(The guides below are
based on the following visits: Riga: Oct 2000 & April 2003; Vilnius:
Sept 1998, April 2003 and August 2005; Kaunas: April 2003)
I’ve been lucky enough to have been to the Baltics
on four separate occasions so far, and I dearly love this part of
the world. However I cannot claim to be an expert in this field,
so what follows is merely some suggestions that may give some alternative
ideas about what to do, see and drink.
Aside from a wide amount of expert knowledge amongst the Tartan
Army at large, and the conventional guide books such as Lonely Planet,
another excellent source of information for this part of the world
exists in the In Your Pocket
Latvia is the central Baltic nation, and is the shortest from top
to bottom. It is often assumed to sit in the middle of the other
two in terms of stereotypes – Estonia and Lithuania form the
extremes. One thing to note is the high Russian population –
around 47% of the population are ethnically Russian, and indeed
they form a majority in the two biggest cities: Riga and Daugavapils.
Most of this is the result of the massive population displacements
the nation suffered under Soviet rule (visit Riga’s moving
occupation museum for a better understanding). As a result, Latvia
itself is very exacting with citizenship, and language and history
tests have to be passed before it is granted. This has all led to
a lot of anti-Russian racism, a backlash of sorts, and a fair bit
of tension: you are very unlikely to experience this (unless you
are close to Latvians or Russians, or speak either language).
Riga is my favourite of the Baltic capitals as it is just a functional
big city with a very pretty centre. By that, I mean it doesn’t
care if you are a tourist or not, it just gets on with being what
it is, with or without you (this is hard to explain, but I like
The action is pretty much centred around the old town, known as
Vecriga. Full of narrow, cobbled lanes and red brick churches and
buildings, Riga has maintained many links with it’s Hanseatic
past. The city celebrated it’s 800th anniversary in 2001,
and was European Capital of Culture to celebrate. There are many
sights to see, some of which I’ve listed below, and a good
way to get your bearing is to take the minibus tour of the city
from in front of the Rifleman’s statue (most hotels and the
tourist office in the House of the Blackheads has info on this).
The Hotel Konventa Seta is very highly recommended – I’ve
stayed in all sorts of rooms there on my three visits (standard
double, junior suite and suite). All are very spacious (obviously,
they get bigger as you go up), and the cleaners are stunning. Radi
un Dragi (Friends and Relatives) is also highly recommended –
it’s right opposite Dickens Pub. For all mod-cons, use the
Radisson SAS – just bear in mind that it’s a long way
across the river!
As well as the Skyline Bar mentioned above (which is more of a
sight anyway – not one for a session!), here are a few more
you may wish to consider:
A La – Best bar
in the Baltics? It’s not to everyone’s tastes, but
if you can find it, it’s well worth a visit. Even if it’s
just for the crisps served delicately in a basket.
Zeppelin – Fitted
out like a Zeppelin cabin, and brewing it’s own (slightly
dodgy) beer, zeppelin is a pleasing place to sink a few.
Runcis – A madcap
place, full of characters, and bikes, and with big pictures of
cats on the walls. This is in a wee courtyard next to the Konventa
Alus Seta – An
absolute must visit. A Latvian beer and food hall (Alus Seta translates
to Beer Yard) near the Cathedral – here, you can try several
types of beer and queue up for a Latvian carvery, all for next
to nothing. Owned by the Lido group, who also own…
Staburags – more
a restaurant than a pub, but still well worth a visit. Try the
knuckle of pork – it almost broke our table. Say hello to
Alexander, the mad Russian biker tattooist, if you see him.
Klondaika – A
humble pool hall, but the scene of the Notts/NATA pre-match shenanigans
before the 2000 match. When we went back on a Friday night in
April 2003, the place was full of scantily clad Russian youngsters
downing the cheap drinks ahead of hitting a club. A culture shock
Amsterdama – Probably
the most refined drinking option in town, outside of the hotel
bars. Has Spaten Bavarian pils on tap (if you like that sort of
thing, which I don’t).
Rigas Balsams Baras
– very trendy bar at the Arsenal end of Vecriga. Well worth
a visit for the superb range of Balsam cocktails – I had
the ice cream one, and it was delicious – even in the middle
of a freezing blizzard outside.
FC Barcelona –
Directly opposite the Skonto Stadium, and a wee bit out of the
centre – this is handy for food and a wide range of beer
if you’re in the area. Very modern, and Premiership football
on the telly.
Paddy Whelans –
Riga’s most famous, and biggest, Irish pub. Okay, but you’re
not in Dublin, you’re in Riga. Apparently has a posh bit
upstairs, but never went to look for it.
Dickens – English
pub (with upstairs restaurant) directly opposite Paddy Whelans.
Go, if you must, but with so many other choices I don’t
know why you would.
Tim McShanes –
A decent choice for food, although it’s right next to the
much cheaper, and much more authentic, Alus Seta. One to consider
when you want familiarity.
The Dublin – The
smallest, yet friendliest, of Riga’s Irish pubs. Went there
in 2000 and was plied with free vodka. Couldn’t find it
again in 2003, but wasn’t really looking too hard –
up near the Hotel de Rome.
Just down the coast from Riga, and practically conjoined
to the Riga metropolis, is the gorgeous resort of Jurmala, home
to many a retired Soviet colonel. Jurmala is actually a string of
several towns joined together along the beach – Majori seems
to be where it’s mostly at, and has a Disney-esque main street
lined with brightly coloured houses. Head down to the wide golden
sandy beach, where there are plenty of facilities, including an
amusement park, several bars on the sand itself and changing facilities.
Local trains leave regularly from Riga’s main station (just
to the south-east of Vecriga) – these are the biggest trains
you will ever see! Get off at Majori, where you too can experience
the worst Gents toilet I have ever seen – if it hadn’t
been for the gnarled old woman charging 15p a go I would have been
back in with a camera just to prove it to you!
We went on a warm (for the Baltics) September day – you may
want to give it a miss if you’re there in February!
Lithuania is the least Westernised of the Baltic states
(although there are real signs of change), and shares many bonds
with neighbouring Poland– not least of which a strong Catholic
faith. Sometimes called the “Italians of the Baltics”,
the locals have a reputation for being passionate and hot-headed
– something I would have to agree with!
The local beer available in abundance is Utenos, although there
are other brands. The beer is decent enough – a pils taste,
although slightly heavier to digest. If you get the chance in either
Vilnius or Kaunas to try Avilys – don’t miss it! The
normal stuff is top notch, the Ginseng Beer a bit too stoutish,
but the Honey Beer is one of the best beers I have ever tasted.
The local spirit is mead – “midus” – and
comes in a range of potencies, from a respectable 12% to a mindblowing
75% (Absinthe generally clocks in at 70%!). The first time I tried
mead was in 1998 – I had just under a fiver worth of Litas
left at the airport, so bought a small earthenware Grolsch-style
bottle at the airport (green label = 12%, blue = 25%, red = 50%
- I chose red). I have never, ever known anything to get 4 grown
men drunk so quickly (i.e. just a single shot, after a few beers).
The second time I tried mead was in April 2003 – a gift from
a drunken, aged skinhead, it was brought to me alight on a silver
platter with a bicycle bell (which the waitress was ringing). I
managed half the double-shot before the straw melted, and my night
came to an abrupt end shortly after.
Vilnius is just as unique as the other Baltic capitals,
and can also boast the largest medieval Old Town in Europe –
this led to some early claims of it being “the New Prague”
(I first heard them in 1998 on my first visit). By 2005, the tourist
infrastructure was certainly improved, even from 2 years previous.
The Old Town is very spread out, and is bestowed with wide streets
and low buildings – all of this allows a lot of sunlight to
hit the brightly painted buildings, making this a much more colourful
city than most. The Old Town centres on two elongated Squares (yes,
I know they make rectangles) – Didzioji and Vokieciu, joined
together to form an “L”, however the most magnificent
of the sights is the Cathedral. Standing at the eastern end of Gedimino
Prosp, the massive white building stands in it’s own square,
and has an unusual stand-alone bell tower around 50 metres away.
Legend has it that there is a lucky slab somewhere between the tower
and the cathedral’s front door.
Immediately behind the Cathedral is Gedaminas Hill, topped by a
small fort – climb up here and pay the admission fee for a
great view over the old city and of Three Crosses hill.in the other
direction. Just down from here is Uzupio, an area with a bohemian
reputation but I’ve never been myself. The back-streets between
the old town and Uzupio are very atmospheric and well worth exploring.
As well as Gediminas Hill
and the Cathedral (above),
other sights include
Gates of Dawn –
beautiful gate and church on a slight hill at the southern end
of Ausros Vartu, off Didzolji.
Cathedral Square and Cathedral – stunning, stark white
KGB Museum – not
as great as everyone made it out to be (I prefer Riga’s
Occupation Museum), but still well worth a visit – it’s
along Gedimino Prosp opposite Lukiskes.
Frank Zappa statue –
the only one in the world, apparently. But its still just a statue.
You’ll find it just off Pylimo on K. Kalinausko.
Zalgiris Stadium –
North of the Neris from the Old Town (take the Zaliasis Bridge
and see the remaining Communist statues), the stadium is a small
communist bowl with limited cover. There’s not much to get
out there for, and certainly no club shop or such – if you
do make the trek, be sure to try the Antalia Bar (below).
The PUB – the quintessential
Vilnius boozer, loved by most of the visiting Tartan Army, yet
hated by me for some of the worst beer in the country! Features:
a cosy bar up front, an even cosier bit downstairs that I didn’t
get to visit, a barn-sized beer-hall out back and a criminal shortage
of toilets. On the plus side, the pizza was lovely, and the steaks
were recommended by the Milngavie Boys, but not the cheapest food
you could get in Vilnius! An institution, so probably deserves
a visit on the strength of that alone.
Naktinis Vilkas –
More of a club than a pub. From the Lithuania Diary: “The
DJ was spinning heavy house tunes from the cockpit of a MIG jet
that had crashed into the dance floor, but the quieter bar area
had big velvet seats with lots of soviet imagery, and there were
mannequins of Lenin and “Uncle Joe” behind the bar
(and the staff were more than happy to let us climb over for photos).”
Brodvejus (aka “Broadway”)
– A complete meat-market! Down a side-street just
along from the Radisson SAS, Broadway boasts a small-ish downstairs
bar, a bigger and more comfortable bar, and a dance floor (with
mezzanine level) that could comfortably house a small aircraft.
Open until very late, but expect a small fee to get in (£1-£3).
Avilys – this is
a brew-pub with top-notch grub and far and away the best beer
in town, and posh enough for the Lithuanian FA to wine and dine
David Taylor here! Make sure you try the Honey Beer, or, if you’re
feeling adventurous, one of the beer cocktails. This is just down
from the Cathedral Square, on the right hand side as you walk
away from the Cathedral. GO HERE!
Antalia Bar, Zalgiris Stadium
– a far out choice, but essential if you’re
ground-hopping. The Antalia Bar is one of a couple of bars actually
built into the stadium’s outside wall (at the north-west
corner). Unlikely to be open for full international, but looked
lived in enough to be open the rest of the time.
Po Grin Dis, opposite Zalgiris
Stadium – a functional but very friendly local, north
of the river, and just over the road from the ground.
Bix – a down-to-earth
rockers bar, behind the Radisson SAS hotel in the main square.
Cheap, cheerful (as rockers will allow) and best seen through
a haze of alcohol. Scene of the mead and bicycle bell incident.
Busi Trecias –
a two storey pub down a dark side-street (Totoriu) off Gedimino.
Downstairs was very busy, but we went upstairs to sit amongst
the office parties. Another brew-pub, although think hard before
ordering the cherry beer!
The Globe Bar (Shakespeare Hotel)
– a touch of class! Wooden and velvet furniture,
bookcases and a genteel atmosphere – the Globe Bar is in
the Shakespeare Hotel, sort of behind Cathedral Square to the
south (and opposite a youth hostel). Slightly pricier than outside
options, but still cheaper than you will be used to.
Pylimo – Pylimo
is a long street that runs along the western boundary of the Old
Town, from the Station up to Gedaminas Prospektas. There are a
number of local pub options as you head north – most notably
the pub in the basement of the Aeroflot building (draw your own
conclusions!), and around the corner in Pamenkalnio. Worth a look
to see how the locals drink!
Astoria Bar – in
the lobby (turn right as you go in) of the Radisson SAS hotel
in the heart of the old town. Posh, expensive but classy, and
looks out at street level so ideal for people-watching.
quirky pub down a dead-end side street (Antokolskio) that does
food and some more unusual beer.
SkyBar – on the
top floor of the very shiny Lietuva Hotel (re-opened a couple
of years ago, and light years from the Soviet throwback we stayed
at in 1998). Very glam, cocktails are a must, dahling, but everything
comes at a price. Sister of the Skyline Bar in Riga.
Prospekto PUB –
the spiritual successor to the legendary Prie Parlomento is much
better situated, a stones throw from the cathedral at Gedomino
2. Large and spacious, with a dance floor right in front of the
bar and a dancing pole on the bar (we were in on a Sunday afternoon
– no dancing going on, I’m afraid), and most crucially,
pear cider on draught. Apparently very popular at weekend evenings
when it becomes more of a club – I’d recommend it
on what I saw.
Kaunas is Lithuania’s second city, and is just over an hour’s
drive from Vilnius (or two hours if you’re in an A-Team van
with a lost Armenian driver!). The centre is pretty small, and is
based on a peninsula bordered by two rivers, with the Old Town squeezed
right down into the point. To be truthful, the Old Town seemed pretty
quiet, although the square and cobbled streets were pleasant enough.
The real action was up on the precinct, which has to be the biggest
I’ve ever seen! It must stretch for at least 2 miles, right
up to a stunning Kremlin-style church.
A student town, Kaunas does have several nightlife options, but
we were only there for a day (with the match in the evening).
No bars stood out as particular favourites, and the service seemed
pretty slow in all of them (doubtless caught off guard by a couple
of thousand thirsty Scots!), although we met up with most people
in the large Metropolis. Special mention to the Cowboy restaurant/bar
where we had lunch (in the cobbled street leading down to the precinct)
and to the Kaunas branch of Avilys (no Ginseng beer, but plenty