Baltic beauties

Date Posted: 04/04/2012

Pictured: The view from St Bernadino Church. Photo credit: Vilnius Tourist Information Centre & Convention Bureau.

The charming cities of Eastern Europe offer a treasure trove of sights and experiences.

Vilnius, Lithuania

Lithuania has a fascinating history and once boasted an empire stretching from the Baltic to the Black Sea that made it Europe’s largest country. The inland capital, Vilnius was a relatively undiscovered gem until it opened up to a larger audience when it became European Capital of Culture in 2009. The UNESCO listed baroque old town, with its beautiful yellow and pink architecture, is a major draw and one of the largest surviving medieval city centres in Eastern Europe.

Situated between the Vilnia and Neris rivers, Vilnius is famous for its large number of magnificent churches. The Vilnius City Card is a cost effective way of sightseeing for independent groups, and offers free and discounted entry to attractions, a free walking tour organised by Vilnius Tourist Information Centre, and the option of free public transport. GTOs can also download a new old town audio guide from the city’s tourist board website.

Among the top sights are the 16th century Gates of Dawn, originally part of the city walls, and gothic St Anne’s Church. For some of the best views in town, take the funicular to the hilltop Higher Castle Museum. Alternatively, climb the 193 stairs or opt for the lift to the top of St John’s Church tower, the highest building in the old town.

More unusual attractions include the Money Museum, located in the Bank of Lithuania, and charting the story of world money and banking. The KGB Museum, housed in a former prison, tells the dark history of Soviet occupation.  
 
Group orgaisers can take time out for a stroll along Gediminas Avenue, which is partially pedestrianised in the evening, and home to shops, government buildings and theatres. Soak up the culture with a concert in the beautiful chamber hall at the National Philharmonic Society, which offers discounted tickets for groups of 20 or more.

Essentials

See: Vilnius Cathedral, with its neighbouring bell tower, is an architectural masterpiece and the symbol of the city.
Eat: Cepelinai, the national dish of grated potato dumplings filled with meat or curd cheese, is tasty and filling.
Try: The two new 88 and 89 bus routes, which run through the main Gediminas thoroughfare to the old town and connect all the major sights.
Buy: Ceramics and amber jewellery.

Tallinn, Estonia

Estonia’s capital, Tallinn, is another UNESCO World Heritage site with fairytale architecture reflecting the Golden Age between the 15th and 16th centuries and earlier times. Last year’s European Capital of Culture, the perfectly preserved medieval old town is lined with cobbled streets and attractive buildings.

Starting from the town square, groups will find that many sights are within easy walking distance, including the city walls, distinctive red-roofed towers of Kuldjala and Neitsitorn, and the soaring landmark of St Olav’s Church, built in the 13th century and once the world’s tallest building. Don’t leave the square without visiting the Town Hall Pharmacy, reportedly Europe’s oldest chemist shop with ancient lotions and potions on display.

For a different view of Tallinn visit the regenerated Rotermann quarter, where old industrial buildings have gained a new lease of life and rub shoulders with modern architecture. Loovala is an open-plan craft studio and the place to find unusual gifts, including butter knives and bowls made from sweetly scented juniper wood, and round the corner is the enthralling Soviet Technology Exhibition open during the summer months. Housed in a former grain store, household appliances, motorbikes, clothes, leisure items and industrial equipment are among the eclectic exhibits.

On the outskirts of town is Kumu, Estonia’s first purpose-built museum, where classical and modern art is housed in a striking building. Your group can admire beautiful interiors at 18th century Kadriorg Palace built by Peter the Great, and, moving back to the city centre, the ornate Alexander Nevksy Cathedral with its onion domes is a reminder of Estonia’s Russian links.

The majority of cafes and restaurants are centred around the old town, and groups can round off the day with a visit to an atmospheric wine vault or sample local Viru beer, which comes in distinctive tall bottles.

Essentials

See: Head up to the Patkuli viewing platform on Toompea hill for panoramic views across the old town.
Eat: Go medieval with food and entertainment from the Middle Ages at the Olde Hansa restaurant inside a former merchant’s house.
Try: Take to the streets for an unforgettable guided sightseeing tour on a ‘conference bike’ made for seven.
Buy: Local crafts from the colourful small shops lining quaint St Catherine’s Passage.

Riga, Latvia

The capital of Latvia and largest city in the Baltic states, combines the excitement of a big city with architectural gems, including a medieval old town, fantastic art nouveau quarter and imposing Doma Cathedral - the largest church in the Baltics.

Last year Riga welcomed a record number of overseas visitors and figures are set to rise with the news that the city will be European Capital of Culture in 2014. Riga’s old town and the city centre are both included on the UNESCO World Heritage List.

Groups will want to see the trio of buildings at 17, 19 and 21 Maza Pils Iela which are the best examples of Riga’s medieval residential buildings. Known as the ‘three brothers’, the eldest sibling - number 17 - was built in the 15th century and is the city’s oldest stone house.

A quirky sight to look out for is the Cat House in Meistaru Iela. A rich merchant was furious when he was exiled from the Great Guild across the street and commissioned two cat sculptures, with tails raised and backs facing towards the guild, to be put on his house. After being allowed back into the guild he turned the cheeky felines around!

When it’s time for shopping the main street, Audeju includes Centrs, the city’s oldest mall. Groups will also enjoy visiting Riga’s colourful Central Market. Open daily and one of the largest in Europe, it is famous for using old Zeppelin hangars as food halls. Riga has been named a Baltic Capital of Gastronomy 2012 and there are plenty of group-friendly dining experiences from Russian themed meals to medieval banquets with musical entertainment.

Essentials

See: Riga Castle, the 14th century fortress housing the Museum of Latvian History and Museum of Foreign Art.
Eat: Latvia claims to have a sausage for every day of the year, so the only problem is deciding which ones to order.
Try: Taking the lift to the observation platform on the tower of St Peter’s Church, one of the best examples of gothic architecture in the Baltics, for a wonderful bird’s eye view over the city.
Buy: Wooden toys, linen clothes and fiery Riga Black Balsam - a herbal drink famed for its medicinal properties.

Krakow, Poland

Poland’s ancient royal capital until 1596, Krakow’s numerous attractions include the country’s most visited castle complex and a gothic cathedral that’s the burial place of kings. Be sure to listen out for the noon bugle call from the tower of Mariacki Church. Legend has it that when the bugle player was warning Krakow of the advance of the Turks in 1241 he was shot in the throat by an arrow, which is why the daily call comes to an abrupt halt.

The Sukiennice cloth hall, once the main focus of Krakow’s trade and one of the city’s most distinctive buildings, now houses a gallery of 19th century paintings and sculptures. Downstairs there are stalls selling local handicrafts, making it a wonderful place for souvenir shopping.

Allow at least three hours for a visit to Wawel Hill where the castle is now a museum and the royal chamber houses the largest and most impressive collection of art and treasures. The cathedral is the resting place of 41 of the 45 Polish kings, and its Sigismund Chapel is widely regarded as one of the most beautiful chapels in Europe.

A popular tour is the royal route which starts in Matejko Square and leads through the Florianska Gate into the main square before continuing through picturesque medieval Kanonicza Street and on to the castle and cathedral.

Steven Spielberg’s film Schindler’s List raised the profile of the extraordinary businessman Oskar Schindler who rescued more than 1,000 Jews from the wartime death camps. Groups can take a tour of the film’s main locations and visit Schindler’s Factory, now a museum to his memory. An hour away from Krakow is Auschwitz-Birkenhau, the former Nazi concentration camp that epitomises the atrocities of the Holocaust and is a profoundly moving sight.

Essentials

See: Centrepiece of Krakow’s UNESCO listed old town is Europe’s largest market square, the size of four football pitches.
Eat: Restaurant Wierzynek, occupying a prime spot on the market square, dates back to 1364 and is said to be Europe’s oldest continuously operating restaurant.
Try: See the city from a different perspective with a sightseeing cruise on the Vistula river.
Buy: Lace, carved wooden handicrafts and dolls dressed in the traditional local folk costume.

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