After intentionally foregoing Europe at Christmas for the last 4 years, a few factors drove us back this year: nostalgia for winter weather in the season, a truly authentic Christmas experience, and the paucity of other options with availability and reasonable travel costs. One day we’ll get to Namibia or Peru for Christmas, but not this year.
We initially targeted all three of the Baltic states for this year’s trip: Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania:
- Northern Europe to meet the winter climate criteria
- Great Christmas tradition (Tallinn holds the distinction of hosting the Europe’s first public Christmas tree in 1441)
- Have not visited any of them before (they would put WolfeStreetTravel’s country count over 70)
However, WolfeStreetTravel flight criteria and the need to keep the trip limited in length due to work resulted in the following refinements:
- Lop Lithuania off the itinerary (maybe we’ll get back there when we can also visit adjoining Belarus; we certainly can’t go there now, with Putin stooge and corrupt autocrat Lukashenko in charge)
- Bookend our stay in the Baltic states with some time in another country with direct flight in and out of Europe
The UNESCO World Heritage site of Old Town Tallinn, Estonia, from atop the castle hill of Toompea:
Riga, Latvia, from the spire of St. Peter’s Lutheran Cathedral in the center of town:
Regarding the direct flight bookend, we found a perfect candidate in Amsterdam’s Schiphol airport. United offered direct flights there from IAD, and BalticAir offered direct flights to Estonia and Latvia from Schiphol. Plus, we’d add a few days in Haarlem on the front end and a few days in Amsterdam on the back end to break up the flying time.
Haarlem decked out for Christmas:
The canals of Amsterdam during our stay:
In the middle, we’d fly direct:
- From Amsterdam to Tallinn, Estonia, then
- From Tallin to Riga, Latvia, then
- From Riga back to Amsterdam
Between the direct flights to and from Europe and the direct flights to, within, and from the Baltics, we planned this perfectly to minimize the impacts of inevitable flight delays. Nothing could go wrong now, with no connecting flights that could be impacted by delays on the initial leg – the bane of any traveler’s existence.
Then, more than a month after we bought our tickets, United saw fit to eliminate the direct flight from IAD to Amsterdam, screwing things up and requiring some rework and now unavoidable two-leg flights in and out of Europe. Not a disaster by any means, but it just meant more risks.
Which, of course, did materialize into actual problems, although none too bad, in the great scheme of things: our connecting flight on the way in got cancelled when we were in the air, and the connecting flight on the way back resulted in total travel time almost twice as long as the time the original direct flight would have taken. But, we weren’t impacted by domestic air travel calamity wrought by the massive Christmas snowstorm, and got back on time on December 28, so we consider ourselves relatively lucky.
After arriving (late) at Schiphol, we beelined it to Haarlem, where we stayed for the next 3 days (including watching the World Cup Final, where we were cheering on Argentina and the Dutch were rooting for France simply because Argentina beat them in the Semis, which was fun).
Haarlem’s Christmas lights throughout the city were the profile of the town’s landmark cathedral:
The functioning Molen de Adriaan windmill right in the heart of town, which we toured while there. Super cool.
From Haarlem, we flew northwest to Tallinn, Estonia, which was still initially blanketed by snow, which is exactly what we were hoping for.
Heading into the town square, dominated by Tallinn’s 15th-century town hall and host to the town’s Christmas Market.
St. Alexander Nevsky Cathedral on Toompea in Tallinn, a vestige of the Russian Empire’s role in Estonia’s history (and also, we got some good snow!):
Tallinn was mostly undamaged during WW II, and its medieval walls and defensive towers are still intact:
Dining highlight during our stay at the Chef’s Table of 180 Degrees Restaurant, which lasted 4.5 hours. This was about an hour and a half longer than it needed to be.
Due to Tallinn’s latitude, the sun set at 3:20 during our stay, resulting in lots of surreal, perpetual twilight afternoons in town:
After 3 days in Tallinn, we headed a little south, to Riga, Latvia – country # 70 for WolfeStreetTravel:
23 degree weather on Christmas Eve!
Riga’s Christmas Market was actually better than Tallinn’s.
And boasted multiple stalls across the market hawking mulled gin, which was a new one to us. It was fine, but we prefer traditional gluhwein (they had that too).
Riga still maintained some of their town’s fortifications, as well.
And was also home to Europe’s greatest concentration of Art Nouveau architecture, since Riga’s prosperity peaked at the same time as this arts and architecture movement at the turn of the century, and Riga wasn’t bombed into oblivion during WW II, preserving the buildings in this district.
Christmas night dinner at 3 pavāru restorāns in Riga, which bested the much fancier 180 Degrees a few days earlier in Tallinn.
After Christmas in Riga, we headed back to the Netherlands, this time to Amsterdam, which we had visited in 2015 at the end of our bike trip through Holland.
Very nice Christmas trip, overall. We’ll post more on each of these locations after we get through a lot of backlog from three previous trips.