"Think historic Unesco-listed centres, a mix of fascinating cultural influences and easy air access from Manchester or Liverpool airports…"
Named European Capital of Culture 2011, Tallinn is still basking in the spotlight. Indeed, the Estonian capital is keen to recast itself as a northern European cultural hub to rival St Petersburg or Copenhagen. To prove it, the city plays host to Tallinn Music Week in April and the alfresco Tallinn Old Town Days festival in June.
The medieval Old Town remains a big tourist draw with its fairy-tale flourishes: ornate 15th-century doorways, cobbled courtyards and a slew of skyline-defining churches rising above ancient squares. Two must-sees are the Town Hall Pharmacy with its restored Baroque frescoes, and Kalev, a historic marzipan shop, with colourful displays of hand-painted delicacies.
There's also a more contemporary edge to the city's burgeoning cultural life, which has blossomed since independence in August 1991. The Culture Kilometre runs from the city centre to the up-and-coming Kalamaja district, culminating at the Kultuuri Katel art centre in a renovated thermal power factory. The Estonian Maritime Museum is also well worth a look.
The Savoy Boutique Hotel in the heart of the Old Town is a good base with everything within walking distance. It's a short stroll to a range of easy-going beer cellars, where locals and tourists mix over plates of pork schnitzel and roasted potatoes. Cafe Pierre, a cosy café with an ambience like an Estonian grandmother's front parlour, is a great place for coffee and a slice of plaadikook, a cake of cottage cheese and berries.
For all of its modernity, Tallinn still remembers its Cold War past. The Sokos Hotel Viru housed a dark secret during the Soviet years - the city's KGB surveillance centre was located in a secret set of rooms on the 23rd floor. Today, the lift still only reaches the 22nd floor, with a gated stairway to the secret floor. The guided tour lifts the veil on rooms stuffed with old documents and spy equipment. It's a reminder that, while Tallinn is culturally going places, it's still in touch with its past.
FLY:Ryanair flies from Manchester to Tallinn in around 2 hours
The largest city in the Baltic States, sea-bordering Riga is cool, compact and a little more understated than its neighbouring capital Tallinn. The city has one of the largest concentrations of Art Nouveau buildings in Europe, while one of its best examples of Mikhail Eisenstein's inspired architecture is the forbidding, black-stone building, which today houses the Occupation Museum.
The Grand Palace Hotel in the Old Town is a central spot and can assist with booking some of the offbeat tours that are increasingly popular in Riga. But start with the classic sites, mooching gently from Cathedral Square towards the River Daugava via medieval churches, Gothic buildings and a clutch of Soviet-era ideological sculptures. Many of the Old Town streets are undergoing renovation with new cafés, galleries and craft shops springing up behind refreshed façades. Check out Gallery Maxillas Darzs for the latest local contemporary art and the surrounding amber jewellery shops for souvenirs - but beware of fakes.
To sample some local cuisine, the ancient Central Market is buzzing around lunchtime and offers local seafood, plus lots of hearty meat recipes, all served with Baltic dark rye bread. While local beer is a perennial favourite, the local speciality is Riga's traditional black balsam, a bitter-tasting spirit that combines various herbs and roots, normally served with juice. B Bar Restaurant has a fine line in balsam cocktails and good-value lunches.
But it's the quirky day trips that really make Riga stand out from the crowd and they don't get much quirkier than a trip to Sigulda, a popular winter sports area one hour from Riga in the Gauja National Park area. Here you can train with the Latvian Olympic bobsleigh and luge champions, hurtling down the longest track in Europe in a three-man sleigh at speeds up to 120km/h. They add wheels when the snow melts so it feels like riding a turbo-charged shopping trolley. Prepare for a heart-in-your-mouth moment as you hurtle head first into the concave twists with only a wire mesh roof and a helmet between you and an extreme close-up of the concrete. Cool Runnings Baltic style? The perfect end to your trip.
FLY:Ryanair flies from Liverpool and Manchester to Riga in around 2.5 hours