- Tour Riga's medieval Old Town
- Visit the Suomenlinna Fortress in Helsinki
- Marvel at the imperial palaces and cathedrals of St. Petersburg
- Take a stroll around Moscow's Red Square and see the Kremlin
- Travel to the heart of the Russian Orthodox church in Sergiev Posad
|Day 1||Arrival in Riga||Riga|
|Day 2||Walking Tour of Riga - Day Trip to Jūrmala||Riga|
|Day 3||Riga Market & Opera House Tour||Riga|
|Day 4||Transfer to Tallinn - Stop in Pärnu||Tallinn|
|Day 5||Walking Tour of Tallinn||Tallinn|
|Day 6||Ferry from Tallinn to Helsinki||Helsinki|
|Day 7||Helsinki & Suomenlinna Fortress Tour||Helsinki|
|Day 8||Train from Helsinki to St. Petersburg||Saint Petersburg|
|Day 9||St. Petersburg City Tour - Day Trip to Pushkin||Saint Petersburg|
|Day 10||Imperial Tour & Matryoshka Class||Saint Petersburg|
|Day 11||Train from St. Petersburg to Moscow||Moscow|
|Day 12||Moscow City Tour||Moscow|
|Day 13||Day Trip to Sergiev Posad||Moscow|
|Day 14||Depart from Moscow|
Day 1: Arrival in Riga
Welcome to Latvia and the Baltics!
You'll arrive in Riga, the capital of Latvia and the largest city of the three Baltic countries. It's situated right on the Baltic coast at the mouth of the River Daugava. Upon arrival at the airport, a driver will meet you and transfer you to your hotel. After check-in, you can spend the remainder of the day relaxing after your long flight. Or, should you choose, you can head out and explore.
Like many European capitals, Riga is a thrilling metropolis that abounds with medieval history. The city was founded in 1201 by the German bishop Albert of Riga, who later went on to found the city's cathedral in 1221. These and other of the Riga's most historic buildings are concentrated in its Old Town neighborhood in the city center.
Also, it's true that for more than 50 years Riga was occupied by the Soviet Union. The best way to understand this chapter of the city's history is to visit the Occupation Museum and the KGB Corner House. The latter is the former Latvian headquarters of Russia's KGB secret police.
If you've arrived late and are just looking for a meal, Old Town is the place to go. Within the last few years, the culinary scene in Riga has exploded, with cool new eateries, fine-dining restaurants, wine bars, and gastropubs popping up. Most have eschewed the standard meat and potatoes for more forward-thinking menus starring bolder flavors. Yet many have also stayed true to the Baltic ethos of focusing on fresh, sustainable, and seasonable ingredients.
Day 2: Walking Tour of Riga - Day Trip to Jūrmala
In the morning, you'll see the highlights of Riga on a walking tour of its historic Old Town. Medieval landmarks you'll visit include the 14th century Riga Castle; the Lutheran Dome Cathedral, which was built in 1211; he 15th-century St. Peter’s Church; and the Swedish Gate, a fortification built in 1698 as part of defensive city walls.
Other historic buildings you'll see include Three Brothers, a trio of homes dating to the 15th/16th/17th centuries, and the Large and Small Guild House, a merchant organization built in the 14th century and later redone in the English Gothic style. You'll also visit the Freedom Monument, which is located on the waterfront and memorializes soldiers killed in the Latvian War of Independence (1918-1920).
In the afternoon, you'll have the option to head west of Riga to the coastal resort town of Jūrmala. This popular holiday destination on the Gulf of Riga is famous for its elegant wooden homes done in the Art Nouveau style as well as its long, white-sand beach. It's the perfect place to spend an afternoon relaxing, and in the evening you can enjoy a traditional Latvian dinner at a local restaurant. Afterward, you'll return to your hotel in Riga.
Day 3: Riga Market & Opera House Tour
Wake up bright and early to ensure you have as much of the day as possible to explore Latvia's gorgeous capital. You'll start with a visit to Riga Central Market. This UNESCO World Heritage Site opened in 1930 and takes up 778,000 square feet (72,300 meters), which makes it the largest municipal market in Europe. Here you can browse the aisles and try local specialties like smoked meats, pickled vegetables, and Latvian bread.
In the afternoon, you'll take a tour of the Latvian National Opera, a unique architectural masterpiece that dates to 1863. Your guide will lead you through the interior of the building and offer a brief history of Latvia's national opera house, after which you'll cap the tour with a glass of sparkling wine.
In the evening you'll have the option to visit a cultural center for a traditional Latvian dinner accompanied by a folklore show. During the event, you'll have the chance to dress up and take photos in Latvian folk costumes, sample local beer, and sing traditional beer songs.
Day 4: Transfer to Tallinn - Stop in Pärnu
Today, you'll say goodbye to Latvia and embark on a scenic trip up the coastal highway into Estonia. Like Latvia, this northern European country is home to breathtaking natural scenery, including rocky beaches, remote islands, protected wetlands, and forests abounding with beech, spruce, and pine trees. In total, about 50% of Estonia is covered in forest, and about 18% of the land is protected in the form of national parks.
After a while driving along the coastal highway you'll stop off at the Estonian summer resort of Pärnu. This popular bayside holiday town is known for its long sandy beach, 19th-century villas, and the architectural heritage buildings in the historic center, some of which date to the 17th century. You'll stretch your legs on a short tour of Pärnu before continuing the drive amid the forests of northern Estonia until you arrive at Tallinn in the early afternoon.
Day 5: Walking Tour of Tallinn
Tallinn is a charming blend of medieval history and modern urban life. You'll see these contrasts up close when in the morning you embark on a walking tour of the city's Old Town. In the warmer months, this UNESCO World Heritage Site is abuzz with visitors and locals hitting the streets and taking advantage of the many shops, galleries, souvenir markets, outdoor cafés, and restaurants.
Today's tour will take you within the Walls of Tallinn (defensive walls dating to 1265) and to the heart of Old Town. You'll visit many historic gems, including Toompea Castle, a stately Baroque castle now home to Estonia's parliament; the Dome Church (St. Mary's Cathedral), which dates to the 13th century; the Russian Revival Alexander Nevsky Cathedral; and the Great Guild Hall, a guild for merchants and artisans in the 14th century that is now the Estonian History Museum.
Later in the afternoon, you can take an optional excursion to Kadriorg Park, a 172-acre (70-hectare) green space home to gardens, ponds, promenades, and museums. One that you can visit is KUMU, the award-winning Estonian Art Museum, which houses collections of classic and contemporary fine art. In the evening you can get into the historic spirit of things by heading to Town Hall Square, in Old Town, and enjoying a traditional Estonian meal at a restaurant in a medieval setting.
Day 6: Ferry from Tallinn to Helsinki
After breakfast, you'll embark on an optional ferry ride to Finland's capital, Helsinki. The trip is a brisk 1.5 hours across the Gulf of Finland, at the end of which you'll arrive at the crossroads of Western and Eastern culture. This lively port city has an architectural innovation unrivaled anywhere in the region. Here you'll find buildings that cover a wide array of styles, from art nouveau and 1920s classicism to neo-renaissance and Byzantine-Russian.
Upon arrival, you will transfer to your hotel for check-in. You can then head out and explore the city on your own. For dinner, you should try traditional Finnish cuisine, such as meatballs, pea soup, or, for something truly unique, sauteed reindeer with lingonberries. Helsinki is also a great modern food city, with cutting-edge gourmet restaurants popping up all the time that put new spins on traditional Nordic cuisine.
Day 7: Helsinki & Suomenlinna Fortress Tour
Today, you'll see Helsinki's architectural gems on a city tour. It takes you from the waterfront to Senate Square, which is home to the Government Palace and University of Helsinki. Also here is the 19th-century Lutheran Cathedral, the Engel-designed, green-domed church dominating the square. You'll then head up Mannerheimintie, Helsinki's main street, to the Parliament House. Built in 1931, it's an impressive mix of neoclassical and 20th-century modernist architectural styles.
You'll then visit some other buildings and landmarks. These include the Finlandia Hall event venue, the Sibelius Monument (dedicated to Finnish composer Jean Sibelius) and the famous Temppeliaukio Church, a Lutheran church built into solid rock.
In the afternoon, the fun continues with an excursion off the coast of Helsinki to Suomenlinna Fortress. Construction on this UNESCO World Heritage Site began in 1748 when Helsinki was under Swedish rule. Even today it remains one of the world's largest sea fortresses as it covers a landmass of six small, interconnected islands. There are walking trails that lead around the defensive walls and artillery to famous landmarks like the King’s Gate, the drawbridge entrance to the fortress.
Day 8: Train from Helsinki to St. Petersburg
Today, you'll head to the railway station where you'll board a high-speed train to Russia. It departs after breakfast, and the four-hour journey is nothing if not scenic as it passes along countryside filled with pine, spruce, and birch forests.
You'll cross the border into Russia and eventually arrive at St. Petersburg. This port city on the Neva River delta and Baltic coast was founded by Peter the Great in 1703 and was the imperial capital of Tsarist Russia for 200 years until the October Revolution of 1918. In the intervening years, St. Petersburg has lost none of its opulent splendor. It's home to a wide array of neoclassical palaces, grand concert halls, magnificent Orthodox cathedrals, and expansive parks and gardens.
Just like the palaces, St. Petersburg's urban planning is a feat unto itself. There are so many canals and bridges here that the city has earned the nickname "Venice of the north," and it's an apt comparison. Indeed one of the most popular activities in St. Petersburg is to take a leisurely boat ride on the canals and marvel at the Baroque/Neoclassical mansions and palaces as they pass by on the banks.
Upon arrival, you'll transfer to your hotel for check-in. You can spend the remainder of the day relaxing or head out and explore. If you're feeling peckish, this is a great city in which to dine out.
For dinner, there's a wide variety of restaurants serving all manner of traditional Russian fare including baked sturgeon, caviar blinis, kholodets (jellied meat), Siberian dumplings, and soups like borscht and shchi (cabbage soup with smoked pork ribs). In St. Petersburg you can find these dishes served everywhere from homey cafes with wooden tables to the luxurious dining halls of five-star hotels. Also, if you enjoy a good spirit, be sure to sample regional and artisanal vodkas, of which there are many.
If you're traveling during the summer and seem to be waiting longer than normal for the sun to go down before eating, know that it's not an optical illusion. St. Petersburg is famous for its White Nights—a period from May through July where the sun never fully dips below the horizon. This natural phenomenon is due to the city's proximity to the Arctic Circle. It's a cause for celebration, with many festivals and parties taking place in St. Petersburg during this time.
Day 9: St. Petersburg City Tour - Day Trip to Pushkin
St. Petersburg is ground zero for culture and imperial history in Russia, and you'll see a great bit of it on a full-day tour. You'll visit Peter and Paul Fortress, a defensive structure founded by Peter the Great in 1703. Over the years it has been used as everything from a military base to a prison/execution site by the Bolshevik government. Today it's home to the State Museum of Saint Petersburg History, which displays exhibits detailing the city's past through the 20th century.
You'll also tour the Winter Palace, the massive 1,500 room estate that was the official residence of Russian tsars from 1732 to 1972. The palace itself is part of a complex of buildings that comprise the Hermitage Museum, which displays an incredible collection of artworks acquired by Empress Catherine the Great in 1764.
Regarding historic churches, a few you'll visit include St. Isaac’s Cathedral, a neoclassical church built in 1818 that is now a museum; the colorful, onion-domed Church of the Bleeding Savior, constructed in 1883 on the site where Alexander II was assassinated; and Alexander Nevsky Monastery, which was founded in 1710 by Peter the Great and boasts a cemetery home to the remains of Russian luminaries like the composers Tchaikovsky and Glinka and the writer Dostoevsky.
In the afternoon you'll head to the town of Pushkin and Zarskoye Selo, an imperial palace complex. Here you'll tour Catherine Palace, which was built in 1717 for Empress Catherine I. It spans 2,427 feet (740 meters) and its facade is gilded in 250 pounds (100 kilograms) of gold. Inside, the Rococo staterooms and grand halls are topped with crystal chandeliers and ceiling frescoes. The star is the Amber Room, which is outfitted with amber mosaics hugged by gilded carvings.
Afterward, you'll return to St. Petersburg and give your legs a break with a stop at a historic apartment in the city center to take high tea with locals. Then continue the walking tour to Tauride Palace, a Palladian manor and garden complex, followed by Smolny Cathedral, an 18th-century Baroque church regarded as perhaps the most beautiful in all of Russia.
Day 10: Imperial Tour & Matryoshka Class
Today you'll visit Peterhof Palace, a collection of palaces and gardens located just west of St. Petersburg. This UNESCO World Heritage site, commissioned by Peter the Great in 1714, is a masterpiece of architectural and landscape design. After visiting the French royal court, Peter the Great returned to St. Petersburg determined to build a palace to rival Versaille. That he did, and Peterhof was expanded over the years to the point it now covers a total area of 9,721 acres (3,934 hectares) on the waterfront.
Today you'll tour the complex, and highlights include the Baroque Grand Palace, a 30-room royal estate whose interior is the very picture of luxury. It features ceremonial staircases, gilded statues, rocaille adornments in the Rococo style, and an expansive Throne Room that takes up 3,552 square feet (330 square meters). In Peter the Great's ambition to rival Louis XV of France, he succeeded admirably.
Right outside the Grand Palace are elaborate parks and gardens plus the star of the show: the Grand Cascade. This three-level series of fountains in a large grotto sits in front of the entrance to the palace and is fronted by marble balustrades. Leading from the Grand Cascade is Water Avenue, a long canal that leads to the water and a hydrofoil dock.
After immersing yourself in the opulence of Imperial Russia, you'll head to that dock, hop on a hydrofoil, and embark on a fun, half-hour trip on the Neva River. Then, you'll participate in a matryoshka master class. Also known as nesting dolls, these traditional wooden crafts are the most famous of Russia's souvenirs. Overseeing the class are local artisans who will teach you how to craft and paint your own nesting dolls that you can take home.
Day 11: Train from St. Petersburg to Moscow
Enjoy your breakfast and one last morning in St. Petersburg. At the appropriate time, you'll board a high-speed train for the four-hour trip east to Russia's capital of Moscow. The scenery on this ride is sparse and beautiful as it passes white birch forests and country cottages along the Volga River.
When you arrive in Moscow you'll find a massive metropolis home to over 12 million people, and that's just within the metropolitan area. It's a relatively new capital, having been moved from St. Petersburg in 1918 after the Russian Revolution. This city was the seat of government through the communist era and thus home to some of Russia's most noteworthy contemporary leaders and even dictators like Joseph Stalin.
But Moscow is much more than a chapter in 20th-century geopolitical history. This city on the banks of the Moskva River is filled with culture, art, and now, thanks to Russia's move to a market-based economy, world-class shopping and dining. It's home to leafy parks that are beautiful in spring or covered under a blanket of winter snow. The monuments and historic buildings are many, from Red Square and the Kremlin to St. Basil's Cathedral, Lenin's Mausoleum, Gorky Park, and the Bolshoi Theater.
You'll arrive in Moscow in the late afternoon. After checking into your hotel you can choose to rest or explore on your own. If you're hungry, perhaps head to Patriarch Ponds. This cool enclave near the city center abounds with dining and drinking options, be it intimate bistros and wine bars or gourmet four-star restaurants and even vegan cafés.
Day 12: Moscow City Tour
Today you'll get to discover Moscow, The Mother of Russia, on a city tour. Despite having enough historical landmarks and incredible cultural sights to keep visitors occupied for days, the city doesn't cater much to tourism. The result is you'll get to experience a genuine Russian metropolis with its own unaltered culture and unabridged history.
This sightseeing tour kicks off in the morning with a visit to one of the great icons of Moscow: Red Square. This most famous of Russia's city squares dates back hundreds of years, to the 1100s, when the Kremlin, located on the square's southwest side was nothing more than a simple wooden structure. You'll get to tour the grounds of the Kremlin, which was once home to the tsars and is now the residence of the President of Russia.
You'll also see one of the great symbols of Russia, St. Basil's Cathedral. This red-painted, onion-domed Orthodox church dates to the 16th century but today functions as a museum. It's a must-visit attraction for anyone visiting Moscow yet, bizarrely, it appears smaller when you see it in person than it does in photos.
You'll then visit nearby Theatre Square, where the famed Bolshoi Theatre is located. After that, you'll head southwest of the center to Sparrow Hills, home to the first-ever university in Russia, Moscow State University. While the school itself dates to 1755, its towering 36-story main building was built in 1947 and is an impressive example of Stalinist architecture. The university is a prestigious one, having produced many Nobel Prize winners, Fields Medal winners, political leaders, and other luminaries.
Later, you'll ride the Moscow Metro's Koltsevaya line. This uniquely designed circular route orbits central Moscow and it has a rich history. It was built in 1950-1954 during the height of the socialist-realism architecture boom under Joseph Stalin. The real gems are the line's historic stations like Komsomolskaya, Novoslobodskaya, and Kiyevskaya. These ornate terminals feature murals depicting everything from the victory over Nazi Germany to themes of post-war labor.
Capping the city tour will be a guided stroll along the famous Arbat Street (also called Old Arbat). Dating to the 15th century, it's one of the oldest streets in Moscow. Once inhabited mostly by craftsmen in the 19th century it became an affluent residential district home to literary greats like Pushkin and Tolstoy. Today it's a hip bohemian area lined with art nouveau buildings and whose pedestrian throughway is filled with street vendors, buskers, and out-of-towners.
Day 13: Day Trip to Sergiev Posad
Today you'll travel 43 miles (70 km)northwest of Moscow to the Russian countryside and Sergiev Posad. Located in the area known as the Golden Ring ," this municipality of just over 100,000 people is part of a network of heritage cities in Russia, some of which date back over 1,000 years. Sergiev Posad flourished in the 15th century, expanding around its famous Trinity Lavra of St. Sergius, one of the largest Orthodox monasteries in Russia and a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Founded in 1337 by St. Sergius of Radonezh, Trinity Lavra is considered the spiritual heart of the Russian Orthodox Church. You'll tour the complex and visit Trinity Cathedral. This central church is unique in that it combines elements of medieval Muscovite architecture with the onion domes and belfries typical of Pskovian architecture. Inside you can view the relics of St. Sergius, who died in 1392. It's a great time to do so, as Trinity Lavra has been beautifully restored for the 700th anniversary of St. Sergius' birth.
Also, if you're interested in picking up quintessentially Russian souvenirs, Sergiev Posad is the place to do it. This city is the birthplace of Russian matryoshka dolls, also known as nesting dolls, which were created here at the end of the 19th century. The handcrafted, handpainted items you'll find in Sergiev Posad represent the utmost in quality. You can even take a class and learn to paint your own at a local workshop.
In the late afternoon, after touring Trinity Lavra and Sergiev Posad, you'll return to Moscow and have the remainder of the day free.
Day 14: Depart from Moscow
At the appropriate time, you'll transfer to the international airport for your flight home. Happy travels!