Riga is a city I’d love to spend a month in. I just might do that next year. Here’s why you should too.
The Old Town is truly stunning, although it only occupies less than 1% of Riga. The rest of the city is fascinating. Physically, it’s beautiful. Located along a river just off the Baltic Sea, Riga sprawls with a highest point only 10 meters. The history of the city is also impressive. Primarily established by the Germans, once the largest city in Sweden, occupied by the Russians (who currently almost outnumber the Latvians) and now the biggest city in the Baltic States. But I won’t spoil too much of the walking tour.
The Free Walking Tour, as always, is the first thing to do when you arrive. The tour covers quite a bit of Riga, and actually not that much in the Old Town proper. Instead you get to see the massive market buildings (originally zeppelin hangers built by the Germans) where a tenth of the city shops every day, the Latvian Academy of Science, the stunning Nativity of Christ Cathedral and many more landmarks. My couchsurfing host Janny took the tour with me, as she is not native to Riga, and was able to learn quite a bit from it. Artūrs was our guide, and he did a great job adding comedy and stories to the tour around the city.
After the walking tour, I found Karina and Erenimi Archery. This is a makeshift archery range just outside of St. Peter’s Church. For €5 you can get twelve shots at a target with some instruction from Karina. I didn’t see the sign when I walked up and asked if she was giving free lessons. She was nice enough to say yes to me and I ended up staying for a couple hours, which led to meeting the owner Nauris and seeing about possibly setting up more archery ranges in cities around the world. I really want to get one going in Edinburgh when I return there next winter.
Archery is not the only fun activity to do in Riga. There are also many escape rooms. I’d never heard of these, but supposedly they started in Japan and now are in several countries. You are put in a room and have to solve several clues in an hour to “escape.” The one I went to was The Best Escape Room Ever. That’s their name. While I can’t compare them to others and vindicate the title, it was certainly enjoyable for my couchsurfing host and I, as well as a couple other friends who we met there. The owner Yana even give me a discount for my birthday, which was only a couple days away.
After a full day in Riga, I went to the Zanzibara Campground to work for a week, which I set up through Workaway. That was a fantastic week, which I’ll write about in a separate post soon. But it was in Kekava, and this is a post about Riga.
After the week at the campground, I returned to Riga for a couple more days where Janny was kind enough to host me again. The first day was rather uneventful. I wandered around some more, tried more Latvian food, got some great photos of Old Town, saw more of the new town and talked with Nauris more about what was needed to open an archery field in a different city.
My final day in Riga was an absolute blast! That was the day I did the escape room. But the fun didn’t stop there. Afterwards, I went with a group of friends to the catacombs by Babelites Lake. You won’t find these in any tourist guide books, and I don’t think we were supposed to be down there. Originally built as bunkers for the wars, they are now old relics reminiscent of Angkor Wat with collapsed columns and hidden passages. The pitch black underground corridors were just a little spooky, enough even to get to me. One of the photos I took of my friends actually turned out very creepy, with an inexplicable, tangible line of light rising from his phone. Can you say haunted?
Finally it was time to move on. After several hours trying to set up a Blablacar ride with a driver who refused to give me correct details of the trip and finally saying he would be arriving several hours later than the time indicated on the website, I grabbed the last bus of the day to Tallinn, Estonia to meet another friend who had arrived there earlier from Abu Dhabi.
Riga is a city that absolutely must be on your itinerary for Europe. It isn’t necessarily a world-class city, but that doesn’t stop it from being full of tourists. You can fly into their international airport for fairly cheap, or take a bus. Trains are a bit more expensive. From Lithuania and Estonia, the buses are about €20. There are about 25 hostels in Riga, averaging about €10 a night, but as cheap as €4.50 (Fire Fighter Hostel with an 8.2 rating). I can’t rate them personally, as I stayed with my wonderful Couchsurfing host and the campground.
Food in Latvia, along with everything else, is quite cheap. The Old Town is mostly a tourist trap and will charge you €10-20 for a meal. In the rest of Riga you’ll be able to find meals in local restaurants for more like €3-6 for a good meal. If you’re a budget traveler like me you can also pick up some food from the market and prepare it yourself at your hostel or with your Couchsurfing host. I picked up enough food for several meals for both my Couchsurfing host and me for under €20 from the store.
Attractions are likewise cheap. Riga has Latvia’s 118-building Open Air Museum, as described in my post on Kaunas. Entry is only €4.27 for adults. The exhibition and viewing platform of St. Peter’s Church is a bit more expensive at €9 but affords the best view of Riga. The Best Escape Room Ever costs €35 on weekday afternoons and €50 otherwise for the whole team, which has to be 2-5 people. So 5 people pay €7 each during the week.
Riga doesn’t have medieval castles, but it has almost everything else. Pleasant walks and tea houses in beautiful parks, huge markets, an Old Town to contrast the modern architecture of the rest of the city, a port on the Baltic Sea and lots of entertainment. Of course, I would definitely recommend a stay at Zanzibara Camping just an hour south in the town of Kekava, where you will find water sports, two squash courts, floating bungalows and gorgeous scenery.
Whatever catches your fancy, make sure Riga is on your itinerary for Europe. And get there soon before everyone else does and it gets too crowded.