Often overlooked against your typical European travel destinations, the Baltic states are hidden gems; full of great culture, architecture, food and feeling- all at a more affordable price! This September I headed off to two of the three baltic states, visiting Riga in Latvia and Vilnius in Lithuania, whilst branching out into surrounding areas with a couple of day trips. Both destinations just completely blew away all of our expectations. It’s difficult to put it into the highlights, but here’s some of the key reasons why you must visit Riga…
1. Incredible Architecture
If you love architecture, Riga is the city for you, because as you go through their history, everyone in each era has left a small something behind- creating a diverse mix of styles, designs and stories. In fact, Riga is often hailed as an architectural pearl, with charming buildings around every corner; often used in film-sets (believe it or not!) My favourite buildings are the coloured, traditional ones. They just give the streets so much character…
Luckily for Riga, despite the Nazi War tragically destroying so much across Europe (wiping out an entire town not far away from Riga), only a few buildings got destroyed here, leaving the majority of it left untouched. Cities are built in layers and Riga -remarkably- has 13 meters of layers of the stuff, just waiting for you to explore! Even if you’re not an architectural fanatic, I guarantee these will tempt your interest. It’s honestly quite remarkable!
2. Spectacular Panoramic Views
Okay I’m going to cut to the chase and give you my all-time FAVOURITE ‘view from above’ in Riga. It’s up the tower at St Peter’s Church. Just be warned: when those elevator doors open at the top, get ready to grab your hats because it sure is windy, but oh so worth it!
You’ll start inside, and whilst you’re there- I highly recommend taking a quick five minutes to look around. Now I’m not especially religious (although I’m hopeful and would certainly like to believe), but -I don’t know about you- I absolutely love checking out church and cathedral interiors. Looking up at this big expansive space, intricately detailed and sculpted. I find it pretty mesmerising, particularly when everyone else is also wandering around in silence, kind of looking around in awe too!
From the bottom, you’ll then take a staircase up, which will lead you through a mini-museum area. Don’t worry if that’s not your thing because you are also right next to the lift that will take you right up to the top of the tower, where you’ll be welcomed by the most beautiful panoramic views. The colourful buildings look like little gingerbread houses and you can see around for miles!
3. Heaps of Free Stuff!
So you know how I mentioned the Baltic’s was already super affordable? Well it doesn’t stop there, because they also have heaps of free stuff to do too! Walks, visits, free / low-cost attractions- it’s an absolute gem! The best of them all in our opinion was the Riga Free Walking Tour. Now you might have heard of these in lots of countries, we even did one in Vilnius (which we ended up sneaking away from: too slow-paced and too much depth, not very engaging) but the one over in Riga was hands-down the best I have ever been on. In fact, it became a major highlight of our trip! Shoutout to our guide Kaspers for making it so interesting, interactive and insightful! He gave us a real historic context to everything we were seeing, with funny anecdotes to make it more memorable. Another great thing was: our group was SO international, with people joining from literally all over the world making us a really diverse mix!
Following on from the point above about architecture, one of the reasons I loved this tour so much was because Kaspers pointed out some real beauties (buildings that we would otherwise possibly missed!), giving history and a backstory that added even more meaning. It just totally took us back in time. He also opened our eyes to the ‘fake’ attractions. For example, have you heard of The House of the Blackheads? Looks great right? Massive attraction here in Riga.
And yes it is very pretty, but it’s also FAKE! Well pretty much anyway! The building was re-constructed on the cheap, but little of the original architecture is actually left. Crazy right? So instead of spending time at the places you’d THINK you should go, we went to the ones with real stories that date way back, which only added to our experience over in the Baltic’s.
The best part of the tour, was getting us to see places we would otherwise have not even thought of seeing. For example, this little wonder. From the outside, it’s probably not really anything special. But step inside and it’s actually pretty spectacular! I’ve never been in a building like this before so it made it really different. How this Jewish building managed to remain through WW2? Well, the Nazi’s actually had their eyes on it, but because it was based so centrally- they knew that if they burnt this one down, it would burn everywhere else down too. By the time they had chance to take it over or pull it apart brick by brick, it was -luckily- too late, so today it still stands!
And I guess that’s the real benefit of doing a tour like this, particularly with the locals- it gives you an insight into the things that you would have otherwise never have known. Which is what travel’s all about- immersing yourself in that country and learning as much as you possibly can so that you can really take something away from your trip!
4. A Breath Of Fresh Air
How often can you have a city break, with nature also right on your doorstep? Lithuania is more recognised for it’s greenery but I think Riga gives it a pretty good run for it’s money too! If you love the great outdoors, over in the Baltic’s you can combine a cool city break with some scenic escapes. So for starters, Riga has some really beautiful parks that are well worth checking out. You’ve got Kronvalda Park, Bastejkalna parks, Mezaparks and Vermanes Park- to mention just a few. My favourite was this one with the love-lock bridge and backdrop of the Freedom Monument behind. A great space, with beautiful flower beds and gardens. A great place to sit and relax.
With great transport links in Riga, the world is also your oyster my friends! You can simply hop on a train and do your own day trip! Our favourite one was heading to Kemeri National Park. A return train here was just 3 euros 50, which, well, you can’t really argue with at that price can you?! So many beautiful walks, and it gives you the opportunity to see another side of Latvia, with the traditional little villages and different way of life. Beautiful! So when considering the Baltics, don’t think it has to just be a city break… far from it. There’s so much more it has to offer and heaps of different day trips you could take yourself for just a fraction of the price!
5. Tasty Local Cuisine
Nothing beats heading to a new country and trying their favourite delicacies! Latvian food is pretty hearty! Here’s five types of traditional Latvian food you might like to try:
- Karbonade- here in Latvia it’s all about pork, pork and more pork! This is one of the country’s most popular dishes and is kind of like the German’s schnitzel, stuffed and flattened!
- Smoked fish- with the Baltic Sea so close and rivers snaking through the country, fresh fish is in abundance!
- Grey Peas and Speck- never heard of it before? I know, nor had I, but it’s possibly the most latvian dish of them all and is kind of like a stew.
- Potato Pancakes – perfect for breakfast!
- Rye Bread… Or how about Rye Bread Pudding, or Rye Bread Trifle for desert?! Rye bread can be used with anything!
You’ll also walk down charming little streets and come across so many cute little coffee shops. It can get pretty chilly in Riga, particularly in the Autumn/ Winter months so the perfect afternoon treat has to include stopping for a quick hot-chocolate to warm you up!
Now if you’re all local-fooded-out (yep, I made that word up but we know we all reach that point SOMETIMES!), there also lots of other alternatives. We found this super cute restaurant with outdoor seating, fire pits and warmers. We ate lots, drank wine, had a sweet little treat with a hot chocolate (don’t question the combo, it works, trust me!), all with a great atmosphere and deep chats! Find somewhere that matches your vibe and style and take time to simply relax there. Soak it all in! It’s what holiday’s are all about, after all!
6. A Unique Shopping Hotspot
I really love getting a ‘feel’ for a place, and one of the best ways to do this is by having a wander and seeing what you can find! During our visit, Kat and I got drawn into countless little independent stores, each quirky and cool in their own ways. We bought some great things, both her in Riga and over in Vilnius. And the best thing with that is you’re collecting memories at the same time. You’ll still find your home chain brands from back at home, but shopping in Riga is also great for finding something a little bit different too!
One of our best finds was this authentic handmade wool shop. Woollen shoes. Woollen slippers. Woollen mittens. Woollen scarfs. Woollen teddies. Woollen accessories. You get the picture right? It was so cosy in there. So sweet! I just thought it had a hell of a lot of character and rummaged around to my hearts content! These unique little independent stores are well worth visiting for; making a change from the standard ones you always see walking down the high-street!
7. The Perfect Place for a Few Drinks
Now you’ll probably know Riga has become a major destination for stag and hen parties. With cheap flights available from the UK and the local beer prices at just €1.02- the appeal is certainly there for a quick, yet wild weekend break! However, don’t let that put you off if it’s not your scene. Although there are a few tourist traps & scams, Riga still makes the list as a great party destination for those in search of it, but also a top place for some nice evening drinks. Most bars are in the Old Town but new trendy establishments are now increasingly popping up all over the place, which means you’ll never be short on choice. My recommendation? Have a walk around and see what takes your fancy! Riga lights up at night, and still stays as beautiful and picturesque as ever, so when visiting: make sure you pop out for a quick drink at night!
So that rounds up just seven of the many reasons to visit Riga. This just touches the surface of course and there are many more top attractions to entice you in; but if you’re tempted just a little- go out there and experience it for yourself! I promise, you won’t regret it.
If you’ve not yet read it, also be sure to check out this post all about Lithuania and the beautiful city of Vilnius, we did alongside Riga in the most epic multi-country Baltic hop! Any questions- pop them in the comments box below. I’d also love to hear your thoughts.
Travel is all about the experiences, not the destination…
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