In 2022, my husband and I spent two weeks in Helsinki, Finland, followed by a road trip through the Baltic States of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania. It was one of the best trips we’ve ever taken.

A man and woman take a selfie in front of European buildings.

Me and my husband on our trip.

Wendy Rose Gould

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

And while I’d gladly go back to all the above in a heartbeat, in recent years, I found myself craving a visit to parts of the world that are less traversed. That’s how I picked my recent getaway to Finland and the Baltic nations of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania.

For a feel of the stark contrast in tourism from other parts of Europe, Latvia saw about 1.3 million visitors in all of 2021 and Finland saw 8.97 million, whereas France saw 22.6 million in the same year.

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

Here’s why I think everyone should go.

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

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

In the countryside of the Baltics.

Wendy Rose Gould

While I’ve found that much of Europe is driveable, Finland and the Baltic countries are particularly compact, which made it easy for us to explore a variety of landscapes and cities in about two weeks’ time.

After a few days in Helsinki, we ventured on to the three Baltic states, which in land mass are just over 65,000 square miles. Together, that’s smaller than the entire US state of Missouri. 

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

Starting or ending a trip in Helsinki is a common way to see the Baltic States, and travel guides and websites I consulted often include the city along with the Baltics, or vice versa. 

From Helsinki, it’s only two to three hours by large ferry to Tallinn, Estonia, and cheap, in my opinion, at roughly $35 per person. I also found the ferry to be well appointed with restaurants, bars, and shopping all onboard. 

The area as a whole was so easy to explore, I thought, that we could have probably even done it all in a week and a half, but I’m glad we built in some extra, low-key days.

Though close to each other, I thought each capital city we visited had its own distinct feel.

Side by side images of European style buildings and a futuristic looking building.

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

Wendy Rose Gould

I thought that, for the most part, all of the capital cities I visited on this trip felt vastly different from each other, and from many other areas of Europe I’ve visited. 

In Helsinki, Finland, considered to be the happiest country in the world, I saw futuristic, sustainable architecture mixed with storied statues and structures. For example, I thought the brand new Oodi Library looked like it was straight out of a sci-fi movie with its seemingly gravity-defying architecture. I also felt like the city itself combined a fast-paced, modern feel while leaning heavily into its Nordic roots. 

Then, in Tallinn, Estonia, I experienced a UNESCO World Heritage Site that’s one of the most well-preserved medieval towns in Europe. I enjoyed exploring authentic medieval taverns like Three Dragons, and Telliskivi, known as a creative city with handmade art, clothing, decor, and food. 

Later, when I arrived in the port city capital of Riga, Latvia, I instantly felt a lively, cosmopolitan vibe alongside renovated historical buildings and contemporary shopping. I learned that is has everything from one of the world’s most impressive collections of art nouveau buildings to an old town where I had meals alongside locals.

Finally, in Vilnius, Lithuania, I admired baroque architecture, explored the old town, wandered down cobblestone streets, and particularly enjoyed Užupis, a boho art district within Vilnius that considers itself an independent republic complete with its own currency.

I appreciated that we had so many opportunities to unwind and recharge as opposed to feeling like we had to do as much as possible in a short period of time.

Side by side images of a cabin on a pond and a hand holding a mushroom in the forest.

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

Wendy Rose Gould

Often when I’ve visited major cities in Europe, I’ve felt self-imposed pressure to see and do as much as possible, with little rest in between activities.

But in the Baltic States, I felt much more relaxed and at ease.

While I still believe that exploring the region’s big cities is a must, one of the major draws of the Baltic States for me were the huge swaths of parks, forests, and countryside. It was a major part of this region I wanted to experience that also made me feel more relaxed than I have in other major European cities, such as Paris where I spent more time museum hopping than being outside.

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

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

I discovered that saunas are a huge part of the lifestyle in these countries and came to love them, too.

Side by side images of a sauna and two people in a sauna.

Wendy Rose Gould

Throughout our trip, I was reminded that saunas are a key pillar in the day-to-day life of people living in Finland and the Baltic States.

Finland has over 3 million saunas — that’s about one sauna for every two people in the country — and 99% of Finnish people hit the sauna at least once per week. 

And these were not just ordinary saunas. For example, in downtown Helsinki, I discovered that there’s a giant Ferris wheel on the harbor with a built-in sauna in one of the carousels, aptly named SkySauna, and there’s even a Burger King in the city with a sauna inside.

While I didn’t get to try either of these, I did spend some time sweating in a more traditional option at Helsinki’s Löyly. There, the sauna grounds are located at the edge of the sea, so I was able to enjoy the traditional cold-hot experience by going back and forth between the frigid waters and a steam in the saunas.

As our trip went on, I noticed that the Baltics seemed to embrace the activity, too. Two of our Airbnbs in the Lithuanian countryside had built-in saunas, and one had a fire-generated hot tub that got very toasty. 

In every country we visited, I thought we ate some of the best food I’ve ever tasted, and everything was cheaper than I thought it would be.

Side by side images of plates of food as seen overhead.

Meals we enjoyed on our trip.

Wendy Rose Gould

Before our trip, I was told by a friend who previously visited the area that it was in these countries that she ate some of the best food she’s ever had.

She was absolutely right.

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

Among the best things I ate were a gourmet meal at Palaima in the Lithuanian countryside with a mint-cilantro shaved ice and white chocolate yogurt ice cream; Pegasus in Tallinn that served a seasonal menu including foraged mushrooms; Riga’s Folkklubs Ala Pagrabs with an eat-by-candlelight ambiance; and Restaurant Story in Helsinki’s Old Market Hall where I had traditional salmon soup.

I thought each country had fascinating history that I learned about through immersive 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 for each country and its people. 

One of our most compelling experiences was a visit to the Hill of Crosses, a pilgrimage site in northern Lithuania, where people come specifically to lay down crosses for those they love as a sign of strength and perseverance through a winding history. It’s believed that the first crosses were laid following the 1831 Uprising, and since then, it’s amassed thousands upon thousands of crosses. The energy and reverence was palpable to me as we walked through the maze of crosses. 

Another very interesting experience was going to the Cold War Museum, housed in an old missile silo in the Lithuania countryside. Once a hub of activity during the Cold War, the site’s been preserved and transformed into a museum. It’s the only exhibition of its kind in Europe, according to the museum’s website, and includes exhibits on the evolution of rocket technology, samples of armament, a restored command room, and an actual shaft where visitors can see the engineering structure where combat missiles were stored underground for almost two decades. 

All located in the underground chambers, a portion of it is set up like a true museum with images and video, and the rest of the grounds are free to explore. We walked through long corridors that I learned once served as covert passageways from mission control rooms to the missiles themselves, and tiny bunkers, now bare, that once housed agents. 

These were just two instances, but throughout our travels, as we spoke with locals and tour guides, we were able to gain a deeper understanding of how each of the countries are complex, resilient, and beautiful in their own right.

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


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