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6 Reviews

City: Riga / Country: Latvia / World Region: Europe

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    6 Reviews
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      23.08.2010 17:01
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      A unique melting pot of ethnicity, history and culture

      History is the mirror which mankind holds up to itself, reflective of an oft undesirable image. It is epiphenomenal, a shadow of past doings, ignored all too often. Karl Marx described human history prior to the advent of socialism as "prehistory": true history doesn't begin until humanity has been emancipated from itself. In the case of Riga, and indeed, Latvia in general, prehistory is the ugly Soviet past that grins back at it through the mirror, and so since their 1991 rebirth, they have simmered with an insatiable urge to re-establish their culture, to preserve and nurture their national identity. It is, after all, a heritage interwoven with rich cultural influences from east and west, as well as north. Riga itself speaks for much of Latvia; a melting pot of both culture and ethnicity, this is a city which is a treasure trove of diversity.

      This diversity is inseparable from the character of Riga: to neglect it is to neglect the very foundations upon which the city evolved. Situated along the Daugava River - not far from the mouth of this sprawling giant - Riga always drew in trade, even before its official establishment by the Teutonic Order in 1201. Amber, fur, timber; precious resources, ample even today, attracted merchants from all over Europe. The city, soon a member of the Hanseatic League, became a bustling hub of commerce, an industrial centre, which was once bigger than Stockholm, the popular former president, Vaira Vike-Freiberga proudly pointed out. Indeed, from 1923 to 1939 my own great-grandfather ran a saw-mill exporting timber to England, one of many foreign businessmen operating out of the Baltic centre. However, the aggressive expansion of foreign powers was inevitable, Riga flitting back and forth over the centuries between warring empires: Poland, Sweden, Tsarist Russia; forever a desirable target. The hallmarks of occupation characterise Riga's architecture and atmosphere in general, and this was no more pronounced than when the Soviets seized the city in 1940, and again in 1944, following a short but scarring Nazi tenure.

      Latvia - for which Riga speaks, with some half of the country's population living in and around it - was horrifically maimed by both world wars. Where its prosperity peaked in the 20th century, the independence tasted in 1918 was snatched away in 1940, the country hurled into a cultural vacuum from which it would not emerge until 1991. This sad fact haunts Latvia, still somewhat bleary-eyed from its forced slumber, in spite of entry into the EU in 2004. There is a general feeling that Latvians had their history taken from them, and since nationalism is something of a recent discovery for the country, they have a strong if sensitive national identity. Maybe it's this which makes Latvians a very reserved people, indisposed toward anything beyond which basic social graces require. They are austere, serious, polite; readily distinguishable from their Russian other half - relatively tall, fair-skinned, either very blonde or very dark, a salad of Scandinavian, Polish and Germanic genes: quintessentially Baltic, perhaps. They are notoriously entrepreneurial, and it is with this skill that they are rebuilding themselves, with Riga at the forefront of proceedings.

      Privatisation, particularly in the guise of small businesses (growing like roses out of a field of wilting nettles), has contributed enormously to the economy. Although seriously undermined during the financial crisis, generally speaking annual revenue is on a steady rise, Riga accounting for half of it with its plethora of history, culture and nightlife. In central Riga there is an indelible buzz on the streets, this part of town modernising fast, but where this is an environment which is kind to budding entrepreneurs, conversely it is cruel to the decrepit Soviet generation. I mentioned the 'Russian other half' - this substantial portion of the city populace (fifty-five percent, in fact) entered the country during the Soviet era, ushered in to man the factories and ethnically dilute the population. Today they are distinctly separate from the Latvians, those born before 1991 being refused citizenship. For the most part they get by, but skulking at the fringes of society, neglected and destitute, is a subculture of elderly Russians. Poverty-stricken, many roam the streets, be they alcohol-ridden old men, or forlorn babushkas - social welfare is virtually non-existent, Latvian society caring little for these people. But then, this attitude accounts for much of what one encounters in Riga: loving nurturance and restoration on the one hand; cruel neglect on the other.

      In the Old Town (Vecriga), the city's UNESCO showpiece, this dynamic is weighted towards the former. Vast sums of money have been invested into this labyrinth of beautifully restored buildings, relics to what Latvia was in its pre-Russian days: a mercantile haven, its maritime roots betrayed by the seagulls which angle over the towering church spires and densely packed red roofs. Despite inevitable commercialisation, and being something of a museum, it feels authentic, especially in the summer when life spills out into the cobbled streets. And there are many museums within the museum, dedicated to their Armed Forces, Latvian History, and the periods of occupation, to name a few. Majestic Lutheran cathedrals pierce the sky, high above the low-rise medieval roofs. Along the streets and in the squares are restaurants, cafes, bars, shops, buskers, stalls, the nerves of the centre where the buildings are the heart. But working from here from the inside out, progressively more dilapidated buildings are to be found, purposefully neglected by the Soviets and as of yet ignored by the Latvians. Outside of the opulent centre, in the surrounding working class, generally Russian districts said flip-side to Riga is to be found. This becomes especially striking the further out one goes, culminating in communities which are little more than shanty towns, overgrown and forgotten. I mention this not to draw away from Riga; indeed, while one hopes that social welfare will improve, the juxtaposition is morbidly fascinating, melding together in what is at the very least a unique cityscape.

      It's all easy to see from the city's several vantage points: the jet-setting Skyline Bar atop the Hotel Reval; the tower of Saint Peter's Basilica in Old Town; the observation deck from the Academy of Science, "Stalin's Birthday Cake"; the multi-faceted city sprawls beneath. That said, the main points of interest are within walking distance of each other, and as long as there is a map to hand, the city is easy to navigate. The 'main points of interest' shouldn't be misinterpreted as being confined to the Old Town - Vecriga is just one slice of the cake. Riga is a slow-burn experience: on first glance, especially now since it's modern, comparisons with other eastern and central European cities are easy to make, but don't be deceived because there is much that unfolds in the days spent there. In order to spread the net and see this, I would forcibly recommend that hotel accommodation be found in the 'new' town, around the region of the central train station. Here, to the south-west, beyond the canal snaking through Kronvalda Park, is the Old Town, and beyond that, the Daugava. To the south is a palpably old Soviet area, home to the heaving Central Market, a gargantuan expanse of stalls housed under a hulking complex of five old zeppelin hangars, selling meats, cheeses, fish, trinkets and (unusual) clothes. Not far away is "Stalin's Birthday Cake", the Academy of Science, one of several Soviet Empire State replicas that were erected across the communist world. Then, to the north there is the Esplanade Park, the location of the ostentatious Russian Orthodox Cathedral, which, from all points in the city looms in the distance, obscured by trees, like some glowing mirage straight out of Kublai Khan's Xanadu. The area is full of high-end bars and clubs, representative of the jet-setting side of Riga's international culture, none of which are particularly memorable apart from the fantastic Skyline Bar, perched atop the twenty-sixth floor of the Hotel Reval. Nearby is the National Gallery, home to classic Latvian art, notably that of Janis Rozenthals.

      Rozenthals himself didn't live far away, namely in the northern Art Nouveau district, which, hyperbole aside, is simply astonishing. The late 19th and early 20th century saw Riga cloak itself deliriously in Art Nouveau architecture, some seven-hundred and fifty apartment buildings, ethereal, fantastical and haunting, designed by the flourishing artistic community, which included Mikhail Eisenstein, father to Sergei 'Battleship Potemkin'. Faces, from stoic medusas, to inanimate robots, to snarling goblins; figures, from fist-tailed lions, to watchful griffins, to the enigmatic characters of Greek myth; the buildings - distributed eclectically across the city but at their most concentrated in the district itself - are covered from head to toe in these timeless designs. They are like people, each structure with its own distinct identity and motifs, some mythical, others futuristic, or even a combination of the two. Not even Soviet times, which saw communal living in the apartments, could sterilise the mystical atmosphere enshrouding these buildings. Suffice to say, a leisurely stroll through here is warranted, albeit whilst gazing upward. The famous philosopher Isaiah Berlin spent much of his childhood here, whilst Janis Rozenthals lived here with his family until his death in 1916. His two-floored apartment, at the very top of a psychedelic, swirling spiral staircase is now a low-key museum, and it brims with memory, much of it untouched.

      That quality of being untouched applies, similarly, to Riga in general, at least to some extent. Because it has yet to find its feet, the city is free of a lot of Western baggage - MacDonald's is the only really prominent feature in this respect. Indeed, commercialisation has occurred very much from within, since local chains take precedence: Double Coffee, Steiku restaurants and Rimi supermarkets are major players, albeit of little interest. Be that as it may, privatisation is the spine of prosperity in Latvia - that which is nationalised tends to be of poor quality. Post-Soviet restoration has occurred from the inside-out, with the focus still on the former. Infrastructure is poor: there are practically no motorways, and if the train seems like a viable alternative, it's worth nothing that Latvia home to what is officially the worst train system in Europe - everything takes twice as long; just leaving the country this way requires at least five changes . Riga, mercifully, stands on its own two feet. This is in stark contrast to, say, Lithuania, where the national infrastructure is considerably more developed but the cities have far less invested in them: Latvia, it's safe to say, is 'Riga-centric'.

      Tourism, in this respect, is the prosperous future's oxygen, but without ever being particularly overbearing in anywhere other than the Old Town. That said, trendy bars and bistros are aplenty, the greater city skimming healthy profits from the debaucherous business that is the stag do. In general, the finer locales do require seeking out - restaurants especially - which isn't always easy. Latvians may have a strong sense of identity, but not of their cuisine. The old peasantry were sustained through the long winters by warming dishes, so until recently there was a prevailing apathy toward food. Pork, herring, salmon and potatoes are probably the traditional fare, but the simple nature of the Latvian kitchen is obscured if not eclipsed by the international cuisine which is steadily finding its way onto menus. The best restaurants are, perhaps obviously, those which are recommended, but even then their quality can seem ambiguous since most restaurants are empty in the evening, lunch being the prime time to eat. At heart, Latvia isn't a place geared toward gastronomy, rather towards beer, chocolate, and black balsam, the local spirit. This dark brown, syrupy concoction, made up of "herbs, flowers and medicinal roots", is best enjoyed in the many variations of cocktails in which it appears, and is something of a national trademark.

      This sort of thing is all a part of the phenomenon that is 'neo-Latvia', wherein the capital markets itself to the world, as if to modestly say 'I'm here'. Riga is a city in the process of its late adolescence as it were, developed, but with much to still discover about itself, a fact currently obscured by the speed of its growth. The sad reality, however, is that in the grand scheme of things, that strong sense of national identity, that frenzied attempt to preserve the historic gene pool, will probably die out in the coming decades. Perhaps the most apt metaphor is this: the country and its capital resemble Fitzgerald's Benjamin Button - they've ended up aging backwards. To see this quietly haunting place, at once growing and decaying, with its blend of quaint medievalism, prehistoric Soviet relics, organic modernism and neo-nationalism is a unique experience unlikely to be felt anywhere else in Europe.

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        19.02.2010 18:14
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        I had a great time & am going to go back again

        After reading a lot of reviews for this destination I nearly didn't go on the
        Stag do in Riga but luckly I did & we all had a great weekend.
        To start with we were expecting the taxi drivers to rip us off, this was not the case at all. We got a red taxi as advised & he was very friendly giving us some maps on Riga & he charged 6 of us £9 to get from the airport. Also on the 2nd night one of our stag party took a white taxi home but left his jacket in it. For some reason he had the taxi drivers number so called him the next day. The taxi driver drove his jacket back to him & wouldn't even take any money for his trouble.
        As there had been quite a few bad reports saying that locals did not like stag partys we knew we had to be a bit low key. We walked around Riga & went in some nice bars. This was ok but after a few beers we were in quite high spirits & one member of our group was "ratted" but still we went in 3 or 4 bars & clubs & still we had no problems.
        The bars we liked the most were The Jack Daniels bar & The 26th Floor bar (that not what it was called but I can't remember it).
        The club we loved was called Essential. We went there on both nights
        We stayed at Hotel Saulite (which has changed its name to the Irina). It was very nice and could not have been better located. The staff were great aswell.
        Overall this was a fantastic trip.
        I am now going on another stag do in Riga this year & I can't wait

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          14.03.2009 20:01
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          Perfect for a short weekend getaway. Any longer though and you may be crawling the old town walls.

          I visited Riga, Latvia in early December 2007. Having previously visited Prague with my wife this gave me a taste and love of Eastern European Cities. Whilst Prague seemed very touristy and sanitised I wanted to experience life deeper into the former Eastern Block.

          Riga, with Ryanair and Easyjet both offering cheap and cheerful (ish) flights from many cities across the UK, was an easy choice.

          December though! The average temperature in December is -1c. The weather is generally snowy if cold enough or rainy if not. More importantly, perhaps, if you are planning your get away for mid-winter, the light - even on a clear day - is short and gloomy. If you have in the past experienced ill effects from SAD (Seasonal Affective Disorder) perhaps wait until spring. However coming up to Christmas with Wolverhampton (my closest home town) having the festive cheer of a turkey, I decide that a bit of snow and a bit of Eastern Christmas cheer would be the perfect option.

          It terms of making this useful the best time to visit Riga is in the summer months. Latvian summers pretty much mirror British summers with the norms around 18c and the weather changeable. In the summer (so I've read) Riga is packed with street cafe's. Not so in December.

          Riga airport is around 8kms from the centre and with taxis in Latvia very cheap the journey to our hotel was only at 8 ls. At the time of our trip 1ts = £1.20 though Latvia is struggling now with the global crunch and its currency struggling even more than the pound the rate is now neared £1.40.
          Good time to get on the plane then!

          Our hotel, the Europa City hotel was around 3 kilometers out of town on Britvas Gavte. For the three nights we stayed it cost £75. An absolute bargain. Flying with Ryanair we only paid around £160 for the whole three days. So what does £25 a night get you in the Europa City hotel. A very nice clean spacious room with a nice clean spacious comfortable double bed. A television with limited international news channels and an adequate bathroom. Our only gripe was a problem with the hot water which after a quick phone call to the English speaking front desk was quickly sorted.

          Breakfast was extra but we paid as the breakfast buffet at 7ls was really good. At breakfast we were joined by mostly business people in suits and tourist from other parts of the Baltic states.

          Getting into town was no problem either. Right outside the hotel was firstly a small kiosk selling bus tickets and also a bus stop. Britvas Gatve is a busy road and one of the cities main arteries. Buses flow down this about every twenty minutes. Be prepared on the buses to meet the most sour faced race of people on earth - Latvian bus conductors. Always women, always old and always miserable as sin. Please leave me a comment if anyone has experienced these people and managed to glimpse a smile.

          The buses stops outside the beautiful Orthodox Cathedral. Completed in 1884 in the Russian-Byzantine style it is wonderfully photogenic. The Orthodox Cathedral marks pretty much the furthest East you will need to venture to experience the sights.

          This is except for one other place. The best place to take in a view of the city is the Skline Bar of the Reval Hotel Litvija. This is the masive building just up from the Orthodox Cathedral. The Skyline bar on the 26th floor of this chic and expensive hotel gives amazing 360 degree views around the city. A lift blasts you up to the 26th floor so no leg power required. Oh and the mojitos aren't too bad either!!

          Away from the bar then, the next sight you will see, again walking back past the Orthodox Cathedrale is the Freedom Monument. Paid for by public donations and built in the 1930's this landmark is so important to Latvians.
          The monument itself is a marble column with the feminine Liberty holding three gold stars, representing the three states of Latvia. During Soviet rule this statue was off limits and the statue became an important symbol to the Latvian Independence movement in the early 90's. Time it right and you could be there to see the changing of the guards.

          The monument itself stands in the middle of park land that stretches to the north right up to the Daugava river and to the south to the centre station, dissecting the park is the city canal.

          This parkland has both happy and sad memories. Firstly the happy side is the bridge just in front of Bastion Hill to the north of the Freedom monument. This bridge is literally covered in padlocks. A Latvian tradition is for the groom of his wedding day to carry his bride over the bridge and as a symbol of their love to bolt a padlock to the bridge.

          For the sad then; the memorial stones. Dotted around the parkland but mostly clustered around Bation Hill these stones mark the spot where Latvian heroes fell in 1991. During unrest in 1991, 16 Latvians were shot dead by Soviet marksmen. These included the renowned Latvian director and two camera men. These men filmed the event and broadcast the events on Latvian television. On the night they escaped with a brutal beating but after the documentaries aired they mysteriously vanished only to re-surface dead in a diving accident!

          The other notable site on the parkland is the Opera house to the south of the Freedom monument. A beautiful building surrounded by the parkland makes for good photos. The road that runs by the Opera house, Aspazijas Bulvanis is home to the cities nicest and best value eateries.

          The centre of town then where all the tourist sights are then is enclosed on one side by the parkland and on the other by the river. This whole area in perhaps a mile squared so no long walks or public transport required to see all the sights.

          The first place to aim for if you are after a view again is St. Peters church (1.5ls). The entrance fee here allows you to climb the spire. A lift takes you up the first 75 meters and a winding staircase and your own steam takes you up the final 50. The views here over the rooftops of the Old Town are well worth the effort. You also get great views over the Daugava river.

          For the rest of the sights then well we decided just to bimble around. The sights of the Old Town are the buildings themselves. The beautifully decorative Blackheads house adorns the Rifleman square. This square is also home to the centre stone of Riga and is the sight of Latvia's Christmas tree. Also in this square is the monument to the Riflemen. The Riflemen made up three units of the Soviet army with men from Latvia.

          The best museum of Riga is also in this square, the Museum of the Occupation of Latvia (free). This black tiled modern looking building looks odd from the outside, surrounded by the beauty of Blackheads house and the town hall. Inside this museum gives good information on the occupation of Lativa by the Soviets and also the Nazi's during the 2nd World War.

          The rest of the Old time sights are just some of the stunning buildings and narrow picturesque lanes. Some of my favourite to photograph are the houses on Maza Pils iela. The Three Brothers, numbers 17,19 and 21 make for brilliant photographs. Number 17 dates back to the 15th century.

          Tip for you here. I am vegetarian and Riga is very much a pork loving city. The citiy does have an amazing vegetarian restaurant near the three brothers on Janiela street. The Kamila is an amazingly atmospheric place with hippyish decor and a very relaxed attitude. The food here is amazing though and a real find for vegetarians.

          Another important re-fuelling stop for us was the coffee chain Double Coffee. There are half a dozen of these coffee houses dotted around the old town. These offer, in order of importance, somewhere to escape the cold, clean toliets, Baileys Irish coffees and tasty cakes.

          The Old Town, in December, is fairly quiet and for a better feel of local life you need to head down towards the central station. This is home to a busy shopping centre and the station has the general hubbub you would expect.

          Beyond the station is the real place to see and mingle with the locals. the Central Market located in the Moscow District is a great place to people watch. The market itself is made up of five massive Zeppelin Hangers. This is place where any tourists seem to vanish and you will be walking alone in a very Russian feeling atmosphere. I love feeling foreign and being in places with an edge so loved the markets. It is a great place to pick up some traditional Russian foodstuffs. Try the black bread which makes a brilliant 'beer snack' when toasted.

          Having read the other Dooyoo reviews before mine Riga seems to get a poor press. For me whilst I would never go back it was a nice introduction to a more edgy kind of travel. I speak bits of French, Spanish and Italian and the cities of these countries have the same kind of shops and cafes as England. The cities have a similar atmosphere and a general feeling of safety.

          Riga for me was the first place where the safety of familiarity was removed and I really enjoyed it. In terms of beauty, well it cannot compete with Prague or Stockholm say and in terms of romance not a patch on Paris or Florence, in terms of history nothing on Warsaw or Rome. What it is though is a beautifully relaxed and compact city that is perfect for a short weekend.
          It has great bars and restaurants and is so, so cheap to eat well.

          It has enough to do and see without you feeling rushed or that you have to cut things short to fit things in. It is the kind of place you can spend a weekend and come home with a really good understanding of what Riga is. It's modern history is accessible. It feels a long way from home when in reality only a two hour flight. You get that all so important feeling of being foreign.

          It may not have it's Eiffel Tower or it's Uffizi gallery but what is does have is a beautiful and compact Unesco protected heart. The hoardes of stag do's and sex traffic is confined to areas outside of the historic heart. This is a beautifully relaxed city to explore and feel.

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            12.09.2008 20:23
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            Not a place I would go back to.

            I had wanted to go to Riga for a long time when I finally made it there a while ago.

            I was lured by the apparent beauty of the city, particularly the pictures I had seen of the bridges the river. I was excited at the prospect of having a cheap holiday. Being one of the Baltic states, I knew Latvia would be cheaper to visit than, for example, France or Germany, and, with low cost airlines flying there, I thought I could have a week there rather cheaply.

            Initially, landing in Riga, I was impressed. We had flown over the forest that I had expected to see and I thought that it was beautiful.

            My first insight into the people was a very kind person trying to help me communicate on the bus! A good start...

            However, when I got to the hostel and started to look around the city, I was disappointed. This was because there was a lot less to see and do than I had expected- with the bridges and river being one fo the main attractions!

            I went to a pleasant market but it was not as cheap as I had expected.

            There are some very beautiful buildings to see in Riga so if you like architecture then this would be a good reason to visit.

            However, for a capital city, I found Riga quite lacking in interest.

            If you do decide to go and you feel the same as I do, you could consider taking a trip on a bus or train- well within an hour are some nice places to visit, for example Sigulda, where there is a National Park (I can recommend this because I went).

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              30.06.2008 22:19

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              We are two dutch guys and visited Riga. We had a good time going to the clubs and bars, but als enjouying it's buildings, terras and parks. We'd recommend anyone to find an appartment in the 'Old-Town'. It's very close to all the interesting things to see and do in Riga.Luckely we also came across a taxi-driver who brought us all over town to see the good clubs which are also tourist friendly (some clubs ripp off tourists). He also show'd us the places to visit and see in Riga during the day. We'd recommend everyone to give him a ring when you are in Riga and want to have a good time: Max, 00 371 26333248.Hope you will have as much in Riga as we did!Greets, two dutch guys.

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              06.03.2006 19:36
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              Possibly the new Prague.

              Latvia is not somewhere that would immediately spring to mind when deciding on a city break, but when we researched a possible weekend away for between four and six people (all male) within our budget (£200), there was no clear cut winner. Riga, Berlin, Prague and Barcelona were all able to offer a flight/hotel combination for within that. Riga was decided on by vote, purely for the reason that it was only really opening up as a destination and had that 'kudos' factor that all new things seem to have.

              Most of our group flew out of Dublin with Ryanair, though there are other routes available from England and one of our party flew with Ryanair out of Stansted. Flights will obviously vary in price, depending on who you're flying with, when you're flying and how far in advance you book. Booking tickets with Ryanair at Christmas for an end of February trip cost us €80 (£60) return, each. I did hear of a group of lads who paid €200 for the same flights, though. The hotel was also booked at this time, approximately 8 weeks in advance.

              From Dublin, it's practically a three-hour flight. The flight's scheduled at two hours and fifty minutes, to be precise but it took us an extra twenty minutes. The flight from Stansted is approximately half an hour less.

              On arrival at Riga, I couldn't help but notice how modern the airport was. It's not a big airport, but it certainly puts a lot of others I've seen to shame. We were quickly through passport control and after meeting up with our other companions, left the airport.

              Taxis were plentiful outside of the terminal and the fifteen-minute ride into Riga cost us 8 Lats. I'd recommend arriving with some local currency, but if that's not possible, there is a cash machine at the entrance/exit of the airport and all cash machines in the city support all the major cards (Visa, Mastercard, Cirrus, Maestro etc.) The first thing that surprised me was the amount of money that seemed to be put into Riga. Even on the short taxi ride from the airport to our hotel, I saw an awful lot of new buildings including high-rise banking headquarters, huge shopping malls and plenty of construction work. I was also surprised by the standard of cars on the roads. Most cars seemed to be quite new (within the two or three years old at most) and some of them were very expensive.

              Our hotel of choice was the Reval Latvia. At four stars, this was one of the best hotels in the city and is currently being refurbished further. It has a panoramic bar (open to everyone, not just residents) on the 26th floor although this was sadly being renovated during our stay. The rooms are fine and spacious with comfortable beds and very secure with key card access to each corridor. Food is very reasonable with bar meals at around 4L and beers at 1.5L per 0.5 litre. Breakfast was included in our rate and the only one of our party, who happened to arrive back at the hotel at the right time, reliably informs me that it was to a good standard. Most of us barely saw the morning side of midday, never mind breakfast. The basement houses a nightclub called Voodoo (open until around 6 am) and casino (open 24 hours, apparently), both of which are also rated amongst the best in town.

              The hotel was great and reasonably cheap (£130 per person for three nights) and about a 10-minute leisurely walk from Old Town itself. We did splash out on the hotel somewhat though and you could find cheaper with a little research (try www.bookings.nl).

              Eating out is generally inexpensive with meals starting from around 3L upwards. The quality is good and variety is generally westernised. There were plenty of places to eat, drink and dance, though we saw a very small amount of them (having been impressed with the half dozen or so bars in 'Old Town' we found, there was no need to look any further). I liked De Lacy's Irish Bar for food, and found the staff to be very friendly with excellent standards of English (my Latvian consisted of about three words for 15 minutes). Over the course of a few visits, I had a burger and an enchilada and both meals were huge and tasty, priced at around 4L each. Some of the others found their Shepherds Pie on the second visit to be a bit greasy (perhaps as a result of their hangovers), but the side orders were cheap and plentiful. The only real downside about De Lacy's was the fact that there were only two unisex toilets which, while clean enough, often had queues at busy times.

              There were two other ex-pat bars in Old Riga, Dickens (a British/English pub) and Paddy Whelan's, another Irish bar. Both served a good variety of beers, though for those interested in sport, Paddy Whelan's had plenty of TVs meaning everyone can see the action. Paddy Whelan's also showed live Premiership football. A few of us watched the Blackburn vs. Arsenal match from that weekend.

              Melnais Kaķis (The Black Cat) is located in Livs’ Square in Old Riga and we found it a good place to chill out and have a couple of drinks. They have a few pool tables in here with an assortment of other games – darts, air hockey, pinball etc. It stays open until the early hours and although I left around 4 am both nights, I was certainly not the last to leave. The staff were friendly and helpful when it came to problems with the tables etc., although the pool was quite expensive (comparatively) at 1L per game.

              Jack Daniels Bar is located in a small side street at the opposite side of the square to Melnais Kaķis. The busiest we saw this bar was the Saturday night where most of the seating was taken, though it's not a large bar. The service and food was average, the menu was fairly extensive and prices were comparable to anywhere else we had been that weekend, though the atmosphere was sadly lacking.

              None of these bars in Old Riga were busy, at least by UK standards. The ex-pat bars seemed the busiest, but apart from de Lacy's, these were quite lacking in atmosphere, though if you want to catch some UK sport then these are your best bets (however none of the bars could pick up any of the BBC channels). We found that The Black Cat would attract other travellers and during the weekend we managed to strike up conversations with Scandinavians and Finnish tourists over a game of pool or two.

              The standard for the weekend was simply to order a 'beer' (or "five beers" to be more accurate), so apart from tell you that we drank the local stuff, there's not much to say. It's a decent enough beer and we paid between £1 and £1.50, depending on where we were. You can order the brand names (Carlsberg, Heineken etc.) if you want, though these are slightly more expensive. Most people we encountered spoke excellent English, so there were no real language problems.

              The Reval Latvia Lobby bar is also open to all, and we used this as our gathering spot. It was interesting to see the various groups of people who would meet here during the day. Business meetings were prevalent during the day while the late morning and early afternoon saw an influx of what we suspected to be prostitutes, while at night, these seemed to disappear and it would become a proper nightspot until it closed at around 2am. There was a good, if slightly laid back vibe to it at night, but the food was excellent and the service was up to the standards of the rest of the hotel.

              Voodoo is the name of the nightclub in the basement of the Reval Latvia, beside the casino. It's open until the early hours of the morning and I really enjoyed it down there, though the music wasn't exactly to my taste. You get a good mix of hotel and Riga residents in a lively atmosphere for a 7L entrance fee.

              Weather at this time of year is very cold (we saw -10 and below during the early hours of the morning, but it had been much colder in January and apparently this was the coldest winter for nearly 100 years). The temperature rises into the mid-twenties in summer (comparable to the UK). You are much more likely to see snow than rain during the winter months, unsurprisingly. The Daugava River (roughly the same width of the Thames at Tower Bridge) was frozen, much to our amusement and populated daily by ice-fishermen. Not everyone was comfortable taking a stroll on the frozen river, but it was very solid underfoot and we were careful about our footing. Despite the freezing temperatures, it didn't feel as cold as you might expect, presumably due to the dry air.

              Just by strolling around there are plenty of sights to see. We avoided museums and the like, concentrating on monuments and simply seeing the city. Old Riga is worth seeing and there are plenty of little churches and narrow cobbled alleyways to see. Riga's Freedom Monument sits just outside Old Riga and soldiers can regularly be seen marching around it during the day.

              Entering Old Riga at night is completely safe as there is a good police presence, though you may still attract the attention of some of the touts who are out to get you into one of the few strip bars that seem to exist around Livs’ Square. They are not too pushy and a firm "no" will send them on their way.

              On the Sunday, our guide (a local friend of a friend) took us on a tour of the city. Not only were we taken to some of the more obvious sights (Sergei Eisenstein, who directed The Battleship Potemkin, was the son of an architect and his striking work can still be seen in Riga), but to some of our guide's more personal favourites such as the old cobbled streets filled with original wooden buildings.

              What did become obvious when we crossed the river to the south of the city was that there is a lot of poverty in Riga (and Latvia in general, I was informed) that's not immediately obvious. There are small, shantytown like areas literally a stone's throw from the more affluent areas of the site and given that we visited in the middle of winter with a good six inches of snow on the ground, made us pause for thought more than once. That never really manifested itself in the more touristy areas though and the amount of street peddlers or beggars was probably comparable to an typical UK town or city, most of which would leave you alone after you'd refused their offer.

              The Russian quarter is definitely worth a visit. We had a good lunch there, buffet style, at a traditional Russian teahouse and I've rarely seen so many different types of vodka to wash it down with. The honey and chili vodka was especially recommended. There's a market held in old zeppelin hangars that's supposedly worth a visit. Our guide suggested that the best time to see this was in the morning when there was a far better atmosphere but given our previous night's excesses, we were never around in time to investigate properly.

              Riga is supposedly developing a reputation as a 'stag and hen' destination. While we did see evidence of one or two stag parties (no hens, though), these were few and far between throughout the whole weekend, though that included one set of mad Scots running around in kilts. Most Brits/UK people we met through the weekend were Scots or Irish - I don't recall seeing too many English or Welsh parties, if any. Riga is also a retreat for Scandinavians and the Finnish who seemingly nip across the Baltic where they can enjoy a cheap stay. We encountered a few such parties and found them to be very friendly.

              Riga itself is classic East becoming West. I'd say that now is the time to see it before the free market takes total control. Its quite inexpensive now but I'm not sure that will last much longer. It's not a huge city, enabling you to walk to most places. Certainly the Reval Latvia was well placed for easy (walking) access to most things north of the river. There are plenty of museums, monuments and churches for the culture vultures amongst you and several good markets to visit if you can haul yourself out of bed early enough.

              Unlike Budapest last February, I got a really good vibe from the city and the people and felt quite safe at all times. There was only one time where I thought that people were trying to take advantage of us as tourists when the supposed cover charge for a blues club we visited on the Friday night was 15L, which we declined. Other than that one incident, I'd recommend it to anyone considering a city break, especially for travel sooner rather than later, before too many people get wind of it.

              During my stay (24th – 27th February 2006), the exchange rate was approximately:
              1.00 GBP = 1.02 LVL

              Useful Links:
              Hotel: http://www.revalhotels.com/eng/latvija/
              Flight: http://www.ryanair.com/site/EN/
              Currency converter: http://www.xe.com/ucc/convert.cgi

              Budget guide:
              Taxi to/from airport: 6 - 8L (one way)
              Pub Meal 3 - 6L
              Big Mac Meal 1.79L
              Beer (0.5l) 1 - 1.50L
              10 cigarettes 0.32L
              Bottle of local spring water 0.20L
              Bottle of Evian 0.7L

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              The largest and capital city of Latvia