In June 1940 the Latvian capital, Riga, was occupied by Soviet forces, it was then occupied by Nazi Germany from 1941 to 1944. In October 1944 it was reoccupied by the Soviets who would exert control over the state until September 6, 1991 when Latvia was declared independent of the Soviet Union. Thirteen years later the next invasion commenced when Ryanair’s first Latvian flight route commenced between Riga and Frankfurt. Soon the budget airline was offering cheap flights to Riga from multiple European destinations including the UK and Ireland which was largely responsible for the budget tourism which ensued, turning Riga into Europe’s top stag party destination by 2006.
Whilst the arrival of the budget airline to many East European cities brought in much needed tourism revenue, it also brought vast numbers of drunken yobs intent on a weekend of heavy drinking in some of the continent’s most charming destinations. Riga was one such city where disgraceful behaviour created strained relations with local people and many unsavoury incidents. By 2010 the local authorities in Riga decided that enough was enough and set up a dedicated police unit devoted to policing unruly tourists. Once word started to spread that numerous clubs, bars and restaurants in Riga were banning stag and hen parties these groups of revellers started looking elsewhere for their boozy weekends. Turning your nose up at a multi-million Euro earning stag party business is a bold move but doing so has allowed Riga to reinvent itself as the cultural destination that it was meant to be. The city remains a popular choice amongst higher end stag and hen groups but no longer are the streets of the old city terrorised by the budget binge drinkers.
The New Face of Downtown Riga
In 2014 Riga was the European Capital of Culture and in January 2015 Ryanair celebrated their 8 millionth passenger on flights in and out of the city. Riga’s Old Town is a UNESCO World Heritage Site which is home to the world’s finest Art Nouveau architecture. This charming area of cobbled streets is packed with historic architecture including the beautiful Town Hall Square which has been fully renovated from the ravages of Soviet and Nazi occupation. There are a number of other charming squares where you can stop for some people watching at local cafés and in the evening you’ll find plenty nice bars and restaurants in the area which welcome local people and tourists alike. To see the best of Riga’s Art Nouveau head for Alberta Iela (Albert Street in English). Another popular attraction is the Skyline Bar which is on the 26th floor of the Radisson Blu Hotel. It’s a great spot to go for an early evening drink and to enjoy magnificent views over the city. The face of tourism to Riga is very different to what it was a decade ago ensuring a bright future for this historic and charming city.
Getting to Riga
Most visitors to Riga arrive via the city’s international airport which lies 10km west of the city. With around 5 million annual passengers the airport is well served by many European airlines offering flights all over the continent. As well as Ryanair, the other main operators include airBaltic, the Latvian national airline, and the budget carrier, Wizz Air. On arrival you can easily get into the centre of Riga by one of the following means of transport:
Airport Bus: Bus number 22 departs from the P1 car park just opposite the arrivals terminal. It departs every 15 minutes and takes approximately 30 minutes to get to the Old Town. If you’re going to be in town for a few days you can buy multi-trip or multi-day tickets at the airport bus stop. You simply validate your ticket each time you use a bus or tram in the city.
Private Transfers: For sheer ease it’s well worthwhile pre-booking a car and driver who will collect you at the airport and transfer you directly to your hotel in the city. Shuttledirect are well established transfer providers from Riga Airport.
Airport Taxis: Of course you’ll find plenty taxis once you step outside of the airport terminal. The journey into the city centre takes around 20 minutes traffic permitting.
Minibus: There is a minibus service (route 222) which leaves from just outside the arrivals area to the city’s main bus station. This also takes around half an hour but isn’t ideal if you’re carrying much luggage.
Where to Stay in Riga
There’s accommodation to suit all budgets in Riga with prices tending to fall as you move away from the Old Town. Let’s begin with a few upmarket recommendations located very centrally:
Grand Palace Hotel (Pils Street 12): Simply wonderful rooms in this 5-star establishment which is discreetly located on a quiet street in the old town. Excellent restaurant and thoroughly professional and friendly staff throughout the hotel.
Dome Hotel & SPA (4 Miesnieku Street): This charming 5-star property is perfectly located in the old city providing easy access to all the main attractions. First class amenities include an outstanding restaurant and excellent saunas.
Hotel Bergs (83-85 Elizabetes): This boutique hotel is another ideal option at a more affordable price located on a pleasant square close to the old town. It has lovely, modern rooms and an extremely welcoming staff.
Looking for something more affordable?
City Hotel Teater (Bruninieku 6): This friendly 4-star option is a 20 minute walk from the Old Town located near the old KGB headquarters. It offers very good value for money.
Hotel Monte Kristo (Kaleju iela 56): Cheaper still is the Monte Kristo which is ideally located just across the road from the airport bus stop and only a few minutes walk into the historic city centre.
Funky Hostel and Apartments (Krisjana Barona 25): This is a popular choice for budget travellers which offers a selection of shared and private rooms. Lively common rooms and a well equipped kitchen within a short walk of all the city’s top attractions make this a firm favourite amongst young backpackers.