Visiting European towns around Christmas time is quickly becoming one of my favorite types of trips. I love the atmosphere of the twinkle lights, the smell of mulled wine and cinnamon, and the feeling of warming up by a fire after an evening wandering the markets. In the past few years, Jacob and I have visited some of Europe’s Best Christmas Markets in Germany, France, and The Netherlands. This year I thought it would be a nice change to plan a winter trip alongside three European countries we hadn’t visited before: Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania.
I’d heard that Tallinn’s Christmas Market had won awards, but I knew little about the city. The photos I’d seen made it seem like a quaint European town, complete with pastel buildings and a beautiful town square. Since we love to visit places that are a bit less traveled, we decided to make it a Christmas Market road trip and add the capital cities of Riga, Latvia and Vilnius, Lithuania. Since these Baltic states border each other, it’s not difficult to hit all three in one trip. Here’s how we planned out our drive across all three, plus some of our favorite highlights in each.
PRESET COLLECTIONS USED IN THIS BLOG POST: GREEK ISLANDS COLLECTION, WINTER COLLECTION.
The charming pastel capital of Tallinn recently won an award as one of Europe’s Best Christmas Markets.
Riga’s capital features gingerbread-like houses and medieval buildings, plus an unmissable city view.
Two markets in this undiscovered European city, one of which may have the most spectacular Christmas tree set up yet.
Best time to visit — the markets start end of November and run through early January. More specific dates and market times linked by destination below.
Getting around — rental car or train.
Currency — Euros.
Photos: ornaments in Tallinn, Estonia (left), Riga Christmas Market (right).
Our trip began in Tallinn, Estonia. Upon arrival it was clear that we wouldn’t be navigating the same large crowds you often see at Christmas Markets in Colmar, France or Frankfurt, Germany. In Tallinn and Riga we found that the markets are smaller than most, and best experienced in doses. Being far north, the sun set around 3:30pm so we would hit the Christmas Markets around 3pm to catch the best light before sunset and grab a bite to eat. After an hour or so (and one or two gluhweins!) we’d explore the city and pop in to open shops or sit for a drink to warm up. Then we’d head back towards the market for round two. This made for relaxed evenings and a whole new way of seeing each city!
We stayed in hotels throughout this Christmas Market trip. I tend to gravitate towards hotels for trips that require a lot of moving around, for a couple reasons. Airbnbs can require coordination and aren’t always straightforward. For a trip where I also know we’ll be walking and spending time in old towns (with little to no access by car), I want the most convenient option to the city center. Also, having an included breakfast when the rest of the day is spent having market food is a must! I include my top tips for hotels below, and Airbnbs I’d consider if you do want a more ‘local’ experience.
Read Post: A Day Trip to the Cologne Christmas Markets in Germany, my most recommended for first-timers visiting Europe’s Christmas Markets
Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania Map
Where we stayed
Hotel St Petersbourg, which could not have been closer in proximity to the market. The rooms were a mix of Euro modern and cozy, with faux fur throws and a plush velvet couch. I loved the cracking fire and Christmas tree in the lobby. There is a private sauna you can also reserve in advance — on the night we reserved it, Jacob and I got distracted with a game of pool so I can’t speak to it!
We wandered by Hotel Schlössle as well, and couldn’t help but go inside to explore. It’s housed inside a medieval building which dates back to the 13th century. Even the lobby feels like stepping back in time, with stone walls and an elegant restaurant. I prefer the convenience of hotels on short trips like these, so I’d opt to stay at Hotel Schlösse if we visited again, for something a bit different.
Airbnbs in Tallinn
Old Town Apartment – a beautiful white-washed stone studio in the heart of Tallinn Old Town.
Medieval Home – this bishop’s apartment is located inside a 700-year-old medieval building.
Cozy Penthouse Apartment – wallpapered charm overlooking Tallinn’s city center.
Romantic Apartment – complete with a french balcony in a medieval merchant’s house.
Goldena Old Town – simple and clean with high ceiings in Tallinn’s center.
Blacksmith’s 2 Bedroom Suite – luxurious touches and a fireplace in this spacious apartment with wood elements.
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- Of the three cities mentioned here, Tallinn’s Christmas Market was my favorite. It was just the right amount of lively without being overcrowded. There were a number of food options, including homemade dumplings, slow cooked meats, and of course: glühwein (mulled wine). I took home a series of three ornaments here, each a handmade miniature of an old house found in Tallinn.
- We loved visiting the Kohtuotsa viewing platform for views of Tallinn’s old town. It’s a short walk away from Tallinn’s main square, 10 minutes from our hotel. On the way you’ll pass a church and a couple of market stalls selling snacks and glühwein to warm up. We visited the lookout in the late afternoon, but if I went back I’d try the morning for a chance at better light hitting the buildings.
- Wandering the side streets, and popping into old antique stores. You can’t miss them. The best part of Tallinn old town was how walkable it was. Staying in the center meant we could get anywhere within 15 minutes — definitely a plus when you’re there during wintertime!
- On the one night we ventured out of the old town, we tried F-Hoone for dinner. It’s a trendy spot frequented by locals and definitely worth venturing to. Quick Uber ride from the city center!
- Jacob loved the German-inspired Beer House just around the corner from where we stayed. It’s great for a drink when you need to warm up, and always lively.
- The Tallinn Christmas Market typically runs from end November through the first week of January. Check dates and hours here.
Tallinn, Estonia > Riga, Latvia (3hr 50min drive)
Where we stayed
Grand Palace Hotel, which fittingly felt like stepping into a palace. The decor is ornate and beautiful, with gold accents, velvet chairs, and paintings. Our standard double room was huge, one of the biggest I’ve ever had in a hotel! You’ll feel like royalty here, and it still doesn’t break the bank. Best of all, it’s a one minute walk from the Christmas Market, so you really can’t get any closer without it being on your doorstep.
I did quite a bit of research on hotels prior to this trip, and you can’t beat the value and proximity of Grand Palace Hotel to the Riga Christmas Market.
Airbnbs in Riga
White Bird Residence – cozy charm in an ancient house.
Medieval Apartment – old world lodgings in a building from 1765.
Loft Studio – contemporary design in the heart of Old Riga.
Magic of Riga – full brick interior in a true historical building in Riga.
Apartment Black – newly renovated 1 bedroom apartment in the quiet part of town.
- When we first arrived in Riga it was a Monday afternoon and the Christmas Market was so quiet! Mondays and Tuesdays tend to be the quietest market days. Here we also found that most people venture over after the sun has set. It was great having the market virtually to ourselves.
- We loved the mulled wines at the Riga market, plus the makeshift cafés within the market which serve spiced pear cider and fresh sausage (the other food stalls were hit or miss). I bought some homemade jams here made with the local fruit, sea buckthorn.
- The best meal of our trip was our lunch at Muusu Restaurant. The restaurant is housed in an old building, with tables located in the back. The design is a mixture of cozy Scandinavian chic, and each dish is a work of art. A can’t-miss if you need a break from Christmas Market food! We also tried Restaurant 3, but far preferred the food and atmosphere at Muusu.
- On our second night in town we headed to St. Peters Church, which has a bell tower featuring panoramic views of the city. It’s a 9 euro entrance fee and a couple flights of stairs along with an elevator to get to the top. We timed our visit right at sunset, and the views of the city lit up were breathtaking! Highly recommend.
- Overall we were pleasantly surprised by Riga. I especially loved the town square and the café culture. Though I preferred Tallinn’s Christmas Market, I may have preferred Riga as a city as it felt like there was more to explore.
- The Riga Christmas Market typically runs from end November through the first week of January. Check dates and hours here.
Riga, Latvia > Vilnius, Lithuania (3hr 40min drive)
Where we stayed
Stikliai Hotel, a luxurious boutique hotel housed in a historic building. I chose this hotel because it felt the most traditional, and it did not disappoint. The space is designed around an interior courtyard that’s covered with a glass ceiling, bringing daylight inside constantly. Our room was ultra cozy and immaculate, with vaulted ceilings and a comfy bed. The staff here was so attentive and even made us breakfast to go when we caught our early 7am flight out the last day.
I also considered Hotel PACAI, a contemporary hotel with a history that dates back to the 17th century. It’s set in one of Vilnius’ most famous mansions, recently re-opened after it was re-imagined by local architects and designers. That said, the Grand Hotel Kempinski was fully decked out for Christmas time and across the street from the main market, so it’d be my top pick for next time.
Airbnbs in Vilnius
Old Town Vilnius Apartment – a bright, spacious suite with Scandinavian furnishings in old town.
Stepukas Apartment – clean Nordic design in a light and bright apartment.
Old Town Studios – spacious apartments with modern touches and natural wood elements.
Bright Studio – Provence-inspired French decor in this charming and bright studio.
Romantic Apartment – a plush velvet sofa and open kitchen in this one bedroom space.
- Vilnius’ most famous Christmas Market is located in Cathedral Square. When we first arrived, we originally visited during the day and it was almost empty. Fortunately, we returned that evening after sunset and had a much better experience. The twinkle lights at this market completely cover the entire series of market stalls, which are arranged in a circle. It’s a really impressive sight after the sun has set! Come after dark for the best experience.
- There is a second market located nearby, at Town Hall Square. The city also runs a Christmas Train beginning early December, which costs 2 euro per person.
- To be honest, we were unlucky with weather here and most of our plans got rained out. I really enjoyed the old town area, mainly the small shops. There are gems around the center, and a number of restaurants serving up traditional Lithuanian dishes (read: lots of meat and potatoes!).
- If I returned I would’ve loved to see the Gediminas Tower in the city center and Trakai Island Castle, which is a 14th century castle located on a small island, just a half hour drive from Vilnius.
- The Vilnius Christmas Market typically runs from end November through the first week of January. Check dates and hours here.
How To Get to Tallinn, Estonia
We opted to fly into Tallinn Airport for the start of the trip. When we arrived we took an Uber into the old town center, which is a short 15 minute drive away. After two nights in Tallinn, we picked up our rental car from the airport to head to our next destination: Riga. The rental was very straightforward and it was no problem dropping it in Vilnius when we flew out on the last day. In total, our rental was 450 euro, including insurance.
- I really enjoyed the small market experience of these towns. That being said, it’s best to plan this trip with a desire to experience the towns themselves in addition to the markets. If you’re looking for the most authentic and impressive Christmas Market displays (or if it’s your first time visiting the markets), I recommend the Cologne markets or a series of Christmas Markets in Germany and France.
- Since the Baltic countries are pretty north, note the sun rises around 8 – 9am and sets between 3:30 – 4:30pm each day. Maximize the daylight hours by exploring the city and sightseeing in the middle of the day before heading to the Christmas Markets near sunset.
- Plan ahead on days you’re driving. Since each city is less than 4 hours apart, you can make the full drive in daylight if you leave in the morning. We used Hertz for our car rental. I’ve found them to be the most organized and responsive if we encounter any issues.
- If you’re on a budget, this itinerary is great. On the high end, 5 star hotels averaged 100-150 euro a night, and our car rental was 450 euro. Casual meals were 10 euro or less, and fine dining for two people including drinks, appetizer, and a main course came to around 50-60 euro total.
- Overall, I felt safe visiting each of these cities. You will encounter locals asking for change from time to time, and though this felt harmless, I always advise being extra cautious in the evenings when you’re in an unknown area.