Europe’s good-value twin city break with a new rail route

Picture a four-hour train ride in spacious first-class seats, with hot drinks and a brownie brought to your seat as the countryside whizzes by. Coming in at just €34 (£29), you’re not paying UK rail prices – this is a new, four-and-a-quarter-hour-long service linking the Baltic capitals of Vilnius and Riga.

The LTG Link rail route, which runs daily, allows travellers to visit both cities in style – assuming that you’re happy flying into one and out of another – at a price which underscores why this jaunt makes for one of Europe’s best-value long weekends.

View on the beautiful narrow pedestrian street in the old town of Vilnius, Lithuania
Vilnius Old Town is Unesco-listed (Photo: Getty)

After a decidedly reasonable €4 Bolt from the airport, the elegant five-star Radisson Collection Astorija Hotel (rooms from £78 per night) is a great base in the Lithuanian capital of Vilnius. It dates from the heyday of Art Nouveau and is just steps from the Town Hall. Every major city sight is within walking distance.

The closest is the salmon pink Baroque façade of St Casimir, one of many catholic churches, but none are more striking or symbolic than Vilnius Cathedral. It houses tombs of some of important historic figures, such as Saint Casimir (the patron saint of Lithuania and Poland) and Vytautas the Great, a 14th-century ruler of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania – and a national hero. It also has an extraordinarily ornate Italian Baroque chapel and adjacent bell tower.

Behind it, Gediminas Castle Tower is on a hill, reachable by a short, steep walk or an even shorter funicular ride, which is €2 for a return trip. The tower offers views of the city’s Unesco-protected Old Town, where a maze of cobblestoned medieval streets beckons with cafés, restaurants, galleries and boutiques.

It is a short, steep walk up to Gediminas Tower (Photo: Pawel Toczynski/Getty)

Vilnius University and the narrow lanes of the former Jewish quarter are worth a visit, and there are free tours (tips are, understandably, expected) of the former Lukiskes Prison. Then, retail therapy awaits on Gediminas Avenue. Fossil resin amber is the precious stone of choice across its jewellery stores.

No city’s cultural immersion is complete without a market, and another Art Nouveau architectural gem, Hales Market, delivers. It introduces visitors to a world of smoked pork and pickles, local honeys and fragrant wild herbs.

When eating in Vilnius, potatoes are king, especially when crafted into Zeppelin dumplings, named for their elongated shape. But finer dining also awaits. Ertlio Namas has a tasting menu of traditional Lithuanian cuisine.

Four courses are available for €50 per person, while the six-course option is €60. Wine pairings are €35. Dishes include sorrel soup with quail and beef tart with morels, beetroots and asparagus. Paupio Turgus food court offers excellent coffee, meanwhile, and Lokys is a specialist in game. Beaver is a popular local meat. It dates from when it was considered a fish by Catholics fasting during Lent.

There’s also a vibrant night life, supported by the city’s 60,000-strong student population. You can go dancing at places such as Alchemikas, try Apoteka for cocktails and stop by Jazz Cellar 11 for live music.

Departing from Vilnius’ pristine train station takes you straight to the heart of the Latvian capital, Riga. The first-class carriage tends to be quieter than standard class, with passengers including business travellers and tourists.

After another €4 Bolt from the railway station, the former Central Bank turned five-star hotel, Grand Palace Hotel (rooms start at £100 per night) is surrounded by Unesco monuments in the Old Town.

The Swedish Gate is situated in Riga, Latvia, and was erected 1698 as a part of the Riga Wall to provide access to barracks outside the city wall. Photo taken in April.
The Swedish Gate in Riga (Photo: Getty)

Riga dates from 1201 when German crusaders forced the local pagan population to convert to Christianity. Construction on the city’s soaring red-brick cathedral started a decade later and, over the centuries, it has featured elements of Romanesque, Gothic and Baroque architecture. Daily organ concerts at noon and ascending the bell tower for city views are its main attractions.

Riga’s Old Town has a colourful array of houses that have been collected over the centuries, including House of the Blackheads. It’s far more picturesque than its name suggests, as the former warehouse was named after a fifteenth century guild. Art Nouveau comes to the fore again in Alberta Street where elegant buildings have made it a popular film – and Instagram – backdrop.

The Freedom Monument dating from 1935 is a towering national icon, guarded around the clock by stern looking soldiers, while a cruise along the River Daugava towards the Baltic Sea offers whole new angles on the city’s maritime prominence.

Terrasse de caf? sur une place de Riga, Lettonie
There are plenty of places to eat affordably in Latvia’s capital (Photo: Getty)

For food fans, Riga’s Central Market is housed in vast former Zeppelin airship hangers, making it one of Europe’s largest. Wander the cavernous halls of stalls for gifts of local cheeses, smoked meats, spices and decadent pastries, all at seriously wallet-friendly prices.

As for to where to eat, the Michelin Guide’s arrival in Riga has shone a light on the city’s growing dining scene. Consequently, be sure to book in at the real-deal ramen joint Shoyu, tuck into generous Georgian feasts at Alaverdi, or hit up local favourites such as meatballs with sauerkraut and sour cream at Folkklubs ala Pagrabs. The vast former wine cellar also offers live music and an array of beers and spirits to keep the night going.

It is a perfect long weekend, with the new rail route making a twin city break in Vilnius and Riga that more relaxing.

Getting there
Direct, one-way flights from London to Vilnius start from £19.99. Direct, one-way flights from Riga to Edinburgh start from €25.99 (£22.23) with Ryanair. There are also direct flights available from Riga to London, Manchester, Leeds or Nottingham.
Second-class tickets from Vilnius to Riga are available for €24 (£20.52), while first class tickets are €34, ltglink.lt/en/vilnius-riga-en

Staying there
Radisson Collection Astorjia Hotel has rooms from £78 per night, radisson.com
Grand Palace Hotel has rooms from £100 per night, grandpalaceriga.com

Further information
lithuania.travel/en/
latvia.travel/en