Despite their geographical proximity, the cultures of the countries of the Baltic States are worlds apart. Lithuania, the last country in Europe to adopt Christianity, is packed with pagan history. Latvia has incredible landscapes and many cultural layers. Estonia, with influences from nearby Finland, is known for its economic success. This road trip route starts in Vilnius and ends in the historic city of Tallinn, covering over 1000km. Each stage of driving takes around two to three hours. We recommend allowing two weeks to complete the route (although it's possible in 10 days). 

An empty beach stretches into the distance. Sand dunes covered in grass are on the right; the Baltic Sea is on the left
The long white sands of the Curonian Spit © Tatiana Rodionova / Getty Images

Lithuania: Vilnius, Kaunas, Klaipėda, Curonian Spit, Palanga

Start in Vilnius, the capital and most populated city in Lithuania. Here, you will want to visit the Old Town, a pastiche of baroque and Gothic architecture. Tour the atmospheric museum of art and history at the Palace of the Grand Dukes of Lithuania and Gediminas Castle, a series of settlements dating back to Neolithic times.

Spend a few quiet hours in the quarter of Užupis. Nowhere is the city’s thriving spirit more evident that in this bohemian neighbourhood. It was here that a group of creative individuals jokingly decided to proclaim their independence, going as far as to draw up a mock constitution for their republic. The Lithuanian government has since gone along with the joke, allowing Užupis to remain independent, although the status is in name alone.

From Vilnius, make a brief stop 100km away in Kaunas, Lithuania’s second largest city, and European Capital of Culture for 2022. Kaunas Castle offers an insight into the country’s past, and the Museum of Devils, which is packed with masks and stories, outlines local traditions and folklore.  

Drive onwards to Klaipėda (200km), which has a quiet and unassuming beauty that will immediately make an impression on you. An important point on several trading routes, this is one of the many Baltic cities that bears the mark of European merchants, especially those of German and Dutch descent. From here, take a ferry to the Curonian Spit, which separates the Curonian Lagoon from the Baltic Sea. This bewitching national park and Unesco Heritage Site is made up of sand dunes, pine forests and fishing villages. It can be visited as a day trip, but if you're keen to explore in depth, allow three days here.

The coastal city of Palanga is roughly a 30km drive from Klaipėda. It’s a popular destination for a day at the beach on the Baltic Sea, so expect the pier and cosy streets to be flooded with people.

A cobbled street opening out onto a larger square with buildings in red and blue, and a church spire rising above
A cobbled street in Rīga's Old Town © Eduardo Arraes / Getty Images

Latvia: Ventspils and Rīga

From Palanga, cross the border into Latvia, heading towards Ventspils, nearly 200km away. It’s a classy coastal city drenched in Latvia’s past. Visit Ventspils castle, the oldest castle of the Livonian order, which has a local history and art museum.  

It’s approximately 190km from Ventspils to Latvia’s capital city, Rīga, which is cool, endlessly busy and a hotbed of activity at any hour. Bars, coffee houses, theatres and a thriving live music scene offer plenty of entertainment. Admire the art nouveau architecture at Alberta iela and be sure to grab some food for the road at Rīga Central Market. Rīga Cathedral is the largest medieval church in the Baltics, and historic Rīga Castle was first established back in 1330.

Exploring historic Rīga on a budget 

A view dominated by four huge domes of a cathedral, each topped with gold crosses. Large red-roofed buildings are in the foreground
Alexander Nevsky Cathedral dominates the skyline in the Tallinn © kavalenkava / Shutterstock

Estonia: Pärnu and Tallinn

From Rīga, head north to approx 180km to Pärnu, the Estonians’ favoured summer destination. It’s graceful and classy, and very popular with Estonian, Russian and Finnish tourists. Relax in the cafes, stroll the cobblestone streets and enjoy the dune-covered beaches.

Onwards to Tallinn, which is only 120km away. The roads pass through seemingly never-ending woodland. If you have time, take the longer route via the coastal road, allowing you to make stops at various seaside spots on the way. 

Tallinn is a stylish and lively city, packed with impressive sights such the Gothic town hall, which dominates the Town Hall Sq. Stop by the graceful Alexander Nevsky Cathedral, an onion-domed Russian Orthodox cathedral, to admire the frescoes. For a taste of traditional rural life, drive out to Estonia Open Air Museum, where you can visit historic buildings and experience activities such as blacksmithing and weaving.

While fiercely independent, there is a strong influence of Finnish culture in Estonia. Helsinki is only a ferry boat ride away from Tallinn’s shore, a trip you can make in a day if you book tickets in advance.

Tallinn by the seasons: a year-round guide to Estonia’s capital

Make it happen: driving info

Roads in the Baltic States are, for the most part, very well maintained. Traffic jams are infrequent, especially outside of the main cities. Be sure to drive on the right. There are plenty of parking spaces in the cities at both private car parks and meters. Expect to pay more for parking at meters that are closer to the city centre.

Four scenic drives in the Balkans

Contributor: Eduard Banulescu

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