Friday, September 13, 2019

Longer Travels {Baltic + Scandinavian Adventure Part 1}

We took an almost two week epic adventure in August -- we hit six countries in twelve days and it was amazing.  We saw a lot, we ate a lot and we had a lot of fun!

So where did we go?!  We went to the Baltic countries and also some Scandinavian countries -- specifically Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, Finland, Sweden and Denmark.  We flew in and out of Copenhagen because it was cheapest and then we made a really big circle... Taking planes, trains, buses, boats, cars (even a taxi) to travel to each place.  Flying in/out of Copenhagen had its advantages for us because we love Copenhagen and have friends there, but it does have its drawbacks -- getting to the Batlics from Denmark required a plane.  And while it was fairly cheap and easy, you can easily do this trip even cheaper if you skip Denmark (but in my option, Denmark is amazing and should not be skipped)!

This trip required an insane amount of planning and booking things ahead of time.  There is no way to do this trip on the fly because it was a lot of moving and making the most of our time.  Most of the time people who visit the same countries/cities we did take a Baltic Cruise -- taking a cruise ship within the Baltic Sea and seeing all the major port cities.  We did the same thing but on our own and for much cheaper and allowing us more time in the port cities.

Our itinerary was -- fly into Copenhagen and on the same day we flew to Rīga, Latvia; spent a few days in Latvia and took a day trip to Lithuania; took a bus to Tallinn, Estonia; then a boat to Helsinki, Finland; an overnight boat to Stockholm, Sweden and finally a train to Denmark.  I think the easiest way to write these posts is to break them up by area -- so this first post is about our time in the Baltics.
enjoying Danish pastries during our layover
We started our trip in Rīga, Latvia -- purposefully chosen because we had friends in Latvia at the same time (and the mom happens to be Latvian so we had our own personal tour guide and it was awesome).  It also helped that our friends have a daughter the same age as Serafina so the two girls had a blast while the parents were able to have fun too!  We took a taxi from the airport as it was cheap and seemed easiest -- download the Bolt Taxi app (it'll work in Estonia too).  We stayed here (an AirBnB) which was fine, but also quite loud because it was on a main road in Old Town -- but I do highly recommend staying in Old Town as everything is within walking distance.
Rīga is a wonderful city to just wander on foot, especially through the Old Town.  Other than following our friends around -- we followed the Lonely Planet Rīga City Walk to hit all of the highlights, especially all of the gorgeous squares/plazas (called laukums in Latvian).  In the summer, many of the squares are filled with outdoor restaurants, some even pop-up type so tourists and locals alike can enjoy the gorgeous and long summer days.  Sadly our first day in Rīga was quite rainy so we wandered through Black Heads House -- which is actually an exact replica due to it being destroyed by the Germans and then the Russians.  The house was originally built in 1344 as a house for the Blackheads workers guild.  The house is famous for being known as having the first decorated Christmas tree!  We then went to the Museum of the Occupation of Latvia which was very well laid out and interesting (also helped that they had a coloring area for the kids)!  Sadly we kept missing opening times for Rīga Cathedral but it is still gorgeous from the outside.  You will for sure wander past the Freedom Monument, a large monument that towers above the city representing Latvia's road to freedom and independence.  And you must go to the Rīga Central Market -- a huge market selling all sorts of food (just be mindful if you walk through the Russified Maskavas neighborhood (Little Moscow)).  I also highly recommend wandering down Alberta Iela a street famous for its art nouveau buildings (specifically the style is called Jugendstil) -- each building is very unique and worth seeing.

We also took a short half day trip to Jūrmala -- a small beach town a quick and easy train ride away from Rīga (the train will take you right to the beginning of the gorgeous walking street, get off at Majori stop).  Very much Latvia's version of the French Riviera, the beach and town are awesome and worth a day trip.  There is a small  waterpark nearby, but might require a taxi depending on where you get off the train.  However, there was an amazing playground/park in Jūrmala --  Dzintari Forest Park.  The two little ladies had a blast (and so did the parents)!

As for eating in Rīga -- you must try the fried garlic bread.  No idea what it is called but it is served with a garlic dipping sauce and it is amazing.  Most restaurants have it as an appetizer as it is a very popular Latvian snack.  We also ate at LIDO (many many locations) which is a buffet type restaurant, but it is great place to try all sorts of Latvian foods.  Street Fries Kitchen had amazing burgers.  Latvia (and Rīga in particular) is known for Black Balsam which is an herbal bitter alcoholic drink and it is awful, but should be tried.  Just warning you -- have a good chaser right nearby.

We then took a day trip to Lithuania -- we rented a large van for us and our friends and off we went!  Our destination was Kryžių Kalnas (or Hill of Crosses) which is a fairly easy two hour drive from Rīga.  The hill itself is quite small, but walking up and seeing all the crosses -- it was amazing.  No one really knows how the hill started, but rumor is that a farmer placed a cross on the hill to help his sick daughter in the 14th century and then after that, people just kept adding crosses.  The area became a symbol of hope and resistance against German occupation during WWII and Russian occupation until 1991.  There are various trails to walk and wander through the area -- not the most stroller friendly place since there area lots of stairs but the actual area isn't large so easy for your kiddos to walk (or to be carried/worn).  The hill is located about a 10 minute drive from the town of Šiaulai -- which is not a large town but looked very modern.  It had a huge pedestrian only street with lots of restaurants and shops and a park at one end.  We ate at Arkos and it was really good -- we all loved our potato pancakes!  And while they didn't have a children's menu, there were plenty of items the girls would eat and they were very accommodating.

Next up was Tallinn, Estonia which was absolutely wonderful -- seriously one of the coolest and gorgeous cities we have ever been to.  Be warned, it is FULL of tourists (like really bad) but the key is to actually stay in Tallinn so you can enjoy the city after all the cruise ship tourists go back to their ships in the later afternoon and the city is much quieter.
We took the bus from Rīga to Tallinn as it was the easiest route (there is a train but it requires a change at the border and takes a good three hours longer than the bus).  There are two main bus companies -- we took Ecolines and it was great.  Nice bathroom on board, coffee available and each seat had a screen to watch movies and such, just buy in advance because the buses fill up.  The trip took about four and a half hours with no stops (so pack snacks)!  Also, when at the bus station in Rīga make sure you check your bus numbers because many buses continue on to other places (our bus was going on to Russia), so find the spot with your bus number, not your destination.

We stayed here (an AirBnB) and while the location was amazing, the apartment was a tad small for us -- it was a little outside the city so very quiet but a super easy short tram ride into the city whenever we wanted.  We were in Tallinn for two nights but one full day, so we bought a 24 hour metro/bus card that was very easy to purchase and use (buy at a kiosk store and just swipe the card when you get on the trams/buses).

The Old Town of Tallinn is a UNESCO World Heritage site and it is easy to see why, it is gorgeous and impressive.  Wander the streets, take your time.  We once again followed the Lonely Planet Tallinn Old Town Walk and it was perfect.  We went into Alexander Nevsky Orthodox Church which is a gorgeous and very impressive Russian Orthodox church -- no pictures and be modestly dressed (I was very happy to have my shoulders covered and be in a long skirt that day).  We were in Tallinn on a Sunday so we were not able to go inside St. Mary's Lutheran Church which greatly upset our church loving little lady.  We wandered through the Old Town and past the old city walls, past the old KGB Headquarters (you can go in, but we didn't) and into the gorgeous Town Hall Square with so many shops, markets and restaurants.  We took a trip out past the Old Town to Lennusadam Seaplane Harbour -- a very cool (and interactive) museum, was built originally to house seaplanes for Peter the Great (of Russia).  Now it houses various planes and ships and a submarine that you can go inside to explore!  We also took the Tourist City Train (because you know, traveling with kids) but it was actually really fun and we got to see a part of the town that we missed on our walk.

Eating in Tallinn -- out sort of by Seaplane Harbour is Telliskivi Creative City which was once abandoned factory buildings and is now a hip and fun shopping and entertainment center -- including some awesome places to eat (restaurants and food trucks).  Basically pick what you want to eat that night and go from there!  Also you MUST eat at Väike Rataskaevu 16 there are two locations right next to each other and we got super lucky with no reservations but man was it some amazing food.  And they did have a children's menu but it was the fanciest menu we had ever seen (but also so good and Serafina ate it all).  Please order the chocolate cake.  It is the best.  Seriously though, I would fly back to Tallinn just for this restaurant!

Obviously both Rīga and Tallinn have plenty of other things to do and see, especially museums -- but it wasn't what we wanted to do on this particular trip and also both cities are known for wandering to see the architecture.  But if the weather isn't great, there are plenty of activities to do inside!

So - since we were travelling with a kiddo, I have to at least mention if the places were kid friendly... Most places did not have kid menus (never really saw any highchairs either) BUT everyone was so nice and friendly and more than willing to accommodate us if needed.  Many restaurants had coloring and paper for kids which was amazing -- and even more amazing was that they had sharpeners with the colored pencils!  And be warned that both Rīga and Tallinn had some of the largest and insane cobblestones we had ever seen -- it was a big job for our City Mini stroller.  A small flimsy umbrella stroller would not survive.  But if your kids are walking, make them wear sturdy shoes, poor Serafina had sore feet after each day from walking (so we were happy to have the stroller too).
And everywhere we went someone spoke English (we were in fairly large cities) and most signs/menus had English translations (also everything was in Russian too).  We learned how to say hello and thank you in the native language because it is polite but otherwise we spoke English. 

Next up... our time in the Scandinavian countries.

Just a history note about the Baltics -- most were ruled/controlled (occupied) by various other countries until very recently, all three countries were heavily damaged both in lives lost and building/structural during WWII and then again when they were taken over by the former USSR until the early 1990s.  History is very rich in all three countries but they are all newly independent countries.  Surprisingly, from our standpoint as tourists, it could not be seen that all three became independent within the last 30 years.  And it was very impressive to see the amount of rebuilding (not just with actual buildings) these countries have done and are currently doing.  And one of the cooler (in my opinion) events in history was in 1989 more than two million people formed a human chain (the Baltic Way) connecting all three Baltic capitals in a peaceful protest again Soviet rule/control.

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