Beguiled by the Baltics

The sights are rich, and the costs low.

The cobbled streets are wonderful, and the centuries-old buildings sublime. But one of the finest things about vacationing in Tallinn, the capital of Estonia, is the cost. A bean soup and broiled pork lunch at Eesti Maja, one of the best Estonian food restaurants in the city, will set you back $8; a spacious sea-view room with breakfast for two at the monolithic Soviet-style Best Eastern Pirita Top Spa hotel comes in at little more than $70. Tourists can have a great time in this lively historic port without breaking the bank.

It's the same in the Latvian capital, Riga, and its Lithuanian counterpart, Vilnius. Despite the average 20% rise in the countries' currencies against the dollar over the past 12 months, both cities offer excellent value. Food and accommodation aren't the only things that are cheap -- so are dental work and medical treatment. An increasing number of visitors to Latvia, which has a surplus of doctors and a reputation for good private health care, come especially to have their teeth taken care of, and even to undergo heart surgery. Call it medical tourism.

This part of the world has a lot of other things going for it as well. Take the historic architecture of the capital cities, each of which is a Unesco-designated World Heritage Center. Tallinn and Riga were both Hanseatic ports that flourished in medieval times. During the same period, Vilnius was capital of the Lithuanian empire that ruled huge tracts of modern-day Poland and Ukraine. The three cities became prosperous trading centers where Swedish, Russian, and, especially, German merchants mingled with the local population. Most of the inscriptions in St. Olaf's church in Tallinn and St. Peter's in Riga are in German, a testament to the leading role that German-speaking traders played in both cities.

The richer they became, the more the inhabitants of the Baltic capitals spent on their houses, churches, and guildhalls. The results are spectacular. Despite repeated wars, fires, and, most recently, 50 years of Soviet occupation, much of the old architecture has survived intact. Witness Vilnius: The city is packed with monuments. In addition to the medieval Midininkai Gate, there are 15th to 18th century palaces, the city hall, and numerous religious buildings, including 20 Catholic churches, four Russian Orthodox churches, several synagogues, and a handful of monasteries. The combination of styles -- Gothic, Renaissance, Classical, Modern, and Baroque -- makes the old city center especially attractive.

The mix of cultures evident in Baltic architecture is borne out in the local food. The basic cuisine tends to be hearty, based on pork and herring. It is heavily influenced by Scandinavian and Russian tastes. That's especially true in Riga, where most people still speak Russian. Many local restaurants serve dishes such as pelmeni (dumplings), blini (pancakes), and shchi (cabbage soup). Diners' favorite tipple seems to be vodka.

One of the best ways to sample local fare is to eat dinner at the massive Lido Mills restaurant complex, just a five-minute drive from the center of Riga. It's worth going just to see the building, a modern wooden structure linking numerous thatched huts and a giant windmill. Here up to 1,500 people a night eat Russian and Latvian food in a variety of self-service restaurants on three floors. Vodka and beer are plentiful and cheap, and there's even a dance floor, which is packed on weekends. A three-course dinner for two, with a bottle of wine, comes to less than $25.

The Baltic peoples -- who are famous for their melodious folk songs -- know how to let their hair down. Fun-loving visitors shouldn't miss a night at Pepsi Forums, a discotheque in Riga where Russian techno music alternates with Western pop.

The Russian presence remains strong in the Baltic states. Each country was part of the Russian empire until just after the revolution of 1917. After they were annexed by the Soviet Union in 1940, the government in Moscow shipped many people from Russia to live there. But it's Finns, rather than Russians, doing the large-scale partying most weekends in Tallinn. The ancient port is just an hour by ferry from Helsinki, and Finns come over by the thousands in search of cheap handicrafts and drink.

One of the best ways to see the Baltics is to sail from Stockholm or Helsinki to Tallinn, then drive overland to Riga and Vilnius. Large swathes of the countryside are unspoiled. The bogs of Estonia are oddly soothing, and the forests of Latvia and Lithuania are full of wildlife. The infrastructure outside the cities often leaves a lot to be desired -- a half-century of Communist rule has seen to that. Service in shops and restaurants can be slow. But most folks are friendly and welcome tourists warmly. And they don't charge an arm and a leg.

By David Fairlamb

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