Not surprisingly, I spend a lot of time reading about travel and am especially intrigued about new and emerging destinations so I knew about Riga for many years before my plane actually landed at Riga International Airport. I had been told Riga was cool, contemporary and stunning. It was a tough bill to live up to so I was prepared to be disappointed.
To my delight, the experience proved to be the exact opposite. If you haven’t been reading about Riga, you might not know exactly where I was – in the capital of Latvia, on my first journey to the Baltics. It was the closest I had been at that point to Russia. It was part of the USSR until 1991 and shares a border with Russia. Early Latvians were called “Baltic Vikings” and they were pagans.
They lived in a strategically important port on the Baltic Sea, however, so there was little chance of the big European powers leaving them alone. While you may not have heard of Riga, it has had its moment in the sun at various times in the past and, as a result, there is an incredible wealth of architecture for such a small city.
Prosperity really ramped up with the Hanseatic League. Riga became a principal trading center and attracted the attention of the key players in the region. The borders have changed but modern day Germany, Poland, Sweden and Russia all threw their weight around trying to expand their empires. In the eighteenth century, Russia won the contest and Latvia became one of the most developed parts of the Russian Empire. Independence was granted after World War I but it didn’t last long.
Latvia is now part of the European Union and uses the euro and you will find an optimism and enthusiasm in the new generation. Embrace both the old and the new. You can walk through most of Riga and you will be richly rewarded for your efforts. There are charming side streets, hidden architectural gems and fresh air and green spaces that will surprise your senses.
I visited the Baltics in September. I think I got lucky with blue skies and lovely temperatures but it is not a bad time to visit as it is just outside the big summer
tourist season. I stayed at the Avalon Hotel, which still seems to have great deals. I even got a complimentary dinner with a charming server!
It’s located just across the street from the Riga Central Market, which is actually Europe’s largest! A lot of it is housed in aircraft hangers. It’s a great place to shop for food and souvenirs but what is most impressive are the flowers.
The hotel is also on the edge of the Old Town and an easy walk from the Art Deco splendours of early modern Riga. The Baltics prove the rewards of venturing off the beaten path…
Stay tuned – more to come…