29 September, 2012

Cheapskate Chronicles Redux: Free Walking Tours in the Baltic States

Literatu G. (Vilnius, Lithuania)
After a hiatus, I was eager to embark on my next travel adventure, and decided to map out a trip to the Baltic States. Nowadays people like to refer to these countries individually, instead of the collective Soviet-era umbrella nickname, so just to be clear I'm talking about Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia.Why? No reason in particular, but probably a curiosity to learn about some lesser-visited countries (by Americans, anyway) was a factor. 

As usual,  I set about planning my two week holiday by Googling "free walking tours" and then adding Vilnius, Riga, and Tallinn, only half-expecting to actually find any. However, a pleasant surprise was in store as results came up for student-run  Yellow Free tours, which as luck would have it, operated free walking tours in all three cities I plugged in (and then some). So, I am happy to report that I took all three free walking tours (please do tip the guides), and below is a recap.

Constitution Wall, Uzupis republic (Vilnius, Lithuania)
Vilnius, Lithuania. A turnout of about forty people were on hand in front of Vilnius' Town Hall for the Vilnius free tour. The guide (Martina) showed up holding a battered bright yellow briefcase (thus the "Yellow" in Yellow Free tours), the sight of which brightened up everyone's moods on this cold, cloudy day. True to its motto of guiding tourists to leave the beaten track, our walking tour bypassed popular sights such as the Cathedral and Gediminas Tower inside the old town, but rather crossed the bridge over to the mock independent republic of Uzupis, an artists' colony and bohemian district. 

After looking at some off-beat public art pieces along the river, and examining their hysterical Constitution Wall (translated into ten languages!), we circled back through the hills for a nice view of the Vilnius skyline and landed on Literatu St., where small artworks are mounted on a wall as a tribute to famous literary figures in Lithuanian literature. Not something I would have particularly noticed if not for the tour as the Lonely Planet guidebook didn't play it up.  I found Martina and the tour to be quite entertaining, and whetted my appetite for a longer stroll in Uzupis on a later date.

Riga, Latvia. Even the most uninformed traveler has heard of Riga's reputation as the party capital of the Baltic States, with heaps of young Brits flying in for stag dos and hen parties (thanks Ryanair!). My agenda focused more on the milder, historical side of Latvia's capital. 

Stalin's birthday cake (Riga, Latvia)
The free walking tour in Riga went all over the place, literally. After meeting our guide (again with the battered yellow briefcase - where do they get those things?!), we started off with a quick peek and briefing inside Riga's Central Market, notable not only for the produce and seafood available within, but also for the reused German zeppelin hangars. Then, we went to the other side of the train station away from the Old Town and into the lesser-explored "Moscow Suburb" area of Riga. 

In this area, we passed by Spikeri, where warehouses are becoming gentrified and turning into cafes and art galleries. This district still has a lot of the traditional old wooden houses, some of them converted into the unlikeliest of businesses. Other notable sights include the Academy of Science, unofficially known as "Stalin's birthday cake" and which by some stretch of imagination resembles the Empire State building, and the Holocaust Memorial which pays tribute to brave Latvians who hid Jews during the war.

Eventually, we retraced our steps back to the train station, and came out to the other side into Central Riga, the new part of town where business hotels proliferate. A stroll on Elizabetes Iela brought us to the Radisson Blu hotel, whose tourist hangout Skybar offers excellent views of the Old Town from its 26th floor perch. They've started charging a 2 lats (approx. $3.80) admission fee from Thursday to Sunday, alas.  The 2 1/2 hour walking tour ended in the small park across from the hotel, and it's a short walk back to the familiar confines of the Old Town. 

Tallinn, Estonia. The Old Town, with its wonderfully preserved medieval walls and numerous pointy church spires, attracts up to six daily cruise ships at the height of summer. While most of the passengers take ultra-expensive tours flogged by their cruise line, the savvy ones make a beeline for the daily Tallinn free walking tour at noon. Given that the Old Town is quite small, easily navigable by foot, and the port is only a 10 to 15 minute walk away, it's the best way to learn some history on the cheap. 

Tallinn, as seen from viewing platform
The tour meets outside the Tourism office just off the main square, and makes its way through Toompea hill just outside the city walls. There you'll find out why one of the towers is called "Kiek in the Kok" (it's a long story), peek inside St. Alexander's Orthodox Cathedral, and come face-to-face with Tallinn's pink-hued City Hall (forgot to ask the guide about the interesting choice of colors). 

Of course, holidays wouldn't be complete without having your photo taken, so an obligatory stop is made at a viewing platform in Toompea where your shots of the Tallinn skyline are sure to delight Facebook friends back home. 

Among three walking tours I took, this one had the least among of walking and clocked in at just slightly below two hours, but was no less interesting and delightful as the ones in Riga and Vilnius. In every instance, the guides made the tours fun, spoke very good English, and were helpful in answering whatever smoldering questions visitors had. The Baltic States are a relatively inexpensive destination, with these tours as one (or three) of the capital cities'  screaming bargains.

 For an rundown of other free walking tours I've taken in Europe, check out this link

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