Riga…go before Starbucks gets there

As I get older I lament my younger travel days when Amsterdam was seedier, when there were less tourists in Barcelona and you didn’t have to book months in advance to ascend the Eiffel Tower. In this regard I am always delighted to find the quiet little Italian village which isn’t on the tourist route, or the deserted train ride which is still affordable. Latvia has been recognised as one of Lonely Planets top ten destinations for 2016. At the moment it is relatively devoid of tourists (if anywhere in the world can actually state this), and the souvenir merchandise is not everywhere and is locally made and not mass produced in China. The hop on bus is infrequent and never full. I do not think I will be able to write these words in 2026.

Latvia gained its independence from Russia in 1991 and has only recently appeared on the tourist agenda. Still reasonably priced and using the Euro currency the city of Riga is full of locals who are just beginning to accommodate the tourists. Signage leaves a little to be desired and no pestering takes place from individuals keen to offer their local expertise. While most of the service industries and beyond speak English very well, you rarely hear the language on the streets. Riga is a city full of Latvians.

For the single female visitor it is a wonderfully safe and ordered town. Upon arrival I tried to find the shuttle bus to the hotel, but on failing to do so caught the local bus, for 1.5 euros to downtown, from where it was a brief drag of my suitcase to the hotel. The bus driver told me in English where to alight. The Tourist Information Centre was business like and professional, but had yet to realise it needed to stock additional tourist signage to promote its services, such as the selling of stamps, booking of theatre, ballet and opera tickets.

I had been told about the wonderfully preserved historical old town, but had no idea the city was the centre for some truly stunning art nouveau architecture, reported to be some of the best in Europe. Two full days can easily be spent in this UNESCO World Heritage Site just exploring the edifices, cathedrals, museums positioned along the cobble stoned streets between the ample array of coffee shops all with waiter service. In the summer months street cafés with beer and coffee spill out onto the squares. These treasures within the old town were supplemented by equally pleasant architecture in the ‘new town’ which was not listed as a must see, but which made, I thought, wondering around the entire city a delight.

There is a huge market located by the bus station selling fruits, vegetables, meat and breads. This has not experienced the designer make-over of similar markets in the west and is still, patronised by older Eastern European women who seem to all wear the same coats and are bustled up no matter what the weather. You have no idea if they are one or two hundred pounds under all that material. The tomatoes are not shined and displayed in pyramids next to the organically produced chives and garlic. These have come from directly from the fields and are in the functional vats they were no doubt transported in, adjacent to the potatoes, suedes and lettuces. The baked goods are huge and undoubtedly home made and very very reasonably priced. Teenage boys could eat their fill for less than five euros in this place.

On Saturdays a market run from another historical area of town, characterised by wooden buildings is only slightly classier, but is still dominated by locals.

The famous beach area of Jurmola is only a thirty minute train ride away with the return journey being less than three euros in a slow moving, rickety train a remnant if the soviet era. The beach here is a huge expanse with the community of Majori boasting a number of designer hotels, contemporary apartment blocks and paved shopping streets. This has a long history of offering a summer retreat to the Latvian and Russian populations from the late nineteenth century. Further afield the medieval town of Cesis is supposed to be wonderful, but on my out of season visit to Riga I could only access it by a crowded two hour bus journey, so had to forfit this delight. This fact in itself demonstrates just how new Riga and Latvia are on the tourist agenda.

During my brief stay I did see ballet and opera, both under ten euros in the famous opera hall, where it appeared performances were offered daily.

There are a number of good hotels and if I did have one complaint it would be that the food in some of these establishments is not great. There are few international restaurants and sushi bars are almost non existent, and in 2016 no Starbucks – but I expect that to change. I never once felt apprehensive about being a lone single woman in Riga. I saw only two men asking for money on the street, there was no litter and although the number of buildings on the outskirts of the town, and some in the town itself are in need of renovation, the steets were clean and well maintained, everyone waited for the lights to change before crossing the streets, bus tickets are regularly checked by conductors who board the bus and close the doors to ensure no one can leave and the trams run noisily and frequently.

IMG_00000396 RigaIn summary if you are looking for a place to experience and be ‘ahead of the curve’ Riga fits the bill. It was European Capital of Culture in 2014 and received funding from the EEC to restore some of the wonderful architecture. It is reasonably priced. See it before everyone else does.




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