South African travellers might be feeling a little deflated amid the country’s economic uncertainty, but you can beat those budget blues with a trip to the Baltics, a lesser-known but equally thrilling European destination.
Why the Baltics?
Baltic states hug the eastern border of the Baltic Sea. Poland and Russia, amongst others, reach its shorelines although the term Baltic state is more commonly associated with Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania.
“While that trio of Baltic countries are on the Euro and require Schengen visas, if your heart is set on a holiday in Europe, those three will give you that quintessential European experience while seeing your rands stretch further than Europe’s better-known capitals,” says Teresa Richardson, Managing Director of The Travel Corporation South Africa.
If you are set against getting a visa, consider a trip to Russia. A hop, skip and jump from the Baltics, neighbouring Russia doesn’t require visas for South African passport holders travelling for leisure purposes and staying up to 90 days.
What to see in the Baltics
Medieval towns crammed with history and topped with a fairytale castle or two are everywhere in this little pocket of Europe.
Lithuania’s capital Vilnius boasts beautiful Baroque facades and the UNESCO World Heritage Old Quarter.
Latvia’s crown jewel is its capital, Riga. Travellers can wind through medieval streets and forgotten alleyways, or climb on board a canal boat on the Daugava River to take in the sights from the water.
History and art lovers take note, Riga is home to the largest concentration of Art Nouveau buildings in Europe.
For that quintessential European fantasy feel, Estonia’s capital Tallinn takes you back in time. Join a local guided walk through the Hanseatic Quarter and learn about the rich history of this region dating back to the 13th century.
The Alexander Nevsky Cathedral is magnificent, complete with a Russian-style gold-plated dome.
Travelling between the city and the country offers spectacular scenery. Wind through age-old pine forests and get a glimpse of local life in the country. Estonia’s countryside, in particular, is wild and unspoilt.
With one the smallest populations of any country in the world and the majority of which choose to live in the cities, the countryside is full of lush forests and lakes, home to wild boar, elk, bears and wolves.
What to eat in the Baltics
Baltic cuisine is hearty and filing and designed to keep you warm in the winter using carbohydrates and root vegetables.
Expect many delicious meals of rye bread, soups, mushrooms, smoked fish and potato pancakes. Dill feature in almost every local recipe.
Don’t leave Lithuania without trying the national dish, cepelinai. These are large dumplings filled with potato and pork, served with a sour-cream-and-bacon sauce.
In Estonia, toast with a glass of Kvass, a traditional beverage made from rye bread described as a cross between a beer and a soda. Estonia is also well known for its chocolate, so make sure to visit Kalev, the country’s oldest chocolate factory.
In Latvia, sample the locals’ favourite drink of Black Balsam, an alcoholic herbal drink. Produced since 1700, the exact recipe is a close-guarded secret, but some of the known ingredients are ginger, orange peel and cognac.
It’s enjoyed either on its own or with coffee or vodka. Priekā! (Cheers in Latvian.)
How to save on your Baltics holiday
Formerly Soviet republics, the Baltic States only gained their independence in the 1990s. It was only then that they become a feature on the travel map and visitors started to realise the treasures hidden within.
“Holidays to the Baltic states and neighbouring Eastern European countries represent great value to the South African traveller, as the price of goods has yet to increase to levels seen in more popular Western European countries,” says Richardson.
“For South Africans looking to get the most out of their European holiday and save on costs, Costsaver’s guided independent travel model gives them the best of both worlds with all the essentials included and the options to tailor-make their itinerary according to their interests and budget,” Richardson adds.
What do items cost?
Lithuania and Latvia:
A pint of local beer = 2.65 € (a beer in Estonia will cost you a little more at around 4.00 €.)
A meal in an inexpensive restaurant =7.00 €
A three-course meal for two in a mid-range restaurant = 30.00 €
A regular cappuccino = 2.02 € (In Estonia, the price averages at around 2.70 €)
In more popular tourist countries, such as Paris:
In Paris, that three-course meal for two in a mid-range restaurant will set you back 55.50 €.
Domestic beer (0.5 litre draught) = 6.00 €
Cappuccino = 3.24 €
In Germany’s beer capital, Munich, a 0.5-litre draught will cost around 3.70 €.
With 2019 well underway, don’t let your dream of a European holiday pass by this year. The Baltics sizzle in summer and are a winter wonderland, especially during the festive season. And whenever you choose to visit, make sure you book early for the best deal. The fizz of anticipation will quickly dissolve any budget blues!
SAA flies directly to Munich. You can connect to Latvia with SAA code-share partner and Star Alliance member Lufthansa. Visit Flysaa.com
Words by Jenna Berndt