The Baltic states are three countries of north-eastern Europe, on the Baltic Sea. The three small countries have big histories and diverse cultures. 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 predominately Protestant country, its forefathers were of Germanic background.
An expanding economic market, it has some of the best natural countryside in Europe.
The three capitals all have UNESCO-listed old towns, Soviet concrete new towns and occasional 21th century buildings in between.
- Riga – the region's biggest city, Latvia's party town has much to offer
- Tallinn – smallest of the three but still an aspiring global-feel city and Estonia's digital industrial hub
- Vilnius – Lithuania's cosmopolitan centre
- Daugavpils – second biggest city of Latvia
- Kaunas – second biggest city of Lithuania, with an old town and many museums and galleries
- Klaipėda – Lithuania's harbor city
- Liepaja – Latvian beach city known for its music and the former secret Soviet military town of Karosta
- Šiauliai – Lithuanian city with odd specialist museums and the Hill of Crosses
- Tartu – Estonia's second city with a relaxed student vibe
- Jurmala – Latvian resort town on the Baltic Sea; draws a crowd in summer for the long stretch of sandy beach and cool forests
- Saaremaa – largest Estonian island, green landscapes dotted with quaint villages and a medieval castle
- Curonian Spit - a sandy spit containing the largest drifting sand dunes in Europe, at the border of Lithuania and Kaliningrad Oblast
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 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.
As part of revolutionary Russia's speedy exit from the World War I in 1918, the early Soviet government relinquished claim on the region, creating the states which exist today. Prussia was also considerably reduced 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 divisions that assisted the Nazis in wiping out almost all of the area's Jewish population 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. In 1990–91, the Baltic states led the breaking away of the USSR's constituent republics from the central government. They all turned away from Moscow and all joined both the European Union and NATO in 2004. Estonia and Latvia have already joined the Euro, and Lithuania is expected to do so in 2015.
Kaliningrad, subject of ethnic cleansing and repopulated by Russians loyal to Moscow, became an exclave of Russia after the fall of the USSR.
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 eroded the traditional affiliations: in Estonia, 49% say they have no belief in God; in Lithuania, 49% say they do. 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 increasingly spoken, and is largely supplanting Russian as the language of choice among the younger generation. German is also often understood. 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 in Estonia and Latvia, with Lithuania having less anti-Russian language sentiment.
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 (IATA: RIX) 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 and has seasonal routes to the Middle East. Uzbekistan Airways stops in Riga en route between New York (JFK) and Tashkent.
Vilnius Airport (IATA: VNO) in Lithuania is best served by budget airlines Wizz Air and Ryan Air. The latter also provides several connections to Kaunas Airport (IATA: KUN). Palanga Airport serves as a small regional airport for the western part of Lithuania with a few routes.
Rail connections are pretty shoddy. 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 form Vilnius to St Petersburg) pass through Belarus, which would 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. Riga to Tallinn can be traveled by train in one day by changing in Valga. Riga to Vilnius requires an overnight stop in Daugavpils.
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.
- 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.
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: