Despite being the European Capital of Culture 2014, Riga, the capital of Latvia, is still considered to be ‘off the beaten track’ for many travellers, especially non-Europeans. I was the only North American in my hostel during my stay, and after seeing the surprise on my hosts’ face when I told them I was Canadian, I felt a bit like a rarity. It was kind of neat experience.
Despite being under the radar, Riga really is a neat place to visit. Old town was quaint and picturesque while the newer areas reminded me a little bit of Paris or Vienna- but worn, like you could visibly see the hard times that this city had gone through. It was great to explore for a couple of days and despite the recent currency change to the Euro, it was still relatively inexpensive. I would recommend Riga, and Latvia itself, to any traveller looking to expand past the stereotypical Eurotrip. After all, as the girls behind the check in desk told me when they looked at my passport, ‘true travellers come to Riga’.
Riga is incredibly accessible. It hosts a large airport just 10km outside of the city, and is served by multiple airlines including the budget friendly Wizzair and Ryanair (check Skyscanner to find cheap flights). Getting from the airport to the city centre is easy; bus 22 runs every 10 minutes or so and will take you into the city in about 45 minutes. Taxis are also available at the airport, but make sure to negotiate a price rather than rely on the meter.
Riga also has a major train and bus station just outside of Old Town. Latvian Railways connects many cities within the country, along with select cities in Russia, Estonia, and Belarus, and there are plenty of coach bus lines that route through Riga. I used Eurolines Lux Express from Tallinn and travelled very comfortably with lots of legroom, and a personal TV for my use. The bus even had a coffee machine (whaaat?!)
Being on the coast of the Baltic Sea, Latvia also has a port. The Tallink line visits Latvia daily and offers services to and from Stockholm.
The best way to get around is by foot- the city is very walkable and pedestrian friendly. As cars are not allowed in Old Town your other options are to rent a bike or use public transportation. Riga has a network of city busses and street cards. Tickets can be purchased (exact change, cash only) at the time of use, or for a more budget friendly option purchase an e-talon card ahead of time from a ticket office.
Where to Stay
As indicated earlier, Riga is a really affordable city, especially on a backpacker’s budget. I paid about $10 CDN/night for spot in a 6 bed female dorm in my old town hostel, The Naughty Squirrel (off season). While Old Town Riga, like in other cities, is the most expensive area to stay in it’s also the most central and, if you like cute and charming buildings as much as I do, the most attractive. There are also plenty of hotels and B&Bs in the area. Don’t forget to check Airbnb for affordable accommodation as well.
What to Do/See
A beautiful and touristic part of the city, Old Town is a great place to explore on foot. Filled with restaurants, souvenir shops, and history it’s a great spot to start exploring. Free tours are offered daily that will explain the history of the city and show you popular features of the city including the city walls, guild buildings, museums, and churches.
The Black Cat of Riga
One of Riga’s most commonly seen symbols is that of the Black Cat. The legend behind this symbol tells of a wealthy tradesman who was denied access to the Big Guild. In his anger he erected statues of two black cats on the rooftop of his home. The cats were positioned in angry positions, with arches backs and raised tails, and were positioned so that their tails faced the Big Guild. Today the black cats are a famous symbol of the city, and although black cats can be found throughout Riga, the originals can still be found today at the Cat House.
St. Peter’s Church
The oldest church in Riga, St. Peter’s is also the most popular amongst tourists because the tower offers a beautiful panoramic view of the city. There is an entry fee but once you had paid you are welcome to take the elevator to the look out and spend as long as you like.
Museum of Occupation of Latvia
A must-see in Riga, the Museum of Occupation of Latvia houses a collection of memorabilia and items depicting the history of the Latvian occupation during 1940-1991. The exhibits, following the museums motto of Remembering, Commemorating, Reminding, show what life was like during these times; the horrors the people faces during the Soviet and Nazi terrors, and their fight and eventual triumph in regaining their freedom in 1991. There is no fixed price for visiting, but donations in an amount of your choosing are requested upon arrival
The Corner House
Located on the corner of Brivibas and Stavu streets is the Corner House; the KGB headquarters during the times of the Latvian Occupation. During the Occupation years many Latvians were tortured, imprisoned and murdered here. Many more were interrogated on the premises before being sent to work camps. At the time of my visit (March 2014) the Corner House was not open to viewers, but there is a memorial at the iron door where visitors can pay their respects.
An important Latvian Monument, the freedom monument was created in remembrance of the soldiers who lost their lives in the Latvian War of Independence. It was completed in 1935 and survived the soviet occupation. The monument shows a woman with her arms open wide, which is meant to be reflective of freedom embracing the whole of Latvia. Today it is a major meeting point for public gatherings and official ceremonies.
Riga Central Market
One of the most unique aspects of the city is the Riga Central Market. One of the largest markets in Europe, the Riga Central Market is easily identifiable by the fact that it is housed in parts of old zeppelin hangers. With vendors both outside and inside, this market has a ton of things to offer ranging from meats and produce, to freshly baked foods, traditional clothing, and souvenirs. It’s a great place to visit in the mornings and grab some home made baked goods and fruit for breakfast.
Looking for something a little more active or exciting? Riga tour groups offer a variety of activities to keep your trip exciting. For those looking for an adrenaline rush, why not try bobsledding (available in both summer and winter), off-roading, or bungee jumping? Looking for something a little more low-key? Try a kayak or dog sledding tour. And for anyone wanting to embrace their inner bad-ass; why not check your aim while learning how to shoot an AK-47?
Food and Drink
Traditional Latvian food is very hearty and filling; lots of potatoes, pork, and given its location on the Baltic sea, fish. I ate out one night and ordered potato pancakes and salmon with a mixed vegetable salad- it was honestly one of the best meals I have ever had.
Latvia also has a traditional drink: Black Balsam, which is definitely an acquired taste. Locals swear that it can also be used as a medicine if sick. It comes in two flavours; traditional and black current, and is something every visitor should try at least once.
Riga is known for a big bar and nightclub scene which is popular with many Europeans. Beers tend to run you around 3 euro in old town, and will be a euro or so cheaper outside of it. Most venues offer happy hour to be sure to take advantage. Men- beware of super flirtatious local girls coaxing you into bars; a current scam leads travellers into mafia-run clubs and bars that will present you with a ridiculously high bill at the end of the night. Travellers have also been threatened, drugged, and robbed of all their belongings. Venues known to do this have been flagged and can be found listed online. If you are new to town and unsure of where to go, many hostels (such as the Naughty Squirrel) run pub crawls that will lead you safely through Riga’s night scene.
Have you been to Riga?
A Note on Travel Insurance in Latvia
Please, do NOT travel without travel insurance! I’ve had to rely on mine twice before (once for damaged luggage, once because I developed a lung infection while traveling). While the cost may seem annoying and better spent elsewhere, trust me when I say you’ll be sorry if you don’t have it. For just a couple bucks a day, you can save yourself a whole lot of stress and money. I like to recommend SafetyWing for travel medical insurance. With prices starting at $37 for 4 weeks, they are one of the most affordable options I’ve found. Learn more about the importance of travel insurance here.