A Bluffer’s Guide to Baltic Architecture


The cities surrounding the beautiful Baltic Sea include some of Europe’s most underrated and underappreciated capitals. The likes of Helsinki and Tallinn boast the magic and majesty of the Scandinavian cities without receiving the same levels of adoration from the travel industry, and still remain some of the continent’s best hidden gems.

The capital cities of the Baltic region could not look more different to the bustling capitals of London, Paris or Rome; with peaceful streets linking examples of historic and modern architecture. With a more considered approach to town building than many other capitals, the Baltic states have developed their own incredible personalities and cultures.

When visiting the Baltic states, one of the most enjoyable things to do is enjoy the wonderful architecture on show. From the medieval forts and towers which line the old town regions to the super-modern feature buildings; the cities of the Baltic are home to truly delightful architectural gems.

So, if you’ve got a trip to the Baltic nations coming up soon and want to brush up on your knowledge of the local architecture, here is our bluffer’s guide to Baltic architecture.

Helsinki: City of Architecture

The Finnish capital has deservedly earned the nickname City of Architecture, thanks to its wonderful array of building styles amassed over a relatively short history. As one of the younger capitals of Europe, you’d be forgiven for thinking that Helsinki may not measure up to some of its elders in the architectural stakes, but the city is full of wonderful surprises.

Whilst many cities are living, breathing history lessons, Helsinki is somewhat more refined, more measured and much more modern. With the largest concentration of Art Nouveau buildings in the northern stretches of the continent, Helsinki boasts more than a little Nordic sensibility and a splattering of Russian flavour.

ateneum art museum helsinki

Helsinki’s centre is a vibrant clash of different styles with the Neo-Renaissance sensibilities of the Ateneum Art Museum close to the National Romanticism of the National Museum, as well as the Nordic Classicism stylings of the 1930s Parliament House.

With spacious green stretches punctuating much of the city centre, these buildings are given room to spread and breath, allowing visitors to take in the grandeur and beauty of the structures in front of their eyes.

finlandia hall helsinki

And architecture buffs visiting Helsinki will surely be drawn to the works of Alvar Aalto, credited with putting Finnish modern architecture on the map. For a delightful insight into the workings of this revered architect, visit two of his most renowned masterpieces, the Academic Bookstore and Finlandia Hall.

The Gulf of Riga

Like Helsinki, the capital of Latvia, Riga, also boasts a number of Art Nouveau buildings in and around its historic centre. Recognised as a World Heritage Site, the old centre of Riga and its Jugendstil (German Art Nouveau) buildings are protected and proudly maintained by the city natives.

riga town centre art nouveau

Built during the city’s rapid economic growth in the early 20th century, the vast majority of city centre buildings in Riga are 100-110 years old and follow quite similar design principles throughout. Ornate multi-storey apartment blocks, perched above bars, restaurants and cafes, are prevalent in the beautiful Jugendstil style. Wonderful pastel blues, reds and oranges line the streets on the facades of these four and five-storey buildings, with decadent flourishes belying their modest use as residential homes.

But there are elements of the city which are a little more traditional than these art nouveau buildings, and they provide a thoroughly charming step back into the history of Riga. The wooden buildings of Riga can be found in a number of the city’s districts, providing a delightful experience for visitors wanting to experience the authentic culture of the Latvian capital.

riga traditional houses

The Kalnciema Quarter in the Agenskalns stretch of the city is perhaps the finest part of Riga to enjoy the wooden architecture. Today, the Kalnciema Quarter is a bohemian district of the city, playing host to a selection of arts and crafts centres as well as boasting live music performances and authentic Latvian culture. The 120-year-old architecture of the district is hugely popular with the locals, and you’ll regularly find Riga natives rubbing shoulders with visitors in the Kalnciema Quarter.

Ancient Tallinn

Tallinn, Estonia’s eclectic capital, enjoys an aesthetic shaped by experimentation in the late 19th century. As the city grew richer, architects from the Baltic region and beyond were invited to the peaceful capital to try their hand at developing new styles and personalities for the city. This brought the 19th-century love of Art Nouveau into the city, as well as delightful examples of historicism and eclecticism.

tallinn estonia historic architecture

There is more than a little Russian influence to be found throughout Tallinn, dating back to when Estonia was a governorate of the Russian Empire. Perhaps the finest example of this is the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral, built in the delightful Russian Revival style. The extravagant domes, vibrant colours and delightful flourishes of the cathedral ensure it stands out amongst the rest of the city’s more modest architectural examples, and looks more like a member of the Saint Petersburg skyline.

alexander nevsky cathedral tallinn

And despite this modesty, it is the everyday buildings of Tallinn which truly project the personality of the city. Most buildings follow strict architectural rules, with straight lines and symmetrical designs the order of the day. However, the house-proud Tallinn natives love to paint their homes in vibrant tones – with greens, blues and oranges projected against the Estonian sky.

Here, in the facades of the homes of the ordinary people of these wonderful nations, you’ll find the beauty of Baltic architecture.

If you’re interested in exploring the architectural wonders of the Baltic nations, Cruise1st UK have a great selection of cruises visiting this beautiful part of the world. Check out our full selection of Baltic cruises online, or call our friendly sales team for advice on 0808 2746 777.

A Bluffer’s Guide to Baltic Architecture
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A Bluffer’s Guide to Baltic Architecture
Baltic capitals represent some of Europe's most underrated and underappreciated cities. One of the most enjoyable things you can do in Helsinki, Riga and Tallinn is admire the wonderful architecture on show – from medieval forts to super-modern feature buildings. Use this primer to impress to impress fellow passengers on your Baltic cruise.

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Claire has worked in the travel industry since leaving college in 1994. One of this blog's most regular contributors, Claire covers cruise news and industry trends.

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