Latvia and Lithuania are lovely, and here’s why.

As you’re probably realised if you’re following the blog closely, I’m rather behind on updating it. The main reason is that the wordpress app on my phone is extremely annoying to use, and the additional reasons are that I’ve just been too busy living my adventures and also occupied with several crochet projects (I must confess, dear reader, that I am a crochet addict).

I’m currently on board a 31hr train from Novosibirsk to Irkutsk, so I’ve decided to devote myself again to you, my lovely readership. I’m also wide awake despite it being 3am, as a group of men have appeared on the train and are behaving with all the subtlety of a pack of racoons on speed, after a long night binge drinking and raiding garbage cans. My body clock is also extremely confused as to its whereabouts, and indeed may still be in Moscow somewhere. I shall do my best in my sleep-deprived and exasperated state to cast my mind back a few weeks…

(cue futuristic time travel music)

I’d been to the baltic before (Tallinn in Estonia) and I was so keen to explore the region further that I’ve been reading articles and adding baltic-related pins to my travel Pinterest board ever since. I had planned to visit Estonia again on this trip, but I liked Lithuania so much that I decided to stay longer and travel to Moscow from Riga in Latvia rather than Tallinn. This also meant taking a nice sleeper train to Russia rather than the 19hr coach journey that I’d planned, clearly in some fit of ridiculous, extreme money-saving nonsense.

My altered itinerary looked like this:

Vilnius – Kaunas – Klaipeda – Nida – Riga

I ended up in Lithuania for around 10 days and I really needed it; not only is there loads to see but I also had an opportunity to relax and have some downtime after what has been quite a hectic couple of months travelling from city to city. Both countries have a friendly, chilled-out vibe which I was immediately drawn to. There’s an authentically young and hip feel about both capital cities, with indie shops and galleries, cool street art and genuinely nice cafes and restaurants that don’t fit into the tourist stereotype of laminated menus offering burgers, fries and chicken nuggets. Veggies like myself will also find themselves well catered for.

Vilnius

In a nutshell: Like its Baltic neighbours Riga and Tallinn, Vilnius is the perfect blend of pastel-hued baroque buildings, cobbled streets and pretty churches, blended with a sense of pride and enthusiasm in their culture as befits (relatively) new and liberated nations.

The city is busy with tour groups but never to the same extent as Prague or Rome, and if you head away from the main courtyards and thoroughfares you’ll quickly lose them.

Below: Vilnius’s Old Town.

Stayed at: 25 Hours Hostel

Best meals:

Veggie burger and fries at Holigans, a veggie (vegan friendly) restaurant which only serves wholesome, locally sourced food. The interior is really nice too. http://holigans.lt

Amazing pizza from Casa La Familia, a totally veggie pizza restaurant with awesome decor and tables outside. It was so nice to have a choice that wasn’t margarita or ‘veggie deluxe’, ie chuck loads of random veggies on and don’t bother to think about taste or seasoning. Casa La Familia

Veggie kebab from Jammi Kebabs, a hip kebab chain. http://jammi.lt

Cider and tasty beer snacks from Snekutis, a traditional inn serving loads of different varieties of Lithuanian beer and traditional, rustic food. Snekutis

Where I went/what I did:

The Museum of Occupations and Freedom Fights, housed in a building which has been home to the secret police of both oppressive regimes in Lithuania’s recent history. It’s a big and well presented museum, which also has the original KGB cells and exercise yards to visit. It’s an important place to visit to understand the impact of both regimes on this young nation’s psyche. http://genocid.lt/muziejus/en/

The Museum of the Grand Dukes Palace, a new (it opens fully in July) museum chronicling the history of the palace and of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. It’s worth a visit but unfortunately the interpretation and audioguide are both rather dry, and the observation tower at the top doesn’t offer much of a view. One of the best bits is a VR exhibit where you can watch the palace grow and evolve through time. It’s incredibly well done, and absolutely worth the extra couple of euros. http://www.valdovurumai.lt

The Republic of Uzupis, a tiny ‘independent republic’ and artists enclave, where you can find galleries, street art, quirky installations and a shady riverbank, perfect for dipping your toes into the river. Uzupis

Top tip: Don’t waste money on an open top tour bus ride. It was the first and last time I’ve done it and honestly it was so dull. Plan instead to see a different section of the city each day so that you don’t have to trek backwards and forwards between the different sights (it’s quite a big city and hilly in places, in the heat it can feel quite exhausting to walk around).

Check out the tram routes and bus routes in advance too, as it’s not always very easy to figure it out at the stops – there is a public transport centre in the city centre (on Gedimino Street) where you can buy multi-day tickets and pick up route maps. Info on public transport in Vilnius

Kaunas

In a nutshell: A small, pretty city with a gorgeous old town, big parks and a river winding through. The cafes and bars spill out onto the streets and there are loads of museums to explore. It’s quieter than Vilnius too, so you can explore more easily without getting stuck behind hordes of sheep-like tour groups.

Below: Kaunas’ pretty old town.

Stayed at: The Monks’s Bunk, Kaunas

Best meal:

Berneliu Uzeiga, a National Restaurant which has a number of branches, including one in London. The Kaunas branch is housed in a very cute, traditional wooden house and has pretty, folksy decor. I had borscht with sour cream and potatoes followed by buckwheat pancakes with a creamy mushroom sauce, washed down with Lithuanian beer.

http://www.berneliuuzeiga.eu/en/

Where I went/what I did:

The Ninth Fort Museum, a museum and memorial complex dedicated to the years of oppressive regimes in Lithuania. There’s a concrete, brutalist museum dedicated to oppression under the Soviet regime, the older, original fort which details the horrors of the Nazi regime and a huge, sculptural memorial dedicated to the victims of oppression. The memorial sculpture depicts massive, twisted bodies jutting out of the ground and it is probably one of the most impressive and moving memorials I’ve ever seen. The sheer size and scale can’t be appreciated in photographs alone.

Top tip:

Make sure you visit the Thursday Food Truck Market called ‘Open Kitchen’, where there are DJs, bars and loads of different types of food on offer. It’s set in a big park by the river, and you can either sit in on one of the big tables at the market or take your treats for a picnic in the park. I opted for amazing veggie tacos, made with chargrilled cauliflower. http://www.openkitchen.lt

Klaipeda & Nida

In a nutshell: The Curonian Spit is a slice of land split between Lithuania and Russia (Kaliningrad), which offers stunning scenery and beaches. Klaipeda is one of the jumping off points to reach the Spit, and I spent a night there before taking a boat to the Spit. Klaipeda is another pretty town like Kaunas (more pastel houses and cobbled courtyards), whilst Nida is a small settlement filled with painted wooden houses and with a friendly, arty vibe: it reminded me of Dungeness in Kent.

Below: Klaipeda and the ferry across to the Spit.

Stayed at:

Klaipeda Hostel

Palve Guesthouse in Nida

Best meals:

I found most of the restaurants in Nida served traditional Lithuanian cuisine which tends to be very meat and fish based, however I did have some very tasty potato pancakes followed by cherry filled blini at one of the pubs in Nida. There’s also a large supermarket in the town, so you could easily self-cater.

Where I went/what I did:

In Klaipeda I explored the large sculpture park and visited The Pranas Domsaitis Gallery, dedicated to one of Lithuania’s most famous painters, with other galleries focusing on the work of other Lithuanian artists and a changing exhibition programme. https://www.ldm.lt/pdg/

In Nida I explored the seafront and relaxed on the beach. It’s one of the most gorgeous places I’ve ever visited, and I’d love to go back for another holiday.

Below: Pretty Nida, its traditional red and blue houses, sandy beach and unique wooden weather vanes.

Top tip:

Make The Curonian Spit your next holiday destination if you’re looking for somewhere quiet, clean, authentic and friendly, with lots of sandy beaches and nice walking and cycling paths. There isn’t a single arcade machine, wimpy bar or drunk, sunburnt parent yelling at a kid hyped up on e-numbers in sight.

Riga

In a nutshell: Riga is a completely enchanting city, with more to see and do than you can manage in a short break. I loved the art deco and baroque buildings, the up-and-coming warehouse district near the bus station where the ghetto museum is housed, the central market where you can buy pretty much anything and experience real, unsanitised city life and the striking architecture of the new National Library of Latvia. I took a walking tour on the first day which turned out to be a good decision, as our guide took us away from the tourist centre of the Old Town and introduced us to Latvia’s complex history.

Below: Riga’s gorgeous Old Town

Stayed at: The Naughty Squirrel Hostel

Best meal:

I found it hard to find veggie food in Riga’s Old Town. Menus seemed to be very meat and fish heavy and I should have done some research on where to eat in advance. I did very much enjoy my meal at Ogle Wood Fired Grill, where I filled up on hearty lentil soup and an amazing desert of shredded filo pastry, pistachios and rosewater syrup. I wish I could remember what it was called, it was so delicious!

Where I went/what I did:

Wandered around the Central Market, where you can buy massive bunches of dill, souvenirs such as traditional woollen socks and mittens, punnets of fresh fruit and a huge array of pickled vegetables.

Below: The halls of Riga’s enormous Central Market, housed in a series of airplane hangars. The smell of strawberries fills the air!

The Riga Bourse Art Museum http://www.lnmm.lv/en/mmrb/

The Museum of the Occupation of Latvia http://okupacijasmuzejs.lv/lv/

The Museum of the History of Riga & Navigation http://www.rigamuz.lv/km/index.php?m=par_muzeju&l=en&no_flash=1

Balta Pirts Sauna http://www.baltapirts.lv

Riga Ghetto Museum http://www.rgm.lv/?lang=ru

The National Library of Latvia, newly opened to celebrate 100 years since Latvia first became a independent nation. There are a series of excellent, free exhibitions inside and a viewing deck which is open at weekends. https://www.lnb.lv/en

Top tip:

Make sure to try Riga Black Balsam Liqueur, and the blackcurrant version of it. It’s a strong, warming drink which is perfect for chilly evenings.

Cheers!

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