Impressions Of Riga, Latvia

Filed Under: Travel

My dad and I have just spent the past week in the Baltics, as we split our time between Tallinn, Estonia, and Riga, Latvia. Both destinations exceeded our expectations, and even delighted us.

A few days ago I shared my thoughts on Tallinn, and in this post I wanted to share my thoughts on Riga, where we spent the past few days.

I can’t get Baltia out of my head

This has nothing to do with anything, but I can’t help but share it. Latvia is in the Baltics, and for whatever reason in my head I keep thinking of the city as being Riga, Baltia. I don’t know, it sounds sort of pretty, and it’s a combination of Baltics and Latvia.

This is the closest that Baltia will ever come to being a thing.

Riga has a beautiful old town, and feels real

Visiting both Tallinn and Riga was fascinating. I said that Tallinn had the most beautiful old town I’ve ever been to. But Riga has a really beautiful old town as well. After visiting Riga, my take on Tallinn changed ever so slightly.

Tallinn almost felt like a Disney world version of a charming European old town. I’m not suggesting it’s fake, or anything, but between the number of tourists and just how over-the-top cute it was, it almost didn’t feel real.

Riga, on the other hand, has a beautiful old town that somehow felt more livable and authentic. In Tallinn it seemed to me like locals mostly hung out outside the old town, while that wasn’t the case in Riga.

We were in town for Latvia’s 100th birthday

The coincidental timing of our trip may have altered our perspective on both destinations. We happened to be in Tallinn for the Super Cup (which some people described to us as the country’s biggest event ever), and then we were in Riga for Latvia’s 100th birthday celebration.

We had no clue either of these things were going on, so that’s pretty funny. As you’d expect, there were all kinds of celebrations in Riga.

Rather hilariously at one of the celebrations they basically brought all of the vehicles from the airport and put them on display, which I appreciated as an avgeek.

Riga has beautiful nature & architecture

Even outside of just having a beautiful old town, Riga was just so lovely. Yes, the architecture (especially in the old town) was beautiful.

But I also loved the amount of nature.

Riga is friendly, accessible, and cheap

Much like Tallinn, I found the people in Riga to be friendly, the city was close to the airport, I felt safe at all times, and the city was reasonably priced.

While this is random and no longer relevant, I find it cool that up until recently Uzbekistan Airways flew nonstop between New York and Riga. Now that they have the 787 they fly nonstop between New York and Tashkent, though I always found that route to be really cool.

Bottom line

I can’t recommend Tallinn and Riga enough. Over time I’ve come to far prefer nature and smaller cities, and generally shy away from bigger cities. I don’t know, I’m just sort of over mega cities, at least if I want to relax and have a good time.

In that respect, both Tallinn and Riga were excellent picks. Riga definitely feels like a bit bigger of a city (the population is about 50% bigger). Both cities were charming (in particular their old towns), affordable, had friendly people, and were accessible.

I’d highly recommend visiting both, and while they had some overlapping attributes, I think both cities are worth visiting. As far as the old towns go, Tallinn felt more picturesque, while Riga felt a bit more “real” and livable.

I’m excited to visit Minsk next month, and I guess after that I’ll have to visit Vilnius, which describes itself as Europe’s “g-spot.”

If you’ve visited Tallinn and Riga, what were your impressions? Which do you prefer?

  1. Heading to Riga next Wednesday to try out AirBaltic’s A220-300 and I couldn’t be more excited! Looks like a beautiful city!

  2. When you say cheap, what would it be comparable to? For example, I find Poland a cheap place to visit.

  3. Yay, you visited my country! Of the bears, my favourites were China, the US, UK, and the Netherlands. Latvia though… the Latvian bear is… not great.

  4. @Lucky: I have just checked Uzbekistan Airways’ website, but no service is shown from JFK to Riga between Nov 2018-July 2019. Are you sure that the airline operates that flight?

  5. If Im correct Tallin has original buildings, while Riga like Warsaw is rebuilt. The most famous building in Riga is Blackheads but its completely rebuilt, just made to look old eg Disneyland

    When I got off the bus coming from Vilinus I was abit disappointed, but in the end loved the place just not as much as I loved Tallin, and Vilinus was a very far distant 3rd place

    the main problem with both Riga and Tallin are they are ports = cruise ships docking and flooding its streets with swarms of tourists. while Vilinus was like a hick town in the mountains

    I can see myself going back to Tallin not sure where Riga stands and Vilinus no 2nd trip

  6. The Lux Express bus runs between St Petersburg and Warsaw. Stopping at all the Baltic Capitals. It is a great way to travel from Tallinn to Riga and Vilnius. Very comfortable.

  7. Funny timing. I, too, visited Riga and Tallinn this summer. Loved both. Beautiful art nouveau buildings and building decorations in Riga.

  8. I had a long layover during a backpacking trip and was so disappointed about leaving. The bus ride into the city isn’t promising but once you’re on that bridge you see it really is a pretty city and I’ve been dying for an excuse to go back since. Some day….

  9. @Rochelle, flying between Milan and Minsk doesn’t leave much time for a strange, erotic journey does it?

  10. @Daniel B. As far as RIX’s Wikipedia page goes, it seems they’ve stopped operating to JFK, and only to Tashkent. It was convenient, even if it was on an old 767.

  11. I spent a significant time in the Baltics in my early days as a NatGeo & BBC correspondent. Klaipėda in Lithuania was my favorite city in the Baltics and would still be today if not for the cruise ships which come and trample on the beautiful city each summer.

    Tallinn and Rigra are beautiful too. I generally find the Baltics to be beautiful and historically impressive regardless of region.

  12. @Sung

    Poland is cheaper than all the Baltic countries by about 10 to 20% depending on which country you compare it to.

    The prices in the Baltic goes like this from cheap to expensive – Vilnius (we found excellent Japanese foods at extremely reasonable prices, at a restaurant right across the parking from the Radisson Blu on the river bank), Riga, and then Tallinn.

    We like Riga a bit more than Tallinn because as Lucky said, there are areas outside the Old Town are still very pretty, with some old buildings and boulevards look like Vienna. At Tallinn, once you are out the proximity of the old town, it is rather ugly. Old town is extremely touristy, primarily due to 1) it is a cruise port. 2) it is where the folks from Helsinki to spend their drunken weekends or crazy shopping trips due to Alcohol is much much cheaper than in Helsinki. On our last ferry ride from Tallinn to Helsinki, I lost count on how many passengers pushing hand carts with boxes and boxes of alcohol.

    As many have said, the easiest way to get around the Baltic is by the excellent bus systems – there are several companies prying the routes but Lux is the one with the best buses and services.

    We have taken 7+ hours Lux bus from Tallinn to St. Petersburg a few years ago. That was after we took an overnight ferry from Stockholm to Riga, spent 3 days there. Then took a 4+ hours bus to Tallinn for another 3 days before heading to St. Petersburg. The border-crossing experience was quite interesting to say the least.

    We also have taken 8 hrs bus from Warsaw to Vilnius last year. After a few days we took another Lux bus from Vilnius to Tallinn via Riga with similar duration.

    While the long distance bus rides sound horrible – in reality it is NOT. The seats are on the upper level, and comparable or actually better, than the F class seats of the US domestic flights. Free wifi on board also with seat back screen that is web enabled. Free coffee / tea / bottled water on board. Bathroom is on the first level as a cubicle access by a stair case.

    The price of a ticket is 10% of what you would pay for the flights which in many cases dont have direct flights and / or on those Props, not to mention you need the to/from airport/town center journey while the long distance bus stations are generally very conveniently located in town with easy walking to from other form of public transportation.

    We stayed at the Westin Warsaw and just walked to the Lux bus station outside the train station by the shopping mall.
    At Vilnius arrival station we took a one stop tram car to the stop very near the Radisson Blu by the river bank.
    Bus station at Tallinn is a straight walk albeit takes 15 to 20 min, to the Hilton Tallinn where we stayed for 2 nights before taking the ferry to HEL for an overnight stay then took 9W HEL-YYZ the following afternoon.
    At Tallinn highly recommend to buy a day pass of transportation from the major department store’s customer service desk. That let you ride anything to anywhere at Tallinn – let us go to other parts of the town that you do not see any tourists but are where the locals live, work, go to school, etc. We have been in Tallinn too many times due to cruises, so on our last year’s visit we decided to just take the public transportation all over the city for another form of “sightseeing”.

    I hope Lucky has visited at least one “Occupation Museum” that both Riga and Tallinn has it. You learn a lot of the historical background of the Baltic – the countries, their people, and how they fought for their independence, and the reason why they are eager to become members of EU and NATO. Well worth your time to visit the museums.

  13. +1 on the LuxExpress coaches, especially the Lounge section at the back.

    +1 on Riga over Tallin and Tallin over Vilnius.

  14. I am very glad you enjoyed Tallinn and Riga. One of the reasons to visit the Baltic countries is how different they are. Tallinn is more Nordic, Riga has a strong German heritage and Vilnius is the more Central/Eastern European, its architecture is closer to Poland and Belarus than the rest of the Baltics.

    Enjoy Minsk and don’t forget you must arrive/depart by air and NOT from Russia to qualify for the free visa on arrival.

  15. OMG looks like we were in the Baltics the same time. I too was in Estonia during the Atletico Madrid vs Real Madrid match and went to Riga afterwards. Continued to Krakow, would have been nice to bump into you

  16. Small correction – it is NOT 100 year celebration that you saw! It was actually Riga 817 years old. Latvia 100 is on November 18th 🙂

    Also, while I love Old Riga very much and I live there, I must say that locals do not hang out in the Old Town. We haven’t been at least for 10 or even 15 years. Locals go to eat and party elsewhere.

  17. P.S for those saying Riga is rebuilt – NO! Some buildings are (like Blackheads), but majority are not. There is nothing “Disneyland” about Riga, trust me.

  18. I love Riga. Friendly people. Great foo. The former zeppelin hangars now food markets are amazing but not as amazing as they were in the mid 90s when caviar was $5 a kilo. The opera house is excellent and still used. Very lively local music scene. OK chocolates. Home of the original Minox before the Germans expropriated it in WWII. Lots of history. The fascinating ethnographic museum just outside town is woh an hour or two. Lovey resort towns such as Sigulda. Worth renting a car and exploring. Some of the food you run into may sound odd (lamprey ell, anyone) but it is delicious. Have been there often since mid 90s and some changes for the worst. Western junk food now abounds and every third store is a cellphone emporium of some sort but lots of traditional handicrafts and shops (bee products speciality stores, wood carving, leather bound books) still thrive. The local beer is refreshing on a hot summer day and the national drink Rigas Balsa, is an acquired taste (If you love the taste of cough medicine of your youth and you are over 60 it will bring back memories) but oddly enough goes well over vanilla ice cream. My local friends say the Queen f England puts it in her tea…. not sure.

  19. My wife and I visited both Tallinn and Riga this past May.
    We loved both. The architecture, history (often tragic), warm friendly people, and moderately easy navigation made for a wonderful visit.
    The local food, wine, and beer were delicious and very inexpensive. (Great local beer about $2-3 pint) If you’re really serious about healthy food or vegetarian/vegan, dining could be a challenge but doable.
    Virtually everyone there can speak English to be able to do about anything.
    We wished we had a couple more days in each city.

  20. I was also in Riga for the JCI European Conference and Business Forum in June. Fanstastic! Also had the opportunity to go to the Rundal Castle which is similar somewhat to Versailles near the Lithuania border.

  21. Glad You have enjoyd both states. 🙂 If You want to visit another city in Estonia by plane, You can fly with Finnair from Helsinki to Tartu, our university city.
    Nate Nate: Between Riga and Tallinn I would use AirBaltic.
    But everyone travelling between Tallinn and Helsinki or Tallinn and Stockholm – check the ferries. We love to use them too (Tallink/Silja Line f.e.).

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