Published: February 13th 2007February 7th 2007
Riga is the capital of Latvia and it is a charming city. Our hostel (The Argonaut) was in the centre of “Old Town” which is where most of old architecture and tourist sights are located. Old Town is full of medieval buildings mixed with very modern cafes, shops and bars. When you walk through the streets of Old Town, you feel as though you’ve stepped into a different era…until you see a big sign advertising cheap beer!
We arrived around 11 pm on Wednesday night (the 7th) and decided to grab a bite to eat as we had spent most of the afternoon and evening on trains, buses and a plane. A dumpling shop was still open and this was our first experience with how some places charge for food in Riga - the food is weighed and you pay a certain fee per weight. It’s not like this in all places, but it’s not uncommon. Another custom we noticed right away is how people handle money: people don’t like to hand each other money hand-to-hand, they use little plates when money is exchanged. Again, there are places where transactions are completed the same as in North America,
but many places prefer this method of payment.
Even though Riga is becoming more and more touristy, it’s not one of those places where you can walk around alone, especially at night. Old Town is fairly safe because it’s where the rich go to party and the tourists spend most of their time. The contrast between Old Town and the rest of the city is pretty stark - Old Town is colourful and full of life; the outskirts are more drab and tired looking. It’s been 15 years since Latvia gained its independence from Russia, but you can still feel that the transition isn’t complete. We got stared at a lot in some areas and not just because we were travelling as a group - I especially got a lot of stares and when I looked around I realized why: Latvia isn’t home to a lot of minorities :).
We visited gorgeous churches, historical points of interest, a museum about the occupation of Latvia, the City Market (which is said to be the biggest in Europe) and many different restaurants, cafes and bars. One really great thing about travelling to a place that is just beginning to become
Built in 1698 during the Scandinavian occupation of Latvia
a popular tourist destination is that things are still fairly cheap. A pint of beer is between 0.90-1.80 LVL, which is equivalent to $2-4 CDN. Meals in cafes (full meals) were around $4 CDN. We went to a Latvian opera on the second night because it was really cheap (approx. $14 CDN) and it was my first opera experience! The opera house was restored recently and it’s really pretty (as you can see from the pictures). The opera was good. I enjoyed the singing and the orchestra was great, but the story dragged a bit and wasn’t very interesting. This could’ve been due to the very poor translating (there were subtitles), but even when I wasn’t looking at the subtitles, the acting didn’t capture my interest for the entire 3 hours. I enjoyed it though, I’m definitely glad I went.
My favourite buildings were the ones from medieval times. “The Three Brothers” are some of the oldest in the city. The “White Brother” was built in the 15th century and is the only surviving structure from that period. One of my other favourite structures was the Freedom Monument, which withstood Soviet rule and is a symbol of independence, unity
Clockwise from me: Wooden friend 1, Catherine (Netherlands), Marjukka (Finland), Wooden friend 2, Tahir (Canada), Wooden friend 3
and liberty to Latvians. We happened to pass by a “medieval” restaurant while we were walking to a pub and it intrigued Tahir (a Canadian from Toronto who is also studying in Jyväskylä), so we stopped in for a drink. I’m not sure if the restaurant was authentically from medieval times, but if it wasn’t, the owners did an excellent job of making it look like it was. It wasn’t a cheesy medieval theme that you sometimes see in movies - there were no jousting shows or other forms of entertainment along those lines. The staff was dressed in medieval costumes, there were no electric lights and the furniture was all made to look as though it were from that time period, but it was actually pretty relaxing. We stayed for a beer and then made our way to another pub before eating some traditional Latvian food, which I enjoyed. Latvians eat hearty food - lots of meat, fish, potatoes, rice, etc. It was tasty though, not bland like some Finnish food can be.
One of the most interesting things about Riga to me was all of the different contrasts. Old vs. new architecture; colourful vs. drab areas; posh
looking restaurants that were decorated nicely vs. poor service. Latvians know how to present things well (dishes were always garnished very nicely and restaurants had really nice décor), but the service took forever sometimes. It’s not that we were impatient either - sometimes we had to wait close to 20 minutes in a close to empty restaurant just to order drinks. Overall though, I thoroughly enjoyed my stay and would definitely recommend a visit to Riga if you’re ever in this part of the world.
Oh yes, I almost forgot. The nightlife in Riga is great. There are lots of pubs for those who just want to hang out and have a few drinks and there are really busy and nice nightclubs for those who want to dance. There are also tons of places that are in between. Riga is not a place where you get bored!
As fun as my stay in Riga was, it was nice to get home (and I do think of Jyväskylä as home now). I’m a big fan of hostelling because you get to meet lots of interesting people and if you find the right hostel, the atmosphere is very warm and
Can't say I've ever been on one that needed to be pushed by the person operating it...
homey. However, there are definite downsides to hostelling (e.g. snorers - I had one who kept me up all night on my last night, getting locked out of your room if you forget your key and waiting for the shower!). It was so nice to curl up in my bed in Kortepohja and have a good night’s sleep again!
A small update on my time in Jyväskylä: my courses are fully underway now and I have a lot of work to keep me busy (it doesn’t feel like a vacation anymore!). I’m taking Survival Finnish (which ends next week), a Women’s Studies course about the position of women in Finnish society, Introduction to Intercultural Communication and Cross-Cultural Psychology. I’m enjoying all of my courses at the moment, but that may change once crunch time comes (i.e. exams and final assignments/papers).
I hope all you students back home a good Reading Week and I hope you’ve enjoyed my description of Riga!
There are more photos below