Tourism is flourishing in the Baltic States of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. Their geographical proximity gives them some common historical background, but they have decidedly different languages and cultures. Come and discover the natural and cultural riches of the Baltic States.
For roughly 500 years in the Middle Ages, the Baltic States were under the influence of the Hanseatic League, a merchants’ guild, of which Riga was the principal eastern trading post. In 1589, although Latvia and Estonia remained in the Hanseatic League, Lithuania joined with Poland. In 1795, after a new partition of Poland, Lithuania and the two other Baltic States became attached to Russia. They regained their independence after World War I, however in 1939, Russia and Germany signed a reciprocal treaty of non-aggression, and on this occasion the Baltic States returned to the Russian fold. You can see there has been constant political change. The Baltic States attained their independence after the dissolution of the Soviet Block in 1991. In 2004, thanks to the energy and enthusiasm of these states, they joined the European Union.
Geography and Nature
Geographically, the three Baltic States have much in common. Forests and lakes cover a vast amount of the countryside; there are 2,800 lakes in Lithuania alone, many of them glacial. Plumb the wilds of Aukstaitija and Zemaitija Parks to see them. In Latvia, Gauja National Park shelters lush vegetation, lynx, wolves, and Europe’s largest beaver population, not to mention remnants of fortified castles. Be sure to visit Guttman Cave, the largest in the Baltic States. In the north of Estonia, Laheema National Park offers gorgeous forest, cliffs, lakes, waterfalls, and rivers.
The Estonia’s surface is 50% forest, 5% lake, and there are 1500 islands to explore.
The Amber Coast
Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia are particularly known for their splendid Baltic Sea coastline. The extraordinary Curonian Spit in Lithuania, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, amazes visitors with its miles of dark pine forests, sandwiched between a 62 mile beach along one side and a lagoon on the other, dotted with picturesque fishing villages. The islet of Neringa is strewn with pleasant fishing villages, small museums and monuments that you can tour on the Seaside Cycle Route.
The Estonian archipelago has its gems: Saaremaa is mentioned in the Scandinavian sagas and withstood numerous Viking attacks. Since then, with its neighbors Hiiumaa, formed by a meteor, Kihnu, a matriarchy cited by UNESCO for its marriage ceremony, and serene and secluded Muhu, it has become a favorite get-away destination for Estonians. Why not for you, too? The Baltic Coast Route in Latvia connects stretches of beach with friendly seaside towns such as Ventspils and Liepaja. In Ainaži learn about Latvian sailors and Baltic ship-building traditions a the Seafaring Musuem.
The Amber Road
Amber is fossilized resin that comes in every shade from pale lemon yellow to the color of Coca Cola, both translucent and opaque. This prized gem has been used for jewelry and other decorative uses for thousands of years, and even as a flavoring in aquavit – and it washes ashore on Baltic beaches like sea glass or pebbles! The Baltic nickname for amber is lovely: “seabirds’ tears”. It was widely traded, and that’s why the Amber Road passed through the Baltic States all the way to Venice. You can follow it still, and keep your eyes peeled for drops of honey and gold on the beach!
Estonia’s Tallinn is the oldest capital of Northern Europe. The fortified, medieval old town strategically dominates the Gulf of Finland. Meandering along streets under the ramparts of the World Heritage city you can capture the medieval spirit if you follow the route along the old city walls including 26 watch towers. Tallinn Town Hall is the only fully intact Gothic town hall in Northern Europe, and now operates as a museum and a concert hall and the St. Olaf’s Church (Oleviste) with it’s 159m high tower was the highest building in the world on 15th and 16th century.
Riga, capital of Latvia , is the second largest port on the Baltic, situated at the mouth of the Daugava River. Its old town dates from the 13th century, when it was a Hanseatic city. Many centuries later, Jugensstil, or Art Nouveau, took hold in Riga and today it is considered to have the preeminent collection of this style of architecture anywhere in Europe. Travel to the top of the dome at St. Peter’s church for a look at this lovely “Paris of the north”.
In Lithuania, the southernmost, largest, and most populous Baltic State, the capital is Vilnius, also founded in the 14th century. It is truly a cultural crossroads, as you can see from the rich legacy of Gothic, Renaissance, Baroque and classical buildings that has earned Vilnius UNESCO World Heritage stature. The city has been known for centuries as a place of religious tolerance and cultural melding, and ten years after independence you’ll find the city a thriving, diverse European capital.