The Baltic states are three countries of north-eastern Europe, on the eastern shore of the Baltic Sea. The three small countries have a long interesting history, and an impressive cultural heritage dating back to the Hanseatic League. The region's 175,015 km2 are home to 6.3 million people, nearly half of them in Lithuania.
North to south:
The most Nordic of the three Baltic countries, with linguistic connections to Finland, a long coastline, many islands and vast forests
A mainly flat, predominately Protestant country, with a lot of Baltic-German and Nordic heritage, lots of woodlands, lakes and rivers
A country of hills, forests and fields, and a bastion of Roman Catholicism. Once a vast empire, today a quickly expanding economy
The three capitals all have UNESCO-listed old towns, Soviet concrete new towns and occasional 21st-century buildings in between.
The cities are roughly listed North to South
- 1 Tallinn – smallest of the three but still an aspiring global-feel city and Estonia's digital industrial hub
- 2 Riga – the region's biggest city, Latvia's party town has much to offer
- 3 Vilnius – Lithuania's cosmopolitan centre
The towns and cities are roughly listed North to South
- 4 Tartu – Estonia's second city with a relaxed student vibe
- 5 Daugavpils – second biggest city of Latvia
- 6 Liepāja – Latvian beach city known for its music and the former secret Soviet military town of Karosta
- 7 Kaunas – second biggest city of Lithuania, with an old town and many museums and galleries
- 8 Klaipėda – Lithuania's harbor city—belonging to Germany until World War I under the name "Memel" and still served by Baltic Sea Ferries from German ports
- 9 Šiauliai – Lithuanian city with odd specialist museums and the Hill of Crosses
- 1 Saaremaa – largest Estonian island, green landscapes dotted with quaint villages and a medieval castle
- 2 Jūrmala – Latvian resort town on the Baltic Sea; draws a crowd in summer for the long stretch of sandy beach and cool forests
- 3 Curonian Spit – a sandy spit containing the largest drifting sand dunes in Europe, at the border of Lithuania and Kaliningrad Oblast
- 4 Sillamäe – former Soviet closed town in Estonia near the Russian border, today it is known for having a treasure trove of beautiful Stalinist architecture
Baltic States are diverse, and each country and region has a different history and culture. While Latvia and Estonia were under foreign dominance for centuries, Lithuania was one of the major powers in the region. The culture of the Baltic states was strongly influenced by Scandinavians, Germans, Poles and Russians. Modern history of the Baltic States has been especially shaped by various forms of Russia, since it gained control over the area during the 18th century. People of the Baltic States have strong national identities, and are today well-integrated with the Western world.
The Baltic states have had vibrant histories. Christianity, Germans and feudalism arrived together in the 13th century. Also in the 13th century, the Grand Duchy of Lithuania emerged as a major political player in Medieval Europe. The Hanseatic League dominated commerce on the Baltic, until the Danish Empire and later the Swedish Empire came to rule the Sea.
In the 16th century, the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth took over control of the area. It lasted until the late 18th century. The area of the Baltic states was then largely absorbed into the Russian Empire, with a slice of modern-day Lithuania being given to Prussia, later becoming part of the German Empire.
As part of revolutionary Russia's speedy exit from World War I in 1918, the early Soviet government relinquished claim on the region, creating the states which exist today. Germany was also considerably reduced in size after the war.
The Soviet Union rebounded and re-annexed all three states during World War II in a move greatly resented by their populations. The Nazis used anti-Soviet sentiment to help them form Baltic auxiliary police units that assisted the Nazis in wiping out almost all of the area's Jewish population (see Holocaust remembrance) and others considered ethnic or ideological enemies (notably including Poles), though the Nazis' claims to being liberators were not widely believed for long. The Soviets yet again annexed the Baltics in 1944, in a move condemned as illegal in the West but tolerated as part of the emerging Cold War diplomacy. All three states maintained a strong sense of national identity throughout the Soviet period, with fierce resistance against Soviet rule by the local population, culminating in an independence movement known as the Forest Brothers that was active throughout the entire period of Soviet rule. In 1990–91, the Baltic states led the breaking away of the USSR's constituent republics from the central government. They all swiftly turned away from Moscow towards the West, and joined both the European Union and NATO in 2004. All Baltic states are members of the Eurozone with Lithuania being the last to do so in 2015.
The Baltic States have seen rapid economic growth since their independence, leading to them being dubbed the Baltic Tigers; while hit hard by the 2008 financial crisis, they saw a rush of emigration, but recovered in a few years. As of 2020, they are the only former Soviet republics whose standards of living have risen to Western European standards, and the only ones to be classified as "advanced economies" (i.e. developed countries) by the IMF. In 2017, the United Nations Statistics department changed categorization of the Baltic States from eastern Europe to northern Europe.
Kaliningrad, subject of ethnic cleansing and repopulated by Russians loyal to Moscow, became an exclave of Russia after the fall of the USSR.
All three countries are home to significant ethnic Russian minorites as a result of the history of Soviet rule. These communities generally maintain close ties with Russia, making relations tense between them and their respective governments. While Lithuania granted citizenship to its ethnic Russian minority following independence, most ethnic Russians in Latvia and Estonia are stateless permanent residents; they are allowed to remain in the respective countries, but not allowed to vote in elections or claim certain welfare benefits.
Traditional Christian affiliations were Lutheranism in much of Latvia and Estonia, and Catholicism in Eastern Latvia and Lithuania. Communism and the general loss of religion across the Western world have heavily altered the traditional affiliations: Once a Lutheran country, Estonia is now among the least religious countries in the world, as 49% say they have no belief in God, and a further 40% claiming to be either agnostic or not being affiliated with any religion; in Lithuania, 49% say they do, and Catholicism remains a vital life force in everyday life; Latvia is evenly split between Lutherans, Orthodox (mostly among the Russian community), and irreligious. A smattering of pagan belief persists, for example the Romuva faith, perhaps because this was one of the last areas of Europe to be Christianized.
Each of the three countries has its own language, with Russian as a common second, or even first, language of many, particularly in the cities. English is widely spoken among the younger generation educated after independence; those born after the fall of the Soviet Union tend to be fluent, especially in Estonia. German is often understood and spoken at a conversational level. Any attempt to speak the native language is greatly appreciated.
The Estonian language's similarities with Finnish, along with Finnish cultural influences, allow much mutual comprehension. In Tallinn Finnish is spoken or understood at most places of interest for the average visitor. Some Polish is spoken in Lithuania.
Given that Russian was the language of the perceived colonial oppressor, it may not be well received. Try first communicating in the native language or in English, at least for greetings and to ask whether the person prefers to speak Russian. The negative attitude towards Russian tends to persist more strongly in Estonia and Latvia, with Lithuania having less anti-Russian language sentiment. Generally speaking, the younger generation schooled after independence is more likely to speak English than Russian. That said, all three countries have significant ethnic Russian minorities whose native language is Russian, particularly in some neighbourhoods in their respective capital cities and in areas near the Russian border. Younger ethnic Russians who were educated following independence usually speak the respective country's national language as well, though older people who were educated during the Soviet era typically do not.
Latvian and Lithuanian are related to each other as Indo-European Baltic languages. It is commonly believed that Baltic and Slavic languages are more closely related to one another than other branches of the Indo-European language family, but this is not even yet the unanimous opinion of linguists and unlikely to be of much help understanding people or recognizing cognates. Estonian is relatively closely related to the Finnish language, much more distantly related to Hungarian (about as close as Spanish and Greek are) and not related to the Baltic languages or any other Indo-European language even though there are of course loanwords.
All three states are part of Europe's Schengen area.
Generally speaking there are fairly good connections from other parts of Europe and from the western half of the former Soviet Union. Save for a few exceptions, getting to the Baltics from elsewhere always includes at least one change of planes.
Riga Airport (RIX IATA) in Latvia is by a large margin the busiest airport in the Baltic countries. It is the main hub of AirBaltic, which flies to around 60 European cities (including most major cities) and has seasonal routes to the Middle East and Central Asia. When flying to the Baltic states, chances are you will pass by Riga.
Tallinn Airport (TLL IATA) in Estonia is a small airport with fewer direct connections than its neighbors. However, it ranks among the best airports in the world for its excellent customer service, modern facilities, and overall efficiency. It is Air Baltic's second hub, is served by several low-cost airlines, and has flights to most major airports in northern and central Europe.
Vilnius Airport (VNO IATA) in Lithuania is mostly served by budget airlines Wizz Air and Ryanair, for which it is a major hub, although a number of major carriers and charter airlines can be found as well. Vilnius also has a rather large catchment area that reaches deep into Belarus and northeastern Poland.
Rail connections are pretty shoddy, not to say awful and even not recommended. Vilnius is the entry hub for rail travelers from Warsaw, Kaliningrad and Belarus. All three capitals have at least daily connection to Moscow and St Petersburg. Note that the trains from Vilnius to Moscow and from Kaliningrad to St Petersburg via Vilnius (do not confuse with direct train from Vilnius to St Petersburg) pass through Belarus, which might require an additional visa.
The international bus network is pretty well developed making for easy movement. Bus is in most cases the fastest and most practical way for intercity travel if you don't have a car.
None of the capitals have direct services between them, though each country has a usable and cheap domestic network. Most (if not all) lines radiate from the capital cities, and do not link up with each other. Riga to Tallinn can be traveled by train in one day by changing in Valga. As of Dec 2023, there is no service between Riga and Vilnius, but the Lithuanian national operator hopes to begin a direct service in 2024.
The international bicycle project, BaltiCCycle may provide you with a lot of information and help.
- See also: Via Baltica
Your own car or a rented one is also an option, especially if you want to get to places outside major cities. Large highways are in a good shape and almost comparable to the ones in the Nordic countries, sideways and streets (in particular in smaller towns) much less so.
Two strategies may be helpful for travelers who want to explore the Baltic states by rented car. The first is to take buses or trains between major cities and rent and return a car locally. The other is to rent a car in one of the three capitals and then make a loop or figure 8 route. Returning a car to a different city or country will increase the cost by at least 50%, but usually 100%.
- The Baltic sea coast with sandy beaches, including the Curonian Spit
- Some of Europe's lowest "highest country points"; Suur Munamägi (318 m) near Võru, southeast Estonia, Gaiziņkalns (312 m) near Madona, central Latvia and Aukštojas (294 m) southeast Lithuania near the Belarusian border.
- World heritage listed old towns in all three capitals.
- Buildings and other remains from the Soviet Union.
- The Hill of Crosses near Siauliai
- Via Baltica – Goes from the Estonian capital Tallinn through Riga, Latvia and Kaunas, Lithuania and continues to Warsaw, Poland.
- Cruising the Baltic Sea
The Baltic cuisine has similarities with the Nordic, Russian, and Central European cuisines. They have a wide range of bread, eaten to nearly every dish. The most traditional alcoholic beverages are beer and vodka, though kvass (a beverage commonly made from rye bread) is also common.
Due to their geography and history, the Baltic States are fond of hard liquors and beer. Another common drink in the area is Kvass.
Unlike their giant next-door neighbor to the east and many other former Soviet Republics, the Baltic states have never suffered from rampant criminality; they are usually safe from a tourist standpoint, and taking the basic precautions will suffice to feel comfortable. Larger urban areas do have their (marginal) share of non-violent offenses, whereas rural areas are virtually crime-free.
Nevertheless, keep the following information in mind:
- Alcoholism is a significant problem in the Baltics. Watch out for people (including tourists from the UK, Germany, and Russia) who cannot control themselves, especially in bars, nightclubs, and low-income neighborhoods. Security guards in the region have very low tolerance on the matter, and they will resort to violence to get rid of drunkards.
- Violent crimes such as aggravated assaults have occurred, but are usually limited to poor towns and areas off the beaten track. The city of Narva in northeastern Estonia, the western part of Riga, and the northern suburbs of Vilnius are notable examples of places with higher-than-average crime rates.
- In Riga and Tallinn, the Russian mafia remains present, but is unlikely to harm tourists. Both cities are also known to inhabit "gopniks", the Slavic equivalent of chavs in the UK.
- Open homosexuality is rare in the region, and same-sex couples will often be met with glaring stares by older generations, but violent reactions are unlikely, especially as the younger generations are more accepting of the LGBT community.
Stay on the Baltic coast with:
- Gdansk – historic Prussian port town, later home of the Polish movement Solidarity, which helped bring down communism
- Helsinki – enter the Nordic countries via the charming Finnish capital
- Stockholm – easily reachable by ferry and plane, Sweden's capital is another excellent entry point to Scandinavia
- Kaliningrad – estranged former Soviet brother of the Baltics, Russia's westernmost outpost
- St Petersburg – a prettier way to see Russia than Kaliningrad
Or head inland to:
- Minsk – see Stalinist architecture of the 1950s at its best
- Moscow – Russia's capital is the world's northernmost city with more than 10 million inhabitants, and has a lot to see and do
- Warsaw – vibrant cultural life and good dining