The Baltic is Europe’s secret sea. Although little known compared with the Mediterranean, it is a similarly vital and ancient crossroads of European culture, commerce and history. Today, the region’s major focal point is the former Russian capital, St. Petersburg, founded by Czar Peter the Great in 1703. However, since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, which resulted in Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania regaining their independence, the Baltic republics to the south have become fascinating destinations in their own right. And surprisingly for countries that were so recently behind the Iron Curtain, they also delight their visitors with warm hospitality, excellent hotels and delicious food.
Referring to Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania as “the Baltics” tends to mask their very different identities. Estonia actually has more in common with its Nordic neighbors than it does with the two other Baltic countries. Like Finland, the country has a booming economy based on high-tech industries. Latvia is perhaps the most cosmopolitan of the three, while Lithuania is the most rural and conservative.
Several cruise lines offer Baltic itineraries that put into St. Petersburg, Tallinn and Riga, with side trips to Vilnius, the inland capital of Lithuania. However, on a land journey, you inevitably see a great deal more and gain deeper insight than would be possible on a brief port call. To visit the region in comfort, we recommend a trip of at least 12 days. Most itineraries begin in St. Petersburg, as the Russian city has many more connecting flights to the major European gateways than the smaller Baltic capitals. As road conditions and driving habits vary widely, a chauffeur is advisable. The best season for a Baltic trip is from May to August, since winters are very cold and fall and spring are often rainy.