Riga, Latvia, is a city of contrasts. It has the high positive energy of Manhattan, without the skyscrapers, and the urban beauty of Paris with wide tree-lined boulevards and many parks, without the high fashion style. The people dress well enough, but not as trendsetters.
A canal runs through the city off the River Daugava that runs from the Baltic Sea to the city. The original city grew between the canal and the river with mainly wooden structures, which burned to the ground several times. Today, the structures that survive in this area are known as Old Town, an amalgamation of various styles of houses and many, many churches. Lutheran is the predominant religion, but there is also the Dome Cathedral and a functioning synagogue hidden among the many winding streets. All are beautiful to see.
The Daugava River provides one of Europe’s busiest year-round ports in Northern Europe, which makes Riga one of Europe’s richest cities, all of which is reflected today in the beauty and pace of the city. Still, unlike many port cities, Riga does not have a seedier side. The city is safe, clean, vibrant and trendy.
As the city grew, the wealthier residents moved inland, past the canal, to what would have been the equivalent of the suburbs at the time but today forms the center of the city. The buildings in this area are in art nouveau style, elaborately decorated, an important cultural heritage for Riga. Even though Riga has few tall buildings, many of these six-story art nouveau buildings today serve as offices or residences. Together, the art nouveau buildings and Old Town make the city a unique UNESCO World Heritage Site.
There are many things to see and do in Riga, including gondola or boat trips on the canal — hop a boat or rent one and drive it yourself. Twenty years ago, the city was dilapidated, badly in need of paint, following its emergence from Soviet rule in 1991. Latvia has a difficult past, twice occupied by Russia and overrun by Nazi Germany. In this entire calamity, many Latvians were murdered. Several excellent museums, including the Museum of the Occupation, explain this history well and in English. A fantastic Latvian National Museum of Art sits on the edge of one of Riga’s beautiful parks. Many other excellent museums are easy to find, as the city is completely walkable and the maps are good.
To get to Riga, there are no direct flights. You will need to fly from another European airport, such as Warsaw, or you can get a ferry across the Baltic Sea from Stockholm. Either add to the adventure of a visit.
Most everyone speaks English, and most signage is in English as well as the local Latvian language. People are generally very friendly and visibly happy to be a free and independent nation.
Riga still has relatively few tourists. Although it should be a major tourist city, given its positive attributes, it is a sleeper, a place to see now before it gets overwhelmed like London and Rome. The best time to visit is between May and September while it is pleasantly warm. In recent years the mid-summer has reached the high 80s, even though Latvia is located far north. The hotel stock is of excellent quality, and reasonably priced food is found everywhere. If you go where the locals go, you can eat for almost nothing. The local favorite foods are potatoes, meat, sauerkraut, borscht, dark breads, excellent beers and the local liquor, Black Balsam, made of herbs. You can get salad, but you have to look hard for it. Of course, there are McDonald’s scattered nearly everywhere. Coffeehouses abound on either side of the street.
Bottom line: Don’t wait until this marvelous gem is overrun by tourists. See Riga now!