- Lifestyle & Sports
- 29 Jan 14
From kitsch Soviet-era architecture to some of Europe's hottest clubbing, the Latvian capital is a must-visit
Where exactly is it?
Riga is the capital of Latvia, the small Baltic state bordered to the south by neighbouring Estonia and to the north by Lithuania. The city has a population of 700,000 and is situated on the Gulf of Riga, an inlet of the Baltic Sea. The Scandinavian peninsula of Sweden and Norway is located to the west, with Finland to the north.
How do I get there?
Ryanair operate a direct service five days a week from Dublin to the Latvian capital, flight time approximately three hours. Another option is to fly Ryanair to the Lithuanian capital Vilnius and travel onward by bus to Riga. This leisurely journey will take about four hours.
What language do they speak?
Latvian is the state language and is spoken by the vast majority of Riga’s citizens. Russian is also widely spoken, although its use has declined since the days when Latvia was a member of the communist USSR. Mercifully, English is widely spoken by the city’s younger citizens, particularly those employed in the tourism industry.
What is the local beer like?
There is plenty of fine local beer, primarily pale lager, to sample in the picturesque Baltic state’s capital city. Latvians love their lager and there are lots of brews to choose from, both from mainstream breweries and smaller regional producers. Aldaris and Cesu are the two dominant breweries in the market. Aldaris in particular produces a variety of options ranging from Luksus, a 5.2% pale lager to their hearty Porteris, a 6.8% porter. A number of boutique breweries have joined the market in recent years, so be sure to enquire, especially in smaller pubs.
Unsurprisingly, vodka, typical of the Baltic and Eastern European region, is hugely popular in Latvia. There are distilleries scattered throughout the country and there is also a thriving black market for cheaper product from neighbouring countries. In recent times, a large number of gay bars in North America began boycotting the sale of the famous Russian vodka brand Stolichnaya, in protest at the Russian state’s crackdown on the gay community. However, the Stolichnaya brand is actually produced in Latvia! Another popular tipple is Black Balsam, a strong herbal liqueur, served neat or in everything from coffee, tea to a range of cocktails.
What is the transport like?
Riga is a very compact city and very easy to navigate. Public transport is provided by RÐgas Satiksme who operate an extensive network of tram and bus routes. The region is also connected by rail with its Baltic neighbours and Russia and there are regular luxury coach charters to Vilnius, St. Petersburg and other destinations. The city’s coastal location ensures it’s also possible to travel by ferry to the Swedish capital, Stockholm, amongst other Baltic destinations. An excellent road network makes onward travel to the neighbouring Baltic states easy to navigate and journey times are short.
What’s the food like?
Latvian food is typical of the Baltic region and consists primarily of meat and fish dishes, accompanied by those old staples, potatoes and cabbage. Latvia’s challenging climate and limited farmland meant that growing vegetables was
limited to high-yield varieties. Traditionally, a lot of the food was purposely calorie-rich, ideal for people involved in manual labour, especially during the period of Soviet occupation. Popular dishes include pork meatballs or fried breaded
pork chops. Pork is certainly king and is served in a myriad of ways. Look out for local specialities such as pig’s trotters or pig’s head stew! Sauerkraut is served with many meals and pickled vegetables, including beetroot and cucumber, are widely available and very tasty. Deer, wild boar and venison are also common meats. Smoked fish is something of a delicacy in Riga, especially herring and sprat. Latvian dairy products are of an extremely high quality, look out for the scrumptious sweet and cottage cheeses!
What’s the nightlife like?
The stag-party culture of recent years, as exemplified on TV programmes like Boozed Up Brits Abroad, has become synonymous with Riga. Every weekend, flight-loads arrive into the Latvian capital, famous for its booming nightlife. The
city has something for everyone from classic nightclubs and kitschy bars to small, cosy folk and jazz clubs. It’s certainly earned its title as the party capital of the Baltics! Some notable haunts include Gauja, a stylish bar decorated in Soviet-era memorabilia, and the spacious basement venue, Folk Club Ala. Ala is a wonderful place to sample local brews and bop along to some local folk rhythms. It’s a world away from the garish strip bars which dot the city. However, Riga’s also infamous
for its seedy underbelly. Prostitution is commonplace, with numerous brothels and sex shops. In recent years, authorities have worked hard to improve the city’s public image and attract more family-orientated holidaymakers to one of Europe’s
most beautiful cities.
Why should I go?
Riga is a vibrant and beautiful city. It’s a fascinating combination of stunning Art Nouveau architecture and eclectic nightlife which make it an ideal weekend city break. The old city is a UNESCO World Heritage site and was once dubbed the ‘Paris of the East’. With affordable restaurants and modern hotels, Riga is well worth the visit.
What are the touristy things to do?
Riga’s main tourist attractions are concentrated in the vicinity of the picture-postcard old town. The imposing Riga Castle, built in 1330, is one of the city’s most impressive sites, as is the towering Lutheran Cathedral, which predates the castle by over a hundred years and is regarded as the most recognisable landmark in Latvia. The old town is dotted with impressive Baroque and Art Nouveau buildings including the Powder House, part of the original city fortress and the stunning House of Blackheads, an unmistakable building with a triangular façade, once the home of foreign merchants during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. No visit to Riga is complete without a trip to the vast central market, Europe’s largest. Food products account for the vast amount of produce on sale including fresh and smoked fish, vegetables and dairy products. The vast building is constructed from five connected old zeppelin hangars and is decorated in the Art Deco style.
A short trip west from Riga, the town of Jurmala is the thermal spa capital of Latvia. Its impressive sandy beaches, Art Nouveau hotels and laidback atmosphere made it a popular destination for top-ranking members of the Soviet communist party, including Presidents Brezhnev and Khrushchev. These days it caters for high-end tourists and can boast a choice of luxury resort hotels.
Anything to avoid?
Unfortunately, some of the late bars and clubs of the city have become infamous for scams. Keep your wits about you at all times! No one wants to be handed an extortionate bill for a couple of drinks by an uncooperative barman flanked by
What should I bring home?
Latvia is an excellent place to buy handicrafts, including ceramics, jewellery, wooden sculpture and linen products. A very popular gift is jewellery crafted from locally-mined amber, but equally so is a bottle of Riga’s most distinctive beverage,
When should I go?
The summer months are alive with the buzz of activity: the weather’s pleasant, but prices also increase rapidly! Between October and April, the city returns to the citizens and it’s a much more affordable destination. However, if you’re planning to visit during the winter months, wrap up well, it can get a little Baltic!
What’s my challenge?
Find a balance! Unfortunately, most visitors to the Latvian capital are there for one reason only, to party! While some late-night revelry is highly recommended, make sure to sample the city’s wonderful architecture, burgeoning restaurant scene and cultural activities.
What’s the currency?
The local currency has just become the euro, as of January 1st 2014.
Something to remember...
Riga had a sizeable Jewish population prior to World War II, but in early December 1941 over 24,000 Jews were executed by the Nazis during the infamous Rumbula
massacre. This mass killing took place in the Rumbula pine forest, a short trip from Riga’s old town.