Riga is probably not your first destination choice on a trip through Europe, but if it has landed in your travel route, congratulations – you’ve chosen wisely!
Riga is often called the “hidden gem” of the Baltics, or Europe, even. Paradoxically, a part of what makes it a gem is the fact that it’s hidden. Though the city receives many visitors, it is nowhere near as many as other, more iconic European cities do. What makes Riga a good choice for a holiday is it’s balancing identity as a metropolitan social hub and a rather small, peaceful city (on a global scale, that is). Let me be clear on what that means – you’ll get to experience amazing places and events, yet nowhere will you need to queue for hours on end or spend a quarter of your holiday allowance on a single ticket (great place for budget holidays). In fact, the longest queues you’ll encounter will likely be at the supermarket, around 7 pm or 8 pm. Intrigued? Please do let me, a life-long Riga resident, give you some basic tips on how to make the best of your holiday.
Even though our economy has risen well since the 90’s, and we’re gradually getting other nations to acknowledge that Latvia is part of Northern, not Eastern Europe (take note of this), prices for various things are still much lower than in, e.g. Sweden, the UK, the Netherlands and elsewhere Westward. This includes real estate pricing. You’ll be sure to find something suitable for your wallet in one of the many hotels in the city or a nice AirBnb dig. Don’t underestimate a place in the Old Town (Vecrīga) or, better yet, the Quiet Centre (Klusais Centrs) neighbourhoods. These are the most exclusive and expensive parts of town with plenty of amazing architecture to see, yet you might still find a great place for as much as 20-30 EUR for a night. Though be careful with an Old Town accommodation if you’re a light sleeper – it’s the epicentre of nightlife and peaceful nights are a rarity.
In Riga, everything is in relation to the centre of the city and the people of Riga measure distances in terms of walking. If you look at a map, the “Center” is not a defined district, but normally refers to the Old Town and the area of roughly 10 by 10 blocks of buildings in the North-East direction (no area on the other side of the river Daugava is included). Contributed to by the lack of convenient parking spots, for a Latvian, that’s very well walking distance. If you’re not used to walking long distances, not to worry – there are plenty of options for you. You’ll need to have 2 free apps on your phone – “Rīgas Satiksme” and “Taxify”. The first app will provide you with all the necessary public transport schedules, maps, and plan your route for you. You’ll be pleasantly surprised at how well connected the city is. Practically every part of the city, even the furthest suburbs, can be reached by either bus, tram or trolleybus and if you inquire at a kiosk, you’ll be offered a wide array of ticket types (they’re called “e-talons”), to match your duration of stay or commute frequency. If your accommodation happens to be in a further district – you’ll get around just fine. The other app offers a low-fare taxi service. Uber doesn’t operate in Latvia, but Taxify is as good a substitute as any.
If you are planning to visit other cities, I advise you to plan in advance. If not renting a car, you can visit most cities and regions by bus or train, however, the connections are not nearly as fast or frequent as in the capital. Oh, and, if you can, choose the bus – trains can be obnoxiously slow.
Getting your “please and thank you” right
A short but important paragraph. As long as you are in Riga, don’t worry about communicating – in the bigger cities of Latvia most people you’ll speak to are efficiently fluent in English. Latvians are aware of the smallness of their nation and do not expect visitors to know any Latvian. For this reason, a Latvian will be pleasantly surprised if you greet them with “Sveiki!” (“Hello!”) or put in a “paldies” (“thank you”) where necessary.
Now, regardless of what you’ve heard about the Russian tongue in Latvia or what your own relationship to this language is, it will do you good to NOT assume it granted that all Latvians speak Russian. The older generation does, the younger generation does not, but for a Latvian, there is nothing quite as undignifying as receiving a “Spossybo!” (RU: thank you!) from a clearly English speaking tourist. Latvian is the one and only state language. If you don’t want to bother with it, just stick with the good old “Thank you!” – we’ll appreciate it more. 😉
Souvenirs for home
As any tourist district, the Old Town boasts numerous tacky souvenir shops for you to feast your eyes on mugs, tote bags and umbrellas generically printed with [insert name of city here]. Before your holiday is done, there are a few things you should consider taking home with you. There is something for every kind of budget, so here’s a list loosely in order from cheapest to priciest.
A local staple food that is being revived by local chefs as a delicacy. The bread is dark, even blackish brown and has a strong, sour taste. You may experiment with different toppings to create your own unique snack, as Latvians eat it with everything ranging from sprats to honey (though not at the same time). You’ll find it in any food shop.
“Kārums” cottage cheese dessert
Also found in most food shops. For many, this is the “taste of home” – something that all Latvian expats ask to bring them as a gift from home. It’s a dairy product and won’t keep very long, so if not possible to bring home, at least try it on the spot.
Candy form Laima and Skrīveru Saldumi
Latvians love their sweets and no visitor should leave without at least one variety of chocolates in their luggage. Find one of the many beautiful Laima sweets shops (you’ll know it when you see it), or again, simply go to the supermarket and take your pick of a wider variety of the local production. An important recommendation: toffees “Gotiņa” from Skrīveru Saldumi – this soft-centred caramel piece is a staple in Latvian confectionery traditions.
Souvenir shops Mūsmāja and Pienene
After buying sweets for all your friends at home, you’ll likely want to bring home something that lasts longer than chocolate. You could go to any of the average tacky souvenir shops one finds on every other street. Or you could go to one of these two – Mūsmāja or Pienene – both located in the Old Town. Both shops still offer things like mugs, t-shirts and postcards, but besides those, you’ll find a wide selection of tasteful Latvian designs and clever integrations of folk patterns and elements in all kinds of objects. A must-have for a Latvian home is a linen tablecloth with interwoven or sewn folk patterns. These can get quite massive and heavy, but you may find table paths and placemats of smaller formats that fit just right for your home.
Jewellery – Baltu Rotas
An excellent keepsake is Baltic or Latvian traditional jewellery. You’re going to think of amber, but you might want to reconsider. Nowadays most amber comes from Lithuanian shores, not Latvian, and amber jewellery isn’t exactly “in” right now either. Rather, a large amber necklace is what dear grandma puts on with her Sunday best. For a more classy souvenir, go to the Baltu Rotas shop. The shop offers a variety of classic and modern jewellery designs all based on the ancient jewellery of the pre-13th century Baltic people. The selection is vast and you won’t have to worry about getting your outfit right to wear one of their pieces.
Ethnography – Senā Klēts
The shop Senā Klēts specializes in crafting and selling the national dress to order but also sells jewellery and accessory pieces separately.The shop is quite pricey, but even if you don’t purchase anything, you can take a look at the exposition of Latvian national dress, which is truly a sight to behold. To Latvians, the national dress or tautastērps is kind of what a kimono is to the Japanese – it’s important to get the details right and wear it correctly. Everything you find in this shop will be authentically Latvian and, if you’re interested, the shopkeepers will be happy to tell you about the ethnographic origins or specifics of each piece.
On your way
There are so many things to do, places to see and matters to discuss and learn about Riga, but for now, let’s stop here – we wouldn’t want to spoil it all at once. For a change, this article does not list all the places you should see in Riga. Firstly, you will read about these locations in all other relevant travel articles, so it would be a waste of your reading time to squeeze it in here as well. Secondly, the city of Riga actually boasts a lovely website for all your sightseeing needs and whims, called LiveRiga. Just take a look and you’ll find wonderful things in the assortment of places, events and services they offer.
I raise you one for the road here, in hopes that you find these tips useful and wish you an excellent journey!