My second day in Riga, Latvia, I headed out to explore more of the Old Town and had brunch at a vegan restaurant called Fat Pumpkin, which was really good and reasonably priced. From there I went to see the Three Brothers, which are three buildings built super close together that are the oldest buildings in Riga, dating back to the 15th century. The Latvian Museum of Architecture is now located in the buildings, although I didn’t have time to see anything more than the outside. It’s actually pretty cool, they all have different styles and one of them is super narrow.
From there I stopped quickly at Big Bad Bagels to get some takeout for my bus trip that evening, before walking to the KGB Museum, also known as the Corner House. The museum was a bit hard to find and so I ended up kind of walking around the building before realizing that it WAS in fact the right place. It’s a big, unassuming building (which makes sense, seeing as how it was originally built as an apartment complex and was later used as the KGB Headquarters for Riga) and there isn’t much signage advertising the name of the museum. But I finally found the right door and paid for my walking tour after I was assured that I could leave the tour at any point (I couldn’t stay for the whole thing as I had a bus to catch, but I figured some is better than none!).
The museum was pretty interesting; there were lots of facts and information about the KGB and the kinds of things they did during the time they occupied Latvia. The tour takes you through the cellars, cells, exercise grounds, the yard and the interrogation room. Thousands of people were taken away in the middle of the night, imprisoned, tortured and either sent to labour camps or executed, never to be seen again.
It was really interesting to hear the guide, a young Latvian, talk about how for most Europeans, WWII and the Holocaust were the worst things to happen in recent history, but for the Baltic countries, the Soviet Union and the KGB were far worse. While thousands of Baltic people (mostly Jewish) were killed under German rule, they only ruled for 3 years. The Soviets ruled for almost 50 and were considered to be harsher and more ruthless than the Germans. It was a new perspective on history for me, something I’d never thought of before; having traveled throughout Europe and having seen many of the sites dedicated to and scarred by WWII and the Holocaust and having seen countless movies and documentaries about it, it always seemed that nothing could have been worse, but I’d never really thought before of what it was like for the countries that were formerly part of the USSR and how the Russian rule affected them, as it’s not something you hear about as much. One of the many things I love about traveling is how you’re constantly learning (whether you are trying to or not) and how you gain new perspectives about the world, its people and its history.
I managed to make it halfway through the tour before having to leave to go back to the hostel to pick up my bags. I then walked to the bus station to check in for my 5pm Lux Express bus, heading to Vilnius, Lithuania. Once again I was impressed by how nice (and relatively inexpensive) the bus was (bonus, it wasn’t that full so I had two seats to myself)! I watched another movie: Love, Rosie, which was okay.
I arrived in Vilnius at 9pm, took an uber to my hostel, Home Made House, checked in, hit the grocery store for some dinner and then went back to the hostel to chill and have a glass of wine with the owner of the hostel. The wine was actually really good, it was a Lithuanian wine and was made out of blackcurrants instead of the traditional grapes. The hostel was pretty good; I was in a 4 bed dorm and there was free wifi and breakfast, although only one shower for the entire hostel which could be a bit of a challenge. But the owner was really nice and friendly and it was clean.
The following morning I woke up bright and early and went to visit the Museum of Genocide Victims (another KGB Museum). Similar to the KGB Museum I had visited in Riga, the one in Vilnius also had a tour that took you to the cellars, exercise grounds, cells and interrogation rooms. However, the one in Vilnius has been open much longer than the one in Riga and so it had a lot more information, with displays featuring clothing and artifacts, and was better overall, in my opinion. There was also a haunting room where many executions had taken place. I paid the extra €3 for an audio guide and I think it was totally worth it. While the upstairs part is full of panels of information, when you go down to the basement where the cells are there isn’t much info, so having the audio guide was really helpful.
From there I walked across the Neris River and had lunch at Hesburger, a Finnish fast-food chain that is very popular in the Baltics (in fact, in those 3 countries it is more popular than McDonald’s), then walked to the Money Museum. It was a nice museum, and best of all, it’s free (!) and you can never go wrong with free! There were all kinds of really cool old bars and coins from when currency was first used; money from around the world; and there’s a giant coin pyramid made up of 1,000,395 coins! There are also interactive exhibits, like a scale where you can see how much you’d be worth in gold, silver and platinum.
Then I walked to Vilnius Cathedral, took some pictures and then walked up the hill to Gediminas’ Tower just in time for dusk and a beautiful view of the city. After walking back down, I spent some time walking around the city before heading back to the hostel and spending the rest of the night talking to an Australian guy in my room.
My final morning in Vilnius I got up early and walked to the Gate of Dawn, which is a historic city gate dating back to the early 1500s and whose chapel has an icon of the Virgin Mary said to have miraculous powers. Then I walked through the old town before heading to the Artillery Bastion, one of the few remaining parts of the city’s old defensive wall. It was closed for renovations, but there was still a nice view of the city. I had lunch at Cafe de Paris, a small but cozy restaurant started by French expats with good food that caters to students and artists.
Warmed by my soup, I headed back out to explore Literatu street (Literary street), a street dedicated to people who have contributed to literature that has significance to Lithuania. There is a wall with plaques dedicated to those people: authors, translators, poets, etc… It was pretty cool, as the plaques vary greatly in colours, materials and designs.
I then walked to Užupis, a district in Vilnius which has declared itself independent, similar to Freetown Christiana in Copenhagen. Formerly a Jewish neighbourhood (most of its residents were killed during the Holocaust), it was left empty and neglected by the Soviets for decades. It then became popular with artists and intellectuals, leading Užupis to declare independence on April 1, 1997. It has its own anthem, constitution, flags (one for each season), president, currency, cabinet of ministers and even its own army (there are 11 members)! The constitution, consisting of 38 articles (for example: 12 – A dog has the right to be a dog; 16 – People have the right to be happy and 17 – People have the right to be unhappy) and 3 mottos (Don’t Fight; Don’t Win; Don’t Surrender) can be found on a wall in Paupio Street, with translations in over 20 different languages. I spent some time wandering around the streets, reading the constitution and searching for the shop where I’d been told you could get your passport stamped with an Užupis stamp. It was a bit hard to find, but I finally found it and got a new “unofficial” stamp on my passport!
I then headed back to the Vilnius Cathedral, but this time went to visit the Palace of the Grand Dukes of Lithuania, a museum next to the cathedral. The current palace was built from 2002-2009 but sits on the site of the original palace that was built in the 15th century and demolished in 1801. You can still see the remains of the original palace in the museum and learn about its history. There are also exhibits on Lithuanian culture and tours of the reconstructed palace.
I walked around a bit more then went to Keule Ruke, a bbq restaurant that had been recommended to me by my friend Jesse. It’s the site of a famous mural of Putin and Trump kissing, as well as many more political paintings inside and in the courtyard. It’s worth visiting just for the artwork, but you might as well try a delicious pulled-pork sandwich while you’re there! I got a sandwich to go and walked back to the hostel to enjoy it and chit-chat with the others until my uber car arrived to take me to the bus station.
My time in the Baltics was about to come to an end and although I’d kind of rushed through Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, spending only a few days (or less) in each one, I’d really enjoyed my time there and met some really awesome people. I’d definitely recommend it to anyone traveling to Europe; the scenery was beautiful, the people friendly and there was lots to see and do. I’ll definitely have to come back and spend more time in the area.