Riga is the Capital city of Latvia. This ex-communist state of the USSR is found on the far Eastern fringes of Europe sandwiched between its neighbours Estonia to the North, Lithuania to the South and the ex-mother land Russia to the East. Riga, and Latvia, has a short coastline on the Baltic Sea with Sweden across the other side.
Riga is vibrant cosmopolitan city and is the largest of all three Baltic capitals. Riga, Latvia’s capital, is a cultural centre with museums and concert halls known for its wooden buildings, medieval Old Town and art nouveau architecture. Set on the Baltic Sea at the mouth of the River Daugava, it offers a wide range of water activities, from canal boat tours to beach swimming.
Latvia has had a varied history and has been ruled by several civilisations including German and Polish advances. During the World Wars the country fell under Nazi German rule before losing its grip to the Russian powerhouse. Latvia finally became and independent state as the former USSR broke-down it was one of the countries to break away in 1991.
SOME USEFUL INFORMATION
ℹ️ Travel: Riga International airport is the main airport in Latvia and the largest airport out of the Baltic States. The airport is approximately 7 miles (11kms) from Riga. As with most airports you can grab a taxi that costs roughly €20 (GB£18) and takes around 20 minutes. Beware of taxi services there are some shady companies that serve the airport.
The bus from Riga Airport to city centre No.22 runs each day. It’s more comfortable to get off at the Stockmann shop, near Riga railway station, or at the final stop. The trip duration is around 30 minutes, the ticket cost is from €1.15 (GB£1) for a single ticket.
ℹ️ Currency: From 2004 Latvia was deemed stable enough to join the EU (European Union). Latvia had its own currency called the Latvian LAT, However, Since 2014 Latvia now uses the Euro as its official currency.
ℹ️ Credit Cards and Banks: ATMs are common place in almost every shopping street, with several ‘bureau de change’ around the city centre, with almost every retailer accepting Mastercard and Visa. There is no fear of an establishment declining card payments.
ℹ️ Weather: Like the majority of Northern Europe the Winter months are damp, grey and very cold. The Continent sheds its Winter cold around March and days become long and warm during the Summer months until around early October.
ℹ️ Accommodation: I stayed just over the river Daugava in the 5* Radisson Blu Daugava Hotel. Prices are around £65 per night (€72.50).
My trip to Riga came as a birthday gift courtesy of a friend and was a complete surprise. Riga is typically Eastern European with its past rulers leaving their mark on the city’s architecture. Our trip was a long weekend in January….boy, was it cold!
WHAT CAN RIGA OFFER?
Founded in 1211 this enormous cathedral is the largest medieval church in the Baltic. During Soviet times services were forbidden, but the building, along with its huge pipe organ, built in 1884, underwent a careful reconstruction.
It was used as a classical-music venue, which it very much remains now, although services have been resumed since the Lutheran archbishop of Latvia moved in. The floor and walls of the huge interior are dotted with old stone tombs – note the carved symbols denoting the rank or post of the occupant.
RIGA CENTRAL MARKET
Completed in 1930, Riga’s Central Market was one of the largest and most modern marketplaces on the European continent. When originally built there were five hangers (that were used as Zeppelin hangars during WWI).
Today there are four remaining hangers in full operation that serve their original function as meat, fish, produce and dairy markets. During busy periods the markets spill out beyond the confines of the hangars and operate throughout the day, some longer than others. Whether it was just timing of my visit but beware of seagulls. Like in most coastal towns and cities there are flocks of them…. I whether you class this a lucky or not had to often make a dash for a hanger as these aerial animals dive-bombed passers by below.
Riga’s Freedom Monument towers above the city between Old and Central Riga. Paid for by public donations, the monument was erected in 1935 where a statue of Russian ruler Peter the Great once stood.
At the base of the monument there is an inscription that reads ‘Tevzemei un Brivibai’ (For Fatherland and Freedom), accompanied by granite friezes of Latvians singing and fighting for their freedom. Among the figurines, you may recognise that of Lacplesis – the half-man/half-bear who symbolises Latvians’ struggle for independence.
A copper female Liberty tops the soaring monument, holding three gold stars in her hands. The three stars represent the three original cultural regions of Latvia: Kurzeme, Vidzeme and Latgale.
Two soldiers stand guard at the monument throughout the day and perform a modest changing of the guards every hour on the hour from 9am to 6pm.
HOUSE OF THE BLACKHEADS
Located in the Town Hall Square. If you were a German merchant and single in the Middle ages, you’d have a room here at the House of the Blackheads. This house was built in 1334 for upper class merchants and was used as a venue for meetings and banquets.
The House of the Blackheads is to Riga what the Eiffel Tower is to Paris, so make sure to put it at the top of your list.
It’s like a breath of fresh air, away from the busy streets and downtown. In Riga, the park has a canal running through it and a bridge with love locks. I’m sure in the Summer months its a great place for a jog, for relaxation or a picnic, and for a boat ride. In the winter, you can feed the ducks that live on the canal.
THE THREE BROTHERS
Located in the Old Town, almost impossible to photograph, but pretty nonetheless. Together, the houses form the oldest complex of dwelling houses in Riga. The white house is from the 15th century, the yellow is from 16th and the green from the 17th century.
So cosy and so charming. The architecture in Riga goes from wooden buildings to art nouveau, from Modernism to Gothic. It’s a different landscape depending on which part of town you walk though, and you’ll be able to find unique statues of cats, wooden compounds, and colourful houses.
Be sure to bring your camera as you’ll want to snap pictures!
RIGA BLACK BALSAM
When I first heard the word “Riga balsam”, I thought of hair product or something. In Latvia, balsam has nothing to do with hair products. Can you guess what it is?
ALCOHOL, of course!
Black Balsam is made from pure vodka and it’s used in traditional medicine and sold in every tavern in town. It’s kind of a must when you’re in Riga.
Riga’s nightlife scene is becoming more cosmopolitan over the years. The neighbourhood pubs are still thriving and many clubs are once again open until the last paying customer leaves.
Sadly many bars still close their doors before midnight on weeknights and some late-night bars are still out to scam tourists, so be vigilant.
FOLKSKLUB ALA PAGRABS
This huge cavern filled with the bubbling magma of endless beer-infused joy, folk-punk music, dancing and Latvian nationalism, this is an essential Riga drinking venue. The bar strives to reflect the full geography and diversity of Latvian beer production, but there is also plenty of local cider, fruit wine and Smakouka. Don’t forget the Black Balsam!
Rock Cafe (Not The Hard Rock Cafe!)
A legendary bar in the Old Town, Rock cafe has it all: a place to sit down for a drink but also a busy dance floors with a variety of music (including live concerts), a pool room, and karaoke, the only problem being choosing a song from the huge list of available titles!
It is extremely lively, especially on Saturday nights, but the atmosphere is friendly and it is very easy to start chatting to just about anyone. Its proximity to the centre and most of the city’s hostels make it especially convenient.
Skyline is a cocktail lounge on the 26th floor of the Radisson Blu hotel (where I stayed) The view is absolutely incredible, possibly the best in Riga. See the Old Town on one side, and the Art Nouveau district on the other. It’s worth seeing at least once.
This unmatched location makes it very busy in the evenings; we recommend going on Mondays or Tuesdays to avoid paying a cover charge. The cocktails are also amazing, if a little pricey by Latvian standards.
If you haven’t considered Latvia then maybe you should. Winter was a cold yet magical place. The frozen air being warmed as you breathe in. I very much would like to visit during the Summer months to experience the contrast. Either way, I doubt you will leave Latvia disappointed.