The Baltic capitals of Tallinn, Riga, and Vilnius are some of our favorite destinations in Europe. Not only because they have a unique charm that’s all their own, with preserved architecture as well as vibrant cultural scenes, but also because they are less crowded than many western European capitals.
One common theme to all three Baltic capitals is that each boasts a beautiful Old Town on the UNESCO World Heritage List. But the similarities don’t end there. Each of these three cities also has what’s referred to as a Bohemian Quarter. In these neighborhoods you’ll find excellent restaurants, cafes and bars, as well as quirky shops featuring the handiwork of local artisans. A lingering walk around the streets here will be the highlight of any visit to the Baltics. Let’s take a closer look at each Baltic capital, from north to south, to pick out some of the quirkiest and most impressive places.
History: Besides having a uniquely Bohemian atmosphere, Kalamaja is also well-known as being one of the best areas in the country for viewing classic Estonian wooden architecture. Visiting this fun neighborhood is one of our favorite things to do in Tallinn. It’s a traditionally working class area, owing to its proximity to the harbor. More recently Kalamaja has become one of the city’s hippest neighborhoods, especially since a railway yard was converted into a walking trail known as the Culture Kilometre in 2011.
What to see: You’ll definitely want to visit the Culture Kilometre, one of the main modern attractions in the area. The path will take you past the Seaplane Harbor and the tsar-era Sea Fortress, both of which are notable sights that are worth further exploration. Kalamaja cemetery is also very atmospheric and a great place for a quiet stroll.
Where to eat – a selection taken from our Tallinn dining suggestions we provide our guests:
F-hoone: Located in a part of Kalamaja that isn’t far from Old Town, F-Hoone is definitely a highlight of the city’s dining scene. It has a straightforward industrial warehouse look, with high ceilings and huge windows that provide a hip setting for hearty Estonian, Russian and European cuisine at fair prices. Open every day, 9am to 12am.
Boheem: This is a classic Kalamaja café. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the atmosphere is distinctly Bohemian, always warm and welcoming. You’ll find it in an old wooden house, where you can enjoy great coffee and delicious cakes, as well as wine and other drinks. Open every day, 9am to 11pm, except weekends, when it opens at 10am.
History: Many of the oldest buildings you’ll see in Kalnciems were constructed in the 19th century in the distinct style of European classicism, with wooden buildings that can still be found today. The rejuvenation of the neighbourhood began early in the 21st century, when many of the buildings were reconstructed and the quarter began to take on a Bohemian life of its own.
What to see: There is plenty to do in Kalnciems, from simply strolling around and admiring the unique wooden architecture to sampling local specialties at the Farmers’ Market, which takes place every Saturday. For foodies or anyone looking for vibrant photos, it’s one of the best things to do in Riga. There’s also a regular schedule of cultural performances and other outdoor activities. Don’t miss the fantastic art gallery where you can see (and buy) work from some of Latvia’s most talented contemporary artists.
Where to eat: Maja: This is the best spot in the area to enjoy a hearty Latvian meal, with tasty meat dishes, regional vegetables and excellent wine. You can expect a creative modern take on classic regional dishes. There’s always a great atmosphere here and the servers aim to please. Everything is beautifully plated and delicately flavourful. The lamb fillet is one of their most popular dishes. They also have a tempting selection of desserts. Open Monday to Saturday, 12pm to 10pm.
Dedis-Puri Bakery: If you’re in the mood for light bites or something sweet, this is the best bakery in the neighborhood. It’s a fun place to stop in for a cup of coffee or tea even if you aren’t hungry for a full meal. One of the centers of local life, this is a place where you’ll always find artistic types talking over fresh baked goods and drinks. Open every day, 9:30am to 7:30pm.
History: Uzupis has its own identity, which is evident even in its name, meaning “the other side of the river.” This quirky, arty neighborhood views itself as separate from the rest of Vilnius. So much in fact that it has jokingly declared itself a Republic, with its own constitution (pictured right), president, and flag (or flags, since they have one for each season).
What to see: One significant sight in Uzupis is the constitution itself, which appears in many translations on plaques lining the main street. Also at the top of the list of things to do in Vilnius is paying a visit to the Angel of Uzupis statue, located atop a column in a (triangular) square in the center of the neighborhood.
Where to eat – a selection taken from our Vilnius dining suggestions we provide our guests:
Sturmu Svyturys: A little piece of the Lithuanian coast comes to the city at Sturmu Svyturys. Fresh fish is the order of the day. Portions are very large, so a starter and a main course between two people is way too much. It’s better to just get two starters or one main dish. There are some excellent wines to sample, either by the glass or by the bottle. This is a one-of-a-kind restaurant that will give you a real taste of Lithuania. Open Tuesday to Saturday, 12pm to 10pm.
Sweetroot: Modern Lithuanian cuisine is gaining ground rapidly throughout the country as more locals and tourists discover the fresh flavours of native dining. Sweetroot is a good example of this tasty trend. Priced more towards the local pocket than restaurants you might find in Old Town, this is the perfect place to conclude an evening stroll through Uzupis. Open Tuesday to Saturday, 5pm to 11pm.
Snekutis: This restaurant is cheap and cheerful, with a plastic-coated menu full of photos of the dishes. It’s straightforward Lithuanian at its best, with hearty plates of tasty, no-nonsense food and plenty of Lithuanian beer. The bearded character pictured on the menu is the owner. If you’re lucky he might just be holding court at the bar when you visit. Open every day, 10am to 11pm.
Planning a trip to the Baltic capitals? We’d love to put together a Baltic travel package just for you. Get in touch to find out more!
Charlie is head of marketing at JayWay Travel. A long-term Prague resident, his interests are cooking, eating out, cycling, skiing and of course, travel.