Prague may have hogged the limelight since the Velvet Revolution of 1989, but the Baltic gem that is Rīga gives the Czech capital a run for its tourist money
NEED TO KNOW
LOCATION Rīga, the capital of Latvia, is located on the Baltic coast at the mouth of the Daugava River
POPULATION Around 750,000
VISITORS PER YEAR Around 825,500
DAYTIME TEMPERATURES Jan: 27°F (-3°C); Apr: 43°F (6°C); Jul: 63°F (17°C); Oct: 45°F (7°C)
It would be hard to deny the fairy-tale appeal of Prague’s Old Town, but as it attracts ever-growing hordes of tourists – and the hawkers who prey on them – the city risks losing its Cinderella glamor and being revealed as more of an ugly sister. It’s hardly surprising that savvy travelers have been looking for “the new Prague” for some time now.
With Rīga, they might just have found it.
Long the most lively and cosmopolitan of the Baltic capitals, and with a rich history as a mercantile center, Rīga refused to let its merits go unnoticed when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, and instead plunged headlong into its new-found independence.
Today, this medieval city, known for its pretty gables, turrets, and steeples, is also a dynamic, thriving metropolis looking to the future, with a boisterous nightlife to match. Funky cafés, sophisticated restaurants, and edgy boutiques line the cobbled streets here, where old and new come together with undeniable charm.
Rīga’s beautiful, well-preserved Old Town serves as a constant reminder of the city’s fascinating past. In the 13th and 14th centuries, under the rule of Baltic German crusaders, it became a member of the powerful Hanseatic League of trading cities, the legacy of which can be seen in the many medieval merchants’ houses that line the streets.
At this time, the city’s administrative headquarters were based in three buildings: the magnificent Dome Cathedral (Doma baznīca), which represented the Catholic Church; the turreted Rīga Castle (Rīgas pils), which represented the German nobility; and the Town Hall (Rātslaukums), which represented the merchants (the original building was destroyed in World War II and has since been replaced by a modern office building).
By the late 19th century, Rīga was the third-largest city in the Russian Empire, and evidence of this prosperity can be seen in its many Art Nouveau buildings, which are regarded as the best in Europe. World War II saw much of the city devastated, but extensive restoration work has left the Old Town’s streets and courtyards looking much as they did centuries ago.
An excellent collection of museums reflects the city’s cultural standing, not least during the 19th-century growth of national sentiment, which culminated in the brief existence of an independent Latvia between the two world wars. Today, with this independence regained, Rīga finds itself capital of a nation eager to engage with the world around it – NATO and EU membership included – and to introduce visitors to its own brand of Baltic charm.
MAIN CITY SIGHTS
Town Hall Square This square is the focal point of the Old Town. Its step-gabled House of Blackheads, which was damaged in the war and rebuilt in the 1990s, once housed a guild of unmarried merchants.
At the edge of the square is the somber but fascinating Museum of the Occupation of Latvia. Dome Cathedral The largest church in the Baltics was founded in 1211 and exhibits a variety of architectural styles due to various extensions over the centuries. The interior might be plain, but it boasts an ornate 17th-century pulpit.
Art Nouveau District Art Nouveau buildings are scattered around Rīga, but the best examples lie near the Old Town along Alberta, Strēlnieku and Elizabetes streets. The inventive and symbolic work of Mikhail Eisenstein – father of the renowned Soviet film director, Sergei – is particularly popular with visitors.
Open-Air Ethnographic Museum This site on the edge of the city draws together homesteads, churches, and other buildings from all over Latvia, offering a fascinating glimpse of the country for visitors without time to go beyond Rīga.
Prague needs no introduction. Widely considered to be one of the most beautiful cities in Europe, the Czech capital offers a fascinating blend of Bohemian, Germanic, and Jewish cultural influences and serves as an enduring symbol of the rich and cosmopolitan history of Central Europe.
Its captivating 18th-century streetscapes and majestic medieval churches, synagogues, and mansions have survived largely untouched.
In many respects Prague’s tourist industry is a victim of its own success: taxi drivers are notorious for overcharging, money-changers routinely misrepresent their rates, and the Old Town Square is awash with tacky souvenir shops and postcard stalls. It is now the sixth most-visited city in Europe, and the elegant streets throng with tourists.
The city has also, rather unfortunately, become a favorite destination for British stag parties.
The crowds are at their worst at Easter, Christmas, and in the summer, so aim to go in fall or winter. To avoid being scammed, change money in banks or use ATMs, and try to avoid using taxis altogether.
Getting There and Around
Rīga airport is connected to many European cities, and ferries run from Stockholm in Sweden and Lübeck in Germany to the city. You can also access Rīga on trains from Lithuania and Russia. The Old Town and Art Nouveau District are best explored on foot.
Registered taxis have yellow registration plates.
Where to Eat
Latvian cuisine is hearty. It was traditionally based on soups and porridges, but nowadays meat – particularly pork – is the focus.
Sample dishes cheaply at the popular Alus Sēta in the town center.
Where to Stay
The city has accommodations for all budgets, but it is worth considering a 20-minute tram ride to the upmarket Mežaparks district for the excellent Homestay guesthouse
The owners are welcoming and helpful, the rooms are comfortable, and the breakfasts are superb.
When to Go
The long, warm summer days see Rīga at its most engaging, but also its most busy. Winter can be gloomy and windy here, but the cultural life of the city continues, and on clear, snowy days, it can look striking.
Budget per Day for Two
From US$75. Food and drink (including alcohol) is very reasonably priced, so the major expense will be accommodations.