The Baltic States consist of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, three incredibly different nations tied together by a recent shared past. It makes a lot of sense to include all three in a trip to the region, and allow yourself time to explore and understand the distinct differences between them. And time is what you have when you travel through the Baltic States by bicycle.
Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania are – in my opinion – best seen from the saddle. Relatively flat and each an achievable size for even a short cycling holiday, coupled with lower prices than most of Europe make for an attractive alternative to the usual cycle touring destinations. Add to that the heavy, calorific Baltic cuisine, and you’ll practically need to cycle from place to place in order keep your shirt buttons from popping off (if you indeed wear a shirt with buttons).
The Riding: Cycle Touring the Baltic States
With no mountain ranges between them, the Baltic States provide an easy terrain for the leisurely cyclist – just watch out for that headwind on the plains. Finding your way is generally straightforward, and many of the main roads are new and well-signposted thanks to recent EU investment (at the time of travel Latvia was still in the construction phase of these new roads, and I spent a lot of time pushing through gravel!).
Estonia boasts a national cycling network going through, across, and around the country, meaning you can literally head off in any direction and follow the little blue bicycle signs, often keeping you safe from traffic. Latvia and Lithuania are both developing similar cycling infrastructure as the sport becomes increasingly popular in the region, and many off-road bicycle routes already exist. In all three nations, bike routes vary between smooth tarmac, old farm roads, bouncy trails, and impossible sand. While it is possible to avoid the off-road sections and tour with a slick road bike, you will certainly be most comfortable on a sturdy touring bike with appropriate tires.
When cycle touring through the Baltic States, you have three main options for places to sleep: hotels, camping, or Warmshowers, however, Warmshowers hosts are sparse outside of the capital cities. In the main cities and towns there is always affordable accommodation, and if you book in advance, you’re likely to even find something quite nice for a lower price than the rest of Europe. In smaller towns, however, official accommodation does not always exist, so being prepared to camp can certainly be the best way to enjoy exploring. That said, if you plan your route in advance it is certainly possible to explore the entire region sleeping in hotels.
There are some excellent campgrounds along the Baltic Sea coastline, often costing less than €5 for a cyclist. On a couple of occasions I even stumbled upon free ‘nature camps’ – an empty plot where free camping is permitted, but these were not marked on any maps I ever found, so very difficult to plan around. The countryside is sparsely populated, and thick forests provide excellent cover for wild camping opportunities, and I found no trouble pitching my tent on the beach many nights (the exception to this would be to avoid local holidays where many families will be swarming the coast late into the night).
One of the biggest benefits to cycle touring is the amount of food one gets to consume on any given day. In the Baltic States, the diet is heavy with meat, potatoes, and bread. Vegetarians will find options everywhere (although it may be a cheese sandwich), but vegans will struggle in cafes and restaurants – pick up some supplies at supermarkets.
Breakfast consists of heavy, cold bread slices with toppings such as cheese, ham, savory salads, or boiled eggs. Most breakfast buffets in hotels and guesthouses will serve only this, but always with some welcome cake to go with your limitless and strong coffee. Dinner options vary from place to place depending on the local diet: the coastline serves up an excellent variety of fish (most notably the smoked fish in Lithuania), while the interior depends on pork and chicken with heavy cream sauces.
Grocery stores and small markets are suitably frequent for the touring cyclist, where staples like bread and biscuits are always available. Since joining the EU, food options have expanded in all of the main cities and even smaller towns meaning that you will always be able to find a pizza or a kebab when all else fails!
And of course, it wouldn’t be a bike tour to the Baltics if you didn’t sample any local beers! One of the greatest moments you may have on a tour in this region is stumbling on a traditional tavern in a small village and finishing your day of cycling with a cold ale.
While cheaper than the rest of western Europe, prices in the Baltic States are rising and all nations are now on the Euro. A touring cyclist can easily live on much less than €10 per day if camping and seldom dining out, while more comfortable riders staying decent guesthouses and eating in restaurants can expect to pay around €75 per day in the summer.
The Curonian Spit, Lithuania: This natural sand dune with the Baltic Sea on one side and the Curonian Lagoon on the other is a cyclist’s fantasy. A bicycle-only path zips through forest and dunes for 50km, and you can virtually hop off and jump in the sea from the white-sand beach at any location.
Saaremaa, Estonia: The charming western islands of Estonia appear to be frozen in time. Isolated from the mainland during the Soviet era, Saaremaa and the neighboring islands of Muhu and Hiiumaa have preserved their distinct local culture, and boast easy-going island cycling and camping throughout.
Sabile, Latvia: This magical example of ancient Latvian country life is home to the most northern winery in the world as well as preserved 14th century Livonian Order architecture. The ride to Sabile takes you through protected parkland alongside the Abava River, and the winding, quiet road passing more traditional villages is a real gem. Pass through to sample the wine, or stay here for a night at a B&B.
Narva, Estonia: Cycle right up to the Russian border and admire the opposing castles of Narva in Estonia and Ivangorod in Russia. These two fortresses have faced each other across the Narva River for six centuries, standing through a shared history of conquests, trade, friendship, war, and sovereignty. (If you are going to cross the border into Russia you will need a visa and plenty of patience).