Planning a Road Trip in the Baltics: Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia
A guide to the best places to stop on a road trip in the Baltics. Tips and information for planning a Baltic road trip itinerary.
With a car, a tent and three weeks of summer holidays to spare we decided to head off on a road trip in the Baltics to see what we could find. We didn't know a lot about Lithuania, Latvia or Estonia so decided to couchsurf along the way to meet some locals and save on funds. We also used blablacar for some of the trips to split petrol costs. Travelling Europe on a budget is not always easy but in the Baltics your money goes a lot further than in Western Europe.
The joy of a road trip is that you can stop whenever and wherever you like. Here are our recommendations for places to stop off at to help you plan a route through the Baltics.
Make sure you have all your road trip essentials before you set off!
Where to go in Lithuania
First up was Lithuania, the biggest of the Baltic states and most recent country to adopt the Euro as its currency (2015).
This is the capital city and worth seeing for a day or two. It was our least favourite of the three capitals but we still found it interesting. There's some tourist attractions such as the Gate of Dawn and the Gediminas Tower on the hill. But we found some of the more offbeat side streets and suburbs more exciting. A highlight for us was the artists' wall, a side street full of small book and antique shops with the walls covered in plaques in memorial of many famous Lithuanian poets and writers. We also found an abandoned football stadium which was completely overgrown.
Trakai Island Castle
This was a recommendation from our hosts in Vilnius and since it was on our way we decided to check it out. It was a bit touristy but well worth the hype. A beautiful island castle set in a lake, you can pay to enter the castle or take a boat tour around the lake. We did neither and decided to enjoy it from a distance while feasting on 'kibinai', small meat-filled pastries similar to a Cornish pasty. The town is also filled with cute, little wooden houses.
This little town is located on the Curonian Spit, a land mass half owned by Lithuania and half by Russia. To get to Nida you can take a car ferry across from the cute little town of Klaipeda. Nida is a small town with a few restaurants and a nice waterfront walking path. But the main attraction are the sand dunes which make a fun walk and provide great views. We got as far as the Russian border (a huge metal fence) and turned back. There are also beautiful beaches all around the spit and lots of forests to hike through.
Where to Go in Latvia
A short drive North and we found ourselves in the land of Latvia. A country 1/3 covered in forest, home to Europe's widest waterfall and native home of the Eurasian beaver!
I completely fell in love with Latvia's capital city and could have spent a lot longer there (we ended stopping there in both directions on our trip). Beautiful and historic in the centre, quirky and alternative in the suburbs with residual influences from the Soviet era. Exploring the industrial side of Riga is just as interesting as the old town. We loved exploring the second-hand shops, cafes, old town and busy market housed in reused zeppelin hangars.
Gauja National Park
This is the largest national park in Latvia and a great place to explore. In the middle is the cute, little town of Cesis. Complete with its own castle. Our highlight was crossing a river (in the car) on a raft with a pulley system, pulled by one man! It's a beautiful place for camping, we paid €5 per night (2 people and tent space) and had the camp ground to ourselves.
Gulf of Riga
We camped in the Northern part of the Gulf for a few days and found it really relaxed and beautiful. Unfortunately the weather in this part of Europe can't always be relied on and it wasn't exactly 'lying on the beach' kind of weather. We did do some great walks though. We also hired bikes and spent a day cycling along the coast, through forest and past farms. There are plenty of paid and free camp sites along this stretch of the coast.
Where to Visit in Estonia
Our final stop on the trip was Estonia. We couchsurfed just outside the city of Tallinn and got to experience an authentic Estonian sauna, complete with a birch branch beating to finish.
This was the most expensive place we visited and in parts felt more Scandinavian than Eastern European. Nevertheless, the old town and castle were very atmospheric. Thanks to our local guides we also managed to see a couple of alternative sights too. Our favourites were the abandoned concert hall/ ice skating rink on the water front. A huge concrete structure able to be climbed on and covered in all kinds of colourful and creative graffiti. And Telliskivi, a creative community area which is home to craft shops, cafes, food stalls, live bands, street art and a Saturday flea market. For more ideas read about things to do in Tallinn.
Our time in Estonia was limited as we needed to begin the journey home. Had we had more time we would have visited Saaremaa Island because well....
"Often seen as profoundly Estonian, the islands’ traditional cottages, food, beer, art and love for the nature is well appreciated among Estonians. The sleepy fishermen’s villages, windmills, thatched cottages and wildlife provide a perfect retreat for those looking to get lost in the nature" - https://www.visitestonia.com/en
We also like the sound of Tartu, an artsy student town in the South East.
For a novelty, there is a road in Estonia which crosses through part of Russia. You're allowed to travel on this road without a visa but you can't stop or get out of your car!
Advice for Driving in the Baltics
- All of the Baltic States now use the Euro so they are becoming a little more expense. You can still travel easily on a budget though. A meal out will cost around €5-8 and a beer €2. Food got more expensive the further North we went, while petrol got cheaper.
- Free camping is legal in the Baltics. So you can simply drive until you find a nice spot, pull over and pitch a tent for the night. There are also a many free campsites with long drop toilets and areas to build a fire. Campsites with full amenities are also relatively cheap.
- During the summer there are road works every few kilometers. We spent a good few hours sitting waiting for temporary traffic lights. So if you have to arrive somewhere by a certain time, leave a little earlier.
- Having said that, the distances in this area are short. Vilnius to Riga is just 3.5 hours and Riga to Tallinn a further four. Because of this, this trip can be done over several weeks or condensed into one (one way).
There are plenty of other places you could add to your Baltic road trip itinerary or you could spend longer in each place. But these are amazing countries to explore and a summer road trip is the perfect way to enjoy what each one has to offer.