A Weekend Away in Riga, Latvia
If you are as passionate about travel as I am, I am sure that you’ll be looking for any excuse to get away from the daily routine and explore a new destination. The very thought of packing a carry-on and heading to the airport is enough to get me through the week, and it’s not the first time that I head out to a different country just for a couple of days. I love weekend city breaks abroad, and luckily, living in the UK means that there are tons of destinations to choose from that can be reached after 3 hours on a plane.
So where could I go this time for a different experience? I was looking for a city with a great cultural scene and affordable prices, and at the same time, I wanted to go somewhere that is not big with tourists even during the summer weekends. So how about the Baltic States? I have never been to any of them before, and while they wouldn’t be my first choice during the winter, a short break in early September sounded like a pretty good idea. I chose to visit Riga for no particular reason – or perhaps because it was the only name that sounded vaguely familiar.
Recently, Riga has been notorious for being the chosen destination for many hen and stag parties from the UK. But there certainly is another side to Latvia’s capital, and last weekend I set out to discover it.
Getting to Riga from the UK
Flying to the Latvian capital from the UK takes approximately 2 hours 45 minutes. There are daily flights mostly operated by low-cost airlines, including Air Baltic (which flies from Gatwick), Ryanair (from Stansted, Manchester, Leeds, East Midlands, and soon from Glasgow too), and Wizz Air (from Luton and Liverpool). There are various options for getting to your closest UK airport including using public transport, self-drive and using car parking facilities or booking a taxi to take you to the airport terminal. Once you arrive at Riga Airport, the fastest way to get to the city centre is by taxi. Taxis can be pre-booked and shouldn’t cost more than £10. For half the fare, you can hop on the Air Baltic shuttle that drops passengers at the Radisson (downtown Riga).
If you have more than just a weekend to travel around, I strongly recommend flying to Stockholm and taking the Tallink ferry across the Baltic Sea to Riga. This is an overnight trip that can save you a night’s accommodation in either city.
Remember that the Baltic States are pretty small, so it’s easy to get around by coach. This means that you can also fly to Lithuania or Estonia and make your way to Riga by train or bus.
A weekend in Riga: what to see and do
I found it really easy to get my bearings in Riga. Basically, the city is divided by a river. If you cross to the eastern bank of the river, you’ll be in Riga’s old town, where most tourist attractions are located. The western side of the river is considered the new town and there isn’t a lot to see or do there.
Tip: Riga is by no means expensive, but if you’re off the cultural persuasion and plan on visiting the city’s museums, you can save money on entrance fees with the Riga Card, which gives you free public transportation and free entry to many tourist attractions for just 16€. The card is sold online and at the airport’s information counter.
The Old Town is dotted with interesting historic buildings. If you’ve been to Prague or Krakow, you’ll soon spot the similarities. I was pretty impressed by the lively scene at Riga’s town square, which is flanked by churches, museums, and other splendid Art Nouveau buildings. My DIY tour of Riga started at Riga’s Esplanade, a cool park that is the perfect people-watching or chilling spot. The next stop was a riverboat cruise through Riga’s picturesque canals.
When that was over it was well past my usual lunchtime, so I asked locals for recommendations and I ended up at Stargorod, a cool Latvian restaurant and brewery that serves very filling dishes and fantastic beer at incredibly affordable prices. I followed my meal with a coffee at Gauja, a trendy cafe bar in the old town. Somehow, one thing led to the other (meaning a coffee led to multiple drinks) and I found myself discovering Riga’s nightlife with some locals who befriended me. Clubbing was great at Push and at Pulkvedis.
The following day was devoted to recovering from my night out. Beaches in Riga? Certainly! I was glad that I stopped by the city’s tourist information centre because the friendly lady behind the counter suggested that I take the boat to Jurmala, the city’s beach and a favourite hangout spot for locals and tourists. A long sandy beach and sunny weather make it hard to believe that you’re actually close to Russia. When I visited, Jurmala seemed more like a Mediterranean beach resort.