There are few areas of the European Union that have been explored less by international visitors than the three Baltic States of Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia. While Tallinn, Estonia has seen a massive influx of tourism in recent years due to its capacity as a cruise ship port and Riga, Latvia has increased in popularity as Ryanair began to offer cheap connections from other major European cities, the rest of the Baltics remain essentially untouched by foreign tourism. The sheer lack of tourist crowds can make travelling in the Baltics an appealing option for those looking to get truly off the beaten path in Europe.
This Baltics travel guide will cover the basic information needed for you to begin to plan your Baltic adventure. Topics including currency, transportation, budget and accommodation information, safety concerns, religious and cultural nuances, and regional cuisine are all things worth considering before you embark upon your journey through these three undiscovered countries.
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Located in Northeastern Europe and bordering Poland to the south, Belarus and Russia to the east and the Baltic Sea to the north, the Baltics countries comprise the nations of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. Distinct in culture and tradition, these countries are great to visit as one block or individually and you can easily spend months exploring and getting to know them.
If you want some country-specific information rather than a more holistic view of the region, you can browse guides and articles specifically for Estonia, Latvia & Lithuania below.
Planning a Baltics Route
Though the Baltics are only comprised of three countries, planning the perfect route through them can actually be quite a bit of an undertaking. While many of those visiting this incredible region will plan to visit only the capital cities of Tallinn, Riga and Vilnius and fail to branch further, this is also a huge mistake.
There is so much to see and experience in Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia that you really need to make sure that you put in a good amount of time to plan your route. While the capitals are lovely, dynamic and diverse and very much worth visiting, you also cannot miss the smaller cities and towns, either.
If you want to plan out the perfect Baltics itinerary to suit your travel style or are unsure which capital city to prioritise then make sure to have a look at our detailed articles below.
Places to Visit in the Baltics
While most notable for their capital cities, there is a lot more to the Baltic states than just the major metropolitan areas.
From second cities like Kaunas, Lithuania and Tartu, Estonia to beachy wonders like Liepaja, Latvia or the incredible Curonian Spit in Lithuania, the Baltics have so much to offer visitors beyond the capitals and top tourist sites and it is well worth taking the time to seek them out.
So if you’re trying to figure out where to go in this beautiful region and to step a bit beyond the well-trodden tourist trail, then have a browse through some of the articles below. Here we outline how to dig deeper in the capitals along with what to do in some of the lesser-visited cities!
Best Time to Visit the Baltics
Elsewhere in Europe we generally recommend travelling the shoulder seasons of March-May and September-October in order to get good weather while avoiding tourist crowds.
However, arguably the best time of year for Baltics travel would be in the high season months of June-August. Because the Baltic nations are so far north, they see disparate temperatures — winter highs fall well below freezing and both autumn and spring and be quite chilly and rainy as well.
If you truly want to get the most out of your Baltics itinerary, going in the summer months is highly recommended, especially if you want to enjoy the pristine coastline and white-sand beaches that rival many of those found in the tropics.
The weather is mild and never gets too hot, but be warned that there are mosquitos! We both were feasted upon while in the Baltics in July, so come armed with some bug spray if you don’t want to be covered in itchy welts for the majority of your holiday.
There aren’t huge tourist crowds in the summer, either, particularly if you venture outside of the capital cities. Another benefit to travelling in the high season vs shoulder or off-seasons is that all of the interesting tourist attractions, museums, and tours will be fully operational.
Many businesses catered toward tourists close from October-May due to a lack of crowds, so if you want to be able to experience everything the Baltic nations have to offer, travelling in summer is the best decision!
There is something to be said for visiting the Baltics in December, however. The snow-covered cities and towns look like something out of a fairytale and there are Christmas markets to rival those of Bavaria — just make sure to bundle up!
Autumn can be another appealing time to visit the Baltic States if you don’t mind a little bit of rain and cold. Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia are incredibly green countries (all three have gone through a massive period of reforestation since gaining independence from the USSR) and the fall foliage is any nature-lovers dream! Just make sure to pack appropriately.
Cost of Travelling to the Baltics
Just one point on the long list of pros for Baltics travel is that they are quite possibly one of the most affordable regions in the EU. Your money can go a long way in all three countries and the affordability of the region can allow even the most miserly of budget travellers to live a bit more luxuriously.
It is worth noting, however, that prices in the Old Towns of Tallinn and, to a lesser extent, Riga can see prices that are nearly double than what you can find in less touristy areas of the city. These are really the only areas where you might need to penny-pinch.
If you are trying to save money, we recommend staying away from the tourist centres in the capital cities where prices can be very high. Find accommodation outside of the Old Towns and search for restaurants that cater to locals rather than tourists.
This will not only help you stick to a tight budget but will also give you greater insight into how and where residents of whichever city you’re visiting live on a day-to-day basis.
Read More: Baltics Travel: How Much Does it Cost?
Currency in the Baltics
Unlike travelling in the Balkans or even through Central Europe, where most countries use different currencies, all the countries in the Baltics use the Euro! Estonia was the first to adopt the Euro in 2011 while Latvia and Lithuania followed in 2014 and 2015 respectively making exchanging and converting currency a breeze when travelling through the Baltic states!
ATMs are also prevalent and easy to find wherever you may be in the Baltics so you should have no problem withdrawing cash, and it is always preferable to go with this route rather than relying on exchange booths with their less-than-savoury rates and fees. It is recommended that you find a debit card that refunds ATM fees and doesn’t charge for foreign transactions.
Credit cards are also widely accepted in most major establishments, which eliminates the need to carry large sums of cash at all. Again, just make sure that your card doesn’t charge foreign transaction fees and you should have a seamless and affordable trip to the Baltic states!
Baltic food is incredibly diverse and draws significant influences from its neighbours including Russia, Poland and Nordic countries.
Plenty of dishes you’ll encounter during your Baltics travel will be very similar to other Eastern European countries such as potatoes, pelmeni (dumplings), rye bread, dairy products and soups.
What sets the Baltic states apart from other Eastern European countries is their geographic location on the Baltic Sea meaning there is plenty of fish incorporated into their diet, such as smoked salmon and pickled herring!
Apart from standard drinks such as beer and vodka, it’s worth sampling local spirits such as Black Balsam (herbal liqueur) in Latvia, Vana Tallin (rum liqueur) in Estonia and Krupnikas (honey liqueur) in Lithuania. Fermented soft drinks made from rye bread known as Kvass in Latvia and Gira in Lithuania are also worth trying and taste similar to root beer.
For those that are interested, Estonia, in particular, has a thriving craft beer scene that can rival some of the most established further west. If you are a fan of a craft brew, Estonia is the place to go for fantastic and innovative beers that can be found throughout the country.
Transportation in the Baltics
Whether you want to rely on public transport for the entirety of your trip or would rather have the ease and flexibility of a rental car, there are a few things to keep in mind. For instance, whilst trains do exist for some routes, generally, it is more convenient and practical to use buses when travelling between Baltic countries.
Lux Express is the main bus company that operates routes between the Baltic States and Poland. Their buses are fantastic and very comfortable and offer amenities such as individual TV screens, WIFI, hot drinks and plenty of legroom! Furthermore, as the three Baltic states are part of the Schengen Area border crossings are seamless! You can book bus tickets for the Baltics here.
It is worth noting that, especially in summer, buses can book out early so it is good practice to book at least a couple of days in advance. This can save money as well, as it is usually cheaper to book online as many travel deals are offered. If you know which days you are planning on moving from city to city, this is a great option.
When moving between cities within one country during your Baltics travel, it’s worth investigating whether buses or trains are best for your route. Buses usually have the most extensive network however in some countries, particularly Latvia, there is a great train network for moving between the major cities surrounding Riga.
Though the public transit between cities in the Baltics is frequent and reliable, if you want to venture into more rural parts of the country or just don’t want to be at the mercy of bus timetables, it can be very worth renting a car. We use Rentalcars.com to search for great deals from major car hire companies.
Accommodation in the Balkans
One minor inconvenience of Baltics travel a budget backpacker might find is that there is a lack of hostels outside of the bigger cities.
This, however, doesn’t mean that there is a shortage of budget accommodation in the Baltics. Airbnb rentals are prevalent, and there are also more traditional guesthouses and BnBs in most larger towns and cities that can be an affordable accommodation option.
One thing to keep in mind if you happen to be travelling in the high season is to make sure to book a bit in advance, especially in the capitals and coastal towns as the best places tend to book out early.
If you’re looking for accommodation in either Riga or Vilnius, then you also happen to be in luck as we have written detailed guides outlining different areas to stay and options including hostels, Airbnbs and budget, mid-range, and luxury hotels! Browse the articles below to find your ideal accommodation in these Baltic capitals.
Language in the Baltics
Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Baltic countries went through a process of reinstating their national language as the official language of their country. Latvian and Lithuanian are Indo-European languages that share similarities while Estonian is more closely related to Finnish.
The second language for many people from the Baltics is Russian, particularly for older people that went to school during the Soviet occupation. In some cities, particularly those closer to the Russian border, the main language will actually be Russian rather than the Baltic equivalent.
There is a higher Russian population in Latvia and Estonia than in Lithuania and you are more likely to hear Russian being spoken in these two countries than in Lithuania, with the possible exception of the Curonian Spit, which shares a border with Russia and therefore receives a fair amount of Russian tourism.
If you do speak Russian and want to use it to communicate in the Baltics, it is worth knowing that some people might prefer that you speak English to them first. Baltic people from all three countries are very proud of their national identity and don’t necessarily want to be associated with Russia today — including in language.
Younger people and those living in the capital cities will be more likely to be able to speak some English while German will also be common in some parts of the Baltic states.
Religion in the Baltics
Though the general public and governments of the Baltic nations are largely secular, religion is a very important topic to discuss as there is a lot of diversity in the region.
The majority of people from the Baltic states subscribe to a particular form of Christianity. In Lithuania, the majority of people are Catholic, in Latvia, there is a more diverse mix of Lutherans, Catholics and Orthodox Christians while Estonia is predominately a mix of Lutherans and Orthodox Christians.
Many younger people, in particular, don’t see religion as a significant part of their lives. As an example, Estonia has one of the largest per capita populations of people who don’t believe in God.
Travelling through the Baltics is a wonderful, rewarding experience that is sure to delight all those who try it. There is so much to see, do and experience that you’re certain to be astounded by just how much these small countries have to offer.
From dynamic cities to white sand beaches to medieval castles, the Baltics can encapsulate a quintessential European experience with a fraction of the tourist crowds of Western European destinations.