When it comes to preferred road trip itineraries in Europe, we are pretty sure that the Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania do not feature high on the list. Most travellers set out to explore the beaches of Spain, historic cities of Croatia, gorgeous alpine forests of Germany, and drive through beautiful landscapes in Iceland first before planning a road-trip to this part of Europe. However, having recently wrapped up a road trip through the Baltic states, we can safely say driving through Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania is one heck of an amazing experience.
Come with us for a beautiful ride as we take you through some of our favourite areas of the Baltics on a 11 day road trip – expect decadent spas, sandy beaches, fairytale forests, weird monuments, and cities laden with history at every corner. Everything you need to know about planning the perfect Baltic Road Trip in Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania in one place? Yep 🙂 Read on….
Driving through the Baltics
As per usual, we did not want our roadtrip to be too rushed or hectic. Instead, we wanted to relax on the beach, indulge in a few massages, walk through lush forests, and experience the culture of these cities on a slow pace. Our Baltic road trip itinerary looked a bit like this on the map:
The itinerary for this roadtrip is as follows:
- Day 1: Arrive in Riga and drive to Jurmala
- Day 2: Day-trip to Salaspils Concentration Camp and Kemeri National Park
- Day 3: Day-trip to Hill of Crosses, Lithuania (optional continue onto Vilnius, Lithuania)
- Day 4: Relax in the spa town of Jurmala
- Day 5: Drive to Tallinn, Estonia
- Day 6: Day-trip to Jägala waterfall and food tour in Tallinn
- Day 7: Explore Tallinn
- Day 8: Day-trip to Lahemaa National Park, Vihula Manor, and Altja Fishing Village
- Day 9: Drive to Riga via Sigulda
- Day 10: Explore Riga’s Old Town
- Day 11: Explore Riga’s suburbs on a bike tour
- Day 12: Fly back from Riga, Latvia
Day 1: Arrive into Riga, drive to Jurmala, and prepare for a lush road trip in the Baltics
Try getting into Riga early in the day so you can pick up your rental car from the airport and begin your Baltic road trip. The first leg of this road trip brings you to the beach-side town of Jūrmala that boasts of a 32km long stretch of white sandy beach. If you are travelling to this part of Latvia during summer months, remember the beach will be crowded.
We went in September when the summer crowds had dispersed so we enjoyed some quiet time at the beach. Jurmala’s spas are the main draw for most tourists. The spa town boasts of mild climate, curative mud, and mineral-rich waters, making it one of the best and most affordable spa getaways in Europe. This was our base for the next 4 nights.
Accommodation in Jurmala: We spent 4 nights in Baltic Beach Hotel and Spa. We stumbled on it while looking for the best spa in Europe and loved our experience there. They have a three-storeyed spa with every treatment known to mankind. Highly recommended!
Day 2: Salaspils and Kemeri National Park
The dark history of this part of the world is no secret. Latvia was occupied by Nazi Germany during World War II – anyone opposed to Nazi ideals was sent to concentration camps, tortured, and/or executed. The best way to acquaint yourself with the dark history of this region is to visit a concentration camp not far from Riga. An hour’s drive from Jūrmala lies the Salaspils concentration camp. It’s said that more than 10,000 people were executed by the Nazis here. Not much remains of the camp except the barracks and foundation stones but a few commemorative statues secrete the history of horrors that unfolded here.
Salaspils concentration camp is located in the middle of a pine forest. It is off-the-beaten-path so there was no one around when we went – not a single person! To add to it, it was a thunderous grim day. At the camp, there is a machine that generates the sound of beating hearts to commemorate the souls of those who were executed here by Nazis. This eerie beating of hearts is the only thing that interrupts the pin-drop silence at the site of this concentration camp.
After that sombre trip to the concentration camp, drive back towards Jūrmala and grab a bit at one of the many restaurants that line the high street. In the evening, drive to Kemeri national park, not far from Jūrmala. Spend a few hours here picking wild berries and mushrooms in the woodlands, wandering amongst wild flowers, or picnicking like we did. Walk by lakes dotted over swamps and admire gorgeous panoramas and forests that surround you.
Top Tip for Kemeri National Park: If you happen to be in the area between June and September, make sure you carry mosquito repellent with you. The area has a lot of mosquitoes and insects during summer months.
Day 3: A day trip to Lithuania
On this day, set out for a bit of a cross-country day trip to the famous Hill of Crosses. Start early from Jūrmala and drive towards Lithuania via Dobele where you can spend an hour exploring the many fruit farms and relishing the gorgeous Latvian countryside. Pack a picnic if you can because eating options at the Hill of Crosses are limited and the Latvian countryside offers plenty of options to park your car and sit down for a leisurely picnic.
When driving from Latvia to Lithuania, take A12 towards Siauliai, take a left after the roadsign “Kryziu Kalnas 2 km” and drive for a kilometer before you see the hillock on your right. You’ll have to park your car in a dedicated carpark (parking fee-£0.75 ) and walk towards the hill of crosses. This hillock has hundreds of thousands of crucifixes and rosaries and dates back to the 14th century.
But it took on an added significance during the years of Soviet occupation (1944-1990). It’s said that a lot of existing crosses were bulldozed by Soviet soldiers but Lithuanian citizens would risk their lives and plant more crosses overnight. The crosses might be a religious symbol but they are inextricably tied with Lithuanian national identity. We didn’t know what to expect when we set out to visit The Hill of Crosses but we were totally overwhelmed on getting there – we couldn’t believe the NUMBER of crosses that were there! A tangle of thousands of crosses, The Hill of Crosses is a must-see whether you’re a believer or not
Try and leave the Hill of Crosses by 3 p.m. so that you can stop at Rundāle Palace on your way back to Jūrmala. The palace makes for a perfect backdrop whilst you enjoy a coffee. Explore the manicured gardens and the impressive baroque interiors of the palace before departing for your hotel in Jūrmala.
Top Tip: If you want to spend more time in Lithuania, drive on to Vilnius, the capital of Luthuania, from the Hill of Crosses. Spend a night or two in Vilnius.
Day 4: Relax and unwind
On a sunny day, the white sandy beaches of Jūrmala can give the coastline of Spain a run for its money. We suggest not planning much for your 4th day in Jurmala – just relax on the beach, go for a languorous walk, and enjoy a spa session or two.
If you have had enough of the beach and spa, head out for a gander on the narrow residential streets of Jūrmala that are dotted with romantic wooden houses in the Art Nouveau style. There are plenty of restaurants and cafés lining the high street – grab yourself a coffee or a beer and watch the world go by. Tomorrow you will leave Jurmala for another country, so make sure you make the best of your time there 🙂
Day 5: Drive to Tallinn, Estonia
The drive from Jūrmala to Tallinn can’t really be classed as one of the best in the world but it ain’t too bad either. For more than half the distance, the road meanders along Gulf of Riga with some panoramic stops right by the beach. You could stop at one of these picnic spots and have lunch or stretch your legs in one of the bigger towns like Salacgrīva or Ainaži.
As for us, well, given how much Savi loves picnics, we disobeyed the GPS at one point and ventured into a forest on a dirt road. We stopped our car in a clearing surrounded by tall pine trees and spread out our picnic. If you are interested in finding the same spot, you need to leave the expressway E67 right after crossing into Estonia and turn left towards the sea. Get on road 331 and you’ll see lush forests around you – just stop where the grass looks inviting enough 🙂
If you leave Riga by 10 a.m. and spend a couple of hours for lunch, you should be in Tallinn by 6 p.m. at the latest. Try arranging a hotel near the historical old town so that you don’t have to deal with traffic on the days you wish to explore Tallinn. After checking-in at your hotel and parking your car, go for a saunter to the old town. At dusk it’s alive with locals and tourists walking on the cobble-stoned alleys whilst violinists dole out classic tunes. Have a meal overlooking the majestic Town Hall in one of the many restaurants that line the town square.
Accommodation in Tallinn: We stayed at the Solo Sokos Hotel Estoria, just 5 minutes from the Viru Gate, which is the historical entrance to the old town. The hotel is fairly new and the rooms were well equipped. There was an espresso machine in the room and a gorgeous view of the old town so I was super thrilled :-).
Top Tip for Tallinn: Parking near the old town of Tallinn is exorbitant but after consulting the hotel staff we found out about a local secret – a parking lot by the name of “Ahtri” right next to Hotel Europa which allows 24 hour parking for a measly sum of €3. It was a 10 minute stroll from our hotel so we parked our car there everyday.
Day 6: In and around Tallinn
We recommend you venture out of Tallinn early in the morning and drive through misty forests to Jägala waterfall. Now if you have been to Iceland or Argentina, you wouldn’t be amazed by the size of Jägala waterfall – however it is the highest waterfall in Estonia and does greet visitors with ferocious energy. Make sure you carry your swimwear and go behind the waterfall to catch a different perspective or take a refreshing dip in the pool. Spend an hour or so in the garden alongside the waterfall. It’s the perfect place for a picnic or a barbecue.
Once you have had your fair share of nature, head back to Tallinn. We strongly recommend booking a food tour for the afternoon as it’s the perfect way to get to know Tallinn better from a local’s perspective. We’ve raved about food tours in UK, Peru, and Italy before – acquainting oneself with local food is often the best way of getting to know a new place. In Estonia, we booked the “Tallinn of the locals” tour with Food Sightseeing Estonia and really enjoyed our afternoon. From finding out tons about Tallinn’s history and traditions to sampling local delicacies, spirits, wines, and beers in places frequented by locals, the tour gave us a great insight into Tallinn and Estonia in general. Our guide, Kertu, walked us from the history-laden towers of the Old Town to the bohemian district (Kalamaja) of Tallinn and entertained us with stories new and old.
Day 7: Explore Tallinn on your own
Let the car stay in the carpark while you enjoy all that Tallinn’s Old Town has to offer. Even though you are on a road trip, it does help to have a break from driving. Relish walking on quaint cobble-stoned alleys. Tallinn is one of those cities that offers fairy-tale medieval buildings and enchanting sights at every corner. A leisurely stroll beginning from the town square (Raekoja Plats) and heading all the way up to Toompea hill will showcase all that Tallinn has to offer. The view of the city from Toompea hill is spectacular on a clear day. If you, like us, wish to re-visit artsy Kalamaja district after the tour on the previous day, just walk over Toompea hill and across the railway tracks. There are plenty of great cafés and bars in this bohemian district of Tallinn. We really loved Kalamaja.
One of the coolest places we visited in Tallinn was Raeapteek – the town pharmacy that dates back to 1422 and is still in use. There’s also a small museum in the pharmacy where you can see weird remedies that were doled out to patients a few centuries ago including errrm dog faeces and earthworms in oil 😉
Day 8: Explore Lahemaa National Park
Reserve one whole day to experience the stunning countryside and forests of Estonia. After a hearty breakfast head out east towards Narva on E20 and roughly 52 kms from Tallinn turn left at a sign-post reading “Loksa 15”. After a kilometre, you’ll notice “Viru Raba” on the right. Park your car here and walk into the forest on the dedicated trail that will take you over marshlands and wow you with beautiful flora and fauna as you walk into the forest. The trail is roughly 3.5 kms long and makes for a pleasant walk. Midway there is a viewing tower from where you can see miles upon miles of marshy woodland and lush green forests.
Once you have had your fair share of walking, drive further east to Vihula where you’ll be greeted by a beautiful windmill. Have a meal or coffee at Vihula Manor, an ensemble of charming historical buildings situated in a picture-perfect setting. If you still have time after this, drive to the fishing village of Altja (ironically, no professional fishermen live in this village anymore 🙂 ). Walk along the shore or admire the wooden houses that once used to be the fishermen’s homes but have now been converted to summer homes for Estonians living in Tallinn.
Make sure you are back in Tallinn for dinner – walking around in the town square and sipping on a beer after a long day was something we enjoyed a lot 🙂
Day 9: Drive to Riga via Sigulda
If you drove along the coast on your way from Riga to Tallinn, it’s advisable to take the inland route back to Riga so that you can stop and marvel at some of the gorgeous medieval towns in Latvia. Cesis and Sigulda were frontrunners and we decided to spend the afternoon in Sigulda, the prime attraction being the cable car across river Gauja that offers stunning views of the valley and the medieval castles perched atop hillocks. As luck would have it, the cable car was not running 🙁
But we didn’t let this deter us and went for a walk into the forest looking for Painter’s Hill. Once we managed to find this hidden gem, we spent a while just sitting there and enjoying the views across the river. It comes highly recommended from us 🙂
After checking out Sigulda castle, drive to Riga and check-in to your hotel. Spend the evening in Riga’s old town and absorb the electric atmosphere – there usually is a concert or live performance happening in Bastejkalns park, not far from the old town. Try sampling traditional Latvian delicacies for dinner. We tried Latvian Aspic meat, where meats and vegetables are set into a gelatin made from meat stock and traditional wind cake, which resembles a huge cookie with cream on the inside. Nom!
Accommodation in Riga: We opted for Gallery Park Hotel, a luxury boutique hotel in the heart of Riga. We had hoped to spend the last few days in luxury to celebrate Vid’s birthday and commemorate the end of a memorable road trip in the Baltics. The hotel delivered on all fronts. At one point we got the feeling that we were on the sets of The Great Gatsby, complete with high ceilings, ornate chandeliers, and rich drapery. If you’re looking for something more affordable, we’d suggest renting an apartment on AirBnB – there are some lovely ones in Riga
Top Tip for Riga: Most of the attractions in Riga are at a walking distance so you might not need your car until you have to make your way to the airport 🙂 If you prefer, you could drop-off the car on this day itself.
Day 10: Explore Riga, the European Capital of Culture
For starters, we’d recommend waking up quite early, preferably at dawn. The Old Town is empty and the rising sun casts an amazing hue on the historical buildings in this part of Riga. It’s definitely a sight to behold. Walk over to the Daugava river and sit by its banks observing locals make their way to work. Head back to the old town and grab some breakfast. Better still, pick a baguette and some fresh salad (supermarkets in Latvia have some of the best variety of salads we have seen in Europe) and head over to Bastejkalns park. Sit on one of the benches by the stream that flows through the park and enjoy your breakfast.
Head over to St. Peter’s church and climb the tower to get a bird’s eye view of Riga. On a clear day, you can see well beyond the river and marvel at the unique architecture behind each of Riga’s bridges over river Daugava. While there is no dearth of monuments and buildings to see in Riga’s old town, we suggest you walk or take a tram towards Miera Iela – adjudged the most hipster neighbourhood in the world. To be honest, we are not sure what the people who voted were drinking (or smoking!), but it’s far from the most hipster neighbourhoods in the world. That said, we loved the few hours we spent here admiring the Art Nouveau style buildings and relishing the delicious coffee at Rocket Bean Roastery.
In the evening walk to Spīkeri, once an area full of abandoned houses but now a centre for alternative art. It’s a popular place for concerts and has been added to the list of UNESCO world heritage list. At dusk, walk across the river on the Stone Bridge and spend some time admiring Riga’s historic skyline.
Top Tip for Riga: If you love Sushi, you are in for a treat in Riga. We found more Japanese restaurants than any other cuisine and frequented “Tokyo”, a chain of Japenese restaurants serving good sushi and Japanese fare. If you relish good coffee, you must visit Rocket Bean Roastery at Miera Iela
Day 11: Go off-the-beaten-path in Riga
If you want to go well and truly off-the-beaten path, go for a walk along the harbour to the bohemian district of Andrejsala. The gritty area is a bit of a secret amongst locals and makes for a great afternoon out.
We also loved the Bike Tour offered by Eat Riga. The tour took us away from the Old Town to parts of Riga steeped in history. Some of these areas, forgotten by time, are a stark reminder of Latvia’s history and the Soviet occupation of the country. We explored Moscow Street, which gets its name from a road that used to lead to Moscow when Latvia was a part of USSR. We really enjoyed learning more about Riga’s Jewish Ghetto, Old Believers’ Church, and the 1905 Soviet War monument. It’s a great way to spend an afternoon in Riga – highly recommended.
The Logistics of a road trip in the Baltics
Flying to Riga: Riga(Latvia), Tallinn(Estonia), and Vilnius(Lithuania) are really well connected to major cities in Europe thanks to the ever-growing list of European airlines. Since the base city for our road trip was Riga, so we decided to fly Air Baltic from London. Return tickets from London to Riga cost approximately £100 per person.
Car Rental: In terms of car rental, we chose SixT just like we did for our Iceland road trip. On this occasion, we rented a compact vehicle which was spacious and brand-spanking new. The daily rental cost for a compact vehicle was £22 per day. You don’t need a 4X4 for the Baltic countries as roads are in excellent condition everywhere. Fuel costs approximately £0.75/litre in the region (As of September 2015).
Food: There is no shortage of good food in the Baltics and its cheaper than most other countries in Europe. Try to opt for food tours in the cities to acquaint yourself with local cuisine and binge on seafood in Jurmala. Baltic supermarkets are overflowing with fresh breads and local produce, so just pull up at any supermarket in order to shop for your picnic. We loved the salad bar at Rimi Supermarket for a healthy meal on the go.
That’s it – our 12 day itinerary for a road trip through the Baltic countries of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania. If you haven’t been to this part of Europe yet, we suggest you start planning a trip now. Although we went in Autumn and enjoyed the changing scenery and seasons metamorphosing in front of our eyes, these places are equally stunning in summer and winter!
Need more help planning the perfect Baltic roadtrip?
Read our packing list for a Baltic Roadtrip through Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia
Read our Guide to Riga, Latvia for tips and information about offbeat gems in the city
Crazy about roadtrips? Read more about our favourite roadtrips around the world