Riga, Latvia - Stein Travel
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Riga

The enchanting city of Riga, capital of Latvia and the biggest city in the Baltic States, has emerged from behind the Iron Curtain and is slowly coming into its own as a major European tourist destination. Situated on the south-western coast of the country, Riga is split in two by the River Daugava, and served as a major trading port and a crossroads between western Europe and the East. The modern founding of the city dates back to the 12th Century with the arrival of German traders, mercenaries and missionaries; while its older roots date back to a settlement of the ancient Finnic tribe, the Livs.

The city, and Latvia as a whole, was long caught in a tug of war between the Germans and the Russians, and suffered greatly in World War II when roughly a third of the country's population was exterminated, displaced or fled Nazi persecution. However, despite this lamentable past, there are still plenty of things for tourists to see and do in Latvia.

Riga boasts a collection of exquisite Art Nouveau buildings that rival those in Vienna, Barcelona and St Petersburg, and the fairytale-like historic city centre is a delight to explore. As the cultural and economic centre of the country, Riga is home to plenty of top-class museums, galleries and performing arts centres, as well as a range of sophisticated bars, clubs and restaurants. The city is fast gaining a reputation as a party capital, and its vibrant nightlife draws hundreds of weekenders from all over Europe.

For a more traditional Latvian experience, it is well worth braving the winter cold to enjoy a spot of ice fishing, ice-skating on the frozen Daugava River, or a pirt -a rigorous sauna that involves being beaten with dried birch branches. With over 800 years of history, a UNESCO World Heritage Site-listed historic city centre and a modern buzz, Riga remains a largely undiscovered gem with plenty to delight and enchant the visitor.

Information & Facts

Climate

Riga has a moderate climate, influenced by its close proximity to the sea. Summers tend to be short and cool with cloud cover, and temperatures average around 64°F (18°C) in July. Winters are usually long, dark and cold, with temperatures averaging around 28°F (-2°C) in January. Snowfall is heavy and cover usually lasts from mid-December to mid-March. The city is overcast for roughly 40 percent of the year.

Getting Around

Riga has a well-developed and relatively cheap public transport system that consists of buses, minibuses, trams and trolley buses. Most transit runs from 5.30am to 11.30pm and some routes run a regular night service. Tickets can be bought on the bus, trolley or tram. Final destinations are marked on the front of all transport vehicles. Taxis are readily available, and it is worth noting that licensed cabs will have a yellow number plate. One can risk an unlicensed taxi, but drivers usually turn off the metre and the price needs to be negotiated beforehand. Riga's ferry terminal is located outside the city centre and the central train station will take commuters to destinations such as Russia, Belarus and Ukraine.

Language

Latvian is the official language, but English, Lithuanian, Russian and German are also spoken.

Money

The official currency is the Lat (LVL), which is divided into 100 santims. Most hotels and restaurants in Riga accept credit cards, and most major banks cash travellers cheques, but outside of the capital credit cards are not widely accepted and credit card fraud can be a problem at smaller institutions. Foreign currency can be exchanged at any bank, at money change kiosks and at some hotels. Note that a 4% fee will be charged to exchange US dollars that are torn or marked in any way. Most banks are closed on Saturdays and Sundays. ATMs are available in the larger cities.

Night Life

Riga has a varied nightlife, mostly centred round the Old Town, where many clubs, bars, strip joints, casinos and live music venues can be found. Riga is also famous for its Classical entertainment, with symphonies and operas taking place throughout the year. A detailed and monthly updated guide to all Riga's nightlife can be found in the Riga In Your Pocket booklet, available free throughout the city. Close proximity makes walking between nightlife venues a viable option, but be cautious late at night when mugging of intoxicated tourists is often reported. The larger clubs attract stag groups from the UK and Scandinavian duty-free tourists: stick to the smaller bars if you want a less rowdy experience. Recently, visitors have reported being scammed with exorbitant drinks prices in infamous bars such as Lords (Groks), Saxon, Infinity Bar and Enigma. If you are overcharged in this fashion, refuse to pay the bill and ask for the police to be called.

Shopping

Riga is a good place to buy local crafts, alcohol and foodstuffs, but imported goods are very expensive. One of the best souvenirs to buy in Latvia is amber, for which the country is world-famous. Look out for amber set in silver jewellery: A&E and Tornis are two well-regarded boutiques. Other good things to buy in Riga are woollen jerseys and hats with distinctive Baltic patterns, the local liqueur Black Balsam, and World War Two memorabilia. Bargaining is not expected and unlikely to be successful. A great shopping experience is a visit to the huge Central Market, located in five cavernous pavilions. Everything from fresh fish, fruit and honey, to cheap clothes and pirated CDs can be bought here.

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