Driving From Vilnius Lithuania to Riga Latvia
Driving from Vilnius Lithuania to Riga Latvia can seem quite daunting if you have never driven in the Baltic States before. Renting a car can be very easy if you want to drive it yourself. There's also the option of flying with Air Baltic for €30. You can try doing the train for €16. I would suggest experiencing the countryside for yourself, and being able to visit places like the Hill of Crosses, Rundale Palace, and the Salaspils Memorial in Latvia. Here is a peek of what to do and see on your road trip from Lithuania to Latvia.
Using a Tour Company
I am one that can get lost pretty easily unless I have some kind of navigation. My phone service provider is with AT&T, so service in the Baltic's is pretty nonexistent. This is why I decided (with my group) to take a tour from Vilnius to Riga in order to see some of the more popular sites along the way. It was so fun to have Laura, a Lithuanian local, tell us all the significance behind the items and areas that dotted the landscape.
It was very cool to hear all of the Lithuanian legends that she had been taught as a child. As well as her parents stories of the time of the Soviet occupation. She is very energetic, very knowledgeable and I highly recommend her tour. Please note I paid for this tour with full price, this was not sponsored in anyway.
Crossing the Latvia Border
Laura was saying that crossing the Latvian border is kind of like playing the lottery. Some days it can take an hour or two to get through, other days you just drive on through like there's no border at all. We were in a hurry, and got quite lucky. They seemed to care more about other borders of Latvia and not the border between Lithuania and Latvia. We literally drove right on through but I would still make sure to have all your documents in order, just in case you do end up having one of the more unlucky days at the border.
Kaunas was founded as a fortress in 1030 and became an official town in 1317. Because it is located on the southern border of Lithuania, it was frequently attacked by Teutonic Knights. The strategic location of the city, and also abutting a river made it a great city of and for trade.
In the 17th-century, it was surrendered to Russia by Poland and in the 18th-century Napoleon came in and wiped the town out.
Because of the devastation Napoleon caused, it made way for the rebuilding of the city in the 19th century with many Art Deco buildings and shops surrounding the town. In 1920-1940 it was the temporary capital of Lithuania, World War II devastated the area again. The Soviet Occupation happened, and riots broke out in the city, tensions were so high a student here lit himself on fire as an expression of protest against the Soviet regime.
The history of this place is what makes it incredibly interesting, as well as all the quirky nooks and crannies you can find here - because it is very much a university town. There are festivals you can attend, see the restored Kaunas Castle, the UNESCO City of Design Old Town with gorgeous Art Deco buildings and more. Make sure to check out my article on Things To Do In Kaunas to get a better idea of what is in store for you should you decide to visit.
Visit the Hill Of Crosses
For nearly two centuries this area has been a place of metal and wooden crosses to be placed in honor of loved ones who have passed on. When you drive up, it doesn't appear as a giant hill until you start exploring the area and there is a large drop off on the back side of the site. It doesn't make it any less impressive though, as well as slightly eerie and sad.
The first mention of this area was in 1850, crosses were left by relatives of those who died against the Russian regime. No matter how many times the Russians came to level and bury the crosses (rumored to be five times), the crosses kept being put here.
There is a legend that the Virgin Mary appeared here holding the baby Jesus and asked the locals to cover this place with crosses. It is because of the hand-carved crosses from so many different sects of religious believers that have been placed here that it is recognized as a UNESCO heritage site.
It was moving to think that so many people have come here to remember and celebrate the lives of those who have touched them. Our guide did say though, it is not a place you want to be visiting at night. You can buy your own cross to leave here, but you will need cash because of how remote it is.
Visit Rundale Palace
This is a gorgeous manor in the remote countryside of Latvia that was one of two Baroque palaces built for the Dukes of Courland. The Dukes of Courland existed from 1561-1629 and were part of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. In short there were two sons in the end that controlled the Eastern part of Courland and the other the Western part. Wilhelm (the Western part) married the daughter of the Duke of Prussia. He was known for being quite hostile to his landowners which ended up getting him sacked from Dukedom. Friedrich (the Eastern part) stayed in Courland, but was eventually ousted by the Swedish troops.
The 17th century comes along and the Duke of Courland Ernst Johann von Biron and planned to have Rundale be his summer residence, he married Anna, a Russian heiress with LOTS of money. He took inspiration from the Hermitage to build this palace (and even hired the same architect), it is a different color, but if you look closely it does look quite similar in style. Biron then fell out of favor with Catherine the Great (because him and Anna liked to kill people), and she gave him a one way ticket to die. He did eventually did die here in 1772, after which Rundale was absorbed into the Russian Empire in 1795 (the time of Catherine the Great).
In World War I it was used by the German Army as a hospital and officers quarters. If you look in the gardens you can still see a monument where several soldiers were buried here. When Napoleon came through he also used this place as a hospital. Napoleon ransacked it when he left and it fell into disrepair after many many wars in the area.
It was later repaired and restored and used as a school, military flats, then back to a school, then became a state-protected monument, the back to a school, then as a grain-house in WWII, then into a museum until 1972 it was officially converted into a Museum. Latvian painter and art historian Imants Lancmanis made it his life's work to restore the palace. It took about 42 years to restore this mammoth Lithuanian mansion and around 8 MILLION Euros.
The area is incredibly beautiful, peaceful, and well worth the effort to go and at least walk the grounds. We didn't make it inside (as I got a little lost at the Hill of Crosses maze) but if you do go, let me know in the comments if you think the inside is just as worthy of a visit as the outside and gardens.
Experience Salaspils Memorial Ensemble
This place is intensely moving and should be a top priority to visit for any traveler to Latvia. This place once housed a police prison and labour correctional camp. They deported Jewish people from Germany, Austria, and Czechoslovakia here. They also sent civilians and former military members of Latvia, Lithuania, and estonia here as well. They did not care if it was men, women, or children and 20,000 souls found themselves here working heavy labour in extreme winter conditions of the Baltics causing illness, starvation and some of the most inhumane conditions.
There were 2,000-3,000 men, women and children that lost their lives in these camps. It is one of the largest monuments in Europe dedicated to the victims of Nazi terrorism.
We arrived at night, and I found it even more heartbreaking and moving to experience it this way. It was the beginning of December temperatures had dropped and there was a light snow. I had a warm coat on, gloves, warm shoes, but my teeth were still chattering. You walk about 300 feet from the parking lot and are engulfed in complete darkness other than the light from our phones.
As we approach the memorial a looming 328 foot (100m) cement wall with the chilling words "Beyond these gates the land groans". You walk through the gate on cement blocks paving the way, but have to watch your step as the broken pathway is supposed to represent the broken earth weeping.
During the day you will be able to see seven concrete modern statues that will bring tears to your eyes. You have the Mother, the Unbroken, the Humiliated, the Protest, the Red Front, Solidarity, and The Oath statues that need no physical explanation to feel what the artist was trying to portray here. During the night, you see shadows of looming statues outlined against the distant city lights with a pine tree backdrop. The darkness is a bit stifling, the line of trees is not hard to imagine as the gates that kept them here in the frigid temperatures, and just when you think you are able to control your emotions you hear a low and slow heartbeat.
The heartbeat never stops and reverberates across the grounds as a symbol of the souls lost here that will never die and never truly be at rest.
If you have time to visit during the day, and after dark, I highly suggest doing both.
Stop At A Gas Station
Being the road trip queen that I am, I could never pass up a good gas station. Each one is unique and offers different amenities. I do think Lithuania has a one leg up on American gas stations though. Eating the food here doesn't feel like as much of a gamble for my gut, as it does eating food at an American gas station. They have vegetarian options, fresh fruit that doesn't look like it is 90 years old, salad that isn't wilted (even at the end of a day). The people are friendly, there's plenty to choose from, and comes with picnic tables with gorgeous views.
Some of the corny bars, as well as one of the hotdogs from the back. The hotdog was a bit strange in that instead of putting it into a envelope like bun where you can spill the sauces all over yourself; they put the sauce inside a pocket and then slip the hotdog into that pocket so it's nice and easy to eat while you're on the road. Brilliant. Also very delicious, and that is saying something because I don’t usually like hotdogs.
Take A Bus
The Bus system in the Baltics is actually STELLAR it is organized, clean and people generally keep to themselves. They have luxury buses even complete with drink holders, movies, Wifi, and reclining chairs. There are a few that I would recommend like the Lux Express, or the Ecoline is the one I used to get from Riga to Tallinn. The Bus stations are usually pretty close to the city centers and crossing borders is usually pretty painless. There are armed cops (at least from Riga to Tallinn) that get on the bus and check everyone's passports so just be aware of that.
Driving On Your Own
You do have the option of also renting a car on your own, renting from somewhere like euro car can be relatively easy however crossing borders may make the hassle a little less worth it. I have seen plenty of other travelers who have done this without any issue. It depends on what company you're going to rent from how much the cost will be, but fuel in and of itself will be around €35. Having your own car allows you the freedom to pull over at any random village, or take any picture from the roadside. You can also change your itinerary or plans at a moments notice according to your whims. That kind of freedom is truly priceless, at least to me. If you are traveling with a group so it may be easier to just take a tour, stay all together - so if there are issues at the border you can help each other work through it.
Drivers In The Baltics
If you are worried about driving in the Baltics, don't worry, the drivers are very kind from what I could see. Drivers here are saints compared to Utah, California or New York. Of course you'll always have the few assholes that make your day harder along the road but from what I could see those were few and far between at least for our tour.
You do need to have an international driver license so please make sure that is in order before you try driving at all. People do routinely get stopped and you will be arrested. So don't take the chance and make sure everything is legit.
My Takeaway From My Lithuanian Road Trip
If you are planning on doing a tour of the Baltics take a tour from Vilnius Lithuania to Riga Latvia I think is a perfect option for those with more than four people in a group. It allows you to keep things moving so everyone can see what they want, and things are done in a quick and timely manner.
However if you have four people or less, renting a car may be a better option, especially if the people you are traveling with have a similar traveling style that you do. If they like to go slow, make random stops, are ok changing their itinerary at moments notice then taking a car may be a good idea.
For those wanting to maximize time, just take a flight, but know you will miss several key sights important to the culture and history of the Baltics. If you take the bus, it is a bee-line to Riga and you may as well just fly because you don't really make any extra stops.
If I was to do this again, I would definitely allow at least 2 hours to explore the Hill of Crosses, make more time for Rundale Palace to take a tour of the inside, spend at least a day at Kaunas, and visit the memorial in the day and in the evening for the full impact of the experience.
If you have any questions please let me know in the comments below and I will do my best to help answer them.
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My name is Janiel, I specialize in solo female travel, cultural connections, sustainable adventures, food and history to help make your travel experiences fun, meaningful, and delicious. My experience in travel, and my personal story have allowed me to get published in Fodor's Travel, Atlas Obscura, Metro.co.uk, Trip Advisor, and multiple Podcast interviews. You can find me on pretty much every social media channel YouTube, Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest, TikTok. To read more about me and my story click here. If you are a brand and would like to work with me, click here.