Riga Travel Tips on First Impressions
A European CulturAl Capital Here to Impress
We’ve been on the road again, lucky enough to spend a whole week in the Latvian capital, Riga. It almost felt like being caught fish released back into the water; there’s no point in denying that the excitement of a new place is the kind of buzz that we enjoy the most. Now we are back to share our Riga travel tips with you.
It’s often said that in our world there’s not much left to explore, what’s needed to be known has all been discovered. Strange then that each encounter with a new place keeps offering new surprises. No difference this time around here in Riga: we came to visit this city with certain expectations in our heads and we got to know an utterly charming place, a quite more refined version of the city from what we even dared to hope for. We did the homework before well, we thought. Still, the real experience offered so much more enjoyment.
The Baltic region is somehow an easily forgotten corner of Europe, or at least easily ends up outside the typical travellers’ usual choices for destinations to visit. Admittedly, the region is not on many cross-roads these days and positioned in the shadow of the colossal eastern neighbour, it’s easy to overlook these three tiny – and young – countries, wedged in between Russia and the Baltic Sea.
Focusing in on Latvia and Riga only, we feel it’s time to do our part in putting this charming city on the travellers’ maps for good. While still absorbing the impressions from the ‘field work’ for our in-depth stories to share – and we know already that there will be many – there are parts of the impressions that deserve some mentioning already. We came to visit Riga for taking a closer look into what the European Capital of Culture year brings to the city, and we’ve been met by a capital that already for some 800 years has been profiling itself as a city of culture.
However, for now, why not start with what general impressions the city left us with, sentiments that we think are characteristic for the Latvian capital?
Riga – A beautiful City on the banks of the Daugava
Not as we expected an ugly city, far from it. Still, our feeling is that the real life impressions Riga gave us simply outperform all the pictures we’ve seen of the place and stories we’ve read about the city. The development over the eight centuries of existence created a strange and wonderful mix of styles, where a lot of the historic legacy is well-preserved. Riga’s Old Town highlights the medieval past that enriched the city’s architecture and cultural life, but even outside the old city walls you’ll find a city with a specific local charm.
This is a region that was ruled by different powers, starting back in the year 1201 with the North-German efforts to convert the regions pagan tribes over to Christianity. Later it became an important Hansa stronghold and in the 17th century it was the turn of the Swedish kingdom exercised its influence on it. Before a brief independence in between the two “great” wars, Latvia was both under Polish, Prussian and Imperial-Russian authority. Most influences from different eras are clearly visible in the city’s architecture and yet, there’s always a distinctly Latvian feel around. What that is? Maybe that great ability to constantly adapt to new circumstances, while maintaining a clear national identity. Not even the 45 Soviet-years managed to break down the soul of the city.
The good looks of the city are not only to be found in the Old Town. The more modern part of Riga, the city centre with the very distinct art nouveau architecture – from the heydays of the city, when the twentieth century was still young – is likely the part of the city that could be called most distinctly “Riga-like”. Further out from the centre, in neighbourhoods guidebooks talk less about, the atmosphere is still pleasant and with a slower paced offering.
A Green City – In Several Ways
A big surprise with our visit to Riga was that the colour green came across as the dominant one in the city. Can it be that it’s spring and the novelty of the green leafs is leaving lasting impressions? Maybe, but not only. The city is full of parks and almost wherever you’ll walk there will be a park to cross. The Old Town is divided from the city centre by several green zones, like the Esplanade, the Vērmanes Garden and the Bastion Hill park. And all that situated within the very central areas of Riga.
If you venture further afield – and we think you really should – there are even more green areas, in fact that many that it feels hard to count them all. One of the most notable ones is the Mežaparks (Forest Park) in the northern outskirts of town, which especially in summer feels like a trip into the green outdoors and into a Riga from another era, where old mansions blend into the forest-like greenery.
READ MORE: A Major European Culture Force In Riga
On the often forgotten left bank of the Daugava river is the neighbourhood of Pārdaugava, a neighbourhood formerly famous for its wooden houses; at the end of the 19th century this was also the area housing the embassies and many of the prominent citizens. These days it’s a laid-back neighbourhood where spacious parks offer a relaxing atmosphere, mixed out with the unique wooden architecture you find here. Coming to visit Riga in wintertime? The green can be replaced with wintery white and cross-country skiing in this very area, almost in the heart of the city.
An Incredibly Clean Capital
Not as we expected a dirty city, of course not. Nonetheless, we found it remarkable how clean the environment is all around the city. Everywhere starting from the Old Town, to the parks and even out to the city outskirts we found a well-maintained city where loitering is just not part of people’s life. Also a visit to the fantastic market the city has – one of the biggest in Europe actually – is far from the mayhem of others we’ve seen: it’s almost like you could have your improvised picnic made up of freshly purchased produce eaten right from the ground.
On the Sunday of our stay the Riga Marathon took place and just hours after the last runner cut the finish line you couldn’t find a trace of the thousands of people who just ran through the streets.
Of course, you could ask yourself why this is coming as a surprise, but like it or not, occasionally we end up living with the idea in our heads that certain things just have to be in a certain way. Just how could a former Soviet-bloc city be so well-maintained? That old stereotypical assumption that always plays with the mind. While we also noticed a difference between the city centre and the little we saw from former Soviet neighbourhoods, no part of town felt run down. In fact, even as part of ‘Riga2014‘, we couldn’t help but notice that a courtyard cleanup program attracted many volunteer projects for the improvements of local living environments.
Rigans Are Friendly and Welcoming Hosts
Again, you might ask, are these guys really this judgmental and expect the worse before they visit a place? Well, certainly not, but it was still striking how much friendliness we’ve been met with. Another premature assumption that often is made is that people from northern countries are cold and reserved. Now we’re not sure if the weather played in here at all – the day after our arrival the summer made its entrance as well – but we’ve been met with smiles and helpfulness everywhere.
Studying the history of the country it’s remarkable how this small nation – roughly 1.2 million Latvian speakers out of a total population of two millions – managed to maintain their cultural identity. Maybe that’s also an important aspect here? Could it be that being a small nation among many big powers makes the people easily adoptable? It neither is a far-fetched thought that finally being a free country again invokes a certain pride, resulting in a friendly attitude towards visitors? Many theories, many guesses really – the important part is that friendliness is what awaits visitors.
MORE TO READ: European Capitals of Culture 2014
Riga is in any case a city inhabited by two distinct people, the Latvian original population and the Russian migrants who came mainly during the Soviet years. Today the city is split almost evenly between the two groups (alongside some other minorities, mainly originating from other regions of the former Soviet-bloc), making it practically a bi-lingual city – but with very distinct differences between the two, noticeable even for the visitor. On the surface it all seems to work out quite well, and this symbiosis certainly initiates an interesting thought-provoking exercise for any outside observer. It’s a country of two cultures, but what does it mean for the everyday life?
Now when we’re done with killing some stereotypes – and maybe creating some new ones – in the coming days we’ll get further under the skin of this city and the country it’s the capital of. We’ll have a closer look at what there is to see and what makes the place special.
2014 was Riga’s year, the European Capital of Culture events were a great bridge between the past of the country and its present state of existence, and a way of showing the path the city will take into the future. Those were exciting times for an exciting city, we got curious and now we think so should be you. We’re sure there’s more to come, now after a year when the city came more into the travellers’ focus.
Our trip to Riga was provided by Riga 2014 and the city is best served by the local airline, Air Baltic, with flights to most European main destinations. We published more articles in the coming days from our visit to Riga, so just click aroud to find out more. Also, don’t forget about our Riga travel guide!
You can also read more about the Riga 2014 European Capital of Culture Year in our earlier published articles: