Over the past month I have been lucky enough to travel among the Baltic States and to see parts of Latvia and Lithuania, including their respective capitals, Riga and Vilnius. Previously I spent a weekend in Helsinki, Finland. In general, I think we in the US tend to think of the Nordic states (Norway, Sweden, and Finland) and Western Europe as more beautiful, more advanced, and better places to visit than the Baltic countries (Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania). When I was first considering coming to Estonia, my advisor essentially said, “I mean it’s not very pretty, it’s all very post-Communist cinder block buildings, pretty bleak, but it’s cheap and you can visit other places.” I think this assessment/assumption is fairly common in Western countries, that Eastern Europe isn’t the place you visit. If you’re going to go to Europe you go to France or Italy or Spain. Maybe Germany or Sweden if you’re feeling adventurous. But no one thinks to come to the smaller, farther countries.
Consider this, then, my official pitch for more Americans to consider visiting Eastern Europe. All the Baltic countries are in the EU, which means you should be able to visit any of them without a special visa. They all have remarkably well preserved Old Town portions of the city—including beautiful museums, churches, parks, and attractions that you can visit for free or less than $5. That is certainly one thing (if the only thing) my advisor was right about—travel is remarkably cheap. I’ve been saving up for this trip for years and fretting about every cent I spend. But most hostels can be gotten for less than 10 euros per night. Food, even big portions in the most touristy parts of the cities, rarely costs more than five. And anything you could look for in a Western European country can be found here as well. Besides the traditional attractions I’ve listed above, there are beautiful outdoor craft markets in the summer and Christmas markets in winter, Neoclassical architecture, artist districts (the one in Vilnius, Užupis, particularly tickled me), castles and palaces to rival Versailles, hiking and undisturbed natural sights, and each has a unique, complex, and interesting history. Western culture is inundated with images of London, Paris, and the Rome. But visiting the Baltics has been an entirely new and unique experience for me. I cannot recommend highly enough that if you’re considering a trip outside the US, you give some thought to a more Eastern option.