- Tour Vilnius' Old Town and its hundreds of medieval buildings
- Take a coastal drive down the Curonian Spit, a long sand-dune peninsula
- See the historic castles in Riga, Latvia's capital
- Visit national parks for cycling trips around lakes and pine forests
- Take an optional day trip to Helsinki, the colorful capital of Finland
|Day 1||Arrival in Vilnius||Vilnius|
|Day 2||Vilnius to Klaipėda: Tour Old Town & Trakai||Klaipeda|
|Day 3||Day Trip along the Curonian Spit||Klaipeda|
|Day 4||Klaipėda to Riga: Lake Plateliai & Hill of Crosses||Riga|
|Day 5||Walking Tour of Riga, Day Trip to Jūrmala||Riga|
|Day 6||To Tallinn & Lahemaa National Park||Tallinn|
|Day 7||Walking Tour of Tallinn||Tallinn|
|Day 8||Free Day in Tallinn (Optional Day Trip to Helsinki)||Tallinn|
|Day 9||Tallinn to Vihula||Vihula|
|Day 10||Vihula to Tartu||Tartu|
|Day 11||Tartu to Mārciena via Valmiera||Mārciena|
|Day 12||Mārciena to Daugavpils, with a stop in Aglona||Daugavpils|
|Day 13||Bike Ride to Palūšė, to Vilnius||Vilnius|
|Day 14||Departure from Vilnius|
Day 1: Arrival in Vilnius
Welcome to the capital of Lithuania!
Like many European capitals, Vilnius has a rich history. This city, which sits on the Neris River, dates to the 14th century and in its heyday was a melting pot of cultures. People flocked here from as near as Poland and as far as Eurasia, many coming to attend Vilnius University. Founded in the 16th century, this was one of the premier learning institutions in Europe. Over the next few centuries, Lithuania was conquered by everyone from Napolean to Hitler, and it fell under Russian rule after WWII until it seceded from the Soviet Union in 1990.
Head to Vilnius´ Old Town and you can see its rich medieval history exemplified in the well-preserved architecture. All told, there are 1,200 medieval buildings and 48 churches in this city that have earned historic status. Architectural styles run the gamut from Gothic to Renaissance to Baroque, and religious denominations include Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox. Judaism, Lutheran, and Protestant.
But Vilnius is more than medieval history. This forward-thinking city has a modern edge to it. Former residential areas once home to drab communist-era apartment blocs have been given a facelift and turned into bohemian enclaves splashed with street art. The downtown area is a financial nerve center filled with banks and tech startups. You can see Vilnius' central neighborhoods on a day tour, as this city is easily navigable on foot.
Upon arrival at the airport, a driver will meet you at the terminal and transfer you to your hotel in the city. After checking in, you'll have the remainder of the day or evening free to spend however you wish.
Day 2: Vilnius to Klaipėda: Tour Old Town & Trakai
Spend the morning getting to know Vilnius on a guided walking tour of the city. It begins in Old Town, the medieval heart of Vilnius. Throughout the morning you'll visit historic landmarks of varying architectural styles.
One highlight is Vilnius Cathedral. Consecrated in 1783 and sitting on the expansive Cathedral Square, this is Lithuania's premier Roman-Catholic church. Moreover, its mausoleum is the final resting place of some notable figures throughout history including grand dukes of Lithuania and even King Alexander of Poland.
Other stops include Gediminas Tower, a 15th-century defensive castle on the banks of the Neris River; the Church of St. Peter and Paul, a 17th-century Lithuanian Baroque cathedral; the 15th-century St. Anne's Church, another Baroque gem; Vilnius University, which, having been founded in 1579, is the oldest university in the Baltics; and the Gate of Dawn, the city's medieval defensive fortification, which was built around a chapel that remains a major catholic pilgrimage site in Lithuania.
Afterward, you'll transfer a half-hour west to the town of Trakai. Situated on a peninsula on Lake Galvė, this village, home to about 5,000 people, is as much a scenic national park as it is a town. Here, amid the unspoiled woodlands and lake islands, rises medieval Trakai Castle, the star landmark of the area. You'll visit this handsome fortification, which was built in the latter half of the 14th century out of red brick and stone and is done in the Gothic style.
Then you'll continue the road trip northwest for about three hours, passing splendid countryside scenery until you reach the coastal city of Klaipėda. Upon arrival in the late afternoon/early evening, you'll transfer to your hotel for check-in.
Day 3: Day Trip along the Curonian Spit
In the morning you'll leave from Klaipėda and head south along the Curonian Spit, a long, thin sandspit that runs 62 miles (100 km) between the Baltic Sea and the Curonian Lagoon. Along this narrow strip of land you'll find sleepy fishing villages, isolated pine forests, and endless sand dunes.
The first stop on this route will be at the Hill of Witches, located at the lagoonside village of Juodkrantė. Despite the spooky name, this landmark is actually a collection of wooden sculptures atop a forested sand dune. There are over 80 sculptures here by local artists that depict themes of paganism and Lithuanian folklore.
Continue south towards the border with the Russian province of Kaliningrad. Here you'll stop at another resort town, Nida, a popular summer vacation spot home to high coastal sand dunes and Thomas Mann’s summer house. Stroll around town and enjoy dinner at a traditional Lithuanian restaurant before driving back to Klaipėda.
Day 4: Klaipėda to Riga - Lake Plateliai & Hill of Crosses
After breakfast, you'll leave Klaipėda and head north to Samogitia National Park. This 83-square-mile (283-square-km) protected area in the Samogitia highlands is home to traditional villages and beautiful lakes. Enjoy a hike near the largest of these, Lake Plateliai, which leads to a viewpoint offering incredible vistas of the countryside.
Continue east to Šiauliai and the Hill of Crosses, one of the holiest Catholic sites in Lithuania. Pilgrims have been leaving crosses on this small rural hill since at least 1830 when the site was a pivotal landmark in Lithuania's resistance against Russian aggressors. In the intervening years, the arrival of pilgrims has been so regular that today the hill boasts over 100,000 crosses, crucifixes, and statues of the Virgin Mary.
Head north into Latvia, arriving in the capital of Riga in the late afternoon. Riga was founded in 1201 by the German bishop Albert of Riga, who later went on to found the city's cathedral in 1221. Riga is the largest of the three Baltic capitals and boasts an eclectic array of architectural styles, with the most historic examples concentrated in its Old Town neighborhood.
Day 5: 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 here include the 14th century Riga Castle; the Lutheran Dome Cathedral, which was built in 1211; the 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 plus 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 6: To Tallinn & Lahemaa National Park
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 that includes 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.
Your first stop in Estonia is in one such protected area, Lahemaa National Park. Located on the north coast of the country, Lahemaa sits on 1,877 square miles (725 square km) and has many hiking trails that will take you through bogs and forests. There's also incredible biodiversity here, as it's home to many species of birds and animals like wolves, red deer, wild boars, and even lynxes.
On a walking tour of the park, you'll enjoy the nature plus visit Palmse Manor. This opulent manor estate dates to the early 16th century and is considered one of the country's most impressive examples of Baroque architecture. Besides the main house, the expansive grounds feature a greenhouse, hedgerows, gardens, and a park with gazebos and a bathhouse overlooking a pond.
After visiting Lahemaa National Park, you'll continue on to Tallinn, the capital of Estonia. Located on the Baltic Sea, Tallinn is the country's most populous city. Besides being one of this region's most well-preserved medieval cities, there's a modern edge that you can discover in its dining and nightlife scene. Tallinn is also a popular destination in summer due to the waterfront promenades and nearby beaches. Offering great views of the coast, they're the perfect spots for a romantic stroll.
Day 7: 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 markets, galleries, souvenir shops, outdoor cafés, and restaurants.
Today's sightseeing tour will take you within the Walls of Tallinn (defensive walls dating to 1265) and into 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 13th century Dome Church (St. Mary's Cathedral), which is the city's oldest church; the Russian Revival Alexander Nevsky Cathedral; and the Great Guild Hall, which was a guild for merchants and artisans in the 14th century and 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, to enjoy a traditional Estonian meal at a restaurant in a medieval setting.
Day 8: Free Day in Tallinn, or Day Trip to Helsinki
You'll have the day free to enjoy Tallinn however you see fit. Tour the parks, gardens, and palaces, stroll the waterfront, or just while away the hours sipping coffee on a café patio in Old Town. It's up to you.
Or you can 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 may be defined by urban sprawl, but it also 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.
You'll witness Helsinki's architectural gems on a sightseeing tour. It will take you around the waterfront to Senate Square, which is the oldest part of the city and home to the Government Palace and the University of Helsinki. Also here is the 19th-century Lutheran Cathedral, the green-domed church dominating the square. You'll then head up Mannerheimintie, Helsinki's main street, to the Parliament Building. 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, including 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. Afterward, you'll hop back on the ferry and return to Tallinn.
Day 9: Tallinn to Vihula
Leave Tallinn in the morning and head east for about 45 minutes to Lahemaa National Park, arriving in the country village of Vihula. Here you'll check into Hotel Vihula Manor Country Club & Spa, a charming 16th-century estate that has been converted into a four-star hotel.
Located in the heart of the park, this is the perfect place to get away from city life and spend time relaxing in Estonia's tranquil countryside. Stroll the expansive grounds of Manor Park, swim laps in the indoor pool, enjoy a spa treatment, and dine on delicious cuisine on a patio terrace with park views. For a real rustic dining experience head to the Kaval-Ants Tavern, which serves hearty Estonian country fare in the traditional ambiance of the manor's former ice cellar.
Day 10: Vihula to Tartu
After breakfast, you'll leave the manor and head into the unspoiled wilderness of Lahemaa. Here you'll embark on a two-hour hike on trails that pass through the woods and wetlands of this national park. You'll then visit some more manor homes before making your way to Tartu.
This city in southeastern Estonia may be small, but it enjoys quite the historical legacy. The War of Independence ended in 1920, and that year a peace treaty was signed in Tartu that granted Estonia its statehood. Like in Tallinn, there's a medieval Old Town here, home to the Supreme Court of Estonia and the Town Hall, which was built in 1782. Tartu's most famous building, however, is the neoclassical University of Tartu, which dates to 1632 and is the national university of Estonia.
Upon arrival in the city, you'll check into your hotel and can spend the remainder of the day walking around Old Town and seeing the sights.
Day 11: Tartu to Mārciena - Stop in Valmiera
In the morning you'll depart from Tartu on a journey south into Latvia. After crossing the border you'll arrive in Valmiera, a Hanseatic city on the banks of the Gauja River. It was founded in the late 13th century when the Livonian Order of crusaders built Valmiera Castle here.
Upon arrival, you'll take a short tour of the city's historic center, visiting the ruins of Valmiera Castle as well as St. Simon’s Church, which dates to 1285 and combines Romanesque and Gothic styles. Afterward, you'll visit the local Valmiermuiza Brewery to learn the secrets of traditional brewing and enjoy some artisanal beers. Following this is a stop at a local farm to sample the delicious organic cheese produced on site.
The drive continues from Valmiera for about another 90 minutes south to the village of Mārciena. Here you'll overnight at a romantic countryside manor estate. In the evening, you'll enjoy a traditional feast of Latvian bbq.
Day 12: Mārciena to Daugavpils - Stop in Aglona
After breakfast, you'll leave Mārciena for southeastern Latvia and the second-largest city in the country, Daugavpils. On the way, you'll stop in the village of Aglona to visit its stately Aglona Basilica. This whitewashed Roman Catholic church is done in the Baroque style and features 196-foot-high (60-meter) twin belltowers. It was built in 1768 and today remains an important pilgrimage site, particularly on the 15th of August during the celebration of the Assumption of Mary into Heaven.
From here, the drive continues to Daugavpils. This city on the Daugava River was granted town rights in 1582 but due to its strategic location was occupied by other countries over the years. Historically, it has been part of Lithuania, Poland, the Russian Empire, and was even occupied by Nazi Germany from 1941 to 1944. Thus it has a diverse population whose residents hail from Germany, Poland, Sweden, and Russia.
Upon arrival, you'll tour the historic center of the city and visit the 19th century Daugavpils Fortress. This large military fortification was built in the early 19th century by the decree of Russian Tsar Alexander Ist, and today it remains the only such tsarist base in Europe unaltered and in its original state. Located within the fortress is the Mark Rothko Art Centre, the only place in Europe that displays the original masterpieces by the famous founder of abstract expressionism.
After seeing Daugavpils you'll head just outside the city to a lovely countryside manor, where you'll overnight.
Day 13: Daugavpils to Vilnius - Bike Ride to Palūšė
It's a quick trip from Daugavpils across the border into Lithuania, where you'll continue south to the capital of Vilnius. Along the way, you'll stop for a break and a bit of exercise at Aukštaitija National Park. This 156-square-mile (405 square-km) protected area is the country's oldest national park and is home to rich green pine forests and over 100 lakes.
When you arrive you'll hop on a mountain bike for a 12-mile (20-km) ride around the scenic forest landscapes to the village of Palūšė. On top of its ideal lakeshore setting, the town is famous for its old wooden church, which dates to 1750. That makes it the oldest wooden church in Lithuania.
After Aukštaitija National Park you'll continue on to Vilnius, and upon arrival will check into your hotel.
Day 14: Departure from Vilnius
Alas, your grand Baltic adventure has come to an end. At the appropriate time, you'll transfer by private car to the airport for your flight home. Until next time!