Protip: Do not visit Latvia during the spring months because the weather will be cold and it will likely be rainy or possibly even snowy and a lot of what you will want to do in Riga will be outdoors and cold and rainy weather will ruin your experience.
Our trip to Riga started off with 30 rowdy “stag do bound” guys on our outbound budget airline flight from Gatwick. A “stag do” is the British English term for bachelor party and when English guys go on stag dos, they lose their fucking minds. Seriously, the wheels of the plane leave the tarmac of British soil and they become unruly beasts, yelling across the plane and drinking heavily at 9am because they simply can’t wait two hours to start drinking when they arrive at their destination.
Peter and I were seated in the middle of this group of guys. As soon as the plane took off, I took off for an open seat a few rows up and Peter moved from the middle seat to the aisle seat that I had been sitting in. Then we proceeded to listen to this group of guys shout about their weekend ahead and how they were going out to the countryside to fire AK47s and were going to eat (use? smoke?) hash and get laid by beautiful Latvian ladies. Please note that some of the men who were saying these things were married. We also learned that this group of 30 was only half of the group, the other half was on the next flight. God help the lovely people of Riga, specifically the beautiful Latvian ladies.
This once again proves that nothing good comes from budget airline flights.
Peter and I did not have any expectations of Riga and I am unsure how to explain our experience aside from it being not at all what I had expected. Being an Eastern European country, I expected Soviet-style block housing, stone-faced angry-looking people and people smoking everywhere. Most of these expectations turned out to be false.
There are four main styles of architecture in Riga city centre and the outskirts.
- Art nouveau
- Soviet block housing
The Soviet-style block housing was mostly found on the outskirts of Riga. Below is a video I took on our bus journey as we traveled from Riga city centre outward toward the outskirts and then onward to Tallinn.
Peter and I learned of the wooden houses and art nouveau district on a walking tour we took withE.A.T Riga Tours on our first full day. At the beginning of our tour, our guide said, “I think when people get to a new city, they get settled into their hotel and then figure out how to get to the city centre or old town. From that moment on, they seem to travel to that main area and back to their hotel on the same route every time.”
That statement is true and was exactly what Peter and I had done just hours earlier. We took a taxi(smoke free and wifi enabled!) from the airport to our hotel, got settled into our hotel room and then found the quickest route to the old town.
The old town
The medieval old town was nice but was not the best old town we’ve experienced. The best will always be Bruges, Belgium because it is just so fairytale there.
Below are a few photos of Riga’s old town.
To get to the old town, we crossed this bridge…
…admired this lonely lock hooked to the rail…
…and walked a few more minutes and found ourselves in the old town.
The art nouveau district
The art nouveau district, specifically Alberta Iela (“Alberta Street”), was a 10-minute walk from the old town. The district is small but worth strolling through because the detail of the buildings was crazy cool. I believe the art nouveau buildings in Riga were the first of their kind that we had seen in Europe. The buildings were massive and it was difficult to get a decent picture because I wasn’t able to back up enough to get a wide view with our tiny point-and-shoot.
The wooden houses
The third style of architecture in the city were wooden houses. Like the art nouveau district, wooden houses were clustered together in different parts of the city including Kipsala and Pardaugava.
Wooden houses also dotted central Riga crunched between big stone buildings. Peter and I walked across the River Daugava on theVansu Tilts (Vansu Bridge) in gale force winds to check out the wooden houses in Kipsala and were underwhelmed, however, something tells me we were not in the corect area, or maybe the wooden houses were just underwhelming.
Once we had crossed the extremely long bridge, we strolled (fast walked?) along the river road. There was not much to be seen and I think if we would have walked one or two roads further behind the river road, we would have seen more houses.
As a general side note, we hail from the US where wooden houses are common, so there was no “wow” factor in looking at wooden houses… in gale force winds and rain.
The green and red houses in the photos above were riverfront properties and I felt incredibly uncomfortable taking photos of these houses because people currently live in them and what if they were watching me through their windows? Anyway, the road in front of the houses ran along the river and on the river bank were stones with names on them. I don’t know the significance of the names on the stones but they were randomly placed along the road.
The central market
The central market is gigantic! It is the largest market we have seen in our travels with the Budapest’s market coming in a close second place. It went on and on and on and I don’t think we saw it all.
Protip: Watch out for pickpockets at the entrances of the market.
The market is built inside rebuilt airplane hangers so that gives some perspective of the size of the market. It was well-organized and had the standard departments: dairy, produce, meat, fish, household supplies, and pickles (aka pickled foods).
In Europe, the term “pickles” is used to describe a pickled food, not just pickled cucumbers/gherkins. Take the word “cheese,” is to mozzarella, cheddar, and swiss as pickles is to cucumbers/gherkins, onions, and peppers.
I could smell the dill from the pickles department five minutes before we arrived and I was in heaven with all the pickled cucumbers/gherkins (known to Americans simply as “pickles”).
With the help of our British tour guide, we purchased pickled cucumbers/gherkins out of huge vats and then ate them later with the beer we had purchased from a craft brewery kiosk in the market. Pickles and craft brew do not go hand-in-hand but in our defense, the two craft brews we selected and purchased would not go with anything because they were terrible.
Though terrible, I loved the beer pouring and labeling process of this little kiosk. Beer was poured into plastic bottles from the tap…
After the bottle was full, the brew dude sealed it, put a red handle on it and attached a label…
Protip: It is illegal to drink alcohol or carry an open bottle in public in Riga. The police are always watching out for disorderly drunk people and open containers because the city of Riga is very much against “alcho-tourism” which is basically stag dos and hen parties (bachelorette parties).
The lessons learned
The Latvian language is slowly being phased out due to the large population and continuing immigration of Russians. Latvia, Russian, and English are all spoken widely in Riga. Latvian children learn Latvian and English at school whereas Russian children (in Russian-centric schools) learn Russian, Latvian and English.
Knowing three languages versus two makes the children more marketable and hence it is those children who are getting the jobs and it is the native Latvian children who are moving to other countries in lieu of employment opportunities. Over time, it is believed that the Latvian language will be phased out, leaving Russian and English.
A typical Latvian family will have one child and divorce rates are high.
Latvians love magazines. They are sold everywhere.
The closing thoughts
The best way to visit Riga is probably via a Baltic cruise. Riga is small and if you are super organized with your time and familiarize yourself with the layout of the city, seeing and doing all of the above (aside from many spending a great deal of time at the market) is possible to accomplish in one full day.