Visiting St. Petersburg has been a dream of mine since I began traveling, and over the years many of the Baltic capitals have made it onto my wishlist as well. Preparing for this trip, I knew what I was looking forward to seeing and what I thought each city was going to be like.
But as we traveled through the Baltics to St. Petersburg, my favorite part of the experience was the surprises along the way—things that I hadn’t expected to see and places I hadn’t planned to fall in love with. Some of these surprises have stuck with me as my favorite moments on tour—here’s why I can’t wait to return for a second visit.
City walls of Tallinn, Estonia
When we arrived in Tallinn, we had several hours of free time before we were scheduled to meet back up for dinner, and our group split up to explore a little bit of the medieval Old Town. Our hotel was right outside of Viru Gate, the entrance to lower town, so I headed that way to walk along the old stone walls of the city. Walking past the stalls of vendors selling local handicrafts of wool and juniper wood, I saw a door leading into the wall and a sign saying you could buy tickets to climb up and walk along them. I immediately went right in, bought my ticket and started climbing.
Despite not being a fan of heights, it was one of the top highlights of my time in Tallinn, and one of my favorite memories of the tour. I joked afterwards to my group that it may have taken a few years off my life, but the view was worth it! Not only were there amazing views of the old city but, looking out over the countryside and the road to the Viru Gate and more modern areas of the city, you could imagine when these walls were used for the defense of medieval Tallinn.
Art Nouveau architecture in Riga
I’ve always loved Art Nouveau art and architecture, and I knew Riga was a great example of this, but I still was blown away by the beauty of this city. Riga became the capital of independent Latvia in 1918. In the period before World War I, the city of Riga nearly doubled its population, becoming the fourth-largest city in the then-Russian Empire.
During this time, newly wealthy businessmen rejected Victorian architectural styles and embraced the freedom and natural elements of Jugendstil (the name for the popular style of the time), and used their wealth to construct many of the city’s iconic Art Nouveau buildings. UNESCO has recognized the city of Riga as a World Heritage site for having one of the best collections of Art Nouveau buildings in the world, and the city was named the European Capital of Culture in 2014.
I was so impressed by the city of Riga, but while we were there I had the chance to join our two optional excursions that went outside the city: Cultural Traditions of the Latvian Countryside and Old-World Latvia: Castles, Valleys & Villages. I had never realized what a beautiful country Latvia is, and on these two trips we got to see such variety of landscapes and learned what life has been like in Latvia throughout history. We admired locals’ homes, their iconic Baltic saunas and their arts and crafts.
The next day we ventured out into the Gauja Valley, which is unique to Latvia’s geography—it’s hilly, while the rest of the country is mostly flat. We visited two castles on opposing banks of the Gauja River, and learned of the conflict between the Teutonic Knights of Sigulda Castle and Bishop Albert of Turaida Castle, a clash that defined the history of this region. As a history buff I was fascinated by all of this, but I was amazed by the stunning landscape that surrounded us all day.
Walking the streets of St. Petersburg
I’ve wanted to visit St. Petersburg for as long as I can remember, and I knew all the major sites I wanted to see there: the Winter Palace, Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood, the Mariinsky Theatre. I loved these places just as much as I expected to, but my favorite part of the city ended up being the time I had on my own to walk the streets and explore.
St. Petersburg has such a different energy than any other European capital I’d been to, and slowing down to watch the happenings around me was such a memorable experience. Strolling through the Summer Gardens, enjoying some ice cream in the park in front of the Admiralty building, while school children played in the fountains, and watching the tiny cruise boats floating down the canals, I fell in love with the city I’ve held in my imagination for so long.