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Riga: Europe's Latest "Go To" Destination

By James Drakeford

Posted: 18th July 2014 12:44

Riga is the latest “go to” destination on the continent.  This is not just because it can offer the essentials of any boozy three dayer that rivals the likes of Amsterdam and Prague (the basics being alcohol, easily locatable English cuisine and under three hours by plane) but it also offers an aesthetic quality which lingers long in the mind and a cultural scene which has seen it recognised as the European Capital of Culture 2014. 

This city is a highlight of the Baltic region because it manages to combine the quaint charm of a classic European destination while also harnessing big city vibrancy.  Set on a flat plain divided only by the 500m-wide Daugava River, the city is packed with impressive Art-Nouveau architecture along with a historic old quarter and large parks.  Not forgetting its status as an excellent weekend away for all those who wish to celebrate anything from stag dos to birthdays, Riga can cater to all needs and tastes.  With unrivalled beauty, profound elegance and an exciting combination of old and new, Riga has magnetism as potent as the Riga Black Balsams liquor it's known for.   

Things to See

Once you have walked on Riga’s cobbled streets it will come as no surprise that the city has been announced as European Capital of Culture for 2014.  It exudes a grace and confidence which has seen it come through occupation under Nazi and Soviet regimes.  A number of sites which date back centuries create a fairy tale atmosphere, particularly in the Old Town which embellishes Riga’s attractiveness.  Another impressive feature of the city worth looking out for is the multicultural environment that has been characteristic from the very beginning, since people of many various nationalities have lived here together – the Latvians, Germans, Russians, Poles, Swedes, Finns and others.  Other cultural explorations worth seeking out are music performed by the world-renowned Latvian choirs, impressive opera, modern art performances, popular music concerts, art exhibitions, grand national celebrations and interactive exhibitions. 

Museum of Occupation

In the last 65 years both the Soviet and Nazi occupations of Latvia have left behind a chilling legacy, most noticeably remembered in the well chronicled and spirited Museum of the Occupation of Latvia.  More than 100,000 tourists visit every year; around two thirds are foreign visitors, including distinguished state guests of Latvia.  It’s an important building to Latvian nationals as it offers a chance for reflection, and remembers a painful period Latvia’s past which has shaped the nation’s culture, economy and politics today. 

Freedom Monument

Riga’s central landmark for nearly a century, the Freedom Monument stands as a symbol of Latvia’s strive for independence.  Standing at 42.7m tall and made from granite and copper, a woman stands atop the monument holding three golden stars which represent Latvia’s regions of Kurzeme, Vidzeme and Latgale.  During the Soviet occupation, any gathering at the Freedom Monument was strictly forbidden.  A guard of honour can be found here between 9am-6pm; the guards are soldiers of The Company of Guard of Honour of the Headquarters Battalion of the National Armed Forces and it is a unique sight to see the charging of the guard. 

St Peter’s Church

Riga’s architectural centrepiece, the Gothic St. Peter’s Church, dominates the capital’s skyline.  Do not miss the chance to enjoy the view from its famed spire; the church itself thought to be 800 years old but its spire has been rebuilt three times in the same Baroque form.  Legend has it that to see how long it would last, builders dropped a wine glass from the top of the spire – the logic being the more pieces it broke into, the longer the tower would last.  Unfortunately, a pile of straw cushioned the glass…and the spire burnt down one year later (take that Mystic Meg!).  The spire's current incarnation dates to 1973.

Swedish Gate

Journey to the heart of Old Town and down Riga’s narrowest street and you’ll arrive at the Swedish Gate, which was built into the city walls in 1698 to celebrate Swedish occupation.  It was restored during the Soviet regime which explains its rather fresh appearance.  A charming part of Riga which instantly transports you back to the medieval times, it also has a legend attached to it, much like St. Peter’s Church.  The apartment above the wall belonged to the city executioner or “bende”, and on the morning a head was due to roll he who would put a red rose on the window ledge.  How romantic.

Things to Do

There is a reason why hoards of stag dos and young people pile into Riga everything weekend; it manages to combine that perfect mix of night time activities alongside daytime adventures.  So this means you’ll never be bored – with plenty of unique and different ways to see the city, whether it is two miles in the air or behind the wheel of a car deep in the Latvian Forest, Riga a promises a weekend packed full of fun. 

Fire an AK47

So you’ve always wanted to handle a gun and you don’t come from America? Well you’re in luck; Riga offers you the chance to safely test your shooting skills! This is your opportunity to do this in a responsible and entertaining manner.  You can choose either Makarov or Glock pistols followed by a Kalashnikov assault rifle.  To get all John McClane on your Riga weekend with a firearms shooting experience (best of all you won’t have to fight your way through a tower block terrorists!) just head to the local Old Bill’s gun training centre.  You’ll be conveniently located smack bang (no pun intended) in the centre of town too.

Bobsled

Now then, there are not many other places where you can do this, ride a real Olympic standard bobsleigh! Yes, this is something which will put your heart in your mouth, but offers the most adrenaline filled 45 seconds you will ever experience.  Do not worry, you and your mates will not be going down yourself; a member of the Latvian Olympic bobsled team will man the vessel and guide you as you reach up to speeds of 120kmh and fly through 1,420 metres of track.  For those who (understandably) want a concentrated hit of ecstasy then you can take a more leisurely 80kmh modified bobsled.

4x4 off Road Driving

The forests that surround Latvia have a wealth of terrain which is just perfect for off roading.  It’s a great way to explore the beautiful landscape which encloses Riga.  You’ll be given a short driving lesson before being let loose in a 4x4 vehicle.  You might think yourself a dab hand behind the wheel but this is sure to challenge you.  If you think it's all a bit easy then just wait until your instructors invite you to be passengers in their own rally race – witness first class off roading by a professional!

Skydive

Riga really is like a giant playground, but action isn’t just limited to the ground – take to the sky and jump from a plane at the height of two miles.  This heart pounding activity is for anyone who craves adventure, but don’t fret, as it’s not a solo jump! In tandem with a skydiving expert, you will experience the ultimate adrenaline rush; after a quick training session (approximately 30 minutes long) you’ll be freefalling before you know it.  Travel at terminal velocity until you reach an altitude of 1,200 metres, at which point your jump master will pull open the canopy, giving you another six minutes to enjoy the amazing bird’s eye view of Riga!

Nightlife

Riga has garnered a reputation over recent years as being a bit of a hedonistic hideaway and the party capital of the Baltic States.  The party really gets going on Thursday night and usually carries on until Sunday morning, from small basement bars full of hipsters to swanky skyline bars full of those wishing to live the life of an aristocrat....at least for one evening.  Of course once you’ve stumbled you’re way through the pubs there are a plethora of clubs for you to see the night out in – which is not hard in the summer as the sun sets for just an hour!

Skyline Bar

The perfect place to start your night, the Skyline Bar, found on the 26th floor of Radisson Blu Hotel, is an urban and hip place which offers a great view of the city.  It is hard not to feel like Jay Gatsby as you a sip cocktail after you’ve been led to the 26th floor by a lift attendant.  If you want to add a little more Vegas to your visit why not stop by the casino which also has a 24 hour sushi restaurant. 

La Rocca

The club La Rocca Revolution is the biggest nightclub in Latvia (and we understand that might not be the grandest statement...a bit like a group of dwarfs fighting over who’s the tallest but still.)  When the weekend comes to Riga, Club La Rocca Revolution is definitely the place to be! The club’s unique design will take you to a different world filled with beautiful club goers dancing to the latest beats and partying like there’s no tomorrow.

Black Magic Bar

Riga Black Balsam is the famous national brand name.  The dark and astringent liqueur made of 24 herbs remains unchanged for 250 years.  The balsam is good when drinking alone or as part of hot drinks and cocktails.  It brings special flavour to chocolate products and deserts; it is used with coffee or to soak candied fruits.  This is the best bar to sample this Latvian delicacy!

Studio 69

Another one for all you hipsters, Studio 69 is awash with people who like to add a little razzle dazzle and fashion to their well-heeled lives.  Club Studio 69 is a luxury lifestyle experience in its own right incorporating casino, restaurants and a spa centre, and has taken inspiration from classic Moscow clubs.  A nice atmosphere is found round each corner with great shows and dancers, top DJ’s and an interesting mix of European and Russian culture in a pampered venue.

The Club

Found in the heart of the Old Town, lies the imaginatively named “The Club”.  It is a popular late drinking hole for those who want to drink until the early hours and mingle with up to a 1,000 other clubbers.  Decent vibes can be found here thanks to its distinguished style; every night sees a new theme, whether it’s live shows, concerts or a good old fashioned disco.  With four bars, two dancefloors and seven different levels – The Club does exactly what it sets out to do.

Accommodation

So when you are not busy strolling through the Old Town, you will need somewhere to rest your head come the end of the day (or night).  Fortunately, there are a whole host of options available which offer cheap options for you and your party and can cater everything from organised pub crawls to days out.  Here are a couple of the best to look out for.

Friendly Fun Franks

An Australian/British/Latvian owned hostel, this option is ideally located in the historical and most beautiful area of Old Riga, within walking distance to all major attractions, bars, restaurants, night clubs and museums.  All the rooms overlook the picturesque Daugava River, with panoramic views of the city beyond.  Best of all however, each guest is given a complimentary bottle of ‘Zelta’ on arrival – Lativia’s national beer!

Amber Rooms

All guest accommodations at this hostel feature thoughtful amenities to ensure an unparalleled sense of comfort.  When you are not recovering from the night before there are a host of recreational offerings which ensure you have plenty to do during your stay.  Whatever your purpose of visit, Amber Rooms Hostel is an excellent choice for your stay in Riga.  The price includes delicious Latvian food breakfast in the nearby restaurant (Amber Way Tavern), which is located just a few minutes away.