Saturday, February 11, 2012

Riga, Latvia: Because lots of people want to go there

I've been getting a huge amount of traffic from people searching for information on Riga, the Latvian capital, lately, and since the post they land on is really just a brief overview of my favourite parts of Riga, I decided it was worth going a bit more in depth here. I am a huge fan of the Baltic States, and although I'd have to say that Estonia is my favourite, I do definitely have a soft spot for Riga, probably my favourite of the Baltic capitals - at least when I was there it was less overrun with tourists than Tallinn and as far as I hear is still not quite as popular a destination. In my opinion that's an excellent reason to go there!

Philharmonic Square in surprisingly charming Riga!

First (and second) impressions of Riga

When I arrived in Riga, I'd just come on a rather early morning bus from Tartu in Estonia, and I have to say I'd arrived a little concerned. After the comparative wealth of Estonia, Latvia had already appeared a rather poor cousin - there seemed to be a lot more Soviet influence, a road quality that changed for the worse right at the border and too many sad-looking apartment blocks ringing the city.

But as I've learnt many a time, first impressions are often totally wrong. Once I got into the Old Town of Riga, my opinions changed entirely. The Old Town is beautifully preserved, full of impressive architecture and is easy to get around. Sitting on the Daugava River gives Riga another attractive advantage and looking down over the city makes for a gorgeous view.

View over Riga from St Peter's church (love the coloured roofs!)

Things to do in Riga

Although it was by far the most serious place I visited in Riga, the Museum of the Occupation of Latvia was also the most fascinating. Being occupied by the USSR, then Germany, then the USSR again, all within the same century, meant Latvia certainly has plenty of experience as an occupied territory and they obviously also have some curators who really understood want this meant, because they put together an exhibition that really played on my mind. The bonus is that entrance to this museum is by donation so it's not an expensive couple of hours (unless you want it to be!).

Wandering around the Riga Old Town is also a must. At the time I had a guidebook with an informative walking tour and I guess it was similar to this In Your Pocket walking tour - I certainly recognise most of its highlights. It starts at the hard-to-miss Freedom Monument and includes some of my favourite Riga buildings - the House of the Blackheads, Riga Castle, St John's Church and St Peter's church - and like me, highly recommends going to the top of St Peter's to get fantastic views over Riga.

View of Riga Castle from Daugava River cruise
I also spent a great afternoon on a Daugava River cruise up and down the area near the city centre. I always find it interesting to see the view of a city from "down" in its rivers and Riga was no exception and like most things in Latvia, the cruise wasn't at all expensive.

On my final day in Riga I actually got out of there (I do love the countryside, remember!) and headed to Sigulda in the Gauja Valley. A day out with a bit of walking (and a cable car ride) led me past the new and old Sigulda Castles, the Krimulda Castle and the Turaida museum reserve, a park full of statues, a church and the partially restored Turaida Castle. All of this was less than an hour from Riga by train so it was a perfect day trip.
View from tower of Turaida Castle
When I visited Riga, guidebooks and websites were saying that it was expensive, but my experience was not that at all - I stayed in a very adequate hostel double room for $10 a night per person, and basic costs like the local public transport and food were much cheaper than western Europe. Granted, things have probably got a bit pricier now but if you're curious, check out this (new to me, and fantastic) website Expatistan and compare the cost of living in Riga with your own city (it's currently 54% cheaper to live in Riga than Perth!).

To sum up: Riga's a lovely city, probably underrated by most people, and I highly recommend it! 



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