Romantic redbrick turrets and towers rise from a small island on Lithuania‘s Lake Galvé, home to the 14th-15th century Trakai Island Castle. Today accessible by a small wooden bridge, Trakai Island Castle actually claims to be Eastern Europe‘s only island castle still standing. While still in its infancy, the castle was attacked and severely damaged by the Teutonic Knights in 1377, and further damaged during a power struggle for title of Grand Duke of Lithuania. Once peace again reigned, it was the very same Teutonic Order that organised the rebuilding of the castle. Over time, other ameliorations were added – a massive donjon, wooden galleries along the inner courtyard, new palatial wings containing the impressive Ducal Hall, thicker defensive walls, three new towers and 16th century galleries complete with canons, designed to defend against new advances in technology (notably, gunpowder). Despite this, since the Battle of Grunwald, Trakai left its military importance behind and was used predominantly as a residence and a way to impress visitors, but by the 1700s and 1800s, it was in ruins, serving as little more than a romantic ruin for artistic and poetic inspiration. Reconstruction started in the late 1800s and continued through the first half of the 20th century. Today, Trakai Island Castle is a quiet monument to Lithuanian history and cultural strength, and part of the Trakai Historical National Park. Visit the castle by crossing the new bridge from the town of Trakai, only about 30 minutes from the capital city, Vilnius.
Pro tip: As the Baltic states open up to increasing tourism, places like Trakai Island Castle will get busier. It’s best to visit Trakai in the off-season or earlier in the morning in order to get the castle and island largely to yourself. Better yet, stay over in Trakai town and use as a jumping-off point to explore the region. Home to proud Karaim community, Turkish-speaking ethnic group descended from Crimean immigrants, try the delicious local dish, kybyn, a sort of dumpling or pasty stuffed with meat and vegetables while in Trakai.
The small town of Sigulda and its environs seem to collect castles and manors. For starters, the most famous is Turaida Castle, its golden-red towers jutting out of the woodland following the stunning Gauja River Valley – a perfect place to hike. On the far side of the cable car opposite Sigulda, there’s the crumbling ancient ruins of Krimulda Castle paired with the crumbling not-so-ancient ruins of Krimulda Manor. And then of course, in Sigulda town proper, find the Old Castle of Sigulda – now in ruins – just across from the New Castle of Sigulda. The first New Castle of Sigulda was constructed in 1878 by the wealthy Kropotkin family in the popular Neo-Gothic revival style that swept the continent throughout the 19th century. The castle/manor lasted only until WWI when it was partially destroyed. As was wont, restoration started after the war was over, though Sigulda’s New Castle got a complete makeover – it had now become the Writer’s Castle, inspiration for authors, writers and poets of all kinds (romantic ideal, eh!?). Such an idyllic nature didn’t last. In WWII, it was taken over by the Germans, used as a military headquarters, only then to be tossed over to the USSR after the war’s end. It wasn’t until the Baltic states (Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia) finally got their hard-won freedom that Sigulda’s New Castle finally housed part of the Latvian government – home to Sigulda City and District Councils. Though closed to tourists, it’s worth a stroll through the beautiful grounds to enjoy the castle and the views. Plus, the old castle of Sigulda is not far off!
Pro tip: The cable car across the valley goes once an hour. Buy your ticket and then use the rest of the hour to walk around Sigulda’s castles and perhaps even pop in to the church to see their collection of button art. If you’re planning to walk from Krimulda to Turaida once you cross the gorge, be sure to wear good footwear.
Dusty, quiet, out of the way, the tiny Trakai village would be completely overlooked if not for its spectacular local monument – Trakai Island Castle, a splendid brick teutonic castle constructed on a island in the medieval era. Made up of colourful wooden clapboard houses, quiet tree-lined streets and embraced in a welcomingly fresh air, walking through Trakai village feels like you are exploring the Baltics of Europe behind the scenes, getting a glimpse of where the real people live. But in many ways, Trakai is not a normal place as it is a village that has been constructed and even preserved by an array of different nationality, ethnic groups and cultures. Tatars, Russians, Jews, Karaims (from Turkey), Lithuanians and Jews have – and do – all live here peacefully, rubbing shoulders as their lives quietly overlap. Trakai was once a booming town under Polish then later Lithuanian rule but saw significant decline as Vilnius and Krakow rose in importance. Though a small place today, Trakai has managed to stay significant due to King Gedimas’ lovely castle on the beautiful lake.
Pro tip: While in Trakai, be sure to try kibinai, a savoury pastry brought to the region by the Karaims community. Delicious and filing! Also, Trakai – and the Baltics in general – are a great place to purchase amber jewelry.
The year 2018 marks the 100th anniversary of independence from Russia for the Baltic States (think Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia) – even if in the middle of that century of independence they lost it and were forced to regain it again, thanks to WWII. And yet, the Old Town of Vilnius is one of the largest medieval towns still in existence today (and therefore is protected by UNESCO). By day, it is a popular place with locals and tourists alike, relaxing in the cafes, strolling the narrow alleys and broad avenues, chilling in the parks and squares, mingling with the locals in restaurants and hole-in-the-wall bars. For great views, you might climb the ancient Gediminas Hill to the remains of the crumbled castle – or to the top of the opposite Hill of the Three Crosses, a more modern viewpoint. It is a place full of great (and budget-friendly) restaurants and bars frequented by lively locals and tourists alike, making it an ideal place for a friends weekend, a fun solo getaway, or a hen/stag party!
Cobblestones underfoot reverberate with the echoes of footsteps, the clink of silverware at a local cafe and the laughter of children playing in the narrow alleyways. The perfectly preserved medieval streets and facades of ancient Tallinn directly contrast with the advanced techosphere hidden just beneath the surface of the city nicknamed the ‘Silicon Valley of Europe.’ It has one of the highest ratio of start-ups per population throughout Europe – Skype being the most famous of them all. The capital of Estonia has slowly become recognised as one of the main IT centre of Europe – Tallinn currently provides NATO’s cybersecurity (home to the NATO Cyber Defence Centre of Excellence), it is set to house the headquarters of the European Union’s IT agency, and has been ranked as the most competitive financial hub of Northern Europe. Quite the achievement for this beautifully small and oft forgotten capital tucked into a remote corner of Europe! Tallinn is perhaps the perfect blend of old and new: the medieval streets and architecture of Tallinn, including the Viru Gates in the photo, have merited the city a spot on UNESCO‘s list – and yet, it also catches the eye of many the enterprising digital start-up. The Viru Gate, a barbican within the ancient city walls, was part of Tallinn’s medieval defensive walls that still encircle much of the city. Though partially destroyed to accommodate horse-drawn carriages and trams, the Viru Gate still dispenses Tallinn’s unique flavour in the brisk Baltic air.
Red brick towers peek out of the forest to climb their way towards the heavens. Turaida Castle, a little-known medieval fortress erected in the early 12th century, is a Latvian national treasure, to the degree that when the castle was left to be reclaimed by Mother Nature, the Latvians pumped finances into saving it. A Teutonic castle made of red brick much like Poland’s immense Zamek Malbork, the crumbling Teutonic Turon Castle in central Poland or even Lithuania’s island fortress Trakai, Turaida Castle itself seems as if it was pulled out of a magical storybook and nestled into the forgotten woods of the Gauja River Valley deep within Latvia. Reached either by winding backroads or by a combination of foot and cable car through the quiet Latvian forest, the castle is set in one of Latvia’s most incredible backdrops. Turaida Castle was the home of the lovely Rose of Turaida, a love story with a not-so-happy ending. While the castle itself evokes thoughts of knights and princesses and dragons, a hike through the surrounding valley with the enchanted castle looming in the distance is one memory you will never forget.
More Amazing and Beautiful Castles in Eastern Europe
Art Nouveau (‘new art’) was a style of architecture, art, sculpture, and design popular from roughly 1890 – 1920. Though it swept across Europe, it was particularly popular in Riga, Latvia, with some 40% of the buildings built with Art Nouveau in mind. Inspired by flowers, trees, leaves, water, and other natural elements, Art Nouveau buildings twist and turn; they flow, they spiral, they cascade – they are alive. Riga’s Art Nouveau was less extravagant than that of France’s or Spain’s. But nonetheless, Riga overflows its borders with the simplistic, Romantic version of Art Nouveau. Much of it has survived to this day despite the turbulence of the 20th century, and the city centre is now a designated UNESCO site. By simply meandering and keeping one’s eyes turned upwards, the observant traveller will come across this forgotten cache of treasures hidden away in the Baltic gem that is Riga.
Until very recently, controlling a port meant power. In fact, this is still the case in many ways considering that about 90% of world’s trade is still carried by the international shipping industry. Long before the invention of the airplane – and before that, the train and the truck – shipping was the method of transport. European powers have been obsessed with finding trade routes to Asia for hundreds of years (inspiring the famed Columbus voyage in 1492… as well as others), going so far as to construct the Panama and Suez canals. During the 15th and 16th centuries, the Russians (who occupied central Russia at the time) had control only of a few northern (and frozen!) ports. Baltic ports were controlled largely by the Lithuanian Empire, or by powers centralized in Riga and Tallinn. The Hanseatic League as well controlled much of the trade in North, Eastern and Central Europe. Russians had staggering amounts of natural resources – but few ports, thereby instigating the struggle for control of the Baltic Sea. Though Gdansk, located in northern Poland on the Baltic Sea, was not controlled by the Russians, other powers (German, Lithuanian, Teutonic Knights…) have their histories mingled with that of Gdansk. Indeed, the Baltic city has been an influential port for nearly a 1,000 years! Today, the Polish city is still an important port, not to mention a hub for Poles on holiday in search of the sea. It is also one of the best places in the world to purchase amber!
Pro tip: Some of Gdansk’s most photogenic and picturesque spots is in the Long Market, bookend-ed with the Green Gate (that’s actually pink…) leading to the waterfront on the other side.
Travel to Other Beautiful Places near the Baltic Sea
This pink church is the first and oldest Baroque church in the Lithuanian capital of Vilnius. Built 1604 to 1635, it was dedicated to the patron saint of Vilnius, Prince Casimir Jagiellon from the lat 15th century. For its relatively small size, Vilnius seems to have an awful lot of churches. Baroque towers with intricate facades and gilded tips, orthodox churches with fancy Cyrillic writing, Gothic churches covered in spires. Red brick facades or painted in pastel colors, Vilnius’s churches are beautiful, tranquil, non-imposing. They seem nature, as if they are exactly where they are supposed to be. For an often-overlooked city, Vilnius has plenty of charms up its sleeves. It will never beat Tallinn (one of Europe’s most beautiful cities), or Riga, an Art Nouveau masterpiece. Yet, there is still something very special about this beautiful Baltic gem!
Once part of Vilnius’ defensive system, this green lump rising from the centre of the Lithuanian capital is Gediminas Hill, one of Vilnius’ major landmarks. A short walk up the winding path takes you to what is left of the tower, which in part dates back to the 10th century. From there, one can see the Hill of Three Crosses–meaning that if you descend Gediminas Hill, meander through the Old Town to the base of the second one and climb the wooded path up that hill, you are rewarded with a panoramic view of the Gediminas Hill. Surrounding this ancient hill is the Old Town, a mix of styles and colours. You are currently in the heart of Lithuania. But just beyond that, you see the rest of Vilnius, the impacted of the Soviet-esque sky-rises and concrete towers. It is an interesting contrast of old and new, of Lithuanian independence and Soviet influence, and it’s a beautiful spot for quiet reflection. After enjoying the sunset over the hills, descend into town to enjoy another important aspect of Lithuanian culture…a beer in a local pub!
Riga, along with the rest of the Baltics, are surely one of the most beautiful and interesting places you’ll visit. The people in the Baltics are not only friendly, fun and adventurous, but they are strong, brave, resilient, and when they put their minds together, there is no stopping them. On August 23, 1989, they proved exactly that. Roughly 2 million people took to the streets, grasped each others’ hands, and formed a human chain that linked the three Baltic capitals: Vilnius, Riga and Tallinn. For over 675.5 km (419.7 miles), the Lithuanians, Latvians and Estonians stood hand in hand, briefly becoming one identity to show the intense solidarity that existed–and still exists!–between the three states. It was designed to show the world their united desire for independence as well as the illegal occupation of the USSR, and even though Moscow tried to retaliate, only a few months later, Lithuania was a free state. Latvia and Estonia followed not long after. Can you imagine a chain of human beings that stretched across three countries, for almost 700 km? Can you imagine the effort, the initiative, the planning, the teamwork that the Baltic Way took? How about the feel of another person’s hand in yours, grasping it as if your life depended on it? Can you feel the shivers go up and down your spine? The Baltic solidarity and determination is an amazing feat. It is a beautiful thing. It is what happens when three nations work together in a peaceful protest to accomplish a common goal. If that isn’t a reason to visit, I don’t know what is.
Light blue skies hang over the waterfront buildings of this Polish city. Located in northern Poland, Gdansk is one of the “trojmiescie” cities. Together with Gdynia and Sopot, these three cities make up the “Tricity” region thanks to their close proximity to each other. In fact, they are so close that the same tram/bus network services all three, and it is quite normal to live/stay in Gdansk and party in Gdynia then shop in Sopot the next day. Once part of Germany (‘Gdansk’ was called ‘Danzig’ and still is called so by German tourists), this region on the Baltic Sea is today known for its beaches (in Poland, that is), and its amber production (worldwide!). It also happens to be beautiful. While the city isn’t exactly on the Baltic, (the water here is the Motlawa River), it’s only a hop, skip and a jump away from the infamous sea. A visit to Gdansk during the summer months will be pleasantly spent, no matter whether you’re sitting along the river, digging your toes in the sand of one of the surrounding beaches, eating at one of the many pleasant cafes and restaurants on the main street or dancing your heart out in one of the Tricity’s many nightclubs!
Stockholm, capital of Sweden. What do you really know about Sweden? A place where you find beautiful blonde women and extremely high prices, right? The Swedes are a unique brand of people–resilient, fun, brilliant, hard-working, multilingual, as well as a little bit crazy and even a tad dangerous. Nordic noir films and TV series paint a bleak picture of Sweden while Pippi Longstocking (or Langstrumpf) paints Sweden as an ideal world. And then there are many people who think of Sweden as a frozen tundra, and still others who think it’s more expensive than life itself. But how about visiting this little country to make your assumptions? Stockholm–Sweden’s metropolis–is as cosmopolitan as other ‘major’ European cities–perhaps more so! The Gamla Stan (or old town) on one of the many islands making up the massive archipelago, is populated by a vast array of tourists from every part of the world–starkly contrasted with the countries on the other side of the Baltics. You will hear a dozen languages in a matter of minutes. Restaurants from every country are easy to find–as well as unique raw ingredients often difficult to find in other European cities. Even the shopping feels international! And besides, as Stockholm is made up of many islands, no matter where you go, you will always have a view of the water!
Latvia—like its neighbours Lithuania, Estonia, Poland, etc—was once a part of the Russian Empire, and the Russians, as you know, are orthodox. Therefore, in the years 1867-83, the Russians got to work constructing an orthodox house of worship in the centre of Riga, Latvia’s capital. Built in the Neo-Byzantine style, Riga’s cathedral still stands proudly in the in downtown Riga. While other ex-Russian satellite nations have torn down their cathedrals (*cough Poland cough*), Riga still has one right in the centre. Despite the mostly-negative impact of Russian occupation of the Baltic States, it is important to remember and recognise all aspects of history—and to appreciate culture and beauty. Because the Nativity of Christ Cathedral is beautiful! Russian Orthodox cathedrals usually are. The biggest Orthodox cathedral in the Baltics, it was commissioned by Tsar Alexander II. The church was briefly a Lutheran cathedral—and later a planetarium in the early days of independent Latvia—but since 1991, it has been restored to its original design. And now today, it resembles a delicious gateau enough to make my mouth water…!
What little girl doesn’t dream of becoming a princess? What little boy doesn’t, at one point or another, dream of becoming a knight? Even as we grow up, castles – especially the unexplored, wild, and overgrown castles – retain something romantic, as if the castle holds some sort of magical power. But as they say, it’s the journey, not the destination, that counts. And the journey to reach Turaida Castle is nothing short of adventurous! Starting in the town of Sigulda (where one obtains the highly-detailed map), you continue through the other ruinous castle to Gauja River Gorge, which you cross via cable car to arrive in the ghost town of Krimulda. There, you find a small path leading through more ruins, and continuing on past the Gutmanis Cave, through the woods before breaking out into a small clearing to view your prize—this beautiful brick castle circa 1214, brought to life by the Archbishop of Riga. Today, Turaida Castle remains one of the most important ruins in Latvia – but also one of the most interesting to visit. So if you’re feeling brave next time you visit Riga, forsake the car, forsake the bus, and take to the trails. This age-old journey leading through these ancient sites is well worth it.
The Brama Zielona, as it is called in Polish, towers over the far end of the Long Market (differing from most Polish market squares which are typically square in shape, often with the city hall or some other monument in the centre). The Gate was built in 1568-71 as a residence for the Polish monarchy, and was inspired by Antwerp’s City Hall (in the linked photo, the city hall is to the far left-hand side; google it for further views). This tie to the Belgian city also explains the Flemish influence in the Poland’s Baltic gem. Now a museum of Polish history, it even includes the second president of post-Communist Poland’s office. After traversing Gdansk’s beautiful Long Market, step through the magnificent Brama Zielona to enjoy the city’s beautiful waterfront on the Motława River!
Here, one of Tallinn’s many terracotta-topped towers pokes through the mysterious mist. Unlike many other towns and cities across Europe, Tallinn has been able to keep true to its roots. In fact, Tallinn prides itself on the fact that many of the city’s buildings, churches, houses, warehouses, walls, and towers maintain their original forms. Some even date all the way back to the 11th century–impressive! Especially for such a small country under the constant shadow of nearby giants vying for control over its’ strategic position (namely, Russia, Germany, and Sweden). In fact, Estonia wasn’t even a country for much of its recent history, only gaining its independence in 1991 (and briefly just after WWI). Perhaps because of this loss, the Estonians want to make up for lost time and preserve as much of their history as possible. Tallinn has not been “improved” or “modernised” like so many other European capitals; (think anything from London to Berlin to Warsaw to Madrid). Not that there is anything wrong with this, but sometimes, we need that misty, magical, timeless place with tiny, winding cobblestone roads, local taverns and ancient churches that make us feel as if we’ve travelled back to the middle ages.
A Baltic gem. The Baltic Gem. Any interest in seeing what a beautifully preserved medieval city with Hanseatic buildings, all hardly touched by modern times, while still full of life and culture looks like? Go to Tallinn. Capital of a little country hidden away in the north-eastern corner of Europe, Tallinn is a city that doesn’t make many travel itineraries. Its popularity is growing, but at the moment, it is still a quiet city full of beautiful architecture recognised by UNESCO by day—and crazy street parties by night. While living under various foreign influences for large chunks of its’ history, the Estonians have persisted, and eventually received their independence in 1918-20 (which was lost to the Nazis and the Soviets but regained in 1991). Tallinn is a symbol of strength and resistance, a symbol of the Estonians’ reverence to their own history, art, language, and traditions, and a symbol of freedom, of independence, of culture.
Down Ulica Długa to Długi Targ (Long Street to Long Market), Gdansk, Poland
This beautiful Polish city on the Baltic Sea hasn’t always been Polish…in fact, it hasn’t always been called by its’ Polish name, “Gdansk.” Because the city has historically laid upon the border between Slavic and Germanic controlled territories, it has switched hands at least 15 times since being founded in 997. Its position on the Baltic Sea made it a disputed city in WWII, with the Germans taking control of “Danzig.” And like so many other Polish cities, it was demolished in the war, and, once again like all the other cities, had to be painstakingly rebuilt and restored by dedicated citizens–though some German vestiges still exist and German tourists are still plenty. Along with Gdynia and Sopot, the three cities form the Tri-city (Trójmiasto) region, with 1.4 million inhabitants. The Long Street/Long Market is one of the most beautiful market squares in Poland and even in Europe (though it’s not really a square…more of a rectangle!), and even more lovely in warm weather as the Baltic Sea is a just a hop, skip and a jump away!
Travel to Other Beautiful Places near the Baltic Sea
Most people have never heard of pretty Riga, the capital of Lativa, a country that once again, many have barely heard of. It’s the middle state of the Baltics, snuggled between Lithuania and Estonia, speaking a strange language spoken by about 1.5 million people and related to Lithuanian and Old Prussian. Yet, one can’t help but fall in love with little Riga–with 700,000 residents, it is the largest of the three Baltic states. It is an old city (founded 1201), a former member of the Hanseatic League and a current UNESCO site–as well as known for it’s art nouveau. Following the impressive display of human collaboration in the Human Chain that linked the three Baltic capitals, the Latvians were finally independent in 1991. Outside of all that, Riga is just so European–probably because it has been relatively untouched. It’s unfortunate location on the continent meant that for some time it was swallowed by Russia and Germany. But as it is far away from the major European hubs, it Riga has been left as it is. Avoid the skyscrapers and commercial centres and ugly alluminan buildings. Here, whatever else has happened, at least the buildings are pretty.
Greeting you as you traverse forgotten paths through dark forests, turrets rise through the waves of golden trees like a fairy-tale castle. This is the beautiful Turaida Castle. To get here, there is (supposedly) a bus. But a far more enjoyable way to find Turaida Castle is to be mistaken for a German tourist at the Sigulda train station, be handed a map in German and told to follow it through the town of Sigulda, past the first, then second set of ruins, over the impressive Gauja River Gorge in a little yellow cable car, through the magnificent (if not eerie) woods, past the magical Gutmanis Cave, and finally, to the turrets of Turaida Castle itself. Built in 1214, demolished in 1776 by fire, then partially restored in the last decade, “Thor’s Garden,” as it translates to in Livonian, is a medieval castle on the Gauja River built by Albert, archbishop of Riga. It may still be an impressive place when arriving by bus or by car – but following the Sigulda train station’s tourist map, and exploring the region on foot in the journey described above is what truly makes visiting this castle a magical experience fit for a modern explorer time-travelling to the Middle Ages.
These ornate buildings were originally built in the 14th century as a guild for Latvian craftsmen and merchants. Of course it was bombed and demolished by the Germans and later helpfully re-destroyed by the Soviets, but happily, the proud Latvians rebuilt their iconic buildings. The strange name supposedly comes from the Nubian, St Maurice, who was the patron saint of the guild. Today, you won’t find any Latvian guild hall members but you might see another interesting specimen spilling out of these doors: the panicked, bewildered tourist. The House of Blackheads has been converted to a haven for lost tourists…namely, the tourist information office.
Resting on the shores of Lake Galvė, a mere 300 km from the Baltic Sea, is Trakai Island Castle. Dating back to the 14th century, it was built to withstand attacks from the Teutonic Knights, who played a large role in the region. At the time, Trakai was one of the main centres of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania before it fell into obscurity after merging with the Kingdom of Poland. Today, the town of Trakai is a collection of colourful, wooden houses with a population of only 5,000. Until recently, the castle had been little more than ruins on an island, inspiration for writers and artists. Finally rebuilt in all its glory, Trakai Castle is an impressive monument standing in the middle of a careworn village, reminding us of bygone times when castles and knights and kings still ruled the lands.
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