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RIGA - CAPITAL OF AN UNDISCOVERED COUNTRY

Updated: Nov 21, 2020

By Tim Campbell Oct 2020

Why Go?

Ask anyone what they know about the Baltics and they will probably mention

Finland, knowing that it’s in the area somewhere. Many have been on Baltic cruises and enjoyed the hospitality of Stockholm, Helsinki, Tallinn and St.Petersburg. Mention Latvia and people ask “Where’s that?”

Latvia is a small country sandwiched between Estonia and Lithuania, all of which are sat on the Russian border. Now part of the EU, the three Baltic countries were once part of Soviet Mother Russia, until the fall of communism in 1989.

Most of the budget airlines, as well as Baltic airlines and BA fly to Riga these days. This part of Europe is also known for being easy on the budget. I took a train from Sigulda to Riga for 2 Euros for a 45 minute journey.

The capital of Latvia is Riga, now part of all budget airline destinations. With only 650,000 people in this quaint city there’s not so much social distancing as more space than they need. It seems the only tourists they see come for the cheap beer, good food and good times associated with those two.

Like most northern European capitals Riga is famous for certain foods but has its own beers as well.The great thing about Riga, like most of the Baltics, is that all the young people speak English so there’s no problems getting around, or asking questions if you get lost, or need to know something.

You have to go to Riga for three days, but you have to spend at least another week in Latvia to see some of the most beautiful countryside in Europe. Like the rest of this area there are more trees than people, and forests cover most of the country. Just because it does, means that there are so many more areas that have stayed pristine.

Riga is a coastal city with a gigantic maritime history. It’s basically the Liverpool of the Baltics. Old medieval castles and buildings in the city old town, museums, an ex KGB prison, and some of the best food and beer in northern Europe.

Mr. Bernard Loews, the Regional Director of Schlossle Hotel group and GM of the Grand Palace Hotel in Riga told me that “Latvia is Europe’s best kept secret”. The wetlands in Eastern Latvia are only two hours from Riga but have 3000 lakes in the region.

There are still wild animals roaming the woods with beaver, wolves and boar. It is also a twitter’s paradise in that the lakes are both breeding grounds and summer habitats for migratory birds, such as cranes, on the way from Siberia to the warmer south.

The wild expanse of eastern Latvia lends itself to fishing and hunting but the rivers have been used for the new-ish sport of Paddle boarding. The area is so quiet through the early morning mist it is said you can hear the silence. Fish such as Pike, Tench, Perch, Salmon, Trout and Bream are plentiful and there are plenty of tours to choose from.

It would be amiss not to say anything about the old Soviet influence which still exists in the country. Bureaucracy and corruption still exists within the system with oligarchs running cities. I understand that it is better the devil you know than the devil you don’t. EU construction projects over budget and extras for departments are a prime example.

Did you know that Jurmala, just west of Riga, has the longest stretch of coastline in Europe at 32 kms? Imagine Wales, but bigger and no mountains. That’s Latvia. This was the playground of the Soviet elite until 30 years ago. Now it’s the playground of the Russian oligarchs of 2020. You will hear Russian spoken everywhere you go.

There’s a small airport in Jurmala too which will accommodate private planes. People fly in for the annual air show. People also come from as far away as Finland and Germany for their own version of Sturgis. Motorbike heaven is the name of the ride in Ventspils, on the west coast.

I’m doing a separate blog on Jurmala and Sigulda as extra places to go from Riga for the day, so look out for that. It will be in the same place at www.farsidetravels.co.uk.

Things to see and do in Riga

Eat Shashlik, kebabs, Borscht, Gulasch, salmon,

Drink Malduguns beer, drink Black Balsam.

Visit the coastline. Ventspils. Liepaja. Jurmala.

Take the Free walking tours in Riga. The guides will give you more information than you’ll need to know.

In Riga see the Moscow district, House of the Black heads, Old Town (called the Old Centre Vecriga), Central market (in an old Zeppelin hangar, St.Peter’s church, the Freedom monument, three brothers buildings,Riga Cathedral, Latvian National Opera, the motor museum, the cathouse, the National museum of Art, the parks, and the Nativity of Christ Cathedral (truly amazing and has a gold roof).

Take the one hour Daugava river boat tour for 10 Euros, even if it’s raining. It’s relaxing and plenty to see. No commentary to let you know what they are though so take a map.

See if there’s a concert in the park while you’re there.

Eat some of the best ice cream in the Baltics.

There’s every restaurant choice imaginable depending on your budget and preference but my favourite was a chain called Lido. Lido has a canteen style set up where you are served from a counter, or choose your own from a chilled case, pay at the end and then sit down where you like. For fifteen euros you can get an appetizer, main, dessert and coffee. There are a few Lido outlets around town.

Places to stay:

Upscale: Grand Palace,

Low scale: Green Cat.

Budget in between:

I stayed in different parts of Riga, in different accommodation, to get an idea of the types on offer. Budget, luxury and middle of the road.

You’re only five star luxury choice is the Grand Palace. There I met with Mr.Bernard Loew, regional director of the Schlossle Hotel group, to see where Riga featured on the tourist trail.

He let me know that Riga, and Latvia in general, was still in transition, only having just joined the EU. Tourism was way down the list for the centre left party who were more concerned with raising the infrastructure of the country than spending money on tourist attractions.

Mr.Loew has overseen the group’s hotels since 2000 and had a very unique insight on the way Riga and Latvia are heading tourist wise. He has become the Latvian Tourist board’s eyes and ears and knows the country inside out.

The Schlossle group’s flagship hotel is the Grand Palace on Pils street in old town Riga, next to the Presidential Palace. It was the highlight of my stay. The 56 room five floor Grand Palace oozes luxury with huge rooms, robes, giant beds you could stay in all day, complimentary slippers and room service.

The building itself is listed, with a sumptuous bar, excellent restaurant and second to none service. You feel like you’re at home in the Grand Palace. At around £100 per night it is an absolute bargain.

The Green Cat is low end accommodation near the train station in an old building. Don’t let the old put you off though because it is clean and comfortable for a fraction of the price of some hotels in the area. A small common area and shared bathroom are surrounded by 6 rooms that are basic. Think of a hostel but with your own room.

At £15-20 per night you will get your money’s worth.

Middle of the road is the Hotel Valdemars. An Accor brand, 3 stars, close to the centre, superb reviews, a fitness centre, and only 35 Euros per night.

My Recommendations:

Splurge and stay at the Grand Palace.

Drink the Black Balsam (it will put hairs on your chest)

Take the river boat trip.

See the inside of the Nativity of Christ Cathedral (Russian Orthodox)

Walk the Old town

Buy ice cream from any number of sellers in the Old town centre.

Visit the House of the Blackheads.

Eat at Lido.

There you have it. I gave Riga 9 out of 10 because of costs, friendliness, quality and things to see. There may be bigger and better cities in the world, but for Olde Worlde charm at a reasonable price you’ll enjoy every minute.

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