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  • Merrilee MacLean

See Riga Before Everyone Else Discovers It

House of the Blackheads in Riga Latvia
House of the Blackheads in Riga, Latvia

Riga, Latvia – it’s somewhere in the Baltics, right? Or maybe the Balkans? It’s so easy to confuse the two. If you are looking for a clean, historical, charming town with great history (dating back to 1201), an exuberant café life, and reasonable prices, Riga should be on your list.

For the record, Riga is the capitol of Latvia, one of three Baltic nations that until 1991 were part of the Soviet Union. Its history is fascinating, and can be learned on an excellent free walking tour. Our guide was Kaspars, and he provided an irreverent and insightful explanation of the city in less than two hours. I recommend always using a free walking tour when available since those guides have to be both educational and entertaining if they intend to get paid. No bored recitation of facts and figures in a free walking tour! If you want to learn more about the series of occupations of Riga (first the Russians in 1940, then the Germans from 1941 to 1945, then the Russians again from 1945 to 1991) be sure to visit the Museum of the Occupation of Latvia.

Bastejkalns Park in Old Town Riga Latvia
Bastejkalns, one of the several parks in Old Town Riga

Beyond its history, Riga has so much to offer: Gorgeous buildings like the House of Blackheads, pictured above (even though Kaspars explained that it isn’t really as old as it says), numerous churches, including the Dome Cathedral, which offers daily organ concerts at noon, and the wonderfully pleasant and peaceful Bastejkalns and Kronvalda Parks, which offer a relaxing respite along a meandering canal built by the Swedes when it was determined that the old city walls would not provide enough protection. You can walk along the paths, hike Bastion Hill, take a boat ride, or even kayak; all in the middle of the city.

sidewalk cafe in Old Town Riga Latvia
An example of one of the many streets taken up with cafes in Riga's Old Town

Then, when you need a break from walking the cobblestone streets, there are sidewalk cafes everywhere. My visit was on a lovely August afternoon, sunny and warm but not hot, and the cafes were full. For an American on vacation, it was lovely to be somewhere that English is spoken when needed, but it was not the language generally heard. This is a city that has not been overrun, and overcome, by Americans (yet!). If only they knew how wonderful it was. The most American element in Riga, other than the ubiquitous presence of Starbucks, McDonalds, KFC, and for some reason TGI Fridays, is the music heard in every square and many cafes and restaurants.

Finally, it is still reasonably priced, especially when compared to its northern European and Scandinavian neighbors. As a member of the EU, the currency for Latvia is the Euro, so that makes it easy. Snacks in those lovely outdoor cafes can be found easily for under 8 Euros, and dinners generally are less than 20 Euros, even in the Old Town. My Caesar salad, with chicken, was only 8.5 Euros in a sidewalk café in the Old Town. Cold drinks, which often go for 2-3 Euros in convenience stores in other European cities, are less than 1 Euro. Your money goes farther for lodging as well, and that is in probably the most expensive city in Latvia. Imagine what it is like if you go out into the country – which I plan to do on a future trip.

Consider putting Riga and Latvia on your list for future travels. It is accessible by several budget airlines, every one seems to speak English if asked, most signs are in Latvian, English and Russian, and the prices make the trip more reasonable than you might think. Also, it is extraordinarily clean and feels safe. When our tour guide Kaspars was asked about crime in the city, he looked blankly back at the questioner, surprised at even the thought of crime in Riga. Indeed, a travel safety website gives Riga an 80 rating for safety, saying that overall crime rates are relatively low and that pickpockets are not that common. If you go now, you can claim to have been there before everyone else discovered it.


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