Medieval yet modern, the intriguing national capitals of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania make some of the best small-city breaks in Europe. United by geography and a common history, yet proudly unique, they combine tightly packed, picturesque old towns with first-class museums, hip neighbourhoods, stylish bars and a burgeoning food scene. As all three countries celebrate 100 years of independence in 2018, here is our first-timer’s guide to the highlights of Tallinn, Rīga and Vilnius.
Where can I find the most striking architecture?
Tallinn’s picturesque Old Town, the densest of all the Baltic State capitals and a UNESCO World Heritage site, is crammed with churches, towers and Hanseatic houses. But it is the onion-domed Russian Orthodox Alexander Nevsky Cathedral that is the city’s most interesting landmark. Over-the-top ornate, its dark interior thick with incense, Nevsky is a functioning reminder of the city’s turbulent time in the Soviet Union.
The most dominant building in Vilnius is its muscular block of a cathedral, but this is a city defined by Baroque. On the outskirts of the Old Town, another World Heritage site, the Church of St Peter and St Paul is the most famous example of the local style of “Vilnian Baroque”. Its starkly white walls and ceiling are awash with some 2000 stucco symbols, from sunflowers and saints to cherubs and centaurs.
Rīga’s Old Town is equally church-laden, but you’ll need to head to Centrs for its most emblematic architecture. The streets here serve as a showcase for Jugendstil, or Art Nouveau, an elaborate floral style that reached its zenith in Rīga in the apartment at Elizabetes iela 10b. This richly decorated building is instantly recognisable thanks to the two huge sculpted faces that top its facade.
What about museums?
The Art Nouveau movement influenced the design of around a third of Rīga’s buildings, but only one still retains its interior of the times. The ground-floor apartment at Alberta iela 12 – the former home of Latvian architect Konstantīns Pēkšēns, the man who designed the building itself – now serves as the Art Nouveau Museum.
It is beautifully kitted out with period features such as original stained-glass windows, stucco ceiling decorations and an incredible spiral staircase, as well as renovated ornamental friezes and antique furniture.
Part of the appeal of Tallinn’s striking art museum, KUMU, is the equally eye-catching building it occupies, a starkly modern curving block of limestone set on a bluff in Kadriorg Park. Four floors of exhibits trace the history of Estonian art from the 18th century to 1991, with surrealism and pop art gaining a stronger hold as the country approached independence.
Far more sombre, but most vital of all, is the deeply moving Museum of Genocide Victims in Vilnius. Like similar occupation museums in Tallinn and Rīga, the comprehensive exhibitions here offer an essential insight into the country’s half century of suffering under Nazi and Soviet rule.
The poignant setting, in a building that served as headquarters for both the Gestapo and the KGB, enhances the effect of the chilling films, photos and personal testaments to a time that saw hundreds of thousands of Lithuanians arrested, killed or deported to labour camps in Siberia. The bare cells and execution chamber are left as they were, and there’s a single room dedicated to the Holocaust, the impact of which on Vilnius was to completely desolate one of the most important Jewish cultural centres in Eastern Europe.
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