I recently went to Tallinn, Estonia and then continued on to Riga, Latvia. Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania make up the three Baltic States, that are on the North-Western border of Russia, just below Finland. Interestingly, the further south you travel, the less money comes into those countries. Estonia profits from being Finland’s neighbor. So Finns come there to buy cheaper products, the Estonians go to Latvia, and of course, the Latvians go to Lithuania. But that doesn’t mean that they’re lacking in beauty, history and great places to walk around. And since so few people know about the Baltic States, the tourism there is really small, making it a great choice to travel to.
Quick Overview of Riga
- Location: shares a border with Russia, Belarus, and the Baltic Sea, and is sandwiched between Estonia and Lithuania
- Language: Latvian, a slavic-sounding language, but mainly shares roots with their neighbor, Lithuania. Russia is also widely spoken there
- Population: 1.95 million
- Money: the Euro
- Transportation: Trains, buses, and trams within Riga
- Religion: while they don’t go regularly to church, around 60% have ties to Lutheranism (Christianity)
- Birthday: November 18 (1918)
- Safety: as a girl traveling alone, I felt very safe here. While I did see more homeless people here than in Tallinn, that was only outside the city center. But I never felt uncomfortable, or found parts of town that I shouldn’t explore
- Fun Facts: Third oldest flag in the world. One of the greenest countries in the world, with 260 nature reserves, 500 km (310 miles) of white-sand beaches, and 12,000 rivers. Instead of crosses on the tops of churches, there are roosters, although no one knows why.
- History: Similar to Estonia’s history, they were continually ruled by more powerful neighboring countries. A key difference though is that when the 2008 financial crisis happened, Latvia was hit harder, and since more job opportunities were available in Western Europe, a big wave of emigration headed there.
Getting to Riga
If you’ll just be in Latvia for a few days, you can fly in and out of Riga International Airport, with easy public transportation to the city center. You can pay the driver (€2) or buy a ticket (€1.15), at the travel-kiosks located inside the airport. But if you have a few extra days, I recommend flying into Tallinn, and then taking a guided bus tour from Tallinn to Riga. The bus only takes 6-8 people, and you’ll be with a local guide, either from Estonia or Latvia. It’s really cute to see how passionate they are about their country, history, language and traditions. And they love to tease their neighboring country by saying things like “in Latvia, they’ll tell you they were the first to do this, but the truth is that we had that first here in Estonia.” It’s like the fun banter between the U.S. and Canada, or between Australia and New Zealand. But you’ll get to see southern Estonia, and Northern Latvian landscape, visit a few small towns, some national parks, and even walk down a bobsled track. The track was built during the Soviet years, but is still in use today.
Walking Around: Riga isn’t that big, so regardless of where you’re staying, it’s easy to walk everywhere. It’s a really flat city, so you won’t be gasping for air walking up any steep hills or endless stairs.
Sunshine: As I mentioned for Tallinn, one thing to keep in mind is how your day or night might be affected by the sun. I was there in late June, and the sun was going down at 23:00 and it was up again at 04:00. So depending on what your hotel/Airbnb room is like, packing an eye mask is a great backup plan for the summer months. And of course, in the winter, the opposite it true, as the sun comes up around 09:00 and goes down around 15:30. So you’ll want to make sure that you make the most of the daylight.
Things To Do In Riga
Food: One of the things that you’ll never run out of options for, is food. There are restaurants everywhere, with all sorts of food options. I even saw one that was as American as it gets. It’s called Rockabilly, and has burgers and fries, American decorations, and even classic American music, like Elvis Presley and Michael Jackson. In the summer, there are patios everywhere, so sitting outside and people watching is very easy. And if you like to feel a little bit of nature around you, a lot of patios had plants and/or small trees every few feet.
Tours: While there is the normal Old Town walking tour, that covers history and interesting facts (like the rooster on top of a few buildings), as well as bike tours, and even canal tours, one thing that’s different here is the Art Nouveau tour. Riga has some really beautiful buildings that are worth seeing. And according to UNESCO World Heritage, Riga has the most Art Nouveau buildings in Europe, with more than 700 of them gracing Riga’s streets.
Stalin-era Tower: While these behemoth buildings were everywhere in Eastern Europe during the Cold War, it isn’t a common sight in Western Europe. Built during the 1950’s, the Latvian Academy of Science was, and still is, a place for science to thrive. I first saw the building while I was on my walking tour, and knew I had to go back later and explore it. When you see it from only a few feet/meters away, you feel like a little ant in comparison. While there are other buildings you can go to the top, for a great view of Riga, I personally loved this one. You only pay €5, take the elevator to the 19th floor, then walk up the last 2 floors, to the 21st. The 360-degree view from there is really pretty, regardless of the time of day.
Summer Solstice Festival: I happened to be there during the summer solstice festival, which is very important to Latvians. This festival has roots in their pagan traditions, such as spending the whole night in nature, picking fresh flowers and weaving them into a wreath, that people wear on their head, and even jumping over a bonfire. But if that isn’t your thing, don’t worry, just wandering around the town during this time is really pretty. They have music, smoked meats, homemade cheese, traditional dance and locals dressed in traditional clothes that are in the Herbal Market in the city center.
Musically Inclined: One of the things to note, is how important music is to Latvians, especially classical music, and folk music. They grow up singing in festivals, choir, school programs, and even singing in a national competition is pretty normal there. And a great example of how it’s tied to their culture is with “The Singing Revolution.” As they tried to gain their independence from the Soviet Union, a series of events took place, that involved them peacefully protesting through singing. One event in particular is a source of pride to the Baltic States, as they gathered 2 million people, and made a human chain from Tallinn to Vilnius (Lithuania), which is 675 km (419 mi). This happened on August 23, 1989, just a few months before Berlin gained their freedom.
Biggest Market in Europe: Back in the early 1900’s, the German zeppelins were a fascinating way to travel long distances, but where do you store the giant airships when they aren’t being used? Big zeppelin hangers became popular, and 5 were put in Riga, that are still in use today. It’s been transformed from a military storage, to the central market in Riga. Not only is this an inside market, but it’s also outside, as well as a night market, and if you have a desire to shop for strawberries at 3 AM, you can do that too. They have anything you can imagine there, including fresh fish, all kinds of cheese, bread, clothes, souvenirs, many types of flowers, and even a few restaurants and bars within the hangers. If you’re wanting to experience a more authentic side of Riga, this is the place to go, as around 80,000-100,000 people visit the market every day.