Ilia Schelkanov

Embark on a UNESCO World Heritage trail through the magical Old Towns of the Baltic States & Russia

History is alive in the Old Towns of Tallinn, Riga and Vilnius. It is no wonder that each of them has been granted the status of being a UNESCO World Heritage site. Our tailor made itineraries allow you time to explore the backstreets of these lovely cities.

Many people that book travel through 50 Degrees North are interested in the natural wonders and beauty of the Nordic countries: The Northern Lights, the snow-covered, mesmerising Winter landscapes, the vastness of the archipelagos, the midnight sun. Most of us, when experiencing these phenomena, are filled with emotions that rise from deep within and without our conscious input. However, we would argue that there is something man-made that causes an almost similar sense of awe and appreciation of beauty: The Old Towns of Eastern Europe.

The historic centres in the Baltic capital cities of Tallinn, Riga, and Vilnius as well as St Petersburg in Russia represent the kind architectural beauty that can move you without quite understanding why. They take you to another time, perhaps another life long ago, and can make you believe in fairy tales, if only for a moment. History is alive in the Old Towns of these cities, and it is no wonder that each of them has been granted the status of being a UNESCO World Heritage site. Jump on board and get a taste of what to expect!

Tallinn (Estonia)

Tallin's Historic Centre (the Old Town) is a charming blend of medieval tranquillity and modern urban life. The origins of the city date back to the crusades of the 13th century, when crusading knights built the first castle in the area. During the 13th-16th centuries, Tallinn was a major trading city and centre of commerce, with its architecture owing much to the wealth of this period. The Old Town has retained its medieval urban plan of narrow winding streets and impressive public and private buildings, including the Town Hall, pharmacy, churches, monasteries, merchants’ and craftsmen’ shops, as well as merchants’ private dwellings.

It says something when an Australian customer, who also travelled around Finland and the northern parts of Sweden and Norway, as well as visiting London, Rome, and Barcelona, declared at the end of his trip that Tallinn was his favourite destination of them all. If you have never visited a medieval Old Town, it will be unlike anything you’ve ever seen; it is a world of its own.

Riga (Latvia)

Riga, the capital city of Latvia, is also a beautiful, ancient Hanseatic city with its Historic Centre full of picturesque cobble-stone streets. Much like Tallinn, the city was founded in early 13th century and became a major centre of trade and commerce during the 13th-15th centuries, the medieval core reflecting the prosperity of those times. In the 17th century, Riga became the biggest provincial city owned by Sweden. In the 19th century, Riga’s rapid industrial development led to the expansion of the city beyond its medieval core, first seeing the rise of imposing wooden buildings in neoclassical style, and later the construction of elaborate Art Nouveau style stone buildings. In fact, the quantity and quality of Riga’s amazing Art Nouveau architecture remains unparalleled anywhere in the world even to this very day.

The Historic Centre of Riga is a beautiful open-air museum in itself; it is a living illustration of European history. Our walking tour takes you to the Riga Castle, the Dome Cathedral, St. Peter's Church, the Swedish Gate, the Three Brothers, the Large and Small Guilds and the Freedom Monument, all with their own histories and tales to tell.

Vilnius (Lithuania)

The Historic Centre of Vilnius shares many aspects with Tallinn and Riga, but it is also distinctly different. Its origins date all the way back to 1000 AD when the first wooden castle was built in the area. In the 13th century, the castle settlement grew into a town and became the political centre of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. The historic centre consists of the areas of the three castles (Upper, Lower and Curved) as well as another area encircled by a wall in the Middle Ages. The shape of the city is circular, radiating out from the original castle. The streets are typically medieval, with small streets dividing the centre into various blocks and large squares having been introduced in later periods. The historic buildings are in Gothic, Renaissance, Baroque and Classical styles, laid out in medieval style, thus giving the city its distinct appearance.

Vilnius has more than 1200 medieval buildings and 48 churches. Our sightseeing tour will introduce you to the secrets of the Vilnius Cathedral, Gediminas Tower, Peter and Paul Church, St. Anne's Church, Old University and the Gates of Dawn, among many other significant sights.

St Petersburg, the ‘Venice of the North’ (Russia)

St Petersburg, Russia’s former capital city, is again a world of its own. It is very different from the Old Towns of the Baltic capitals, yet it shares their magical quality. Like with them, you can feel history in your fingertips, but it has an altogether different quality to it. A contrast is alive here; the splendour of the buildings takes you back to a time of princes and princesses, and yet there is also a sense of darkness that lingers and reminds the visitor of many difficult times in the 20th century.

In terms of the city’s appearance and layout, it has long been clear that the urban landscape of St Petersburg was a unique artistic achievement and the greatest urban creation of the 18th century. From 1703 to 1725, Peter the Great oversaw the transformation of the landscape of marshes, peat bogs and rocks into one of the most beautiful and grand cities in all of Europe. With the building of numerous canals and more than 400 bridges, the city’s historical centre became characterised by a perfect harmony of architecture and waterscapes. The architectural styles of the buildings are a combination of Baroque and pure neoclassical styles, best represented by buildings, such as the famous Winter Palace, the Admiralty, the Marble Palace and the Hermitage. Love it or hate it, St Petersburg is a Must-See destination in anyone’s lifetime!

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As a Nordic and Russian tour operator, at 50 Degrees North we are more than happy to help make a holiday to this region stress free!