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I recently went to Tallinn, Estonia and then continued on to Riga, Latvia. Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania make up the three Baltic States, that are on the North-Western border of Russia, just below Finland. Interestingly, the further south you travel, the less money comes into those countries. Estonia profits from being Finland’s neighbor. So Finns come there to buy cheaper products, the Estonians go to Latvia, and of course, the Latvians go to Lithuania. But that doesn’t mean that they’re lacking in beauty, history and great places to walk around. And since so few people know about the Baltic States, the tourism there is really small, making it a great choice to travel to.
Quick Overview of Riga
- Location: shares a border with Russia, Belarus, and the Baltic Sea, and is sandwiched between Estonia and Lithuania
- Language: Latvian, a slavic-sounding language, but mainly shares roots with their neighbor, Lithuania. Russia is also widely spoken there
- Population: 1.95 million
- Money: the Euro
- Transportation: Trains, buses, and trams within Riga
- Religion: while they don’t go regularly to church, around 60% have ties to Lutheranism (Christianity)
- Birthday: November 18 (1918)
- Safety: as a girl traveling alone, I felt very safe here. While I did see more homeless people here than in Tallinn, that was only outside the city center. But I never felt uncomfortable, or found parts of town that I shouldn’t explore
- Fun Facts: Third oldest flag in the world. One of the greenest countries in the world, with 260 nature reserves, 500 km (310 miles) of white-sand beaches, and 12,000 rivers. Instead of crosses on the tops of churches, there are roosters, although no one knows why.
- History: Similar to Estonia’s history, they were continually ruled by more powerful neighboring countries. A key difference though is that when the 2008 financial crisis happened, Latvia was hit harder, and since more job opportunities were available in Western Europe, a big wave of emigration headed there.
Getting to Riga
If you’ll just be in Latvia for a few days, you can fly in and out of Riga International Airport, with easy public transportation to the city center. You can pay the driver (€2) or buy a ticket (€1.15), at the travel-kiosks located inside the airport. But if you have a few extra days, I recommend flying into Tallinn, and then taking a guided bus tour from Tallinn to Riga. The bus only takes 6-8 people, and you’ll be with a local guide, either from Estonia or Latvia. It’s really cute to see how passionate they are about their country, history, language and traditions. And they love to tease their neighboring country by saying things like “in Latvia, they’ll tell you they were the first to do this, but the truth is that we had that first here in Estonia.” It’s like the fun banter between the U.S. and Canada, or between Australia and New Zealand. But you’ll get to see southern Estonia, and Northern Latvian landscape, visit a few small towns, some national parks, and even walk down a bobsled track. The track was built during the Soviet years, but is still in use today.
Walking Around: Riga isn’t that big, so regardless of where you’re staying, it’s easy to walk everywhere. It’s a really flat city, so you won’t be gasping for air walking up any steep hills or endless stairs.
Sunshine: As I mentioned for Tallinn, one thing to keep in mind is how your day or night might be affected by the sun. I was there in late June, and the sun was going down at 23:00 and it was up again at 04:00. So depending on what your hotel/Airbnb room is like, packing an eye mask is a great backup plan for the summer months. And of course, in the winter, the opposite it true, as the sun comes up around 09:00 and goes down around 15:30. So you’ll want to make sure that you make the most of the daylight.
Things To Do In Riga
Food: One of the things that you’ll never run out of options for, is food. There are restaurants everywhere, with all sorts of food options. I even saw one that was as American as it gets. It’s called Rockabilly, and has burgers and fries, American decorations, and even classic American music, like Elvis Presley and Michael Jackson. In the summer, there are patios everywhere, so sitting outside and people watching is very easy. And if you like to feel a little bit of nature around you, a lot of patios had plants and/or small trees every few feet.
Tours: While there is the normal Old Town walking tour, that covers history and interesting facts (like the rooster on top of a few buildings), as well as bike tours, and even canal tours, one thing that’s different here is the Art Nouveau tour. Riga has some really beautiful buildings that are worth seeing. And according to UNESCO World Heritage, Riga has the most Art Nouveau buildings in Europe, with more than 700 of them gracing Riga’s streets.
Stalin-era Tower: While these behemoth buildings were everywhere in Eastern Europe during the Cold War, it isn’t a common sight in Western Europe. Built during the 1950’s, the Latvian Academy of Science was, and still is, a place for science to thrive. I first saw the building while I was on my walking tour, and knew I had to go back later and explore it. When you see it from only a few feet/meters away, you feel like a little ant in comparison. While there are other buildings you can go to the top, for a great view of Riga, I personally loved this one. You only pay €5, take the elevator to the 19th floor, then walk up the last 2 floors, to the 21st. The 360-degree view from there is really pretty, regardless of the time of day.
Summer Solstice Festival: I happened to be there during the summer solstice festival, which is very important to Latvians. This festival has roots in their pagan traditions, such as spending the whole night in nature, picking fresh flowers and weaving them into a wreath, that people wear on their head, and even jumping over a bonfire. But if that isn’t your thing, don’t worry, just wandering around the town during this time is really pretty. They have music, smoked meats, homemade cheese, traditional dance and locals dressed in traditional clothes that are in the Herbal Market in the city center.
Musically Inclined: One of the things to note, is how important music is to Latvians, especially classical music, and folk music. They grow up singing in festivals, choir, school programs, and even singing in a national competition is pretty normal there. And a great example of how it’s tied to their culture is with “The Singing Revolution.” As they tried to gain their independence from the Soviet Union, a series of events took place, that involved them peacefully protesting through singing. One event in particular is a source of pride to the Baltic States, as they gathered 2 million people, and made a human chain from Tallinn to Vilnius (Lithuania), which is 675 km (419 mi). This happened on August 23, 1989, just a few months before Berlin gained their freedom.
Biggest Market in Europe: Back in the early 1900’s, the German zeppelins were a fascinating way to travel long distances, but where do you store the giant airships when they aren’t being used? Big zeppelin hangers became popular, and 5 were put in Riga, that are still in use today. It’s been transformed from a military storage, to the central market in Riga. Not only is this an inside market, but it’s also outside, as well as a night market, and if you have a desire to shop for strawberries at 3 AM, you can do that too. They have anything you can imagine there, including fresh fish, all kinds of cheese, bread, clothes, souvenirs, many types of flowers, and even a few restaurants and bars within the hangers. If you’re wanting to experience a more authentic side of Riga, this is the place to go, as around 80,000-100,000 people visit the market every day.
I’ve traveled through a lot of Europe, and decided I wanted to see a little more towards the East. A travel-show helped point me in the right direction, when they went to Latvia. I didn’t know anything about the Baltic States, so I did a little research, and from pictures alone, I booked a flight to Tallinn, Estonia. I really love smaller towns with a lot of charm and history, and Tallinn definitely provides that. So here’s a quick overview of Estonia.
- Location: on the border of Russia, sharing the Baltic Sea with Finland.
- Language: Estonian, which has a Scandinavian-Slavic sound, but mainly shares roots with Hungarian and Finnish. Russian is also widely spoken. In Tallinn, many people speak English. And very good English, I might add.
- Population: 1.3 million people.
- Money: the Euro.
- Transportation: Trains, buses, and trams within Tallinn.
- Religion: only 14% of the population claim any religion, making it the least religious country in the world. Historically though, they are a pagan country.
- Birthday: February 24 (1918)
- Safety: as a girl traveling alone, I felt very safe here. I didn’t see any homeless people, I never felt people staring at me, and even walking around at night was no problem.
- Fun Facts: Skype was created in Estonia. First country in the world to use online voting.
- History: First mention of Estonia goes back to the 10th century, but unfortunately they were continually being ruled by anyone, but themselves. Because of their location, connecting the East with the West, Denmark, Sweden, Poland, Germany, and Russia have all conquered them throughout Estonia’s history. In 1918, they officially declared their independence, but it wasn’t until the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, that they gained true autonomy.
Arriving In Tallinn
From the airport to the city center: When arriving by plane, you’ll notice that even the airport seems fun, alive and different than others. There’s a mini-library and reading area, a restaurant that has cute trucks, that serve as a bar, with stools pushed up to it, and even a ping pong table, that people actually use.
The airport is clean, with lots of natural light and great signage in English. To get to the city center is really easy and cheap. Follow the signs for public transportation, and from there you can take a bus or a tram, with both costing €2, and taking about 15-20 minutes. You can buy your ticket from the driver, when you get on. There are also taxis, as well as car rental companies at the airport. And voila, welcome to Tallinn!
Walking Around: Tallinn isn’t that big, so regardless of where you’re staying, it’s easy to walk everywhere. But it does have some hills and of course cobblestone streets, so keep that in mind as you pack your shoes.
Sunshine: One thing to keep in mind for anyone living south of Canada, Russia and Scandinavia, is how your day or night might be affected by the sun. I was there in late June, and the sun was going down at 23:00 and it was up again at 04:00. So depending on what your hotel/Airbnb room is like, packing an eye mask is a great backup plan for the summer months. And of course, in the winter, the opposite is true, as the sun comes up around 09:00 and goes down around 15:30. So you’ll want to make sure that you make the most of the daylight.
Things To Do In Tallinn
Tallinn is actually a really pretty city, with beautiful buildings, nice parks, and one of the best-preserved medieval walls in Europe, with 20 defensive towers still standing. So just walking around is a feast for the eyes.
Tours: As with many cities these days, you can do the hop-on, hop-off bus that goes to the main sites. There are also bike tours, a cute “train” that’s mainly in the city center, as well as walking tours. One of my favorite ways to see a city, especially when it isn’t too big, is to do a free walking tour. If you aren’t familiar with them, you go on a walking tour, that covers the main sites, as well as local history, and then you give a donation at the end.
Food: One of the great things about Tallinn is the wide variety of food options there. I’ve traveled to places where they mainly have fish, or just beef, and after a few days, you want something different. But in Tallinn they had everything from medieval food, to vegan food, to regular hamburgers and fries. One of the restaurants I saw online, I had to go, strictly from seeing the pictures.
Medieval Wall: One of the biggest things that makes Tallinn different from other European cities, is their medieval wall. You can see it throughout the city center, and for a small fee, you can even go into some of the towers, on the wall, and into the tunnels underneath.
A Russian Touch: I’ve never been to Russia, or other countries that have the churches, with the onion-domes decorating the tops. So I was pleasantly surprised when I saw that Tallinn had one. I walked by the St. Alexander Nevsky Cathedral several times, and each time was just as enjoyable as the first, especially when the sun illuminates different parts of it.
Possibly See The Prime Minister: A perk of coming from a smaller country, is that there isn’t the high need for security for government leaders. Just across from the St. Alexander Nevsky Cathedral is the Parliament building. The building alone is worth a visit, as it’s a mixture of the medieval wall, a classical palace and an expressionistic-style Parliament building. As I was on the walking tour, at the gated-entrance of the Parliament, the gate suddenly opens, and we see two black cars drive past us. Our guide told us that the guy in the passenger seat was probably the Prime Minister, and that he’ll sometimes come out on the balcony to wave to tourists, and ask where their from.
Bohemian Part of Town: Kalamaja and Telliskivi are cool places worth visiting, that are a few minutes walk outside of the city center. You’ll notice some of the houses are straight out of the 1800’s, with lots of character, old bricks and wood. There’s a cool restaurant area, where most of it is outdoors, and has a food truck feel. One of the restaurants are two train cars, that they’ve made into a modern cafe and nightclub. Nearby, are ping pong tables, soft electronic music playing in the background, and even a giant rubik’s cube for decoration.
Want To Visit A Nearby Country For The Day? If you don’t realize that Tallinn is so far north, you don’t even think about how close it is to Finland. But there are regular ferries that take around 2 hours to get to Helsinki, and will cost between $30-$50 for a round-trip ticket. The funny thing about being that close, is that a lot of Finnish people will come to Tallinn for the day, and stock up on cheaper alcohol. There’s even an alcohol market right beside the ferry, making it easy to have that as their last stop.
Sense Of Humor: Something I was surprised about was the slight sense of humor Estonians have. On the walking tour, within my Airbnb, and even in the statues around town, you’ll notice that it isn’t an in-your-face sense of humor, but it’s very subtle. And I’m sure that helps them get through their long, dark, cold winters.
Going to Italy is a dream for a lot of people. You think of movies, TV shows and pictures, where people walk around the small winding streets, where locals use their hands just as much as words, and where beautiful landscapes are around each corner. But where do you even start to pick a location to go to? Here are a few tips from a trip I just went on. It was a week long, and we stayed at one location, while taking day trips to others.
Milan is a great place to fly into, as it offers many flight options, but it’s also close to many cities, which makes it a great choice for your home-base. Milan has the beautiful Duomo (Cathedral) that is hard to find a comparison to in the rest of Europe, due to its white-washed exterior, with small jagged points surrounding the top. There are also canals that run through different parts of the city, such as the Naviglio Grande, which always makes for a great afternoon walk, or to stop and grab something to eat. And no visit is complete without realizing that Leonardo Da Vinci spent 17 years in Milan, and gave us the famous Last Supper, which you can see in the monastery of Santa Maria delle Grazie. While there are many other noteworthy places to see and experience, here are some great tips for things off the main tourist path.
- A unique Arch, with a twist. While there are many beautiful arches in Europe, Arco della Pace has a little bit of humor built into it. It was originally built when Napoleon was in power, and he had conquered Italy. The arch in Milan links to the Arc de Triomphe in Paris, by the Simplon Pass, which goes over the Alps, and is still in use today. The horses on top were placed facing France, to welcome Napoleon, but when the Austrian Empire conquered Italy a few years later, the horses were turned, so that their tails were facing France. So when you visit, you have a story to tell your friends and family, making you sound like a local.
- A building or a vertical forest?
Bosco Verticale is a really unique concept to help with air pollution. They are two high-rise buildings, one being 26 floors and the other being 18, that have more than 900 trees on the balconies there. The idea was to help destroy some of the smog that comes from cities, as well as to produce more oxygen. It’s also helpful to the people living there, as the trees block out some of the noise around them, as well as some of the harsh winds that come through Milan. The park that’s just in front of the buildings is also really pretty to walk around, or sit and people watch.
3. One of the world’s oldest shopping malls. The Galleria Vittorio Emanuele sits right next to the Duomo and is also a real beauty. It was built in 1861 and is named after the first king of the Kingdom of Italy, Victor Emmanuel II. When you walk in, notice the four mosaics on the floor. Not only are they really pretty, but each one has a coat of arms, referring to the capitals of the Kingdom of Italy, Turin, Florence, Rome, as well as Milan. Now, look up, as the roof is made completely of glass and iron, with sweeping arches and a stunning circular dome in the middle. Next, it’s time to go shopping (if you can afford it). Not only is the Galleria for high-end clothes, but you can also find books, jewelry, and paintings, as well as cafes and restaurants.
Getting from Milan to Verona is really easy, and takes just over an hour between the two cities. Start at the Milano Centrale Station and you can either buy your ticket at one of the ticket machines, or for a discount, you can buy your ticket online, with my favorite website Trainline. You can use this website/app in several European countries, as well as a few countries in the UK. You can also see up to 9 different currencies, depending on what you prefer. Your ticket will be sent to your email or saved in the app, and you just show that to the conductor, without worrying about validating the ticket or losing it. Once arriving in Verona Porta Nuova, walk north to see pretty much anything in Verona. While just wandering around makes for a great feast for the eyes, here are some tips to get the most out of a few hours in Verona.
- Famous lovers. One of the things that Verona is famous for, are the Romeo and Juliet houses from Shakespeare’s play. Set just a few streets from each other, the Juliet house and balcony has all of the tourism, while Romeo’s house is merely a small sign, on the outside wall. The Juliet house is actually a museum that you can visit everyday, except Monday mornings.
- Third largest amphitheater in Italy. Built in the 1st century, this stunning Roman amphitheater is still in use today, for more than eye candy. It is used for concerts, operas, and if Milan/Cortina d’Ampezzo is awarded the 2026 Winter Olympics, this will be used as the closing ceremonies. So seeing it before then, will give you bragging rights.
- Incredible view of the city. Since Verona doesn’t have many tall buildings, getting a great 360-degree view of the town is pretty easy, from the Lamberti Tower. For the super fit and motivated, there are 368 steps to the top, or for those that don’t need to prove their athletic ability, there is a nice, relaxing elevator, that is only €1 extra than the entrance fee, which is €8. One thing to keep in mind though, is that the bells ring every 30 minutes on the hour, and half hour, so plan to be there in between those, or risk being partially deaf for the next few minutes.
- Relax on the terrace, that overlooks a castle.
While the terrace at Terrazza Bar al Ponte isn’t big, the view more than makes up for it. It is made to look like the upper deck of a ship, overlooking the rushing water below. The terrace is covered, which is great to hide from the sun, or in case of an afternoon shower, and in the winter, there are heating lamps and blankets to keep the customers warm. This is a great place to see locals and practice some of your Italian. Prego!
Lake Como is a beautiful lake, with lush green hills surrounding it. The small towns sprinkled all around the lake, gives you a feeling of wanting to visit them and just lose track of time there. Getting to the Como train station from Milan, takes about 45 minutes, and costs between €5-€10. Once you get there though, go ahead and walk directly to the lake, and follow the crowd towards the ticket counter. Unfortunately you can’t purchase your tickets online, so in the high season, do plan a little extra time, as the boats can sell out for the tour you’d like. There are shorter trips, such as 4-5 stops, trips that go halfway, and ones that go to the end of the lake. There are also 3 different types of boats you can go on: a motorship, a hydrofoil and a ferry. Feeling a little overwhelmed? This will help you decide which is best for you, and if you’d like to see a map of the lake, scroll down.
- Motorships. This is a slower boat, that allows its passengers time to really enjoy the views and take a lot of pictures. Year-round it does the Como-Colico route, which is all the way to the end, and takes about an two hours. And only in the summer, it also does the Lecco-Bellagio route, which starts east of the Como stop, and goes to the middle of the lake, and it takes an hour and a half. The great thing about the motorships is that they are cheaper, and since they stop at every stop on the route, you can get off and back on a few times, and see more places, with less tourists, than the main destinations.
2) Hydrofoils. These are faster and a little more expensive, but if you know where you want to go, and spend most of your time there, this is the boat for you. It doesn’t make as many stops, so if you want to get to the most popular destination of Bellagio early, and enjoy it before crowds start rolling in, this will get you there in 45 minutes. But it also does the whole lake, from Como to Colico, so you still have the same option as the motorship.
3) The ferry. This is only between a few stops in the middle of the lake, Bellagio, Varenna, Menaggio and Cadenabbia, as shown below on the map in yellow. So if you arrive from Milan by train, you’ll need to take either the motorship or hydrofoil to one of these stops, and then you can take the ferry. Or if you have a car, the ferry is your only option to get across the lake. Ticket price information on taking your car on the ferry, can be found here.
Wherever you choose to go, Italy has many options for things to enjoy. But the most important part, is to go see it for yourself.