What it means to visit Finland and the Baltic countries, what to do

in 2022 my husband and I spent two weeks in Helsinki, Finland, followed by a trip through the Baltic countries of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. It was one of the best trips we have ever been on.

Me and my husband on our trip.

Wendy Rose Gould

I’ve been lucky enough to see most of Europe, but most of my time on the continent has been spent exploring well-known places like France, Germany, England, Ireland, Belgium, Switzerland and the Netherlands.

And while I’d love to go back to all of the above, in recent years I’ve longed to visit the less traveled parts of the world. This is how I chose my recent escape to Finland and the Baltic countries of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania.

In order to feel a sharp contrast in tourism from other parts of Europe, Latvia saw approx 1.3 million visitors throughout 2021 and Finland saw 8.97 millionFrance saw 22.6 million The same year.

We chose it because we wanted a mix of urban exploration, quiet countryside, history and culture. I’m so glad we went.

That’s why I think everyone should go.

Unlike other European countries I have visited, we were able to see many cultures, different cities and different landscapes in a short period of time.

A house in the woods with a hot tub and two people inside.

in the Baltic village.

Wendy Rose Gould

While I’ve found most of Europe to be drivable, Finland and the Baltics are particularly compact, allowing us to easily explore a variety of landscapes and cities in about two weeks.

After a few days in Helsinki, we left for the three Baltic states, whose land mass had just ended 65,000 square miles. Together, it smaller than the entire US state of Missouri.

I also appreciated that this meant we could fly from Chicago to Helsinki and then complete the rest of the trip by driving, so we didn’t need any additional flights. Helsinki also had the most flights to and from the states, which I found made it easier to get in and out of compared to the airports in the smaller Baltic cities of Vilnius, Tallinn, and Riga.

Starting or ending your trip in Helsinki is a common way to see the Baltic countries, and travel guides and websites I consulted often includes the city together with the Baltic states or vice versa.

From Helsinki, it’s only a two to three hour long ferry ride to Tallinn, Estonia, and in my opinion, it’s cheap at about $35 per person. I also found the ferry to be well equipped with restaurants, bars and shops.

I thought the whole area was so easy to explore that we probably could have done it all in a week and a half, but I’m glad we built in a few extra, trivial days.

Although close to each other, I felt that each capital city we visited had its own distinct feel.

Images of European-style buildings and a futuristic-looking building next to it.

A street in Tallinn, Estonia and a building in Helsinki, Finland.

Wendy Rose Gould

I thought that for the most part all the capital cities I visited on this trip were very different from each other and from many other places in Europe that I have visited.

Held in Helsinki, Finland the happiest country in the world, I saw futuristic, sustainable architecture mixed with tall statues and structures. Like, I thought it was brand new Oodi Library it looked like something straight out of a sci-fi movie, with architecture seemingly defying gravity. I also felt that the city itself combined a fast, modern feel while leaning heavily on its Nordic roots.

Then I experienced a UNESCO World Heritage Site in Tallinn, Estonia, which is one of the best preserved medieval cities in Europe. I enjoyed exploring the authentic medieval taverns as Three dragonsand Telliskiv is known as a creative city with handmade art, clothing, decor and food.

Later, when I arrived in the port city of Riga (Latvia), I instantly felt the lively, cosmopolitan atmosphere next to the renovated historical buildings and modern shops. I learned that it has everything from one of the most impressive in the world Art nouveau style building collections to the old town, where I ate with the locals.

Finally, in Vilnius, Lithuania, I admired the baroque architecture, explored the old town, wandered the cobbled streets and especially enjoyed Uzhupisboho art district in Vilnius, which considers itself an independent republic with its own currency.

I appreciated that we had so many opportunities to relax and recharge, rather than feeling like we had to do as much as possible in a short amount of time.

Side by side images: a house on a pond and a hand holding a mushroom in the forest.

We enjoyed the remote stays and mushroom foraging as part of our travels.

Wendy Rose Gould

Often when I visited major European cities, I felt pressured to see and do as much as possible, with little rest between activities.

However, I felt much more relaxed and free in the Baltic countries.

Although I still believe that exploring the big cities of the region is a must, one of the biggest attractions of the Baltic countries for me was the vast areas of parks, forests and countryside. This was a big part of the region that I wanted to experience, and it made me feel more relaxed than in other major European cities like Paris, where I spent more time visiting a museum than being outside.

I have planned several remote stays in the Baltic wilderness, including a Lithuanian village. Our days were spent warming up in the sauna, sitting in front of fireplaces, soaking in the wood-fired hot tub, cooking our own meals, reading and journaling for hours.

Even in the larger city of Helsinki, we were able to spend a whole morning in the nearby Sipoonkorpi National Park, where we went guided mushroom hunt an adventure followed by a bonfire.

I learned that saunas are a huge part of the lifestyle in these countries and I fell in love with them.

A sauna and two people in a sauna are depicted next to each other.

Wendy Rose Gould

Throughout our trip, I was reminded that saunas are a mainstay of everyday life for the people of Finland and the Baltic countries.

Finland is over 3 million saunas — that’s about one sauna every two people in the country – and 99% of Finnish people go to the sauna at least once a week.

And it wasn’t just ordinary saunas. For example, in central Helsinki I learned that there is a giant Ferris wheel in the harbor with an aptly named sauna built into one of the carousels. SkySaunaand there is even a burger king in the city with a sauna inside.

Although I didn’t get to try any of them, I did spend some time in Helsinki sweating it out with the traditional version. Löyly. There, the sauna site is at the edge of the sea, so I was able to enjoy the traditional hot-cold experience of walking back and forth between the cold water and the steam in the saunas.

As our journey continued, I noticed that the Baltic countries were also covered in activity. Two of our Airbnbs in rural Lithuania had built-in saunas, and one had a hot tub that burned badly.

In every country we visited I thought we ate the best food I have ever tasted and everything was cheaper than I thought.

Side-by-side images of plates of food are visible overhead.

Dishes that we liked on our trip.

Wendy Rose Gould

Before our trip, a friend who had visited the area before told me that these were the countries where she had the best food she had ever eaten.

She was absolutely right.

From the produce to the fish and meat, everything was very fresh, and in all the countries we visited we had high-end gourmet meals that would cost several hundred dollars in the US but barely broke $50, including wine, for the two of us in the Baltics.

One of the best things I ate was gourmet food A blessing Lithuanian village with mint-coriander shaved ice cream and white chocolate yogurt ice cream; Pegasus Tallinn, which served a seasonal menu including foraged mushrooms; Riga Folkklubs Ala Pagrabs with atmosphere to eat by candlelight; and History of the restaurant in Helsinki The old market hall where I ate traditional salmon soup.

I thought each country had an interesting history that I learned about through the engaging exhibits.

Side-by-side images of a man walking through several crosses and a tunnel leading underground.

Wendy Rose Gould

We had several insightful experiences in each Baltic nation that gave us a deeper understanding of each country and its people.

One of our most impressive experiences was visiting The Hill of Crosses, a place of pilgrimage in northern Lithuania where people come specifically to place crosses on those they love as a sign of strength and endurance through a winding history. It is believed that the first crosses were placed after The uprising of 1831, and since then she has collected thousands upon thousands of crosses. I could feel the energy and respect as we walked through the maze of crosses.

Another very interesting experience was a trip to Cold War Museum, housed in an old rocket balloon in a Lithuanian village. Once a hub of activity during the Cold War, the site has been preserved and turned into a museum. The museum’s website says it’s the only exhibition of its kind in Europe, featuring exhibits on the evolution of missile technology, weapons samples, a recreated command room and a shaft where visitors can see the engineering structure that housed the combat missiles. stored underground for almost two decades.

All of them are located in underground chambers, part of it is set up as a real museum with images and videos, and the rest of the territory can be visited for free. We walked through long corridors that I learned once served as secret passages from mission control rooms to the missiles themselves, and tiny, now bare, bunkers that once housed agents.

These were just two cases, but during our travels, as we talked to locals and tour guides, we were able to gain a deeper understanding of how each country is complex, resilient and beautiful in its own right.

I am so grateful that I got to experience and learn about this part of the world first hand.

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