Gap Year Days 339 – 342
We arrived in Riga on the bus from Tallinn. It had been a relatively pleasant roll through the snowy countryside. As soon as we got off the bus the cold hit us – again! We are heading south, and it’s closer to the end of March than the beginning, yet still we have sub-zero temperatures that make me want to hibernate!
We only had to walk a few hundred metres up the road to where we were staying. Even though it was past checkin time when we got there, our room wasn’t ready. The receptionist explained there had been a big basketball tournament in town, and the teams (or at least some of them) were staying in the hotel and not leaving until six. So our room would be ready then. Or maybe at seven. Or definitely the next morning. Luckily he did offer us another room that we could relax in, but he warned us it was small – and yes, it was!
While not the end of the world, this upsets my little routine. Here’s where my control freak nature kicks in! Our usual routine is to unpack what we need to, check out or room/place for facilities, then head out, usually to a grocery store to buy food/snacks as appropriate. We couldn’t really do that, not knowing if our room had coffee/tea facilities, a fridge etc. In the end we went out and grabbed a quick snack then waited until we moved rooms before thinking about dinner.
The following morning we had a free walking tour of Rīga Old Town planned. We gave ourselves plenty of time to get there, and walked around looking at the frozen landscape and even more frozen people rushing around. It was meant to be warmer today, but clearly the weather gods hadn’t got that memo, and instead there was another bitterly cold wind to cope with.
We were at the tour starting point early, and luckily there was a coffee shop conveniently nearby, so we ducked in to defrost, emerging again with only seconds to spare. Clearly others had the same idea, because our group went from four to eleven in the space of about a minute, exactly on 11am!
While there are a few different free walking tours in Riga, we went with one from Old Riga Free Tour and I was very happy with it. Our guide, Toms, was interesting, knowledgeable and funny. He gave everyone a chance to participate, kind of like a discussion, but without feeling like a school kid being picked to answer a question. We got lucky with a smaller group, because there were 35 people the day before, and that personal touch would have been much harder.
The tour visited most of the well known landmarks in the Old Town, and a few lesser known spots too. I love going on these tours to see the little quirky things that I’m not likely to find on Google as I look for things to see. Like the paver in one of the old streets that shows where there was once a river, after which Riga was named! And the old wives tale that says if an unfaithful wife walks past the Catholic Church then the bells will ring.
Toms also gave us a general history of Latvia, combined with some information on how things are today, like average wages, rent, etc. He also spent a good portion of time afterwards giving recommendations and helping people with general queries, before joining a few of us for lunch to continue the discussion.
After we finished lunch, Simon and I went off to look at a few of the things we had not seen on the walking tour. It wasn’t too much of a stretch to find the Freedom Monument, which is a memorial to all of the soldiers who died during the War of Independence from 1918 to 1920.
We walked towards the area of Elizabeth and Albert Streets. This little section of Riga is well known for its Art Nouveau buildings. If you are interested in architecture, or have a little time to spare, a walk down these two streets will show you some of the best examples of these buildings in Europe. Most have now been renovated, some are still in the process or still to be started.
We saw quite a few nice-looking restaurants and bars in the area, but we didn’t test any of them out because we had another plan. We were heading to the Radisson Blu. Riga is a very flat city, most building are only a few floors tall. The Radisson Blu (there are many, but you will easily find this one) is 26 floors, and on the top is the Skyline Bar, where you can visit for a cocktail in the evening, or a coffee during the day. The main reason you want to visit though is for the views over the city. Unfortunately It was not the best weather for us, but still it’s was worth a visit to get our bearings.
(TIP: If you don’t want to pay for a coffee or a cocktail, it is still possible to get a quick peek at the views. Take the lift up to the top floor then duck into the bathroom. Both have glass walls looking out over the city. I can attest to the ladies having a fantastic corner position with views in two directions. I believe the mens only looks in one direction, but the best one! I came across people taking photos of the view that weren’t in the bar, so you wouldn’t be the first person to do this.)
The second day of our visit we had hoped for better weather, but we left our hotel and discovered a new layer of snow everywhere and heavy grey skies. I had a few things on the list for the day, but we would have to see how we went in the cold.
Our first stop was to the Riga Central Markets. These markets are located in huge hangars right outside the city centre. The hangars were home to German zeppelins during World War I. Now they are filled with up to 3000 stalls selling all sorts of things. The Riga Council is dedicated to keeping the cultural aspect since the markets are UNESCO listed, so the stalls contain traditional fresh food stalls or local handicrafts. There are a few small coffee or snack places too, where you can grab a drink and a snack. We tried some of the pastries and they were delicious.
After our snack we walked towards the river to view the distinctive library building on the other side. We continued on over the bridge, making a quick stop into the library. This is another place where it’s possible to get some views over the city. We asked if we could go up, but it is only possible on tours arranged in advance or to members of the library. We could have joined up, but decided against it.
Now I was on a mission. One of our daughters was after a particular Pull & Bear t-shirt, and I had found a store in a shopping centre a bit further along the river. The weather wasn’t looking too bad, so we continued our walk. We found the store, but no t-shirt. The style has been discontinued, and the only way to find it is to keep looking on the sale racks. This was not our first store, (and, as it worked out, was not our last) so we were not all that surprised not to find it.
Rather than walk, we caught a bus back to the old town and again wandered the streets taking in some of the beautiful old buildings. I was particularly looking for the Brotherhood of the Blackheads buildings that we had been told about during our walking tour the previous day but hadn’t yet seen. I wasn’t exactly sure where they were, just knew which direction, so we went back and forwards up and down a few different streets before we came to them – just as it started to snow again.
It was getting towards late afternoon by the time we had finished looking around the old town, and we contemplated what to do next. Our walking tour guide Toms had suggested that a good way to see some of the suburbs of Riga was to catch the number 11 tram and do a loop out and back. This is also the tram to catch to the Riga Zoo, which is another option to visit in better weather. We were cold and tired though, and the weather was still deteriorating, so we called it a day instead. The warmth and comfort of our hotel beckoned.
We had plans to only warm up for an hour or two before going out again for dinner. We had heard the restaurant Folkklub was worth a visit, with good food and live music. It was in the old town though, about ten to fifteen minutes walk away. It was so cold as we went out, we ended up only going around the corner to a fast food place! Whoops.
As we left our hotel the following morning on the way to the bus station, the first thing we noticed were the beautiful blue skies. We were starting to think the weather gods really were against us, because this was not the first time we had great weather on a travel day, but rubbish weather when we were exploring a city!
There was really nothing to dislike about Riga, but when I think back on the Baltic cities, it is not the first one to pop into my mind. We had such grey, wintery days while we were there, and since I just don’t cope with the cold so well, it really does affect my ability to enjoy a city. I don’t think I would seek out Riga on it’s own to visit again, but if in the area during summer, a day or two having a look around when there is some colour in the city would be nice.
Like almost everywhere else in Europe, wifi was readily available almost everywhere. We still did not have a SIM card, but were able to easily navigate and communicate just using wifi.
Riga was exceptionally cheap. I just looked up the price we paid for our accommodation and had to check it twice! The location was close to everything, the room was a decent size and comfortable and breakfast was included for an incredibly cheap price. Click here to check it out. For €10 it was possible to get a decent meal.
There were trams and buses going all over the city and they seemed well organised. Tickets bought on board for a single trip were €2 each, although there are longer term transport passes available if you are planning to use more public transport.
Ibis Riga Centre
Marijas Iela 5, Rīga, LV-1050, Latvia
€32 ($50AUD/$37USD) per night including breakfast
Josie is a forty-something budget traveller. She only discovered travel in her late thirties, but since then has travelled extensively including taking an adult gap year. She is now based in Australia and loves sharing all she has learned about travelling on a budget but with the comforts a Gen Xer requires.