Building Blocs

Explore the architecture of the Baltic States

The cities that surround the Baltic Sea include some of Europe's most hotly tipped and uncrowded capitals. Diverse and often quirky in their design influences, a stroll around these lively cities reveals a huge amount of history and character.

Thoroughly modern Helsinki

The youngest of the Baltic capitals, Helsinki's cityscape offers a complete contrast in its Modernist look, owed mainly to the legacy of the 20th-century architect Alvar Aalto. Widely credited with bringing Finnish architecture to the fore, his gleaming whie Finlandia Hall is a great interpretation of Cubism. And if design is your thing, take a trip to the Aalto House in the southern suburbs on Riihitie Street where he lived with his wife Aino. With its irregular flat roofs, mixed materials, zebra upholstery and flying saucer lampshades, it's one of the earliest examples of classic Mid-Century Modernism, from 1936.

Helsinki's city centre also houses some monumental other buildings, such as the modernist General Post Office and stunning Art Nouveau Central Station (pictured). 

Riga: a flight of Art Nouveau fancy

Latvia's capital Riga is famous for its vast presence of Art Nouveau buildings, which sprang up in the early 20th century. It was a prolific Russian architect called Mikhail Eisenstein who initiated it in Riga from 1901 to 1908, and gave it fantastical new character by throwing human, mythological and zoological elements into his designs. You can see his imagination in full flight as you walk down Alberta Street in the city centre - look out for lions, griffins and femme fatales peering down.

Gothic charm in fairy-tale Tallinn

Far older than the country of which it is the capital, Tallinn in Estonia is known for its medieval Old Town (picture above), which was built in the Gothic heyday of the 13th to the 16th centuries. Its Toompea Castle stands on the ruins of a 13th-century fortress, and its bright pink Baroque face is hard to miss. In the historic town centre, the colourful 14th-century merchant houses are packed with Late Gothic character: look for the tall facades, high dormers and carved stone details. Also worth a visit are the ancient 13th-century city walls. With their medieval towers and red roof tiles, they give the city its fairy-tale appeal.

Vilnius, the artist's capital

Known for its eccentric Užupis artists' quarter and its UNESCO-protected medieval Old Town, Vilnius in Lithuania is a feast of different influences. Its 'Gate of Dawn' city gate has stood on Aušros Vartų street since 1522, and houses a gilded icon of the Virgin Mary - a city symbol that's believed to harbour miraculous powers. Likewise, on Kalinausko street in the self-declared republic of Užupis, the bronze-cast head of its adopted patron saint, Frank Zappa (deemed as a suitable replacement for Lenin), stands as a symbol of artistic freedom and independence with his wonderfully offbeat vision. Look out for the mural on the wall behind it, as the statue itself is easy to miss.

Image credit: Ville Hyvönen [CC BY-SA 2.0]

It is the rich and turbulent past of the Baltic states that gives them their unique idenitities, and which is written in stone in the buildings of these hotly tipped capitals. So whether you're interested in medieval old towns, Gothic churches or even 20th-century design, you'll find plenty to write home about on tour in these unusual cities.