Over the past decade, they have embraced western concepts from Nike to parliamentary democracy and service-oriented tourism with a vengeance.Estonia even has the dubious honour of being the first former Communist country to win the Eurovision Song Contest.Latvians are equally musical, but are easy-going, talkative and notoriously indecisive.Compared with the other Balts, the Lithuanians are hot-headed, spontaneous southerners (although Vilnius is no further south than York): poetic, romantic, Latin and impossibly zealous about nature.Cheap alternative: fly on buzz (08; from Stansted to Helsinki, for around £100 return, then there is the choice of passenger and car ferries or hydrofoils between Helsinki and Tallinn (journey time from 90 minutes) run by Tallink (00 358 9 228 311; you can also cross via catamaran with Nordic Jet (00 358 9 681 770; fi).Latvia: British Airways (08; flies five times weekly from Gatwick to Riga (from £197).
From Vilnius, visit Kaunas, the elegant second city (home to the Museum of Devils), or the windswept Hill of Crosses, in Siauliai; a moving testament to resistance: it was repeatedly bulldozed by the Soviets, but courageous Lithuanians kept rebuilding the mound.
Vilnius, the only inland Baltic capital, lies in a leafy bowl on the confluence of two rivers.
Its Old Town is warm and mellow: with ochre-coloured houses, wrought-iron shop signs, extravagant baroque buildings and an enticing labyrinth of inner courtyards, it's less commercial and more bohemian than its northern counterparts.
Perhaps more importantly for the visitor, the Baltic capitals Tallinn, Riga and Vilnius have regained their pre-war reputation as vibrant café societies, awash with stylish hotels, boutiques and bistros.
If you must do the Soviet thing, you'll find evidence of the bad old days in the main towns' hideous Brezhnev-era suburbs, or ghostly regions such as the deserted military base of Paldiski, west of Tallinn.