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Scandi-Baltic Castles, Vikings, and Hipsters

Written by: Chloe Gunning

Bussing Across The Brilliant Baltics

My Scandi-Baltic Adventure kicked off in Lithuania’s capital Vilnius, a city I wouldn’t have been able to identify on a map before booking this trip. Over eight days I would be exploring Lithuania, Latvia, Sweden, Finland and Estonia with tour operator Busabout. The plan was to pack in all of the obvious tourist sights and a few hidden gems, plus find time to sample the local delicacies and nightlife!
So over the course of a week… what were my highlights?
Check out the videos of my Scandi-Baltic Adventure now, or scroll down to read all about my trip.

Vilnius, Lithuania

Day 1 was spent exploring the picturesque hill-top castle Gediminas Tower along with the city’s impressive cathedral and bell tower. I also enjoyed crossing the bridge into the bohemian independent republic of Užupis – complete with its own president, flag and hilarious constitution. My favourite rule: “A dog has the right to be a dog!”
Vilnius may not be an obvious holiday destination, but it’s perfect for a weekend city break. It’s packed with history, stunning architecture, lovely restaurants and bars, and is relatively cheap.

Trakai Castle, Lithuania

The next day was an early start as we met our expert guide Pasqual and ventured out of the city. En-route to Riga we were lucky enough to visit 14th Century Trakai Castle, which sits on an island on Lake Galvė. The fairy-tale castle was one of the most photogenic places I’d ever visited.

“Eerie” is the best word to describe northern Lithuania’s Hill of Crosses! While the first crosses are believed to have been left there around 1831, the number increased as Lithuania struggled with independence in the 1900s. While many were removed during Soviet times, double or triple the number started to appear daily. In 1993, it received the biggest praise of all, when Pope John Paul II paid a visit and blessed the site.

Riga, Latvia

Riga’s history is a tough one to stomach, but peel back the layers of Soviet history, and you’ll discover a charming, beautiful city.
Dome Square, Town Hall Square and Livu Square were full of stunning colourful buildings, and lively spots to stop for a drink and some live music. While Riga is the most densely populated city in Latvia, these squares and green spaces stop it from feeling congested. Bastion Hill Park by the Freedom Monument was another of my favourite spots – with its ‘lovers bridge’ and canal running through it.

Stockholm, Sweden

My time in Stockholm kicked off with one of the highlights of my entire trip. Buda The Ballbreaker kitted us out in fetching Viking helmets and led us on a Viking Walk of Gamla Stan (Stockholm’s old town). She told us about Sweden’s rich history, from its Viking origins, to scandals within the royal family, to Schnapps, Smorgasbords and Swedish Santa Claus. We even perfected our Viking growls…
My sweet tooth was satisfied after a stop at hidden gem Polkagriskokeri – an incredible traditional Swedish sweet shop where sugary treats were crafted right in front of me. The 19th Century store had magical window displays, with the highlight being a huge candy rollercoaster.

I also ventured to the shops on Södermalm – the south island known for its trendy, hipster vibe. Little did I know this was preparing me for my next adventure in Helsinki, Finland!

Helsinki, Finland

The best way to travel between Stockholm and Helsinki is by ferry. Not only do you get to experience all the fun of a large cruise ship (think casinos, dodgy entertainment, and bunk beds…!), you also get unbelievable views of the archipelago.
Helsinki didn’t wow me with beauty like some of the other cities, but there was an understated feeling of ‘cool’. One of my favourite spots was Vanha Kauppahalli (The Old Market), which has been selling delicious foods for over 120 years! Local delicacies on offer included reindeer meatballs, salmon soup and huge crayfish sandwiches.

In contrast, I was struck by the modern architecture of the Silent Chapel. It was designed to be completely silent inside despite being right in the heart of one of the main shopping districts.

In an attempt to veer of the beaten track I spent the afternoon in the Kallio neighbourhood – the ‘hipster’ district of Helsinki. I grabbed a cappuccino at Made In Kallio – a café and creative space with a huge blackboard wall, great coffee, young vibe and unusual jewellery on sale.
I also rifled through the rails at Frida Marina – a vintage store come café! Cincin continued the quirky vibe, with cabinets full of eye-catching jewellery.

Tallinn, Estonia

It turned out they’d saved the best until last on this tour! Tallinn is an incredibly well-preserved medieval city, complete with ancient city walls made from limestone, a picturesque town hall, and brightly coloured buildings lining cobble streets.

There is so much to say about this city – from medieval tales of executioners walking the streets… to stories of the KGB and Soviet spies. But what about present day? Estonians are very forward thinking. Public wifi spots are available all over the city, and by law all schools have to have internet installed. Estonians pay their taxes online, vote online and even order their prescriptions online. Even Skype was invented by Estonians!

Wandering Tallinn’s picturesque streets, I noticed this love of the future was also evident in some of the shops. Estonia is shouting about its love of creativity and design with quirky shops Tali and Eesti Disaini Maja leading the way.
I loved wandering down St. Catherine’s Passage (known as the most romantic spot in Tallinn). Legend has it, this was the place couples would wander to sneak a kiss, away from public attention. It’s also home to one of the city’s best Italian restaurants Contravento.
Another highlight was a visit to the III Draakon (3 Dragons) within the Town Hall. This medieval restaurant is lit by candles and offers a traditional menu of elk soup, chunky ribs, and pies filled with spinach, meat, apple and more! The waitresses wear traditional dress and never break out of character – asking for “5 moneys” rather than euros! It’s an experience not to be missed, and an inexpensive, filling meal.

My Scandi-Baltic Adventure provided me with the perfect introduction to a part of the world I barely knew anything about. Particularly refreshing were The Baltics. I couldn’t believe how unspoiled the cities felt, each with buckets of quirky charm, history, not to mention they were great value for money.
Follow Chloe’s travels and adventures at wanderlustchloe.com.

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