Sandwiched between Lithuania and Estonia, the Latvian capital city Riga retains a grittiness that’s been mostly polished in its two Baltic neighbors. Riga exists in the sweet spot of developed but edgy, leaving its hard history more exposed as the European Union’s fastest growing economy moves forward.
Despite Lativa’s switch to the Euro, it still retains a relatively low cost of living, even in Riga, the largest city in the country. That means you can see almost all of Riga on foot without blowing your entire travel budget. Whether you’re just passing through Riga or have plans for a longer trip, this is how the TL;DR version of visiting 2014’s European Capital of Culture cost effectively.
Where To Stay Without Spending Much
For a cozy spot that will cost you about $12 a night for a dorm or $24 for a private room, take a look at Central Hostel Riga. Located in a residential neighborhood a 7 minute walk from the city’s major sights, Central Hostel Riga is clean, has a full kitchen, helpful staff, plus offers free wireless.
- Remember Your Schengen – Lativa is a part of the Schengen Area so if you plan to be in Europe for more than a few weeks, you should read this crash course and learn how long you can stay legally in a Schengen member country.
Central Hostel Riga is not the easiest place to find but easily accessible from Riga International Airport (the hub of Europe’s most punctual airline) by shuttle bus or walking distance from both the train and bus stations. You can read my full review of Central Hostel Riga here.
One Place You Have To Eat
There are a lot of good places to eat in Riga (a city which likes to bizarrely combine sushi with anything) though you can’t leave without visiting Lido. Yes, Lido is a chain of about 9 restaurants located mostly in Latvia, but its a la carte selection of local dishes is an inexpensive way to eat too much and only feel guilty about your waistline.
For a quiet drink, thoughtful ponder, or place to meet new friends, near Lido’s Vermanitis location is the little wine bar Burbulnica. They offer a good selection of locally produced wines in colors red, white, and slightly in between which might be hard to choose from – except that Burbulnica’s staff can tell you the right boozy flavors for your particular taste.
Munch At Central Market
Riga’s Central Market doesn’t really give a damn if you’re a tourist which made it refreshing to get yelled at every time I took a photo. (Officially, it’s allowed, snap at your own risk.) Though it’s probably not a good idea to climb scaffolding as I did to get the shot below:
Eye candy for market lovers plus real candy if you’re hungry, the Central Market is massive, something that makes sense when you learn it used to house non-musical zeppelins.
There’s an Uzbek bakery along the path joining two of the hangars where locals pick up brick oven breads. Along the left side of the left most hangar there are homemade plates Latvia’s over-50 crowd seem to especially enjoy. Hearty foods heavy on the stomach, light on a traveler’s wallet.
Historically Interesting Museums
A lot of museums around the world have the archaic design of “let’s put a bunch of old stuff around” and expect you to be impressed. Seeing enough of these can turn you off to museums in general, which would be a shame in the case of Latvia’s Museum Of The Occupation. Latvia is a country which has spent most of the past 500 years under foreign occupation. The Museum Of The Occupation gives a glimpse into what setbacks the country has overcome, enlightening for any visitor. Entrance is free of charge with optional donations taken.
Right outside the museum, on the hour most working hours you can watch a guard change in front of the Monument To The Riflemen, free for all.
Public, Local Advice For Free
There are plenty of other things to see and do in Riga. Concentrated in the Old Town are your usual European sampling of impressive churches like Saint Peter’s. (entrance ~$8.10 USD). A bit north of there is the Art Nouveau district with free architecture for the eyes. Although all of the main sights in Riga are within walking distance, during winter average high temperatures don’t go above freezing.
In case chills aren’t your thing, plan a trip during the busier summer months or cut your transportation costs with a Riga Card. Personally, I don’t think 20 Euros (~$23) for the Riga Card is worth the discounts it offers; except the perk of 24 free hours of public transportation if your feet get tired.
You can get a lot of great local recommendations in the frequently updated Like A Local Map to be found just about everywhere remotely traveler-focused in Riga. (As well as at the Central Hostel Riga.) Even better, it comes in free, offline app form on both Android and iOS.
Finally, chances are if you’re in Riga, you’ve been to or are going to one of the other Baltic states. Here’s how to spend a short trip in Vilnius, Lithuania which is only a 4 hour, 20 Euro, border-less Lux Express bus ride away.