Small Groups: Never more than 10-16 travelers—guaranteed!
Few regions possess a more turbulent history than the Baltic states of Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia. After countless wars, occupations—even a “singing” revolution—these countries have re-emerged to reveal their splendor to the world. Travel to the Baltic capitals and discover the turrets, spires, and winding cobbled streets of Vilnius, Riga, and Tallinn—three capitals that managed to lovingly preserve the timeless elegance of their Old Towns as UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Then cast your eyes to Mother Russia for an in-depth discovery of the wonders of St. Petersburg, the glorious city on the Neva founded by Peter the Great early in the 18th century as a showcase for Russia’s imperial might. Travel to St. Petersburg and the Baltic capitals and take in the rich sweep of history, unique cultures, and natural beauty of one of Europe's long-buried treasures.
You depart the U.S. for Vilnius, Lithuania.
After an overnight flight, arrive at the Vilnius airport, where an OAT representative will greet you. Once we check into our hotel, we have an orientation walk, followed by a brief orientation session and a Welcome Drink, and meet travelers from the pre-trip extension to Kiev, Ukraine. This evening, enjoy an introduction to hearty Lithuanian cuisine during a Welcome Dinner at a local restaurant.
After breakfast, we embark on a tour of the Lithuanian capital. Although the exact location of its original capital city has been lost to time, the Grand Duchy of Lithuania was the first established state in this region. Vilnius distinguished itself as an important cultural center when Vilnius University opened in 1579, immediately attracting students from as far away as Sweden and Hungary. The 20th century proved a turbulent time for the Baltic city, but its historical buildings survived. We begin our exploration by walking the cobbled streets of the city’s compact Old Town to admire the carefully restored Baroque buildings and medieval charm that earned it UNESCO World Heritage status. We’ll also explore the linked courtyards of Vilnius University before taking a bus to view the magnificent stucco sculptures that adorn the Peter and Paul Cathedral.
Then we’ll journey to Darguziai to experience A Day in the Life of a Lithuanian village. We’ll begin our cultural discoveries with a Home-Hosted Lunch with a local family, a special opportunity to experience local cuisine while we get to learn about daily life in this unique region of Lithuania. Then we’ll pay a visit to the village’s famous cheese house, where we will have a brief discussion about their local cheese-making traditions. Finally, we’ll visit the village’s community house and its library for the chance to engage in a discussion with some of the local villagers.
After returning to Vilnius, dinner is on your own this evening.
This morning, join an optional hot-air balloon tour for a unique perspective on the medieval city and surrounding countryside. Or, enjoy time at leisure. After, we’ll take a brief journey outside of Vilnius to Trakai, considered the de facto medieval Lithuanian capital because Duke Vytautas the Great preferred the dreamy landscape punctuated by scenic lakes and islands over Vilnius. First, we take a short boat ride to visit the island of Trakai Castle, a red brick, fairy-tale fortress built by Vytautas and his father in the 15th century to fend off German knights. Then we’ll meet with some local Karaims, who belong to the oldest Turkish tribe—Kipchaks—who were brought from Crimea to Trakai in the 14th century as bodyguards for the castle. During a cooking demonstration, they will share some insights into their culture with us and we'll enjoy a lunch of traditional Karaite specialties, such as kibinai or chebureki (savory meat pastries).
Afterwards, we ride a local train back to Vilnius for a tour of the Museum of Genocide Victims—commonly called the "KGB Museum" because it occupies the former KGB headquarters. For much of the 20th century, Vilnius was under brutal, communist Soviet occupation, both before and after a three-year Nazi occupation during World War II. While Lithuania was a state of the USSR, anti-Soviet resistance gained power and the people finally elected a government in 1990 that declared Lithuanian independence. The Soviets gave up the city the same way they had taken it—violently. We’ll view exhibits that serve as a memorial to the victims of the atrocities that took place here, including a walk through the prison where the KGB held dissidents and freedom fighters. Following our visit, we enjoy a discussion with a local expert about Lithuania's struggle for independence. Dinner is on your own this evening.
On our way to Klaipeda, we first stop at Rumsiskes. Here, we’ll explore a fascinating, open-air ethnographic museum. We’ll walk through a collection of 18th- and 19th-century rural dwellings and farmsteads, gaining an understanding of the history, lifestyles, and character of Lithuania’s four main regions. We’ll also visit an artisan workshop and a dwelling used by Lithuanians who were deported to Siberia by the communists. We arrive in Kaunas—Lithuania’s second-largest city—in time for an included lunch at a local restaurant. Kaunas served as Lithuania’s capital while the country fought to reclaim Vilnius from Poland after World War I.
Upon our arrival in Klaipeda—Lithuania’s oldest city—we’ll have time to check into our hotel before gathering together for dinner in a local restaurant.
Klaipeda is also the gateway to a coastal stretch known as the Curonian Spit, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. This fragile sand dune peninsula—shared by both Russia and Lithuania—is separated by a protected lagoon on one side and exposed to the harsh Baltic Sea on the other. We begin our day on the Curonian Spit with a hunt for some of the amber—known as “Baltic gold”—that washes up on the beaches during winter storms. Then we’ll hike to the “Hill of Witches,” a forested path through the dunes filled with unique wooden sculptures based on Lithuanian folk legends. After lunch in the private tavern of a local family, we’ll visit an amber workshop. Before returning to Klaipeda, we’ll walk up to Parnidzio Dune, where we'll enjoy stunning views of the Baltic Sea, Curonian Lagoon, and nearby Russia.
In the morning we visit the Salantai Day Care Center, supported by Grand Circle Foundation (Please note: If Day 7 falls on a weekend day, groups will be unable to visit the center). Afterwards we drive towards Latvia and stop at a local restaurant along the way. We'll then visit the Hill of Crosses, a grassy double hillock blanketed by several thousand crosses. Some say the tradition of planting crosses here began in the 14th century, and the area has long served as a place of peaceful resistance for Lithuanian Catholics, who used the site as a memorial to their fallen freedom fighters and as a way to stay connected to their roots and traditions during the long Soviet occupation. Despite several Soviet attempts to bulldoze the hill, determined locals would quickly rebuild the cherished place of pilgrimage. After leaving the Hill of Crosses we’ll stop at the beautifully restored 18th-century Baroque palace of Rundale, which was designed by the architect of St. Petersburg’s Hermitage, Bartolomeo Rastrelli.
Upon our arrival in the Latvian capital of Riga, we’ll check into our hotel and enjoy our first glimpse of this enchanting medieval city with dinner at the hotel restaurant.
Set close to the mouth of the Daugava River, which travels from the Baltic Sea into Russia, Riga was historically an important trade port. Its prosperity also made it a target for conquerors; before Latvia declared itself an independent nation in 1918, Riga was claimed by Russia, Sweden, Lithuania, and Germany. As a diverse, thriving city with a prominent upper class, Riga experienced radical change under occupation by the Soviets and Nazis. Buildings from Riga’s most prosperous eras—particularly the Art Nouveau period—still stand throughout the city.
After breakfast, we walk through Riga’s Old Town, a dizzying collection of cobbled lanes, gargoyle-adorned buildings, and lovingly restored 17th-century architectural treasures under UNESCO World Heritage Site protection. We’ll also wander through the city’s Central Market. Located in converted German Zeppelin hangars from the 1930s, the market's pavilions encompass more than three-quarters of a million square feet of space and are also under UNESCO protection. After an included lunch in a local restaurant, you’ll have free time to soak in more of Riga’s timeless elegance on your own. Perhaps you’ll view the Latvian Academy of Sciences, a rare piece of Soviet architecture known as “Stalin’s birthday cake” to the locals. Or relax in a café and, if you dare, order a beverage with Riga Black Balsam—an herbal liqueur that Latvians celebrate as an invigorating cure-all for whatever ails you. Later, we’ll enjoy a discussion about contemporary Latvia and its past. Dinner is on our own this evening.
We begin the day with a stop at Salaspils, a small village outside of Riga on the banks of the Daugava River with a haunting memorial to those who died in a Nazi concentration camp located here. Then our discoveries focus on the city’s architectural diversity. Both driving and walking, we’ll observe everything from the Nordic wooden dwelling of Kipsala Island to the dazzling façades of Riga’s Art Nouveau treasures. Our tour concludes with a visit to the recently opened Riga Art Nouveau Museum, located in the former apartment of Latvian architect Konstantins Pekšens, who lived there until 1907.
The rest of the day is at leisure to explore on your own. Perhaps you’ll venture out to the Riga Motormuseum, which boasts the biggest collection of vintage automobiles and motorbikes in the Baltic region.
On our way to Estonia, we stop for an included lunch in Cesis, a picturesque medieval town situated within the natural beauty of Latvia’s Gauja National Park. Cesis was the capital of Livonia during the Middle Ages, and we’ll revel in its authentic medieval ambiance and admire the well-preserved ruins of a 13th-century castle built here by the Knights of the Sword.
We’ll also enjoy a brief stop in Parnu—a chance to stretch our legs and catch a glimpse of Estonia’s premier seaside resort—before arriving in Tallinn, the northernmost of the Baltic capitals. Dinner is included this evening.
Estonia’s capital and largest city, Tallinn sits on the Bay of Finland, directly across from Helsinki. We’ll find both Scandinavian and Russian influences in the language, culture, and architecture here. As with most major Baltic cities, Tallinn was occupied by the Soviets, then the Nazis, and then the Soviets again, who forced Estonia into the USSR. Tallinn was the site of Estonia’s “Singing Revolution”—a series of protests in the late 1980s where thousands gathered and sang for independence from the Soviet Union. After four years of singing and other acts of protest, Estonia achieved something remarkable—independence from the Soviets through a relatively bloodless revolution. Today Tallinn manages to preserve its history and quaint medieval buildings, while at the same time modernizing and thriving in the technology industry. As of January 1, 2011, Estonia’s official currency is the euro—making it the first Baltic nation and only post-Soviet state to meet the European Union’s criteria for adopting the currency.
We begin our day in Tallinn with a walking tour of the city’s UNESCO World Heritage-designated Old Town, a tangled warren of cobbled streets lined with outdoor cafés and wonderfully preserved 14th- and 15th-century buildings. Then we drive out to the grounds of the Tallinn Song Festival, where the first of many singing protests took place. When we return to Old Town, you’ll have time at leisure, followed by a discussion on Estonian independence.
Dinner is on your own this evening.
After breakfast, we take a local tram out to Kadriorg Park to view the resplendent palace residence built by Russian Tsar Peter the Great for his empress Catherine I, and to walk its lovely, manicured grounds. (Kadriorg means “Catherine’s Valley.”) Then we visit the KUMU, a modern art museum located on the edge of Kadriorg Park, featuring the leading names in Estonian art and sculpture from the 18th century to the present day, including an impressive collection of Soviet-era works. After an included lunch in Kadriorg, we take the tram back to our hotel (or back to Old Town).
The rest of the day is yours to explore independently. You may choose to venture to the Rotermann Quarter. After Estonia gained independence, this run-down neighborhood experienced a great renewal. Now full of modern buildings, it’s become a center for shopping and culture—whether you browse the open-air markets, relax in a café or drop into the studios in the Loovala art collective, it’s an ideal place to absorb the revitalized spirit of the Estonian people. Or, to delve deeper into Tallinn’s history, visit the Toompea Castle and Town Wall. These well-preserved 13th-century landmarks highlight the medieval realities of defending a town against attacks from the outside—plus, from atop the Town Wall, which is only reachable from the outside, enjoy a towering view above Old Town.
Dinner is on your own tonight. Perhaps you’ll sample kissell, a popular fruit soup that Estonians serve for dessert.
Today we journey further east by coach across the border into Russia, stopping for an included lunch in Narva, Estonia. Upon our arrival in St. Petersburg, we check into our hotel and enjoy our first view of the city that Pushkin described as “Tsar Peter the Great’s Window to the West” during an orientation walk. This evening we head out to a local restaurant for an included dinner.
Today we explore the wonders of St. Petersburg, one of the world’s most magnificent cities. It was built at the mouth of the River Neva early in the 18th century by Peter the Great, who wished to create a Russian capital to rival the splendor of Paris. Before the monarchy was overthrown in the Russian Revolution, the tsars and tsarinas of the empire lived the high life in St. Petersburg. They built colorful opulent palaces, inspired arts and architecture throughout the city, and created a virtual soap opera of betrayal, Faberge egg collections, and tidily handled peasant rebellions.
We’ll see why St. Petersburg is called the "Venice of the North” as our visit reveals several of the city’s picturesque islands, canals, and bridges, including a stop at St. Isaac’s Cathedral, whose magnificent gilded dome dominates St. Petersburg’s skyline.
Then, a hearty Russian lunch at a local restaurant should give us sustenance for our afternoon visit to the stunning gilt Baroque Hermitage Museum. Today, this one-time palace of the tsars—founded by Catherine the Great in 1764—is one of the world’s largest and oldest museums, boasting a massive fine art collection.
Dinner is on your own this evening. You may also take advantage of an optional excursion to take in a Russian ballet performance, right here in the cradle of the art form, where the dancing style was first developed to entertain the tsars. Or, when the ballet is not available, enjoy an evening of music and dance at the optional Russian Folk Show. Please note: Our optional Russian Folk Show is offered only when the Russian Ballet optional tour is not available.
The day begins with a visit to the Peter and Paul Fortress, constructed in 1703 as the primary defense for the new city but mostly utilized as a prison for the likes of Dostoevsky, Trotsky, and even Peter’s own son, Alexei. Within the fortress walls—with its lovely spire and Baroque interior—resides Saints Peter and Paul Cathedral, the final resting place of most of the Russian tsars since the city’s namesake was buried here, including the last Romanov family—Nicholas, Alexandra, and their children, who were murdered during the Russian Revolution.
After lunch on your own, you may join an optional excursion to Tsarskoe Selo (the “tsar’s village”) for a visit to the magnificently restored Catherine Palace. Here, you can walk the grounds, and see the Grand Hall of Mirrors, Marble Staircase, and even the legendary Amber Room. Or, you may choose to explore St. Petersburg on your own, seek out some of the city’s historical Baroque Orthodox churches or discover underground Soviet-era art at the Museum of Non-Conformist Art.
In the evening, we’ll all gather for a Farewell Dinner at a local restaurant to celebrate our adventures.
After breakfast, travel to the airport for your flight to the U.S. Or, begin your post-trip extension to Moscow, Russia.