One of our Lifeventure team, Tom, spent a fairy tale 48 hours in stunning Riga, Latvia recently. We quizzed him on his return. Here’s what he discovered!
Q: So, why did you choose Latvia?
A: Lots of people ask me that! Why not? The world is there to see, so we went! Latvia is very accessible, with lots of cheap flights and a short journey time of 2.5 hours. I like to travel to places that aren’t in mainstream Europe. Riga’s old town is a beautiful Unesco World Heritage Centre, and it’s relatively less touristy and less expensive than other capital cities.
Q: What are the top three unmissable attractions?
A: 1. Summit the gothic St Peter’s Church for the incredible 360◦ view of the city from 72 metres up. This 800-year-old building is right in the middle of town next to the tourist information. You can catch a lift to the top for around €9.
2. Don’t miss the chance to catch a performance of opera or ballet at the Latvian National Opera. It’s one of the best companies in Europe and incredibly good value.
3. Spend at least half a day wandering around the fairy tale castle, ravines and gorges of Sigulda. Locals call it the Switzerland of Latvia and is really easy to get to by train – it’s only 1.5 hours from Riga and the fare is just €2.
Q: How was the beer?
A: I did have a few beers come to think of it. There are lots to try! But you can’t go to Latvia without trying Riga Black Balsam. It’s a herbal liqueur that has been drunk in Latvian culture for centuries. You can drink it neat if you’re feeling really macho, or it goes very well in blackcurrant juice, with an after dinner coffee, or mixed with vodka later on. Legend has it that Empress Catherine the Great of Russia fell ill on a trip to Latvia, but recovered after drinking Balsam.
Q: I’ve heard the food isn’t thrilling?
A: Well, it is interesting because Latvia has been occupied so many times by Russia and Germany and that has influenced everything. It’s not spicy because spices were historically too expensive. The most famous dish is grey peas and speck, a delicious stew which is perfect for warming your cockles on chilly nights! They’re also big fans of pork, which crops up everywhere, and smoked and pickled fish. Rye bread is another tasty staple, and the foraged berries and mushrooms are excellent.
Q: Best places to stay?
A: There are hostels but the hotels are also inexpensive and good. We paid £115 for two people for three nights, including breakfast. It was comfortable, clean and newly built.
Q: Did you have to take your thermals?
A: Latvians suffer a particularly cold time in January and February and we were expecting it to be -17 degrees! But luckily it stayed above zero for our trip. They get warm summers, but not roasting hot, perfect really. There’s a great beach culture as it’s only 45 minutes by train to the coast.
Q: What about all the stag and hen parties?
A: Riga did have a bad reputation for Brits Abroad getting over-excited on stag parties. That still happens but not as much as it used to thanks to the ‘tourist police’.
Q: Anything else to be wary of?
A: It feels like a very safe city, but be ready to meet some very reserved Latvian people. They did not appreciate it when I tried to take photos of the bustling and photogenic Riga Central Market, which is in an incredible row of WWI Zeppelin hangars. Of course we put the cameras down as soon as the locals objected.
Q: What would you go back for?
A: I’d love to go back for the summer solstice at the end of June. This deeply pagan festival is Riga’s most important of the year and is celebrated with parades around the city. However, I did hear that most Riga locals would be going out to the countryside to celebrate the solstice with naked frolicking around bonfires, so maybe we’ll head out and join them there next time!