Tallinn or Riga or Vilnius: The Best Baltic City to Visit


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Can’t decide between visiting Tallinn or Riga or Vilnius for a Baltic city break?

Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia seem to be growing in popularity as tourist destinations each year, with bold new tourism campaigns and fairytale-like Old Towns drawing more and more people to this northeastern corner of Europe than ever before. Despite their seemingly diminutive size, the three Baltic States are vast and diverse and travellers could easily spend a number of weeks exploring the whole region and still feel as if they have barely scratched the surface.

While we are always champions for travelling beyond the capital cities in any country, the increase of affordable flights from well-known budget airlines across Europe have made the Baltic capitals an attractive option for those looking for a short, off-beat city break. All three cities have unique offerings and cultures and it can be tricky to decide between visiting Tallinn or Riga or Vilnius. Luckily, we have spent a lot of time in each capital and can help you figure which is the best Baltic city to visit!

Tallinn, Estonia

Becoming famous the world over for it’s exquisitely preserved, picture-perfect medieval Old Town, Tallinn is the most sought-after destination in this article. Estonia is quite different culturally and linguistically to it’s Latvian and Lithuanian neighbours and therefore you will an eclectic mix of Baltic and Nordic tendencies. Often considered to be the most technologically advanced country in the world, Tallinn mixes a vibrant and modern capital with quaint, old-world charm almost seamlessly.

Accessibility

Tallinn is the most visited out of all three Baltic capitals, welcoming over four million foreign tourists in 2017. The city is well-connected with other major cities close by, with frequent bus and train links between cities like Riga, St Petersburg, Tartu, and Pärnu.

Tallinn is also only about 80 kilometres south of Helsinki and with ferries departing at least every hour, making it a popular day trip from the Finnish capital. Tallinn is also accessible by ferry from cities like Mariehamn, Finland and the Swedish capital of Stockholm. The city also has a large and well-developed cruise ship port with a capacity to dock up to six ships at once.

Aside from its overland connections, Tallinn also has a fairly large international airport that serves airlines such as Norwegian, Finnair, airBaltic, Ryanair, British Airways, and Easyjet among others. There are year-round direct flights from a number of major European cities such as London, Copenhagen, Frankfurt, and Amsterdam and more cities are served in the summer months.

The city of Tallinn itself is fairly walkable and, especially if you’re only planning on visiting the Old Town, it is entirely possible to get to a wide array of attractions on foot. However, if you’re keen to explore some sites a little bit farther afoot, there is an extensive, affordable, and easy-to-use bus and tram network. You can purchase tickets online through your mobile phone and just scan the QR code when embarking.

All in all, Estonia’s capital is a pretty accessible place both in terms of getting to the city and around it once you’re there.

Tallinn or Riga or Vilnius
Tallinn’s Old Town is perhaps most beautiful at sunset

Things To Do In Tallinn

Although millions of people flock to Tallinn every year, only about half of them spend more than a day in the city. This data might have people thinking that there aren’t a lot of things to do in Tallinn but that is the wrong assumption.

Sure, all of the main sites in the Old Town including the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral, the Patkuli Viewing Platform, and the Town Hall Square can all be seen in the span of a few hours, there is so much more to the city than this. Tallinn is a modern, high-tech, and thriving city with a number of great things to do both in and out of the Old Town.

The trendy neighbourhood of Kalamaja is a well worth exploring, with many nice shops, restaurants, and cafes to pop into. This is also where the popular Seaplane Harbour Museum is located, which is a great way to spend a couple of hours learning about Estonia’s maritime history.

Other points of interest outside of the Old Town include the hip Telliskivi Creative City and Balti Jaama Turg, which has both traditional market stalls and some fantastic street food. If the weather is fine, there is a nice city beach just a short bus ride from the city centre in the suburb called Pirita. The beach also isn’t far from the great Estonian History Museum.

Tallinn has a number of great things to do, so it is easy to spend at least two days in the city — though we would recommend three or four.

Tallinn or Riga or Vilnius
The Alexander Nevsky Cathedral in Tallinn

Cuisine

Traditional Estonian cuisine doesn’t vary much from that found in the other Baltic capitals. Consisting of both Eastern and Nordic influences with a heavy reliance on seafood, the cuisine of Estonia isn’t nearly as heavy as the food found in other Eastern and Central European countries.

While traditional fare is definitely available in Tallinn, there are also some great restaurants that are doing some very cool things with the local ingredients. The trend of “new Nordic” cuisine that has swept major Scandinavian cities such as Copenhagen and Stockholm has also found itself a comfortable home in Tallinn. There are a number of affordable eateries and street food options that have given local produce an international flair and, if you dig even just a little, you will find that you will eat very well in Tallinn.

If you are a craft beer fan, you will also be spoilt for choice in Tallinn. The city — and Estonia in general — has a thriving craft beer scene with local brews available on nearly every restaurant menu. There are also a number of great bars, tap rooms, and bottle shops dedicated specifically to Tallinn’s craft beer fetish and one could easily spend an entire weekend purely hopping from place to place sampling the eclectic and inventive breweries throughout the city.

Nightlife

There is no denying it, Tallinn is a hip and happening city and has a nightlife to match it. There are numerous nighttime options to fit any personality — from chic wine bars to convivial local pubs and hopping nightclubs to subterranean speakeasies.

Tallinn has long been a hotspot for Finnish stag parties looking to drink on the cheap and, in recent years with the increase in budget airlines flying to Tallinn, it has become more popular for those from other countries as well.

Regardless of your tastes, if you’re keen to find a party while visiting Tallinn, you won’t have any trouble.

Tallinn or Riga or Vilnius
Old Tallinn’s city walls

Affordability

If you’re stuck trying to decide between Tallinn or Riga or Vilnius and every city seems to have something going for it that interests you, then it can be helpful to know that Tallinn tends to be the most expensive of the three Baltic capitals. While prices are still considerably less than those of large Western European cities, it is worth noting that spending a significant amount of time in the Old Town is not going be much of a budget experience.

Accommodation prices in Tallinn vs Riga or Vilnius are roughly 15-20% more expensive, as are food prices. It is, however, noticeably cheaper even a couple hundred metres outside of the Old Town where we noticed that restaurant prices especially were up to 100% cheaper than in the tourist centre. If you are really looking to eat well and on the cheap, check out the street food at Balti Jaama Turg and Telliskivi Creative City, which both have affordable and diverse dining options.

On the whole, don’t expect Tallinn to be an incredibly cheap destination but it still can be quite affordable if you avoid the tourist traps.

Where To Stay In Tallinn

Due to its growing popularity as a tourist destination, there are numerous accommodation options that will suit any kind of budget. We would recommend looking to stay slightly outside of the Old Town area — not only will it likely save you a few euro, but it is also quieter and will ensure you will get a good night’s sleep away from the hard partiers that flock to the city on the weekend. We like the Kalamaja neighbourhood, which is cool and trendy and located no more than 10 minutes walking distance from the Old Town. Here are some of our suggestions for the best places to stay in Tallinn:

Fat Margaret’s Hostel – Located between Kalamaja and the Old Town, this hostel is a great budget option in Tallinn — offering both private and dorm rooms. Like many other homes in Estonia, they also have their own Sauna on site! Click here to check their latest prices on Hostelworld or Booking.com

Vabriku Guesthouse – This cosy budget hotel in Kalamaja offers clean private rooms in a fantastic location. Click here to check their latest prices

Airbnb – Airbnb is a great option if you want to see how locals live in Tallinn. There are numerous apartments and private rooms available throughout the city. For example, this apartment in Kalamaja is a great option! Click here to browse the best Airbnbs in Tallinn!

Not quite what you’re looking for? Click here to browse the best deals for hotels in Tallinn!

Tallinn or Riga or Vilnius
Winding back alleys in Tallinn

Riga, Latvia

Where Tallinn mixes medieval charms with Silicon Valley-like innovation almost seamlessly, Latvia’s capital city of Riga is a bustling metropolis filled to the brims with gorgeous Art Nouveau architecture and an inescapable energy. Though only about 300 kilometres south of Tallinn, Riga feels like a different world with a unique culture and population that will surely leave you eager to explore more.

Accessibility

Latvia is located in the centre of the Baltic States and Riga has a strategic position on the mouth of the Daugava River going out onto the Gulf of Riga. This means that the city is easy to reach from a number of surrounding countries. Riga has frequent bus connections between most major Baltic cities and also cities like Warsaw and St Petersburg. There is also a daily ferry connection with Stockholm, Sweden.

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A view of the Freedom Monument from a tranquil park in Riga

Riga also has an international airport which serves as the hub to airBaltic and also welcomes budget airlines such as WizzAir and Ryanair, along with other carriers such as Norwegian, Lufthansa, and SAS. There are direct connections to Riga from most major European cities.

In the city itself, there is an extensive bus an tram network that will easily and affordably take you anywhere you might want to go. However, the centre and old town are very walkable and it is best to get around on foot. The main bus and train stations also aren’t located far from the centre of Riga. If you plan to only spend your time here, you will likely only need to use public transport to get to and from the airport.

Tallinn or Riga or Vilnius
The House of the Blackheads is one of Riga’s most iconic sites

Things To Do In Riga

Riga is the most populous city in the Baltic states and has a much more cosmopolitan atmosphere than either of the other capitals, which is a good deciding factor if you’re finding it difficult to choose between Tallinn or Riga or Vilnius. Because of its big-city vibe and history dating back a thousand or more years, there are a number of interesting and fun things to do in Riga.

The most popular area of Riga would be its Old Town, where attractions such as the Gunpowder Tower, the House of the Blackheads, and the Riga Castle draw tourists in with their historical significance and stunning architecture. The Riga Central Market is also a fantastic place to browse through, especially to learn a little bit more about the local produce of Latvia. This is the largest market of its type in the Baltics.

While the Old Town is certainly worth wandering through, the entire central area of Riga has numerous points of interest and has the largest concentration of Art Nouveau architecture in the world. Due to it’s proximity to the coast, Riga is also the perfect place to have a taste of the Baltic Sea. The popular resort town of Jurmala is only a 30-minute train ride from the city centre and can be the perfect escape.

The Nativity Cathedral in Riga is the largest Orthodox Cathedral in the Baltics

Cuisine

Latvian food differs slightly from that of Estonia and is more heavily influenced by its Eastern neighbours rather than those to the north. That being said, it is possible to find traditional Latvian food all over Riga. However, the city also has enough great international food options and innovative new restaurants to contend with other major European cities.

Alongside Latvian food, other cuisines you can find in Riga that aren’t as easy to find in the west are Georgian, Uzbek, and Armenian, which are all popular choices amongst locals. There are also a number of hip and trendy restaurants throughout the city which have “reimagined” traditional Latvian cuisine alongside old favourites such as the cafeteria chain, Lido.

Altogether, there are a lot of great places to eat in Riga, however, if you’re after a foodie destination with an endless choice of ultra hip and trendy restaurants, then Tallinn might be more your speed.

Nightlife

Where Tallinn might be a popular place among Finnish tourists to drink, Riga has also been firmly cementing itself in the international community as a nightlife hotspot. Because the city is served by a number of budget carriers and is also has some of the most affordable alcohol prices in Europe, Riga has become a hotspot for stag and hen parties across Europe.

While these parties can certainly be a nuisance, they are easily avoided if you stray from the Old Town for a night out. Riga has a hopping nightlife all across the city and there is something to suit any taste. The Latvian capital also has cheaper booze prices on average than Tallinn, so it is an excellent choice if you’re looking to let your hair down and party until dawn without spending too much money.

Tallinn or Riga or Vilnius
The Gunpowder Tower in Riga’s Old Town

Affordability

If you’re trying to compare Riga vs Vilnius or Tallinn, then certainly the affordability of the city needs to be taken into account. And luckily for the budget-minded traveller, Riga is quite an affordable place to travel!

Just like most every other major city in Europe, the Old Town does tend to be a bit more expensive than the other city purely because it is where most tourists tend to spend their money. However, the prices in Riga’s Old Town are significantly less expensive when compared to Tallinn. That being said, if you’re trying to save some money, we would recommend looking for accommodation and restaurants away from the main tourist centre — it will both be more affordable and likely of better quality.

Entry into museums and historical sites in Riga will rarely cost more than €4-5 for a full-priced ticket and these are often up to 50% discounted if you happen to be a student, under the age of 26 or over 65. There is ample accommodation available that will also fit any type of budget, from numerous hostels, small hotels, and Airbnb listings.

Where to Stay in Riga

With its increasing popularity amongst city-breakers and long-term travellers alike, there is no shortage of places to stay in Riga. We would recommend staying in the central area of Riga rather than the Old Town, it is quieter at night, prices are often less expensive, and there are great restaurants and nightlife opportunities that aren’t going to be only directed toward tourists. If you’re wondering where to stay in Riga, check out our top picks:

Airbnb – If you’re looking for more privacy or want a local perspective in Riga, then Airbnb is a great option. There are countless options available in the city no matter what your travel style is. Options range from private rooms like this cosy private room in the Old Town to entire flats like this spacious apartment in Central Riga. Click here to browse more Riga Airbnbs!

Cinnamon Sally Backpacker’s Hostel – Located in the centre of Riga close to the main bus and train stations and the Central Market, this small hostel is one of the best places to stay in Riga if you’re on a budget. They offer both dorms and private rooms and also organise social events, so it’s a great option if you’re travelling solo and want to meet some people as well! Click here to see the latest prices on Hostelworld or Booking.com

Redstone Boutique Hotel – If you’re visiting Riga for a romantic getaway, then this boutique hotel is a great option. It is centrally located and within walking distance of all of the main sites in the Old Town and Central Riga, they have a range of rooms on offer, breakfast is included in the room rate, and there is a spa if you’re looking for a little extra pampering! Click here to see their latest prices

Not quite what you’re looking for? Click here to browse the best deals for hotels in Riga!

Tallinn or Riga or Vilnius
The Riga Cathedral

Vilnius, Lithuania

Lithuania’s baroque capital of Vilnius boasts one of the largest Old Towns in all of Europe, and an excellent restaurant scene, fascinating history, and is even home to its own “independent republic!” Often overlooked for its more high profile neighbours like Tallinn or Riga, Vilnius is just climbing on the scene and getting some international attention for being an interesting place to visit.

A bold new tourism campaign lauds Vilnius as the “G-Spot of Europe” saying that “nobody knows where it is, but when you find it — it’s amazing.” We couldn’t agree more and think that Vilnius is definitely a city worth exploring!

Accessibility

Contrary to the other Baltic capitals, Vilnius is located about 300 kilometres inland and therefore cannot be reached by ferry. However, there are frequent direct bus and train connections from just about every major city nearby, including Warsaw, Riga, Tallinn, Kaliningrad, and Minsk.

Vilnius also has an international airport which serves a number of major European destinations and airlines, including airBaltic, Ryanair, Norwegian, and Lufthansa among others. Another popular choice for those looking for a city break in Vilnius is to fly into Kaunas airport. Lithuania’s second largest city is only a 1.5-hour bus ride from the capital and the airport serves mostly budget airlines from a handful of large European hubs.

In Vilnius, there is an extensive bus and tram network that is affordable and fairly easy to navigate. Uber also operates here, as does the app Taxify and fares are generally very affordable. On the whole, however, most of the main sites in Vilnius are easy to reach on foot and the city is incredibly walkable.

Tallinn or Riga or Vilnius
St Anne’s Church in Vilnius

Things to do in Vilnius

Compared to Tallinn or Riga, the Old Town of Vilnius will seem positively gargantuan. Like mentioned earlier, the Old Town is one of the largest in Europe and it won’t seem nearly as congested as the other Baltic capitals.

Fewer tourists visit Vilnius when compared to the other cities as well, with most foreign visitors making a beeline for Lithuania’s exquisite coast rather than taking the time to head inland and explore the beautiful baroque charms of the capital. So if you want to get further off the beaten tourist path, I would recommend travelling to Vilnius vs Riga or Tallinn.

There are a number of things to do in the city, but certainly one of the best things is to just get lost and wander through the wonderful cobbled streets. There are a number of lush, green parks, great streetside cafes in the summer, and interesting museums to pop into as well. Vilnius is also famous for its myriad churches, the most notable of which is the gothic St Anne’s Church, which stands in contrast to the rest of the architecture of the city.

The Republic of Uzupis, a neighbourhood on the other side of the river and within easy reach of the Old Town, is another tourist highlight, especially if you’re interested in seeing Vilnius’ alternative side. Seen as the bohemian part of town, there is a lot of street art in this area along with some cool, independent shops, trendy cafes and craft beer bars, and some of the best restaurants in the city.

Tallinn or Riga or Vilnius
Vilnius has a great street art scene

Cuisine

Much like the other capitals, it is incredibly easy to visit Vilnius and not once sample Lithuanian cuisine. There is a fantastic restaurant scene in the city and you can eat at some very high end and innovative restaurants for much less than you would pay in Western European cities.

If it is traditional food you are after, however, you will find that Lithuanian food doesn’t differ all that much from that of its Latvian neighbours to the north. However, there is also a significant Polish influence in Lithuanian cuisine that will certainly make itself known early on.

There is also potential to eat great international food, from fantastic pizza to Georgian cuisine. Vilnius has a lot of choices and has the potential to become something of a “foodie capital” in the next couple of years, so come now before the masses discover it!

Nightlife

Unlike Tallinn or Riga, Vilnius has largely managed to avoid the stag and hen do scene so going out is a lot more of a mellow affair in this city. It also means that you don’t need to steer clear of the Old Town just because you don’t want to have to fend off a large group of drunk English lads as they celebrate their mate’s last night of “freedom.”

Even though Lithuania’s capital hasn’t attracted inebriated bachelors and bachelorettes quite like its neighbours, that doesn’t mean that the nightlife scene is lacking. With some of the cheapest booze prices in the EU and number of trendy cocktail bars and nightclubs, Vilnius truly comes alive after dark.

It is worth noting, however, that Lithuania has some of the most restrictive liquor laws in the EU. Their drinking age was recently raised to 20 and it is illegal to purchase alcohol after 8 PM Monday-Saturday and 3 PM on Sunday, however, this law does not apply to restaurants and bars. It is also illegal to have an open container of alcohol on the street. These laws are unlikely to affect a fun weekend away, though, and really only means that there won’t be any drunk 18-year-olds in your nightclub queue.

Tallinn or Riga or Vilnius
Vilnius has some charming architecture

Affordability

The final straw in comparing Tallinn vs Riga vs Vilnius will likely come down to affordability and for that, Vilnius will probably take the cake. In fact, in 2015, The Independent named it the cheapest European city break destination! In all fairness, Tallinn and Riga also made the top ten list, however, prices in Lithuania’s capital are roughly 10% less expensive than Riga and 15-20% less expensive than Tallinn.

Another selling point for visiting Vilnius over the other Baltic capitals is that there isn’t much of a price difference in or outside of the Old Town. Basically, that means that you can eat or stay in there without sacrificing quality or taking a significant hit to your bank account.

Accommodation prices in Vilnius are also affordable with a lot of option for both the ultra-budget or the more high-end traveller.

Where to Stay in Vilnius

Vilnius is gaining popularity as a tourist destination and there are a lot of great places to stay in the city. Contrary to the advice we gave about Tallinn or Riga, we would recommend staying in either the Old Town or Uzupis areas of Vilnius. Because the historic centre is so large compared to the other capitals, it can be fairly inconvenient to stay outside of it, especially if you are only visiting for a couple of days. Here are our top picks for places to stay in Vilnius:

Airbnb — If you’re looking for an alternative to a hotel or hostel in Vilnius, then consider Airbnb. There are countless private rooms on offer — like this central canopy room — and, if you’re after a bit more privacy, there are lots of entire apartments available, as well, like this flat in the heart of the Old Town. Click here to browse more Vilnius Airbnbs!

Jimmy Jumps House/Hostel – located on a quiet street just off of the Town Hall Square, this small hostel is the perfect place to stay if you’re travelling on a budget. They have both dorm and private rooms at affordable prices and also include breakfast in the room rate. They also organise social events in the evening. Click here to see their latest prices on Hostelworld or Booking.com

Hotel Tilto – located close to the Vilnius Cathedral in the Old Town, this boutique hotel comes very highly rated. They have a range of rooms on offer and also have breakfast included in the room rate. Click here to see their latest prices

Not quite what you’re looking for? Click here to browse the best deals for hotels in Vilnius!

Tallinn or Riga or Vilnius
Vilnius is famous for its many beautiful churches

Tallinn or Riga or Vilnius? The Verdict:

All three Baltic capitals have something unique to offer visitors and it can be really difficult to figure out which to visit, especially if you only have time to travel to one!

All in all, if you’re looking for Nordic charms without making a massive dent in your bank account, then Tallinn is the choice for you.

If you love beautiful architecture and are looking to spend your weekend partying until dawn, then it’s time to book that flight to Riga!

If neither of these options appeals to you and you’re looking for the best value-for-money city break where you won’t get bored, then Vilnius certainly won’t disappoint.

No matter which Baltic capital you choose to visit, one thing is certain: you will have a hard time heading home once your short trip is over.

Choosing between Tallinn or Riga or Vilnius can be a daunting task, with each city having so much to offer travellers. If you can only choose one, take the time to figure out exactly what it is you want from a city break to figure out the best Baltic city to visit!

Even if you’re only going on a short city break to Riga or Vilnius or Tallinn, it’s always a good idea to make sure you have a travel insurance policy so you’re covered for any unfortunate events! We like WorldNomads and always use them for our trips – click here to get a quote from WorldNomads 

Are you trying to decide between visiting Tallinn or Riga or Vilnius? Have you been to any of these cities? Let us know in the comments!

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Maggie is a co-founder and writer for The World Was Here First. When she’s not dreaming of far-away lands, Maggie enjoys drinking copious amounts of coffee, Harry Potter, and coaxing stray cats into her home.

Comments

    • Thanks for your comment, Anthony, and I’m glad you enjoyed Vilnius. Hope you have a great time in Tallinn and Riga, too. Both are lovely cities with a lot to offer 🙂

      Reply
  1. We are a group of 6 travelling to Vilnius in February, discovering our ancestral home. Can you tell us what museums are open on a weekend & are we likely to find all amenities and attractions open. Thank you, pat everett

    Reply
  2. Rented a car in Riga , drove extensively through all 3 Baltic countries for 2 weeks
    I recommend it for everyone
    1st everything affordable
    2nd The beauty of all 3 countries. i found myself in complete awe
    Vilanus was an amazing surprise
    Very beautiful city
    Tallinn also beautiful
    Riga was buy far the best of the 3
    I can not wait to go back

    Reply
    • So happy to hear that you had a great time in the Baltics, Richard! Thanks for sharing your thoughts and hope you make it back soon 🙂

      Reply

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