This Baltic road trip itinerary will take you down roads less traveled, through parts of Estonia and Latvia that are little seen by casual tourists. I’ve omitted Lithuania from this Baltic itinerary in the interest of time. I’d rather stay longer in fewer places, really getting to know them. Plus, Lithuania has enough quality attractions to warrant its own separate trip.
You can probably complete this Baltic road trip in one week, though it all depends how much you want to linger in each destination. I’ve included a few additional stops for lucky travelers with more days to spare.
Baltic Road Trip Itinerary
If you are considering an Estonia and Latvia road trip, there is no better season to embark than autumn. By mid-October, the heavily forested nations form a golden necklace around the Baltic Sea. Traveling from north to south will give you the best chance to experience peak foliage. Thus, this itinerary starts in Tallinn and ends in Riga. In between will be a scenic drive through staggeringly beautiful countryside and a charming assortment of small towns and villages. I firmly believe in getting off the beaten path!
Here is the basic route: Tallinn – Lahemaa National Park – Narva – Lake Peipsi – Tartu – Cesis – Sigulda – Riga
Tallinn is a magical place to begin your Baltic adventure. The Estonian capital was founded in the 13th century and prospered as a member of the Hanseatic League. German traders established guilds and churches and built colorful homes around the central market square, many of which stand to this day. But what makes Tallinn truly special is the medieval stone walls that encircle the old town. Punctuated with watchtowers, these walls look as though they’ve been plucked from the pages of a storybook. You will want at least a day to explore this enchanting city. Read my Tallinn Guide for details.
Optional add-on: Kadriorg Palace. This beautiful 18th century palace was built by Russian Czar Peter the Great as a retreat for his beloved wife, Catherine. It now serves as the Kadriorg Museum of Art, an elaborate backdrop to Estonia’s repository of foreign art. Kadriorg Palace can be visited on a day trip from Tallinn or en route to the next stop.
Lahemaa National Park encompasses 748 square kilometers and is the largest park in Estonia. The landscape varies from pristine forest and rocky coastline to raised bogs and waterfalls. There are plenty of hiking and cycling trails for those wishing to immerse themselves in nature. Paved roads wind past quaint villages and elegant manor houses that celebrate Estonia’s Baltic German heritage.
Optional add-on: Rakvere Castle. The ruins of this 14th century fortress have been converted into a medieval theme park that’s as fun as it is educational. After spending a morning at Kadriorg Palace and an afternoon in Lahemaa National Park, Rakvere could be a convenient place to spend the night.
Follow the E20 highway east until you come to Narva, which sits directly across from the Russian border. It was here in 1700 that the fateful first battle between Peter the Great of Russia and Charles XII of Sweden was waged. Despite heavy bombing in WWII which completely destroyed the city, Narva Castle still stands. It faces off against the imposing Ivangorod Fortress on the Russian side, with only a narrow river between them. Check out my Narva Guide for more photos of this impressive sight!
From Narva, double back along the E20 and then turn south on the E264. This will take you to Lake Peipsi, the largest transboundary lake in Europe. The Estonian shore is dotted with Old Believer villages, founded by Russians who fled religious persecution in their homeland in the 17th century. Each village is centered around a colorful church, which are easily located by the Estonian word “kirik” on brown road signs. You can follow the E264 all the way to Tartu, but I recommend veering onto route 43 which hugs the lake. Read this guide for information on the quaint villages along Estonia’s “Onion Route.”
Tartu is the second largest city in Estonia as well as the oldest. It is home to the prestigious University of Tartu and the Estonian National Museum, which provides a fascinating look at the country’s folk art traditions. One could easily spend a day or two exploring this charming city. This is especially true in autumn, when the hillside behind the university turns a brilliant shade of yellow. It’s possibly the best place to enjoy fall foliage in the Baltics. See my weekend guide to Tartu for more details.
Continue southwest on the E264 and you will cross the border into Latvia. The next major destination is Cesis, reached via the A3 and P20 highways. The drive from Tartu to Cesis can be done in just over two hours, unless you stop along the way. I highly recommend taking a slight detour through Koceni, Latvia. The restored Kokmuiza Manor sits above a small lake that’s so lovely it could be a painting. This is fall leaf peeping at its absolute best.
Optional add-on: Valmiera. The P20 runs directly through the town of Valmiera, making it an easy place to stop if you have extra time. Centuries ago, a Prussian duke with a conveniently located hunting lodge welcomed esteemed guests with homemade beer. That tradition continues today at Valmiermuiza, one of the best breweries in Latvia. Just please don’t drink and drive!
Cesis is one of the prettiest small towns in Latvia. It also has some of the most enchanting castle ruins you’ll find anywhere. Cesis Castle was built by Livonian knights in 1209 and served as a regional stronghold for 500 years. The town’s medieval streets fan out from an old stone church which has recently undergone a major restoration. Many of the remaining buildings date to the 18th century and hold a variety of shops and cafes. Read my winter guide to Cesis to see why it’s a splendid place in any season.
Nearby Sigulda is also home to some medieval castle ruins you won’t want to miss. The most impressive is the partially-restored red brick Turaida Castle. Perched on a hill above the Gauja River, Turaida’s towers have punctuated the skyline since the 13th century. And what a view from the top! The ruins are located within Latvia’s Gauja National Park, which is considered the premier autumn destination in the country. Read my Sigulda guide for a complete list of things to do in the area.
The stunning Latvian capital, Riga, absolutely shines during the autumn season. Golden foliage frames the city canal, once a moat that flowed beside now-gone medieval fortifications. But what Riga lacks in fairytale turrets, it more than makes up for with its astonishing Art Nouveau architecture and thriving cafe culture. Of all the Baltic cities, Riga is the most dynamic, with museums and attractions galore. It is also the most colorful, thanks to the Latvian fondness for flowers. Read my Riga in autumn guide to see some of the unique events and activities the season brings.
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