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Welcome to Riga

Riga

The enchanting city of Riga, capital of Latvia and the biggest city in the Baltic States, has emerged from behind the Iron Curtain and is slowly coming into its own as a major European tourist destination. Situated on the south-western coast of the country, Riga is split in two by the River Daugava, and served as a major trading port and a crossroads between western Europe and the East. The modern founding of the city dates back to the 12th Century with the arrival of German traders, mercenaries and missionaries; while its older roots date back to a settlement of the ancient Finnic tribe, the Livs.

The city, and Latvia as a whole, was long caught in a tug of war between the Germans and the Russians, and suffered greatly in World War II when roughly a third of the country's population was exterminated, displaced or fled Nazi persecution. However, despite this lamentable past, there are still plenty of things for tourists to see and do in Latvia.

Riga boasts a collection of exquisite Art Nouveau buildings that rival those in Vienna, Barcelona and St Petersburg, and the fairytale-like historic city centre is a delight to explore. As the cultural and economic centre of the country, Riga is home to plenty of top-class museums, galleries and performing arts centres, as well as a range of sophisticated bars, clubs and restaurants. The city is fast gaining a reputation as a party capital, and its vibrant nightlife draws hundreds of weekenders from all over Europe.

For a more traditional Latvian experience, it is well worth braving the winter cold to enjoy a spot of ice fishing, ice-skating on the frozen Daugava River, or a pirt -a rigorous sauna that involves being beaten with dried birch branches. With over 800 years of history, a UNESCO World Heritage Site-listed historic city centre and a modern buzz, Riga remains a largely undiscovered gem with plenty to delight and enchant the visitor.


Information & Facts

Climate

Riga has a moderate climate, influenced by its close proximity to the sea. Summers tend to be short and cool with cloud cover, and temperatures average around 64°F (18°C) in July. Winters are usually long, dark and cold, with temperatures averaging around 28°F (-2°C) in January. Snowfall is heavy and cover usually lasts from mid-December to mid-March. The city is overcast for roughly 40 percent of the year.

Getting Around

Riga has a well-developed and relatively cheap public transport system that consists of buses, minibuses, trams and trolley buses. Most transit runs from 5.30am to 11.30pm and some routes run a regular night service. Tickets can be bought on the bus, trolley or tram. Final destinations are marked on the front of all transport vehicles. Taxis are readily available, and it is worth noting that licensed cabs will have a yellow number plate. One can risk an unlicensed taxi, but drivers usually turn off the metre and the price needs to be negotiated beforehand. Riga's ferry terminal is located outside the city centre and the central train station will take commuters to destinations such as Russia, Belarus and Ukraine.

Language
Latvian is the official language, but English, Lithuanian, Russian and German are also spoken.
Money

The official currency is the Lat (LVL), which is divided into 100 santims. Most hotels and restaurants in Riga accept credit cards, and most major banks cash travellers cheques, but outside of the capital credit cards are not widely accepted and credit card fraud can be a problem at smaller institutions. Foreign currency can be exchanged at any bank, at money change kiosks and at some hotels. Note that a 4% fee will be charged to exchange US dollars that are torn or marked in any way. Most banks are closed on Saturdays and Sundays. ATMs are available in the larger cities.

Nightlife

Riga has a varied nightlife, mostly centred round the Old Town, where many clubs, bars, strip joints, casinos and live music venues can be found. Riga is also famous for its Classical entertainment, with symphonies and operas taking place throughout the year. A detailed and monthly updated guide to all Riga's nightlife can be found in the Riga In Your Pocket booklet, available free throughout the city. Close proximity makes walking between nightlife venues a viable option, but be cautious late at night when mugging of intoxicated tourists is often reported. The larger clubs attract stag groups from the UK and Scandinavian duty-free tourists: stick to the smaller bars if you want a less rowdy experience. Recently, visitors have reported being scammed with exorbitant drinks prices in infamous bars such as Lords (Groks), Saxon, Infinity Bar and Enigma. If you are overcharged in this fashion, refuse to pay the bill and ask for the police to be called.

Shopping

Riga is a good place to buy local crafts, alcohol and foodstuffs, but imported goods are very expensive. One of the best souvenirs to buy in Latvia is amber, for which the country is world-famous. Look out for amber set in silver jewellery: A&E and Tornis are two well-regarded boutiques. Other good things to buy in Riga are woollen jerseys and hats with distinctive Baltic patterns, the local liqueur Black Balsam, and World War Two memorabilia. Bargaining is not expected and unlikely to be successful. A great shopping experience is a visit to the huge Central Market, located in five cavernous pavilions. Everything from fresh fish, fruit and honey, to cheap clothes and pirated CDs can be bought here.

Riga is the world's best preserved open-air museum of Art Nouveau (also known as Jugendstil) architecture, which dates from the early 20th Century. The style is characterised by unusual shapes, curved and organic arches, gargoyles and carved faces, and flamboyant cornices. Over 30 percent of central Riga's buildings were created in this style, many supervised by famous Russian architect Mikhail Eisenstein. The best streets to view buildings on are Elisebetes, Strelnieku and Albert.

One of the oldest and biggest of its kind, Riga's Central Market dates back to 1201 and is a riot of sounds, sights and smells. Anything from fresh fruits, cheeses and whole sheep carcasses, to appliances, clothing and CDs are on offer, usually at very reasonable prices. The market was moved from its original home and relocated several times, but since the 1930s has occupied the same space in several World War I hangars, close to the bus and train stations. There is room for over 1,000 vendors, and no visit to Riga is complete without a stroll through its tantalising stalls.

Dating back to 1211, the red brick Dom (or Dome) Protestant Cathedral is a highlight of the historic centre of Riga. The cathedral is situated near the Western Daugava River and boasts an incredible organ with over 6,500 pipes built in 1844, stained-glass windows and a beautifully whitewashed interior. There are regular concerts held on the organ, and the cathedral also has its own boy's choir that gives regular performances. A great historical sight in Latvia, that earns rave reviews from all who experience it.

Jurmala is the main holiday resort town in Latvia, the place locals go to when they want to relax, catch a tan and enjoy a spa treatment. The beaches are very good, including the Baltic's only Blue Flag beach, and the seafood restaurants are excellent, too. The main attractions of Jurmala (apart from sand and sea) are its spas, which offer a range of therapies and treatments at a fraction of what they'd cost in western Europe. Getting to Jurmela from Riga is easy: by train or bus, the journey takes 30 minutes. Jurmala is fast becoming one of eastern Europe's best spa destinations, and tourists are urged to check it out before the secret gets out and prices begin to sky-rocket.

The Latvian National Opera building is a magnificent 19th-century structure, that's home to the National Opera, Ballet and Orchestra companies. Built in 1863 by the St. Petersburg architect Ludwig Bohnstedt, the building - columned and colonnaded - is not only incredibly photogenic, but lays claim to an interesting history. Guided tours of the Opera building take place at 5pm every Friday, and are a very popular tourist attraction in Riga. Culture-vultures should also check out the Latvian National Opera's website for programme information - the country has a proud Classical music history (Richard Wagner was Director of Music in Riga between 1837 and 1839), and recitals are often of rare quality.

What is undoubtedly eastern Europe's finest motor museum is tucked away on the outskirts of Riga, and makes for an essential outing if you enjoy classic cars and Soviet history. The museum contains Molotov's limousine, Stalin's bombproof sedan, and the wreck of Brezhnev's car in which he crashed. The model dummies in the vehicles are a nice touch. There is a priceless collection of classic sports cars and motorcycles - irresistibly photogenic for petrol heads.

The Open Air Ethnographic Museum is a fascinating reflection of the traditional Latvian way of life. Set on 247 acres (100ha), the museum consists of farmhouses, fishing villages, windmills and other historic buildings that have been relocated here to create an outdoor exhibit. Visitors to Riga can watch craftsmen at work, sample traditional Latvian cooking and ales, and learn more about the history of this deeply interesting country.

Riga Castle (or Riga Pils) was built in 1330 on the site of the original settlement of the city as a residence for the master of the Livonian Order, and later it served as the base for the city's occupiers throughout its history. The distinctive yellow castle was destroyed and rebuilt over time, and today it serves as the offices and home of the Latvian president, as well as the Latvian Museum of Foreign Art and the Rainis Museum of Literature and Art History. The castle is strategically placed on the banks of the Daugava, originally in order to oversee all ships entering the city's port, and has four towers and an inner courtyard.

Just 33 miles (56km) from the capital, Sigulda - a picturesque little town located in the primordial Gauja river valley - is well worth the trip for tourists to Riga. Dubbed the 'Switzerland of Vidzeme' due to the steep cliffs and caves that line the sides of the river gorge, Sigulda makes a wonderful base from which to explore Latvia's considerable natural bounty. Notable tourist attractions of the area include the Medieval and Turaida Castles, with the former staging an annual open-air Opera Festival in the summer. Gauja National Park is within touching distance of Sigulda, offering great activities such as walking trails and bungee-jumping in summer; and luge, bobsledding and skiing in the winter. The town of Sigulda itself is particularly worth visiting in spring, when cherry blossoms bloom; and in autumn, where the very town seems to take on the blood-orange hue of the leaves falling from its myriad trees. Be sure to visit the Gutmanis Cave, the largest in the Baltic region, and the setting of the Latvian folk-tale of the Rose of Turaida.

Latvia was occupied from 1949 to 1991 by two successive regimes, in the forms of Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia. This well-curated museum conveys what life was like during this time, and serves as a memorial to those who died or fled as a result of the occupation. Visitors can view film archives and see a reconstruction of life in the infamous Siberian labour camps. A sobering and humanising experience, highly recommended for those who wish to connect to Latvian culture while on holiday in Riga.


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