaches and lakes, lush forests and quaint villages — with a few castles and palaces thrown in for good measure. But the landscape, while impressive, isn't the most striking feature. Rather, it's the fierce national pride among the people, tinged with an equally fierce kinship with the West.
The beauty of the three Baltic states — Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania — is no longer a hidden gem. Tourists have been flocking to these picturesque countries ever since they emerged from Soviet control exactly 20 years ago (the United States never formally recognized the World War II-era Soviet takeover, which in part accounts for the enduring admiration toward Americans).
A heady courtship with the West followed independence in 1991, as the European Union and NATO enthusiastically embraced the three former Soviet republics and vice versa. Economic growth skyrocketed, catapulting living standards and turning the Baltics into prime tourist destinations.
But the storybook rise came to a screeching halt. Long before Greece and Ireland shook worldwide confidence in the euro, Latvia, drunk on easy credit and debt, was the first to sober up when the global economy crashed in 2008, leaving the cash-strapped government little choice but to stomach a painful $10 billion bailout package. Since then, the party has ended for all three super-heated economies. Growth for Estonia and Lithuania contracted by around 14 percent in 2009, while Latvia's plummeted by more than 18 percent, as the Baltics took a severe beating to their prosperity — and prestige.
Today though, they're clawing their way back. All three enjoyed economic growth last year and experts predict further growth in 2011, ranging from around 3 percent for Latvia to 4 percent or higher for Estonia. In fact, Estonia — fueled by strong exports and manufacturing — is leading the Baltic recovery and has boldly bucked the euro skepticism by becoming the 17th nation to join the currency zone on Jan. 1.
As the region-wide recovery gathers steam, tourists who found themselves priced out of the Baltic travel market during its heyday should take advantage of discounted rates while they last. And there's no better time to rediscover the region as it celebrates 20 years of independence in 2011, a moment when the Baltic people will no doubt reflect on their own resilience. These nations, after all, survived the slaughter of hundreds of thousands of their citizens, first at the hands of the Nazis during World War II and then under the grip of Soviet occupation.
They seem to be weathering this latest setback as well. To be fair, the Baltics still face major problems, from a depressed real estate market to lagging unemployment. Yet even the younger generation that never experienced the region's historic tragedies seems to possess a certain perseverance — and perspective. As one stoic Latvian in her mid-20s, who's traveled extensively to the Middle East and Africa, ruminated: "Our people aren't starving like in other parts of the world. Maybe we can't buy that Dolce & Gabbana purse anymore, but you can still buy a loaf of bread. And maybe that purse wasn't worth it to begin with.
It's still worth it for travelers to experience the Baltic spirit at bargain prices. With its easy access, tourist-friendly populations, top-notch accommodations, high-tech amenities and history galore, the region quickly become a popular — a pricey — favorite among travelers.
But all three countries took a hit in tourism in 2009, although figures for 2010 show a solid rebound, according to the 2011 Baltics Tourism Report by Research and Markets. Estonia remains the largest tourism market in terms of revenues, generating $1.42 billion in 2009, with Lithuania garnering $870 million and Latvia $674 million over the same time period. However, Latvia, the most affordable of the three destinations, welcomed the most tourists (4.7 million), compared to Lithuania and Estonia at just over 4 million each. The decision by the Latvian parliament in May 2010 to reduce the value-added tax (VAT) on hotel accommodations from 21 percent to 10 percent also boosted that country's tourist numbers.
All three though saw a surge in visitors in 2010 — with accommodations stays generally up by 15 percent. Cruise travel, another key industry, has also picked up. But this means that many of the travel deals available after the economic crisis may not be around much longer.
Weather-wise, now is also an ideal time to visit the Baltics. Although winter has its charms, the area can get bitterly cold and windy. Snow can begin in November and last into April. On the flip side, summers (along with late spring and early fall) are mild and temperate, especially along the Baltic Sea, and the days are long — perfect for extended sightseeing.
The other big practical advantage to the Baltics is their proximity to one another. Travelers often lump together multiple European cities in one trip, but this trio offers a much more convenient and cohesive itinerary. The three nations share a common landscape and traditions, yet remain distinctly different.
Ideally, set aside 10 to 14 days to visit all three capital cities — Tallinn, Riga and Vilnius — and the surrounding countryside. If you have less time, Tallinn and Riga are slightly closer together and a better combo. Conversely, if you have extra time, make an excursion to St. Petersburg or Moscow in Russia, or to the Scandinavian countries such as Finland, which is a stone's throw from Tallinn.
Although it makes sense to visit all three Baltics, their governments don't really coordinate their tourism promotion efforts since they are technically competitors — a bit of an inconvenience for travelers looking for tailored excursion packages. So a travel agency is a good bet to organize your plans, especially arranging transportation from one country to the other (oddly, there is no direct train service between the three capital cities and the Rail Baltica project linking Helsinki, the Baltics and Warsaw is still under construction).
Nevertheless, Tallinn, Riga and Vilnius are all easily accessible by air, car, bus or, in the case of the first two, by ferry. Riga International Airport is a major hub for the region, but if you're going to visit all three, it makes sense to start out at Tallinn's airport and just work your way down. With only a week to spare, The Washington Diplomat was recently able to visit two of the three Baltics, Estonia and Latvia (leaving us a great excuse to return to the region for a trip to Lithuania).
The smallest of the three Baltics in both size and population, Estonia nevertheless packs a big punch. In fact, a recent European Travel Commission survey found that the country of just 1.3 million was the fastest-growing tourism destination in Europe last year.
That's no surprise. A UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1991, the Old Town in the capital of Tallinn is, quite simply, a medieval paradise.
The buildings — with their meticulously preserved architecture and pastel-colored façades — are a photographic treasure in and of themselves. Costumed medieval vendors sell mulled wine, as the waft of roasted chestnuts fills the air. Winding cobbled streets give way to nooks and narrow passageways (St. Catherine's passageway being the most famous), or to a bustling market in the Town Hall Square. Here, you'll also find quirky attractions such as the town hall pharmacy, reportedly the longest-operating pharmacy in Europe.
No detail is overlooked in this microcosm of medieval splendor. Yet Tallinn also seamlessly fuses the past with the present. Old-fashioned workshops stand alongside five-star restaurants. A focal point of the Old Town, the whitewashed Baroque tower of the 13th-century Holy Spirit Church — home to the oldest public clock in Tallinn — gracefully rises above open-air cafés crammed with laptop-toting young diners. In fact, hundreds of free Internet zones are scattered throughout the country, whether on buses or beaches.
This attention to modern-day comforts is only natural for one of most tech-savvy, wired nations in the world (Estonia is the brainchild of Skype and pioneered the concept of e-voting back in 2005).
Indeed, Estonia has been drawing young people for years — not so much for its historic virtue though as for its epic partying (Tallinn was once dubbed the Las Vegas of the Baltics). Although the city still boasts an eclectic nightlife scene (where else can you find a bar devoted exclusively to the '80s band Depeche Mode?), in recent years it's worked to shed its stag-party reputation and has matured into an all-around destination that capitalizes on its abundant history and culture.
For its efforts, the country was recently recognized by the New York Times, which named Tallinn among its "41 Places to Go in 2011."
"Some seven years after Estonia joined the European Union, large-scale infrastructural and restorative work, including several rebuilt museums, a waterfront promenade and a large arts venue, KultuuriKatel (Culture Cauldron), are reshaping Tallinn's cultural identity," the Times wrote. In addition, "with the city's selection as a 2011 European Capital of Culture, cash is flowing in and pulling Tallinn out of its stag party adolescence."
Indeed, the designation of Tallinn as the "European Capital of Culture" in 2011 (Riga will hold the title in 2014 and Vilnius held it in 2009) will put the spotlight squarely on Estonia with a yearlong series of events — many showcasing the vital role that the sea plays in Tallinn life.
Highlights include several music festivals this summer — including one on the island of Nargen, a few nautical miles from Tallinn, and another at Birgitta Convent, a bastion of Gothic architecture overlooking Tallinn Bay. There will also be "maritime days" in July celebrating a new beachfront promenade and maritime museum; the student-geared contemporary art exhibit "Eksperimenta!"; "Stories of the Seashore," a project whereby writers, actors, artists and musicians reflect on the sea's importance to Estonians; as well as a dance festival, youth circus, marathon, literary readings, theater performances and dozens of other activities.
The showcase is sure to bring in the crowds this summer, although with Estonia's well-established tourism infrastructure, there's no shortage of accommodation options to cater to different travelers.
The best bet, if you can swing it, is of course to stay in Tallinn's Old Town. A good choice is the Hotel Telegraaf — a clever riff on the telegraph machine that preceded Alexander Graham Bell's revolutionary invention (the antique telephones in the hotel's 86 rooms are a fun touch). Located in the heart of Old Town, this intimate hotel melds clean, classic elegance with convenient luxury (the high-definition televisions double as computers, for instance). It's also home to one of the top-rated restaurants in town, Restaurant Tchaikovsky, and rooms can be booked for as little as 155 euro a night, even in the high season.
For a pricier but more traditional stay, the nearby Three Sisters Hotel oozes medieval authenticity with its wooden beams, regal furnishings and 23 individually appointed rooms. A Relais & Châteaux member, the boutique property is actually an amalgamation of three merchant houses whose heritage has been carefully preserved without sacrificing modern style or amenities — all of which comes at a hefty price though. Room rates can range anywhere from 300 euro to over 1,000 euro.
Tallinn's Old Town, however, is within easy walking distance of the city center, so any number of hotels are available, depending on budget and taste. Even if you don't stay there, be sure to check out the Swissôtel in the business district. The hotel's swanky rooftop restaurant and bar offers sweeping vistas of the Tallinn skyline, punctuated by red-tiled roofs and cathedral spires, all against the dramatic backdrop of Tallinn Bay and its ever-present cruise ships, a testament to the city's enduring allure.
Estonia's broader appeal, however, lies outside the capital — in its pristine natural beauty, especially its unspoiled islands and coastlines. Among these, Saaremaa is the largest and most popular of Estonia's islands, with wooden windmills dotting its bucolic landscape. But for an even more authentic experience, don't overlook Muhu Island, a quick ferry jaunt from the mainland. You could explore the entire sleepy island by bicycle yet still uncover a world of contrasts.
For example, stop by Koguva Village, a quaint fisherman's village dating back to the 16th century where you can still watch ships and boats being built by hand. A short distance away is Pädaste Manor, an ultra-upscale resort directly situated by the water that's internationally acclaimed for its spa, restaurant and understated luxury. Well, the heliport on the manor grounds isn't exactly understated, but the decadence is well warranted.
But an absolute Muhu must-see is the Tihuse Horse Farm, where owner Martin Kivisoo manages the largest herd of Estonian-bred horses. The gregarious Kivisoo rolls out the welcome mat for his guests — whether personally cooking them his homemade favorites, showing them how to give thanks to the forest spirits during a horse ride, or serenading them with a traditional Estonian folk song when they leave.
Other popular daytrips include the resort town of Haapsalu on Estonia's western coast, renowned for its curative spa treatments and homespun art galleries (the family-owned Epp Maria Galerii is breathtakingly hospitable), as well as Pärnu, often referred to Estonia's summer capital.
From Pärnu, Highway 4 takes you straight into Latvia — a West Virginia-size nation of 2.2 million — and its capital Riga, often referred to as the Paris of Eastern Europe. In between lies a scenic stretch of road that weaves through verdant forests, with crystal blue lakes peeking out from among the pine, spruce and birch trees.
Like Estonia, Latvia is a nature-lover's dream, offering miles of coastline lined with adorable resort towns. And like Tallinn, Riga is anchored by water — the Daugava River, which forms a striking backdrop to the red-brick cathedrals and rustic green-tinged rooftops that jut out from the Old Town skyline.
Riga is the largest capital among the Baltics, so its Old Town is also larger. Visitors can spend hours wandering its leisurely labyrinth of alleyways — where each new corner reveals a surprise, whether it's a tiny café or massive cathedral. And whereas Tallinn is known for its medieval splendor, the hallmark of Riga's Old Town is its dramatic Gothic architecture, with a potpourri of Baroque, Romanesque, Neoclassical and other styles mixed in.
Some of the most resplendent buildings include the Dome Cathedral, St. Peter's Church and the House of Blackheads, a 14th-century assembly house in the town square that's been exquisitely restored to its former glory. Interestingly, the ornate structure — destroyed during World War II and later buried by the Soviets in 1948 — stands next to the Museum of Occupations, an appropriately bleak, utterly depressing slab of concrete that documents Soviet attempts to crush the Latvian national identity.
Yet that identity not only survived, it flourished, developing a thriving metropolis that continues to expand to this day. Indeed, part of Riga's appeal is its size: Beyond the Old Town, there's plenty for tourists to see. The entire city in fact is an architectural wonderland, home to the world's most unparalleled collection of Art Nouveau-inspired buildings, more than 800 in all — the most striking examples of which can be found on Alberta Street in a wealthy residential section of the city center.
That's also where you'll find the Riga Art Nouveau Museum, which gives visitors a wealth of information that will help guide your Alberta stroll. But it doesn't take an architecture buff studying building details to appreciate this Art Nouveau treasure trove. That's because the buildings are more like living museums, holding up eye-catching sculptures such as female maidens clutching bald eagles, for example, or long faces that ominously look down on the street below. There's literally personality at every turn.
In a sense, Riga itself is defined by character — a blend of creative whimsy and national pride. Take, for instance, the black cat perched atop a yellow house in Old Town, right next to a guild that looks more like a fairytale castle. Legend goes that a merchant who owned the house was excluded from becoming a member of the city's guild (which at the time was restricted to Germans), so as retribution he constructed the black cat statue with its back arched and tail up — showing the guild members exactly what he thought of them. When they finally relented and let him into the club, he turned the cat around so its rear was no longer facing them.
Even the solemn Freedom Monument commemorating Latvian independence, which casts a long shadow over the heart of the city, stands not far from the Laima Clock, the logo of the county's most well-known confectioner and a popular meeting spot — a sign of how Latvians have never forgotten the Soviet brutalities of the past, while also moving past them.
In between the Freedom Monument and Laima Clock is Bastejkalns Park, an idyllic setting that also saw brief bloodshed during the Latvian fight for independence against the Soviets 20 years ago. Further down is a Russian Orthodox Cathedral that remains of the most visually stunning buildings in the city.
To get a better vantage point of all Riga has to offer, head to the Radisson Blu Hotel, whose rooftop is renowned for its panoramic views. While the staff is friendly, the hotel itself has a large, chain-like feel, but there are plenty of intimate, high-end properties that are closer to the city's main attractions.
The Royal Square Hotel is located smack dab in the middle of Old Town on Kalku street, a major pedestrian thoroughfare, and has 56 rooms decorated in natural woods and warm, neutral tones — a nice surprise given the somewhat dark lobby. The Royal Square's sister property, the Hotel Garden Palace, is similarly located in the middle of Old Town (not far from the House of Blackheads) inside an intricately restored building constructed in 1780. As its name suggests, the property features 60 opulent rooms and a lavish courtyard, where you'll also find the "Secret Garden" bar, serving up delectable coffee and cocktails.
For more modern surroundings, check out the Hotel Neiburgs, a sleek property located on a quieter side street. Each of the 55 rooms is artfully designed, often with a bold black-and-white color scheme, but the real draw here is the views. The windows are more like paintings on a canvas, framing some of Riga's most iconic landmarks, notably the Dome Cathedral next door.
Indeed, the true allure of all three properties is their location, but be forewarned —being in the midst of all the action may also mean a few sleepless nights. Outdoor cafés right outside your hotel window can stay festive until the wee hours of the night, but then again, the festive mood is a welcome change of pace from two years of economic upheaval.
About the Author
Anna Gawel is the managing editor of The Washington Diplomat and news columnist for the Diplomatic Pouch.
Estoniawww.visitestonia.comwww.tallinn2011.eeHotel Telegraaf: www.telegraafhotel.comThe Three Sisters Hotel: www.threesistershotel.comPädaste Manor: www.padaste.eeTihuse Horse Farm: www.tihuse.eeEpp Maria Gallery: www.eppmaria.ee
www.liveriga.comwww.latvia.travel/enRiga Art Nouveau Museum: www.jugendstils.riga.lvRoyal Square Hotel: www.royalsquare.lvHotel Garden Palace: www.hotelgardenpalace.lvHotel Neiburgs: www.neiburgs.com
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Last Edited on June 24, 2014