Tall 19th- and 20th-century buildings give Riga a cosmopolitan feel and a vertical accent unique among the Baltic capitals. Bishop Albert of Bremen, German merchants, and the Teutonic Knights made Riga the center of Baltic Christianization, commercialization, and colonization when they founded the city in the early 1200s. Under the czars, the city was the Russian Empire's busiest commercial port. Under Soviet rule, Riga became first an important military center and later, because of its high standard of living, one of the favored places for high-ranking military officers to retire to (they were given a choice of anywhere in the U.S.S.R. except Moscow, Kiev, and St. Petersburg). The Soviets encouraged Russian immigration and the percentage of residents who were Latvian plunged from well over half to about a third today.
The result is that although all the street signs are now in Latvian only, life in Riga goes on in two languages. Lithuanian and Estonian dominate Vilnius and Tallinn despite large Russian and Polish minorities, but in Riga you'll hear Russian on the street just as much as Latvian. Latvia's major newspapers, such as the daily Diena, come out in dual Russian and Latvian editions. And Lutheranism notwithstanding, Riga is the most Soviet-feeling Baltic capital city. It has not visibly Westernized itself as much as Tallinn. Still, Riga is far ahead of most of the ex-U.S.S.R. on the road to economic viability, and what it has done has muscle. The Latvian lat is rock-solid, and with Riga the largest city in the Baltics some predict that it is on the verge of an economic boom that will outstrip Tallinn.
Riga's Old Town is the least medieval in the Baltics. The big churches, the moat, the bastion, fragments of the city walls, a couple dozen houses, and the cannonballs embedded in the Powder Tower are all that survive from the Middle Ages. Much of the Old Town is in 18th-century classical style; the rest of the center, and almost all of the newer parts that immediately ring it, are fine examples of late 19th- and early 20th-century building styles, particularly the Art Nouveau (Jugendstil) that betrays Riga's connections to the German-speaking world. Emerging from the Soviet period, many of these buildings no longer have quite enough warmth and life to fill their once-elegant, high-ceilinged rooms. But they are still very nice to look at. The best way to do this is to walk along the streets near the parks (such as Elizabetes iela and Alberta iela) and around the city's main commercial artery — Brivibas iela — which starts by the Freedom Monument and runs away from the Old Town and the Daugava River.
The Latvian ethnic mix is potentially the Baltics' most explosive. Russian-speakers make up about forty percent of Latvia's population, and a majority of Riga's. Very few of them have become Latvian citizens. Yet most Russians don't want to leave; they like life in the Baltics better than life in their supposed homeland. Although it gets more media attention, the situation in Estonia is calmer and closer to being resolved. There are fewer Russians in Estonia than in Latvia, and Estonia has done a better job of trying to integrate them into Estonian society.
It is impossible to do justice to the Baltic Russian issue in just a few paragraphs, but Anatol Lieven discusses the problem thoroughly and evenhandedly in his book The Baltic Revolution. As a traveler, you may sense that the issue gets blown out of proportion. You will see very little Russian-Latvian and Russian-Estonian friction. Most of the service personnel in stores in Tallinn and Riga seem to switch effortlessly and naturally from one language to the next.
Perhaps the most important point in the Russo-Baltic debate is that regardless of their citizenship, residents of the Baltics enjoy clean streets, well-stocked grocery stores, stable currencies, and a far better standard of living than those in Russia. The improvement in the Baltics is a direct result of the end of Russian and Soviet domination. And ultimately, economic health is probably a prerequisite for a generous resolution of the Baltic states' ethnic questions. Estonians and Latvians must be puzzled to see that in most of Finland, with a Swedish population of only 6 percent, all public signs and services are bilingual. Estonia and Latvia, with Russian-speaking populations of 40 and 30 percent respectively, are in full retreat from official bilingualism. The difference, of course, is that Sweden is no longer an aggressive colonizing nation, while Finns have a sense of prosperity and national security that overshadows any "threat" from the Swedes in their midst. One can only hope that the Baltics' future will be equally as calm.
Planning Your Time
Like Tallinn, Riga is worth two days but, for most, no more. Here's how I'd spend them.
Riga's Old Town is on the right bank of the Daugava, which is very wide and crossed by only two bridges. The bus and train stations and most sights, shops, and services are either in the Old Town or in the 19th-century section of town immediately around it. You should never need to venture across the river, unless you wind up sleeping there.
Tourist Information: The tourist office (Rigas Turisma Informacijas Birojs) is at Skarnu iela 22, next to St. Peter's Church. It hands out free brochures, and sells maps and Riga In Your Pocket. (Daily 9:00-19:00, tel. 722-1731 or 722-2377, fax 722-7680). Buy the handy information booklet, Riga In Your Pocket, at a kiosk or newsstand for 50 santims. Like its cousin Vilnius In Your Pocket, it has all the in-depth info on Riga that this book doesn't have the space to cover, as well as good street and transport maps. It's updated every two months. The erratically available Riga This Week is not worth buying but you may be able to pick it up for free.
American Embassy: Raina bulvaris 7, tel. 721-0005.
Bookstore: Aperto Libro is an English-language bookstore with a small stock including Baltic history, maps, fiction, textbooks, and dictionaries (Monday 10:00-19:00, Tuesday-Saturday 10:00-20:00, Kr. Barona iela 31, tel. 728-3810). Nearby, Jana seta at Elizabetes iela 83/85 is the place for maps and guidebooks (Monday-Friday 10:00-19:00, Saturday 11:00-17:00).
Laundry: The Miele laundromat, through the archway at Elizabetes iela 85a (near Kr. Barona iela), is a savior for travelers in the Baltics. Two blocks from the train station, it has brand-new German machines and a café. Self-service costs 2.36 Ls per large load, full-service 4.12 Ls (open 24 hours, less busy on weekdays, tel. 721-7696).
Telephones and Mail
Telephone numbers in Riga come in two types: old 2-numbers and new 7-numbers. If you're calling from a 7-number, including pay phones, you always dial the full seven digits of the number you're calling. If you're calling from a 2-number to another 2-number, dial only the six digits following the 2; from a 2-number to a 7-number, dial 1, then the full seven digits.
2-numbers are speedily being converted to 7-numbers as the Latvian phone system goes digital, and by the time you read this the handful of 2-numbers listed in this book may have changed. Check the latest edition of Riga In Your Pocket.
Getting Around Riga
Tickets for Riga's buses, trams, and trolleybuses are sold at kiosks (and by drivers) for 14s apiece. If you are staying in the center, you can walk almost everywhere. Call 070 for a taxi. Rides around the center of town should cost between 0.50 and 1.50 Ls.
*** State Museum of Latvian Art (Latvijas valsts makslas muzejs) — This is the best art museum in the Baltics. The grand staircase is impressive, but especially worthwhile is the permanent exhibition of Latvian art on the second floor.The collection, almost entirely from 1910-1940, concentrates all the artistic and political influences that stirred Latvia then: French impressionism, German design, and Russian propaganda-poster style on the one hand; European internationalism, Latvian nationalism, rural romanticism,and Communism on the other. Check out the Russian art on the first floor if you won't make it to St. Petersburg (Wednesday-Monday 11:00-17:00; Kr. Valdemara iela 10).
*** Occupation Museum (Latvijas 50 gadu okupacijas muzeja fonds) — A very complete exhibit covering Latvian history from 1940 to 1990, particularly the deportations of Latvians to Siberia: you can step into a replica of a gulag barracks and see prisoners' letters home written on strips of birchbark. Don't expect a balanced and self-critical presentation; this is a pro-Latvian place. Full English captions. Free, but donations accepted. (Tuesday-Saturday 11:00-17:00; Strelnieku laukums 1, near where Kalku iela meets the river.)
** Freedom Monument (Brivibas piemniekelis) — Dedicated in 1935, located on a traffic island in the middle of Brivibas iela, this monument was strangely left standing by the Soviets. KGB agents, however, apprehended anyone who tried to come near it. Now it is again the symbol of independent Latvia, and locals lay flowers between the two soldiers who stand guard at the monument base.
** St. Peter's Church (Petera baznica) — St. Peter's distinctive wooden spire, which used to be the tallest structure in Riga, burned down during World War II. The present steel replica was built during the Soviet period. Take the elevator up to the observation deck for 1 lat. You can visit the inside of the church afterwards (Tuesday-Sunday 10:00-20:00, Sept.-April 10:00-17:00; in the Old Town).
** Riga Dom (Doma baznica) — Also in the Old Town, Riga's most formidable church dates from 1211. You can go inside for 30s (Tuesday-Friday 13:00-16:00, Saturday 10:00-14:00). The inscriptions recall Latvia's German Lutheran heritage, and in fact the crypt holds what's left of Bishop Albert of Bremen, who started it all. The Dom has a first-class organ and often hosts good choirs; concert tickets (usually under 2 lats) are available at the ticket office at Riharda Vagnera iela 4 or downstairs in the Filharmonic building at Amatu iela 6 (both a few blocks away and open daily 12:00-15:00 and 16:00-19:00). Just down the street from the Dom toward the river is a statue of the philosopher Johann Gottfried Herder, born in Riga in 1744, whose influential writings on nationalism were partly shaped by growing up among the Balts.
**Museum of the History of Riga and Navigation (Rigas vestures un kugniecibas muzejs) — Although there are only a few English labels, this large exhibit gives a fairly good idea of Riga's early history as a center on the Baltic-Black Sea trade route, explains the Old Town's street plan in terms of a now-silted-up river that used to flow through the center, and shows you everything you wanted to see on inter-war Riga. If you like it, you'll probably want to spend several hours exploring (50s, Wednesday-Sunday 11:00-17:00, Palasta iela 4, behind the Dom).
** Central Market (Centralais tirgus) — This is the most accessible and thriving central market in all of the Baltics and gives you a real insight into life here. It sprawls in and around the large former Zeppelin hangars between the train station and the river (go under the tracks).
** Other Attractions — If you have more time, check out the Museum of Decorative Arts (Dekorativi lietikas makslas muzejs) at Skarnu iela 10/20; the Motor Museum (Motormuzejs) on S. Eizensùteina iela in suburban Riga, which houses the cars of Soviet leaders, including Stalin's (take bus #21 along Brivibas iela); or even farther out, in good weather, the Open-Air Ethnographic Museum (Etnografiskais brivdabas muzejs), which shows farm buildings from all over Latvia (take bus #1 or #9 along Brivibas iela to the first stop across the bridge over Lake Jugla).
Sights near Riga — Jurmala and Valmiera
(Telephone code from the U.S.: 011-371; $1 = 0.60 Ls)
The Radi un Draugi is an excellent small hotel right in the Old Town with modern renovated rooms and bathrooms (singles with bath 23.60 Ls, doubles 29.50 Ls, breakfast not included, reserve ahead; Marstalu iela 1, LV-1050 Riga, tel. 721-2296 or 722-0372, fax 724-2239).
Hotel Laine is small, clean, and downtown, although there have been persistent complaints about less-than-steaming hot water. With shared bath, singles cost 12 Ls, doubles 17 Ls, and triples 24 Ls. Doubles with private baths cost 20-35 Ls. Breakfast is included. You can walk from the stations or the Old Town, or you can cross the street from the train station and take trolleybus #3 from the stop on Merkela iela for three stops; this will leave you on Kr. Valdemara iela around the block from the hotel. At Skolas iela 11, look for the "Laine" sign, go into the courtyard, in the door on the far left, and up to the reception on the third floor (tel. 728-8816, fax 728-7658).
The Riga tourist bureau rents three nice rooms with two hall bathrooms, right above the tourist office in the Old Town. One costs costs $30, another $40, and the third goes for $50 (Skarnu iela 22, tel. 722-1731 or 721-2377, fax 722-7680).
The Parliament Members' Hotel (Saeimas deputatu viesnica) indeed used to be a closed hotel for Supreme Soviet deputies. It hasn't been remodeled — the bathrooms need a little work and the furniture is very old — and one has the feeling that the members are staying elsewhere now. Still, it's in a beautiful art nouveau building with a nice cafe, and retains some order, civility and shabby dignity, so it's an option if other places are full. Sweaty backpackers will feel underdressed and should stay elsewhere. Walk from the station or follow the same directions as for Hotel Laine, above Doubles with bath cost 24 Ls, singles 16 Ls (Kr. Valdemara iela 23, catty-corner from the State Museum of Latvian Art, tel. 733-2132 or 733-4462).
The Hotel Viktorija's renovated doubles with bath are also an option though at 34 Ls they are more expensive than other more convenient hotels. Avoid the unrenovated rooms (A. Caka iela 55, tel. 2/272-305, fax 2/276-209). From the train station, the hotel is eight walkable blocks up Marijas iela (which turns into A. Caka iela); you can also hop on trolleybus #11, 18, or 23. The Alus Krogs (beer hall) Staburags on the ground floor of the Viktorija building is in the same traditional Latvian style as the Alus Seta on Dome Square, and a good place for sauerkraut soup or a pint of Aldaris beer.
Hostelers should try to get into the University of Latvia dormitory at Basteja bulvaris 10 (in the Old Town about five minutes' walk from the train station, tel. 721-6221). Assorted singles and doubles with hall showers and toilets cost 2-7 Ls per room. Respectable quarters; unbeatable location; try to call ahead. It's above the Europcar office; a sign outside also says "Latvijas Universitate Studentu Kopmitnes." Fewer rooms are available in winter.
Patricija Ltd. speaks English and finds rooms with families in Riga for an average of $15 per person per night without breakfast. Entire apartments (minimum three nights' stay) cost $40-$60 per night. They also do sightseeing tours and provide guides. Call ahead or stop by their office (Monday-Friday 9:00-18:00, Saturday and Sunday 9:00-13:00; Elizabetes iela 22, apartment 6 (on the third floor up a dark stairway), very near the train station, tel. 728-4868, tel./fax 728-6650).
Fredis Cafe serves up small, tasty, sub sandwiches in the Old Town (0.80-1.30 Ls, halves available). Seating is limited, but you can call ahead for larger take-out orders. Vegetarian options and English menus available (daily 9:00-24:00, Audeju iela 5, tel. 721-3731).
Verdins is a French creperie and restaurant in the Old Town which has tasteful indoor and outdoor seating, and moderate prices (crepes 1-2.50 Ls, entrees around 3 Ls, Maza Pils iela 12, daily 10:00-23:00).
Pizza Lulu bakes big whole pizzas for 5-6.50 Ls and serves slices for 69-85s. Try the Super Lulu (Gertrudes iela 27, near Terbatas, daily 8:00-24:00, for delivery call 2/361-234).
Near the Dome Square, Alus seta at Tirgonu iela 6 is a beer hall and restaurant in traditional Latvian style with self-service from the grill (bean soup 80s, pork kebab 1.70 Ls, Latvian-style peas with bacon 80s, daily 11:00-1:00). Put Vejini at Jauniela 18/22 has a restaurant upstairs (entrees about 3 Ls) aznd a bar with a fireplace downstairs (daily 11:00-24:00). In summer you can down a beer (Aldaris is Latvia's most popular brand) at the outdoor cafes in the square.
At Rama, very cheap and filling Indian vegetarian food is dished out by, you guessed it, the International Society for Krishna Consciousness. They don't try to convert foreigners, and whatever you think of their beliefs, they do get credit for feeding a lot of hungry, impoverished Latvians and providing a place to recover from a week of fried cutlets. It's a fascinating sociological experience to see so many Eastern Europeans in face paint and saffron clothes, and where else but Riga can you eat with the Hare Krishnas without being afraid your friends will see you? (Monday-Saturday 8:00-20:30, Sunday 11:00-18:00, Kr. Barona iela 56; the café is through the front door of the building and to the left).
Osiris, which shares an entrance with the Aperto Libro bookstore, is the kind of place to pick up a croissant and orange juice in the morning, and fine for lunch or dinner too. They have foreign newspapers on the tables and entrees for 2.50 to 3 Ls (Kr. Barona iela 31, Monday-Friday 8:00-1:00, Saturday-Sunday 10:00-1:00).
Sigulda, a stand-up café at Brivibas iela and Merkela iela, is nothing special, but has good pastries and opens at 8:00 (Saturday-Sunday at 9:00).
For picnic fixings, go to the Central Market behind the train station (see under What to See). Central Riga doesn't have a convenient modern supermarket but most neighborhoods do have a small 24-hour grocery store.
Riga's train station (centrala stacija), though not overly crowded, is confusing at first. Take a look at the Riga city map at the beginning of the chapter. The long-distance train departure hall is #4 on our map. To one side of it are ticket windows 3-10; to the other side is the entrance to the tunnel to the platforms. If you go up the stairs (rather than through the tunnel) and outside, you get more quickly to platforms 1 and 2, where most long-distance trains leave from. The local-train departure hall is #3 on our map. In its near right corner is a passage leading to hall #2 and windows 25-34. For tickets to Moscow, St. Petersburg, and Vilnius, and generally on long-distance trains running on the territory of the former Soviet Union, you need to visit either windows 3-8 in hall #4 or windows 25-30 in hall #2. Your nationality doesn't matter and it doesn't matter whether you are buying same-day or advance tickets. For tickets on the Baltic Express to Tallinn and Warsaw, and generally on long-distance trains which are not part of the old Soviet "Express" ticketing system, you have to visit an office at Turgeneva iela 14, two blocks from the train station at the corner of Timoteja iela (look for the "Dzelcela kases" sign, Monday-Saturday 8:00-19:00, Sunday 8:00-18:00). After this office closes for the evening, windows 9-10 at the station (in hall #4) can help you with tickets on these trains.
Train #2, the Latvijas Ekspresis to Moscow, is Latvia's flagship. On board, conductors provide newspapers, serve meals in your compartment, and are rumored to speak English.
Trains #7 and #8 are the Estonian-run Baltic Express, which you pick up in Riga on its way between Tallinn and Warsaw (with a change of trains at Sestokai, Lithuania). The overnight train to Tallinn has been discontinued and since taking the Baltic Express just to Tallinn is rather expensive, you should go by bus instead.
The bus is the best way from Riga to Tallinn or Vilnius. Coming from the train station, Riga's bus station (autoosta) is on the other side of the tracks, then two minutes' walk past the central market towards the river. Buy tickets from windows 2-8 in the main hall. Watch out for the information window (#1); they charge 2 santims for questions, and 4 santims for "complicated" questions!
Try to take a bus that makes as few stops as possible en route. The buses which run from Tallinn to Vilnius via Riga (starred below) were the fastest, nonstop and very comfortable. Be wary of the 8:10 to Vilnius, which terminates in Minsk.
Buses to Tallinn are likely to leave from platform 1 at 4:10*, 6:35, 7:20, 11:50, 13:00*, 17:00, and 23:40, arriving at 9:40, 12:05, 13:20, 17:50, 18:15, 22:55, and 5:35 respectively. The fare was 4.80 Ls.
To Vilnius, buses leave from platform 2 at 8:10, 11:00, 17:40*, 0:20, 2:00, and 3:20*, arriving five to six hours later. Tickets cost 4.20 Ls. To Warsaw, there's a daily overnight bus at 18:00 from platform 1 (tickets 11.60 Ls).
The ferry port in Riga is a little north of the Old Town. You can walk, but it's easier to catch a cab, or to take tram 5 or 9 to the Jurskola stop.
Getting to or from the airport: Riga's airport (lidosta) has been remodeled into adequate working order. If you take a taxi from (or to) the airport you will be ripped off. Instead, buy a 14s bus ticket and board bus #22, which runs between the airport and Arhitektu iela in the center of town (between the Freedom Monument and the train station).
For booking and reconfirmation: In the city, you can get tickets for most airlines at the Lufthansa City Center (Monday-Friday 9:00-18:00, Saturday 10:00-14:00, Kr. Barona iela 7/9, tel. 728-5901 or 728-5614, fax 782-8199).