2016 Baltic travels

A conference and family were the basis for planning a trip to several countries surrounding the Baltic Sea during July and August. Even though I traveled for a full month, it wasn’t nearly enough time to fully explore Sweden, Finland (Åland and Helsinki), Estonia, Latvia (Riga), and Lithuania. Because each place is different and wonderful, I would recommend either spending more time (6 weeks would have allowed a good introduction to these countries) or narrowing your focus.

The following is an overview of where I traveled, including lodging and dining details. All specific lodging and dining options identified and linked here are recommended – vague information means it was neither good enough to warrant a recommendation nor bad enough to deserve a public shaming.

Baltic Itinerary

Days 1-2: In transit

I traveled from Minneapolis to Copenhagen via Amsterdam on Delta and KLM. While I didn’t get much sleep on the flight, I did have an entertaining seatmate (Chuck from Alaska) on the trans-Atlantic segment. However, even in economy “comfort,” it was still a long flight.

After worrying about it for months, the transfer to the train in Copenhagen was as easy as can be. Copenhagen’s Kastrup is one of the best airports in Europe – easy to navigate and well-connected to the train system. And, despite reports to the contrary, there really weren’t any delays crossing the border into Sweden either. My cousin was right when he recommended the train instead of flying; it was a pleasant trip up the coast to Falkenberg.

Days 2-5: In and around Falkenberg, Sweden

Eftra Church in Sweden - www.ExplorationVacation.netI was in Falkenberg to spend time with my cousins, both the ones who live there and a couple of American ones who joined me for their first visit. Located on the west coast between Malmo and Goteborg, this part of Sweden’s coast is a mostly rural area of rolling farmland, wooded hillsides, broad sandy beaches along the sea, and rain. As usual, my cousins planned a round of family dinners, visits to churches and graveyards, and a range of other sightseeing activities for us.

It was a joy to be together again and be able to connect a few more family members.

  • Harplinge church
  • Stepping into Harplinge’s past
  • Särdals windmill, Halmstad
  • Blowing glass
  • Falkenberg’s beach
  • Varberg castle
  • Falkenberg city

Lodging, meals, and transportation were graciously provided by my cousins.

Photos on Facebook

Day 6: Landsort, Sweden

Landsort Sweden - www.ExplorationVacation.netThe evening train took me across Sweden to Stockholm, so I could spend a day touring the southernmost island in Sweden’s archipelago. Landsort (Öja) has a small human population. However, it was a delightful place to explore, with protected natural areas, charming red cottages, a couple of shops and restaurants, an old military tower (now a hotel with fabulous view of the island), and an iconic lighthouse.

This trip was provided by Visit Sweden as part of the TBEX (Travel Bloggers’ Exchange) conference in Stockholm. As such, transportation to the island (via bus and ferry) and all activities on the island were provided. In addition, I had the pleasure of touring the island with a couple dozen great bloggers and travel writers.

Dining:

Photos on Facebook

Days 7-9: Stockholm, Sweden

Stockholm Sweden from the water - www.ExplorationVacation.netIt’s been 15 years since I’ve done more than just pass through Stockholm. In that time I forgot how gorgeous the city is. Stockholm is truly one of the world’s most beautiful cities. It’s also extremely bike and pedestrian friendly, making it easy to explore; however, I maximized my time by spending my first day exploring via the hop-on/hop-off bus (courtesy of Visit Stockholm via a complimentary Stockholm Pass). I still did plenty of walking, as I ended each day wandering the city streets in search of great sunset and evening photographs – it was the time of year when the blue hour lasts all night!

After a day exploring on my own I was ready to just skip my conference and keep exploring, but I didn’t. After all, the TBEX Europe conference was the reason I had planned this trip in the first place. The conference was worthwhile, with good sessions and lots of opportunities to network with other travel writers and photographers. The conference’s parties were ok too, with festivities at the newly opened Art Deco Haymarket Hotel, the Vasa Museum, and the ABBA museum.

  • The Vasa Museum

Lodging:

  • Most of my stay was at the Scandic Continental, where I was moved into a wonderful room overlooking historic Saint Klara Church after beginning in a gloomy interior view room
  • I spent one night at the Radisson Blu Waterfront. There I ended up with a room overlooking City Hall

Dining:

  • Two dinners (and all of my breakfasts) at the hotel restaurant, The Market, where the food was absolutely wonderful
  • Chai at Wayne’s Coffee at the Central Railroad Station

Photos on Facebook

Days 10- 12: Sörmland, Sweden

Classic boat at Gripsholm Castle in Mariefred Sweden - www.ExplorationVacation.netSörmland is a bucolic area just beyond Stockholm where the landscape seems to have as many castles and manor houses as cows. It also has charming cities and great food.

My too-short time here included visits to several castles and manor houses (some with surprising collections), an open-air museum, a wildlife park, a nature reserve, and a variety of wonderful restaurants.

I toured Sörmland with a small group sponsored by Visit Sweden and Visit Sörmland as part of the TBEX Stockholm conference. Transportation, lodging, meals, and entrance fees were provided.

Lodging:

Sörmland has a wide variety of  lodging options in the regions charming towns. There are also a number of historic manors that take guests.

Dining:

 Sörmland photos on Facebook

Days 13 & 14: Uppsala, Sweden

Old Town Uppsala Sweden - www.ExplorationVacation.netFinally my husband was joining me, so I took the oh-so-convenient Arlanda Express from Stockholm to Arlanda Airport . . . and left my camera on the train when I got to the airport. After a brief bout of panic on my part, the lovely people at the airport information desk contacted the train staff. An hour later (when the train returned to the airport) I had my camera back. Only then did we hop on the train to Uppsala. In this university town we explored historic architecture, gardens (this was the home of Carl Linnaeus), and restaurants.

Lodging: Airbnb private room Central Uppsala

Dining:

Photos on Facebook

Days 15-17: Åland Islands

Aland Islands - www.ExplorationVacation.netWhen the ferry (cruise ship) between Stockholm and Helsinki stops in the middle of the night, it is stopping in the Åland Islands, an autonomous Swedish-speaking region of Finland. I have always wanted to go there and my Swedish-speaking cousins from Finland had not been there for many years, so we decided to meet them in the islands for the weekend. They had their car, so we toured a large part of Fasta Åland, the largest island in the archipelago. Along the way we visited a castle and an open-air history museum with Estonian folk dancers, beaches, wonderful restaurants, and a brewery that replicates a historic beer. In the evening we watched the “old timers” roll by and marveled at how popular classic American cars are in this part of the world.

Transportation:

  • Eckerö Line bus from Uppsala to Grisslehamn (Sweden), ferry to Eckerö (Åland), and bus to Mariehamn (all for the unbelievably low price of 8 Euros per person)
  • Viking Line from Mariehamn to Turku (Finland)
  • VR train from Turku to Helsinki

Lodging: Hotel Arkipelag in Mariehamn

Dining:

  • Snacks at Smakbyn in Sund
  • Beers at Stallhagen Brewery in Finstrom
  • Dinner in Mariehamn at the amazing brassiere Ångbåts Bryggan, a fine dining restaurant so new it doesn’t have its own webpage or TripAdvisor reviews yet. (It’s an addition to the pub and mini-golf operation of the same name.)
  • Diner in Mariehamn at Pizza Diablo

Photos on Facebook

Days 18 & 19: Helsinki, Finland

Helsinki Cathedral Finland - www.ExplorationVacation.netIt wasn’t enough time, but it was the most time I’ve had in Helsinki since I was in college. We arrived after dark and I was amazed by the height and density of the downtown core – it was nothing like I remembered! The next day I was eager to start exploring the city’s fabulous Art Noveau buildings, but Lane had never been here before, so we started where every tourist starts: crowded Senate Square (which doesn’t really look the way I remember it either). After that we just wandered the city, absorbing as many sights as we could between rain showers.

Lodging: Hotel Glo Kluuvi in the heart of downtown

Dining:

Photos on Facebook

Days 19-22: Tallinn, Estonia

City wall in Tallinn Estonia - www.ExplorationVacation.netTallinn is just a short ferry trip from Helsinki, but the charming-as-can-be Old Town is as different as it could be from Helsinki. This Medieval town was perfect for wandering – especially in the evening after the cruise ship passengers left for the day! We toured historic buildings, visited museums, and walked the city wall. (Along we also spent some time eating great food and drinking beer!) We planned extra time here (not enough) to make a few excursions beyond Old Town, including the botanical garden and a palace built for Catherine I of Russia by Peter the Great.

Transportation:

Lodging: Old Town Airbnb private suite, which was in a great location, but not that comfortable and required climbing a lot of stairs.

Dining:

There are lots and lots of dining options in Tallinn; the trick is sort out the worthwhile from the totally touristy and not so good . . . and keep in mind that it all gets so much better after the cruise ships leave for the day.

  • We stumbled into a late lunch at beautiful and relaxing Leib. This may or may not be the hotel our hostess recommended, but it was wonderful.
  • Early morning coffee and breakfast is tough to find in Tallinn, but Peppersack opens at 8 a.m. with a full range of wonderful pastries and full breakfast. Get there early to sit on the patio and watch the city come to life around you.
  • Brand new place in the historic building??

Photos on Facebook

Day 22-23: Lahemaa National Park, Estonia

Lahemaa National Park Estonia - ww.ExplorationVacation.netIt was time to get out of the city for a while, so we picked up a rental car and headed east to Lahemaa National Park. Located along the Gulf of Finland, Lahemaa has lots of wooded hiking trails, uplifted bogs, sandy beaches, erratic coastal rocks, historic manors, and traditional fishing villages. In our short time there we took in as many of the sights in this beautiful, peaceful place as we could!

Transportation: Rental car

Lodging: Vihula Manor

Dining in Lahemaa is a treat, as the manors have lovely restaurants:

Photos on Facebook

Day 23-25: Saaremaa and Muhu Islands, Estonia

boats on Muhu Island in Estonia - www.ExplorationVacation.netIt was summer in the Baltics, so it seemed necessary to spend time along the coast. In Estonia that means a visit to the islands of the western archipelago. I wanted to visit ALL the major islands, but ended up visiting just two during our limited time. But those two were wonderful! Saaremaa is the largest island in the archipelago and offered a wide variety: a charming city, beaches galore, grassy plains, traditional architecture, and Soviet ruins. On tiny Muhu we spent our time touring the historic village of Koguva.

Transportation: rental car and island ferries

Lodging:  We stayed in Nasva at one of Saaremaa’s many budget guesthouses.

Dining:

  • We had an absolutely lovely late lunch/early dinner on the patio at Nasva Klubi, which appears to be some sort of health club or golf club or maybe a yacht club with lodging. Whatever it is, it is located along the river in Nasva and the food is both wonderful and inexpensive.
  • We had another wonderful, but more formal and more expensive dinner in Kuressaare at Vinoteek Prelude, one of the best restaurants and in town.

Photos on Facebook

Days 25-27: Riga, Latvia

House of Blackheads Riga Latvia - www.ExplorationVacation.netWith the time needed to get to and from Riga, we ended up with just one full day. That was not nearly enough time to take in this fascinating city with its broad range of historic architecture (including some amazing Art Nouveau buildings). It was a lot bigger than Tallin, but still great for walking . . . or just hanging out in the plaza.

Transportation:

  • Rental car to Riga
  • City trams in Riga

Lodging: Because we had a car (and needed a place to park) we opted not to stay in Old Town and instead stayed across the river at the modern Bellevue Hotel.

Dining:

There is no shortage of great dining options in Riga – it seems to be quite the foodie paradise, although there are also plenty of over-priced mediocre tourist spots.

  • Because we reached the city late in the day, we opted for dinner at the Bellevue Hotel, which has an expensive, but very good restaurant with expansive views of the city.
  • We had a wonderful late Italian dinner at Ristorante Felicita when our first couple choices were so crowded they weren’t taking a waiting list.

Photos on Facebook

Day 27: Hill of Crosses, Siauliai, Latvia

Hill of Crosses Lithuania - www.ExplorationVacation.netIt’s a pretty long drive from Riga to the Lithuanian coast, and we made it longer by making a stop at Šiauliai to see the Hill of Crosses. This has long been a pilgrimage site and it both a fascinating and holy place.

 

 

 

Days 27-29: The Curonian Spit and Klaipeda, Lithuania

Curonian Spit Lithuania - www.ExplorationVacation.netInstead of staying out on the Curonian Spit (which we should have done), we stayed in the pleasant city of Klaipeda. Our hotel was along the waterfront and across the street from the Old Town, making it ideal for exploring the city.

The Curonian Spit is a 60 mile long wooded sand dune. It stretches along the Baltic coast in Lithuania and Kaliningrad to form a protected lagoon. It’s a UNESCO World Heritage Site as much for its human interaction with the land as for the land itself. That means the drive (or bike ride) along the spit is filled with beaches, dunes, forests, fishing villages, art, memorials, and tourist towns.

Transportation: Rental car and ferry to the spit

Lodging: Old Mill Conference Center Hotel (not to be confused with the Old Mill Hotel, which is owned by the same company, but with little coordination between the two)

Dining:

  • In Klaipeda:
    • Despite the wealth of dining options in town, we had one of the worst dining experiences ever in Klaipedia. Katpedele has beautiful slick marketing materials and (until we got there) good reviews. Since then others have been willing to join me in calling out how bad this place is. I don’t know what happened, but DO NOT EAT HERE.
    • Looking for a late night bite to eat with a view of the water, we ended up at Meat Lovers, which was packed, but where we did eventually get some good bar food. And, yes, it’s at the ferry terminal, but they have a full menu and the food is good.
  • The touristy towns on the spit have lots of dining options.
    • In Juodkrante we had lunch at a lovely little spot I’ll be happy to recommend if I remember what it was called. (There are a lot of similar cafes with a mix of traditional food, sea food, and European items. I suspect most of them are good.)
    • In Nida we had an early dinner at Eserine, where the service was marginal, but the food was good and the views were amazing.

Photos on Facebook

Days 29 & 30: Kaunas, Lithuania

Kanaus Lithuania - www.ExplorationVacation.netWe ended up spending a night in Kaunas as part of a last-minute change of plans. We wandered the old town a bit, but had limited time to explore the city and or any of its many museums. And our simple, airy Airbnb was really comfortable for working, so I spent a lot of time trying to catch up a bit instead of sightseeing.

Transportation: Rental car

Lodging: Airbnb Old Town apartment

Dinning:

  • Dinner at pleasant little Casa Della Pasta.
  • Pastries at Motiejaus kepyklele right in the heart of the Old Town – delicious and the only place that seemed to be open at 8 a.m.

Days 30-32: Vilnius, Lithuania

Vilnius LIthuania - www.ExplorationVacation.netAnother historic city with a wonderful, walkable Old Town, the heart of Vilnius has seen a lot of construction and reconstruction over the centuries – but never all at once. The resulting melange offers delightful surprises around every corner. Of course, I could have spent all my time just touring the many, many churches scattered throughout the city or wandering the courtyards of Vilnius’ ancient university!

Transportation: Taxi between the airport and city

Lodging: Airbnb Old Town studio

Dining:

  • We had great baked goods for breakfast at Thierry kepykla.
  • We had a basic light lunch of traditional Lithuanian food just off Town Hall Square.
  • At Medininku I had one of the best beet salads I’ve ever had anywhere (I love beet salad). On the other hand, I also had horrible flavorless gummy dumplings. (Lane’s meal was ok, but not anything special.) Go for the beet salad then go somewhere else for your meal.
  • We had a lovely dinner (in the very back corner) at stylish Dublis, a new restaurant just down from our apartment.

Photos on Facebook

Day 32 &33: Return home

We split our return into two segments based on when we could get the best price on a flight from Sweden back to the US. To make that work, we flew from Vilnius to Stockholm Arlanda (on SAS) in the afternoon and then returned to the USA (via Amsterdam) the next day.

Lodging and dinning: We had a really good (surprisingly good) dinner at the otherwise forgettable Connect Hotel near (but not real near) Arlanda. Despite how it looks on the website, the Connect Hotel is pretty basic and is pretty much in the middle of nowhere. However, it has good food and a shuttle to the airport, so it worked.

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