Riga Guide, Latvia – The Paris of the Baltics – Part 2

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Riga Getting There

The only credible way to get to Riga from the UK is by flying, although Baltic cruise ships now visit regularly. Trains currently only travel east to Russia and road journeys are long and tiresome. The rise of cheap flight airlines means you can get to Riga for as little as £30 basic fare on budget airlines flying from several UK airports. There are also many inclusive holiday deals for the Baltic Sea area that include stopovers in Riga.

Riga Flights

There are daily flights to Riga from the Baltic states and most major European cities including London’s Heathrow and Gatwick, Liverpool, Manchester, Bristol, East Midlands, and Glasgow. Airlines flying to Riga from the UK include Air Baltic, Ryanair, and British Airways. There are plenty of cheap flights offers from as little as £38 return from Glasgow and £60 return from London, depending on the time of year. There are also lots of online booking deals to Riga with three nights B&B; in July advertised at £150. There are currently no tourist information services at the airport so you must make your own arrangements to find a hotel on arrival.

Getting from the airport: The smart, modern Riga airport is about 8km south west of Riga on the outskirts of the city. There are regular bus services (# 22 and 22a) from the airport that run every 30min from 5.50am to 11.15pm and take about 30min. The bus stop is across the car park from the entrance to the arrivals hall.
A taxi takes 15min but costs twice as much as the bus and drivers may well try to charge more. If you are in a hurry, you can jump the taxi queue by ordering at the taxi office in the arrivals hall, but it will cost more.

Riga by Bus

Ecolines, Eurolines and Nordeka are some of the firms offering routes to Riga. There are direct buses to Riga from all the Nordic countries and from Germany, Poland, Russia, Belarus, Estonia, and Lithuania. If you’re Russia-bound you can also get there by bus. Buses are generally modern and services are reliable.
The bus station (Autoosta) is just south of the Old Town in the middle of Riga and is a modern, spacious building with plenty of tourist information. There is a left luggage office open from 5.30am to midnight. There is a tram stop (# 7) right outside for the city center which is only one stop away.

Riga by Train

Rail services to Latvia are really only possible if you are traveling from the east. The old Soviet connection means there are daily services to Moscow and St Petersburg and other links to Kiev, Lviv, Vilnius, and Odessa. The rail journey from Moscow takes just over 12hrs. Riga’s main train station (Centrala Stacija) is close to the bus station in the old town, just past the Stockmann shopping center and international trains all arrive on platform two. There are luggage lockers banks and cash machines in the central hall and several currency exchanges in tunnels A and B.
Local trains run to Jurmala, Riga’s nearby beach resort.

Riga by Ferry

There are direct ferries from Stockholm, Sweden, and Travemünde, Germany. The Riga Passenger Port (Juraspasazieru stacija) is found about 1km downstream from Akmens bridge in Eksporta St – you can get trams #5. #7 or #9. It’s a drab place though with a ticket counter and a duty-free shop the highlights.

Riga by Road

Traveling to Riga overland by car is not recommended. There are numerous border crossings likely to cause delays and you will need an international driving license and probably extra insurance. The standard green card used in most of Europe is not yet recognized in Latvia. EU citizens only need identity cards to enter Latvia but you will certainly need a passport. Visitors can stay in Latvia for up to 90 days in any six-month period without a visa. For longer visits, you must register with the Department of Citizenship and Migration and obtain a residence permit.

Riga Getting Around

Latvia in general and Riga, in particular, have a decent and efficient transport system which makes it very easy to get around. Riga Old Town is also compact and small enough to walk around. Indeed Riga is a good city for exploring on foot. The historic center is relatively small and all the main sights are easily within walking distance. Those that aren’t can be easily reached by tram or bus.

Riga by Tram and Bus
Riga is well served by its tram and trolleybus network. Services start around 5.30am and run until 12.30am, though a few routes do have an hourly night service. You can buy tickets at kiosks and shops or from the conductor. The fare is a flat rate or Ls0.20 per journey though bus and tram tickets are not transferable. One-time tickets are sold in outlets, and passengers punch the tickets in one of the tram’s electronic punching devices. Route maps are not posted at stations or stops but drivers usually announce the stop and people are generally very helpful if you need directions.
The bus station (autoosta) is in Pragas St near the main market and railway station. Timetables are posted here but for information go to the window with the large ‘I’ sign. For longer journeys use the descriptive taksobuss or mikroautobuss.

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Riga by Car
It is hardly worth hiring a car if you are just visiting Riga and Jurmala. Most of the sights can be visited on foot, bus or tram and car drivers must pay an hourly fee to enter the town center. Parking is also difficult in the town center. Car hire is easy and plentiful but tends to be expensive throughout the Baltic states. If you do drive in town note that you are not allowed to overtake a stationary tram.

Riga by Taxi
Taxis are plentiful in Riga and can be hailed in the street, though many will wait outside the larger hotels. The official taxi rate is Ls0.3 per km or Ls0.40 between 10 pm and 6 am, but a few drivers may try to rip you off. A favorite ploy is to turn the meter off and demand a flat charge. Insist that the meter is running.

Other Ways to Get Around
A number of firms offer city tours by coach and they are a good way for new arrivals to get acquainted with Riga. They are probably best organized through the hotel but travel agencies will fix you up. The best known are Latvia Tours which run city tours every morning Mon-Sat over the summer; Patricia LTD which organize minibus tours, walking tours and trips out of town and Riga Sightseeing with their city walking and bus tours, as well as sightseeing tours of the Baltic states.

Cycle and scooter hire is on offer for those brave enough to take on Riga’s notoriously aggressive drivers. Two of the most noted are Gandra, just across the Vansu bridge and Suzuki scooter hire in Tallinas St. Cycles cost about Ls5 per day, with an Ls 20 deposit, and scooters from Ls12 per day and a Ls50 deposit.

In summer there are boat trips on the Daugava from Akmens bridge every two hours from 11 am.

Latvia Trains
For trips out of Riga, the rail system is very useful. The station has been recently renovated and is more like a shopping mall than a train station, packed with shops, cafes, bakeries and the like. There are regular services to the coast at Jurmala (platforms 3 and 4, every 30mins) and to the other main attractions of the Daugava Valley and the Gauja National Park.

The trains themselves are a bit of a pain in the bum though – the seats are wooden and hard. Fortunately, most of the interesting destinations are within comfort range. It’s best to buy train tickets in advance but you can pay the conductor. Staff in the Riga station ticket office have a good grasp of English, so getting tickets should not be a problem.

Latvia Buses
If you want to go any distance in Latvia it’s probably best to go by bus. The seats are more comfortable for a start – on intercity routes anyway – and the journey time is likely to be quicker too. Rural routes though may well be served by ancient wrecks. Get your ticket before you travel or you can pay the driver on intermediate stops.

Express buses usually have the letter ‘E’ on timetables. You will need to check on return times carefully before venturing out. Bus station staff outside Riga will rarely speak English, timetables don’t always make clear when buses are to return and some routes only operate one day a week so check with the Riga tourist office or the bus station information office first if you have any doubts. Staff will speak English.

The international bus station is in the south of the Old Town where timetables and fares are displayed. There are services to Berlin, Paris, Minsk, St Petersburg, Stuttgart and Tallin as well as services to Kaliningrad, Klaipeda, Parnu, Siaulla, Tartu and Vilnius.

Latvia driving
Road conditions in Latvia are generally good on main highways but can deteriorate very quickly in rural areas. Latvian drivers deteriorate with even less warning and are notoriously reckless and aggressive – be warned. Speed limits are 50kph in built-up areas, 90kph on open roads and 100kph on main highways, though the only dual carriageway at the time of writing is a small stretch between Riga and Jurmala. Headlights are compulsory at all times, as is wearing a seatbelt. Do not drink and drive.

Riga City Tours

Though there are several organized city tours of Riga (details from the tourist offices or your hotel) Riga is small enough to explore on your own on foot. The majority of sights are found between Daugava River and the city canal and the area is mostly free of traffic. If your time is limited, it is probably best to restrict yourself to this area. If you have more time then head for the art nouveau districts and the New City. Here are a few suggested tours.

Old Town Walk
Start at the Freedom Monument and head southwest through the park into Kalku St. Turn right into traffic-free Valnu St with its bars, cafes, and shops until you reach the Powder Tower, which was once part of the city walls and now houses the War Museum.

Behind the tower is Torna St, still traffic free, and lined with attractive restored houses. In the end, you reach the Swedish Gate, the only surviving gate into the Old City. Further along, you pass the Arsenal Museum of Art, a gallery for modern painters, and eventually reach Riga Castle with its cream walls and red roof, now the residence of the Latvian President and housing both history and art museums.

Across the cobbled square on the southeast corner of the castle are two churches St Mary’s and St James’ and opposite them the buildings known as The Three Brothers which date from 1400. Turn tight at Jekaba Street and you enter Dome Square with its magnificent cathedral. Head south past the cathedral’s main door and cross the small Herder Square to the Museum of History and Navigation and the Palace of Peter the Great.

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Entertainment

Riga’s pulsating nightlife has boomed in recent years, along with the city’s economic fortunes. A combination of new prosperity, youthful enthusiasm means Riga now offers a huge variety of entertainment to suit all tastes and most pockets. The choice is yours. Whatever you choose Riga has a growing reputation for a weekend city break.

Riga Old City is packed with bars of all types, from the swanky and sophisticated to sawdust on the floor dives. Latvians have a reputation for drinking and Riga’s own distinctive tipple Tigas Melnais Balzams (Riga Black Balsam) is a thick, black concoction with a bitter taste and usually mixed with vodka. Most bars close at midnight in the week but stay open to 2 am at weekends.

You can find more than a dozen dance clubs in Riga city center; some of them have an international standard. Trendy venues are packed with young locals and visitors and are a favorite for stag weekends. Most dance clubs thump out a commercial diet of techno and rock and live music gigs are mostly middle-of-the-road rock/pop.

For those with more cultural tastes, there are exceptionally good classical concerts, with the annual Riga Opera Festival in July one of the biggest events in the Baltic region. There is also widespread cinemas and some good theatres, though many performances are in Latvian or Russian, and if you feel lucky you can always try tour luck at one of several well-established casinos.

Riga Restaurants

Eating out has undergone a major revolution in Riga over the past few years. Whatever your taste and no matter your budget you will find a restaurant or cafe in Riga that will suit your taste. Riga now has an impressive range of restaurants, cafes, and bars with some of them an international standard.

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And if you just want a coffee or a snack you won’t have to look very far to find one of the many new coffee shops, tea houses and snack bars that seem to be launched every day.

Most of the top quality Riga restaurants are in hotels. All are nicely decorated and serve food to a very high standard. Prices tend to be low by UK standards but higher than some other east European countries – a typical main course will cost £5-£8 and a decent two-course meal with wine around £35-£45. Wine is available in restaurants but it is all imported and so not particularly cheap.

Eating out in Riga
There is a wide range of good restaurants in Riga and most nationalities are catered for, most notably Asian, Italian, Ukrainian, Russian and of course Latvian. Vegetarians are well catered for too with a number of good restaurants. Normally you don’t need to book unless you want to be sure of a table in the high summer season. Menus are invariably in English and tipping has now become normal with 10% considered reasonable for good service.

Among the middle range, restaurants are the Lido chain, which has staff dressed n mock folk costumes and offer a modern take on traditional Latvian cuisine. Several restaurants boast fresh fish from the Baltic to the table.

International fast food chains are refreshingly few in Riga. Maybe it is because of Latvia’s own take on fast food is even more heart-stoppingly rich with dozens of snack bars serving up dumpling, pasties, and pancakes. The calorie-laden treats include deep fried meat dumplings (pelmei). The most popular fast food outlets tend to be pizza parlors and pancake houses.

Latvian Food
Given the centuries of occupation of Latvia by Germans and Russians, it is not perhaps surprising that Latvian cuisine is highly influenced by neighboring cultures. Latvian cuisine, while very tasty, is not for the weight conscious. Standard items include many different kinds of bread and wide use of potatoes and sauerkraut. One of the local breakfast favorites is a bacon-stuffed piragi pie baked overnight. Another breakfast treat is apple bread. Amongst the local delicacies you might encounter are:

Skaba Putra: cold soup made with barley, buttermilk, and sour cream.
Piragi: small pies traditionally filled with cabbage and boiled egg.
Cukas Ggalerts: pork in aspic with a vinegar and mustard dressing.
Klingeris: rich saffron flavored bread covered in raisins and almonds.
Kisels: Rich soup made from fresh fruit and often served with caramel cream.

Drinking in Riga
Wine may be relatively expensive but beer in Latvia is both plentiful and cheap. For a small country, it has a very high number of breweries and many cafes and restaurants will serve their own brand of beer. The best known Latvian beer Aldaris is partly owned by the UK-based Scottish and Newcastle. It tastes much the same as leading international brands like Amstel so if you want something different try Baukas, Piebalgas or Rigas which all have a more distinctive taste.

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During the summer Riga quickly fills up with the tents and umbrellas of the city’s popular beer gardens. They are open all day and often well into the night, warmed by heat lamps. The Piebalga in Livu laukums is the favorite, though you need to book a table, and the nearby Capri is another that attracts the more up-market crowds. A tourist favorite is the Konvents Seta on Janu Seta and for a quieter retreat, there are Labais krasts on Anglikanu. Irish pubs are also a favorite in Old Riga, usually packed with young football or hockey fans, and they are where Irish festivals and holidays are well celebrated.

Riga Nightlife

There is plenty of nightlife for the tourist to enjoy in Riga, though the emphasis in recent years has been on clubbing and partying as the city gains a reputation as one of the clubbing capitals of Europe. This has led to a big influx of young people for stag and hen holidays as well as the usual clubbing crowd. But it is not all lager and shorts. Riga also enjoys a reputation on the cultural front with some of the best musicians and singers in Europe.

Clubbing in Riga
Riga is fast becoming the biggest city in the Baltics for its wild nightlife. You can go out partying every night of the week in Riga at scores of pubs, clubs, and bars. Live music is largely confined to middle-of-the-road Euro-pop, although a few bars offer more edgy sounds. The biggest acts usually star at the Skonto Halle and the Kipsala Halle sports and recreation halls or at the Congress Centre in Kronvalda Park. For up-to-date listing check out the two-weekly city guides. These are the best of the bunch on the club scene:

Far & Gate: The Hottest spot for the retro meets modern with weird lighting.
Bites Bluzs Klubs: Live blues in dark, smoky atmosphere.
Groks: Decked out like a Soviet railway carriage with pounding techno
Cetri balti krekli: The Top place for Latvian rock.
XXL: Riga’s only gay club has hard line bouncers.

This is only a sprinkling of a giddy number of clubs in the city.

Culture in Riga
Riga is a city noted for the high standard of its classical music. Tickets are not cheap, but not too pricey either unless you plan a night at the opera, and you rarely need to book. The Latvian National Orchestra is resident here and Riga is also home to the internationally rated Kremerata Baltica chamber group and the famous Ave Sol choir. The Riga Opera Festival runs for two weeks in July. Although there are theatres in Riga most of the plays are in Latvian or Russian so they are unlikely to attract a tourist audience.

The main venues for music are:
National Opera House: Mostly classical productions and also home to Riga Ballet
Riga Cathedral: Organ recitals every Friday.
Ave Sol Concert Hall: One of the best choral groups in Europe.
Great Guild: Home of the Latvian National Orchestra.

Cinema in Riga
Blockbuster films arrive here soon after their release in Western Europe and are usually shown in English with Latvian subtitles. There are about six movie houses showing big name films as well as art house movies. The Forum Cinema is the largest with 14 screens.

Riga Shopping

Riga has just about everything for the holiday shopper, from up-to-the-minute shopping malls to traditional street markets. But even though Latvia has a lower cost of living index, designer clothes don’t come any cheaper here, indeed they are likely to be more expensive. Everyday items, however, along with tourist-type gifts tend to be cheaper. The city also has its fair share of fake designer clothes, jewelry, and watches.

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Many small shops close on Sunday but this is by no means universal as shopkeepers cash in on the growing tourist trade – most openings at 10 am and closing at 6-7pm. Main shopping centers open daily to 10 pm and many supermarkets and pharmacies will open 24hours. Tourist shops tend to be clustered in the center of the Old City and near the Regal Hotel in the New City.

Riga is well known for its indoor and outdoor markets which are great fun to visit even if you don’t buy. The best known is the enormous Central Market, the biggest in Europe (see Off-beat Sights) but another market worth a visit is Vidzemes in the New City.

Riga Presents
For those looking for gifts to take home, Riga offers some distinctly Latvian presents that are different from the run-of-the-mill gifts. Street sellers peddle their wares outside St Peter’s Church and on Skarnu St selling amber, knitwear, paintings, and Russian dolls

Amber: Amber is a favorite for gifts and pure Baltic amber has been found in Egyptian tombs as well as being traded in Greek and Roman times. The Latvian word for amber is dzintars.
Black Balsam: This thick, black and bitter drink are marketed as a medicinal tonic. The recipe has been a closely guarded secret since the 1700s.
Liama Chocolate: These can be found in specialty shops and have been made in Riga since 1870. The classic Luxs bat has a red rose design.
Woolens: Riga is a great place for hand knitted woolens, many decorated with traditional Latvian geometric designs of the sun, stars and fir trees.