Riga Cruise Port

Port of Riga: An Overview

Riga, founded in 1201, is the geographical center of the Baltic States and arguably one of Northern Europe's best kept secrets ... tourism is just now beginning to boom in what's quickly becoming one of Europe's top cultural capitals.

The city of 800,000 on the Daugava River is the capital of Latvia, a country finding its place in a new world after being occupied for 50 years (1941 to 1991), first by the Nazis and then by the Soviet Union. Today, visitors will see a city in transition: women embracing fashion trends, men following the latest news on American sports teams, and a Caribbean-themed bar serving mean mojitos (while patrons stare at a portrait of Fidel Castro). School kids are learning English as a second language instead of Russian.

Today, Riga is a happening place boasting big-city attractions for visitors. Opera, music and ballet flourish (even during Soviet times, Riga was known for its arts offerings). The city has museums that house displays on everything from art and textiles to fire-fighting and the history of medicine. Old Riga, the historic center of the city, has been recognized by UNESCO, and the city's Art Nouveau architecture is among the finest in Europe.

Nightlife is active, with hopping bars and dance clubs open until 6 a.m. on weekends. A large number of restaurants serve up an impressive diversity of international options (Russian, Armenian, Tibetan, Tex-Mex). There are shopping malls and hotels springing up, and new cars clog the streets.

But perhaps most intriguing is how the city still feels like a bridge between the Old Soviet and modern Europe -- our advice is to get here now before things rapidly change.

Hanging Around

The ferry terminal has a small cafe and a money exchange office, but nothing else of interest.

Don't Miss

Old Riga is on the UNESCO World Heritage list for its diverse architecture, which ranges from Gothic to Baroque to Classicism to Art Nouveau. You can spend hours exploring the twisting cobblestone streets and alleyways, viewing historic buildings that have for the most part been restored from bombings during World War II, including the converted Jacob's Barracks, now home to trendy shops and cafes. See the old city wall (which dates from the 13th century and Three Brothers -- Maza Pils, 17, 19 and 21), the oldest stone residences of the city. Street performers and artists are in the various squares. Among the historic churches, the Dome Cathedral (Coma laukums, Tuesday - Friday and Sunday, 11 a.m. - 4 p.m.; Saturday 10 a.m. - 2 p.m.), originally founded in 1211 (it has been destroyed and rebuilt several times), is the largest house of worship in the Baltics and home to one of the largest organs in Europe.

The Art Nouveau buildings throughout the city serve up an exciting outdoor gallery of architecture. Many of the buildings were designed by Russian architect Mikhail Eisenstein, father of famous Russian filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein ("Battleship Potemkin"), and boast such flamboyant embellishments as half-naked women and lions. A good concentration can be found on Alberta Street. One of the best examples is the house at Stelnieku 4a, built in 1905; now home to the Stockholm School of Economics the building has been carefully restored to show off the flamboyant style including a magnificent circular interior staircase.

The city's Central Market (Centraltirgus) is interesting not only for its numerous food stalls and the general hustle and bustle, but also for the fact it occupies several huge buildings that were zeppelin hangars during World War I.

Particularly important to Latvians is the Freedom Monument (Brivibas and Raina, on the edge of Old Riga). An honor guard patrols the area and Latvians place flowers at the base of the monument, an act for which they may have ended up in Siberia during Soviet times. Nearby in the park known as Bastion Hill are memorial stones to five people killed by Soviet troops during the crackdowns in January 1991, right before the country's liberation.

If there is one must-do museum it is The Museum of the Occupation of Latvia (Stelnieku laukums 1; summer hours 11 a.m. - 6 p.m., daily). It's housed in an ugly, Soviet-built structure that was once a space honoring the Latvian Red Riflemen, and explains what life was like under the Nazis and Soviets in sometimes graphic, heart-wrenching detail. Exhibits explore the murder of 90 percent of the Latvian Jewish population by the Nazis and the deportation of tens of thousands of Latvians to the Soviet gulag. There are also exhibits on the fight for Latvian independence.

On the edge of the city (about 7.5 miles from the city center) the Open Air Ethnographic Museum (Brivibas gatve, 10 a.m. - 5 p.m.), founded in 1924, provides a look at traditional Latvian life with real farmhouses, fishing shacks, churches and other historical structures -- 90 in all -- transported to 200 acres of pretty, lakefront property. The buildings date from the 16th to 20th centuries. In summer, craftsmen do demonstrations and Latvian food and drink are served in the tavern.

Only about an hour from Riga, Jurmala Beach has been a favorite vacation destination for Rigans since around 1830. In addition to nice, sandy beaches are restaurants, cafes, hotels and casinos, as well as Livi, the largest waterpark in the Baltics. The city of Jurmala itself boasts charming, 19th- and 20th-century cottages -- and a great photo op.

For something completely different, head to the hilltop to see Turaida Museum Reserve, daily 10 a.m. - 6 p.m.), which is also about an hour outside the city. The area includes the medieval Turaida Castle (parts date to the 13th century). There is also a medieval cemetery and ancient church. From the largest castle grounds you can admire the very scenic views of the Gauja River valley.

Getting Around

By Taxi: Taxis are available at the pier. The city's transportation system includes trams, trolley cars and buses, and a ride anywhere is about 35 cents. You buy tickets from the conductor onboard. The Number 7, 5 and 9 trams go from the ferry terminal area (Ausekja), two stops to the center of the city.

By Car: Auto Europe is among car rental firms with downtown rental locations in Riga.

Lunching

Vecmeita Ar Kaki (Maza Pils 1, 750-85-64, 11 a.m. - 11 p.m.) is the inexpensive place to try beef stroganoff and other local favorites. It's in Old Riga across from Riga Castle.

The Amber Way Tavern (Torna 4, Jacob's Barracks, 732-12-60, 11 a.m. - 11 p.m.) is in a cozy cellar and offers a Latvian sample platter, accompanied by Latvian beer, served in a folksy atmosphere on long wooden tables.

The "in" crowd hangs at B-Bars (Doma Laukums 2, Old Riga, 722-88-42, 8 a.m. - midnight), where the interior is hip and the cocktails inviting, including various balzams concoctions -- the cuisine here is upscale, international.

Where You're Docked

Cruise ships dock at the ferry terminal on the Daugava River, and it's about a half-mile (15-minute walk) to Old Riga. Other sights of interest, such as the Art Nouveau district, require a taxi or public transportation, unless you take a shore excursion.

Watch Out For

There are easily avoidable strip clubs that have gained fame, especially among partying young Brits (prostitution is "illegal" but "allowed").

Currency & Best Way to Get Money

The national currency is the lat (LVL). There are 100 santimi in the lat. One Latvian lat is about $1.70. ATM's can be found at banks all around the city.

Language

The official language is Latvian. Russian is widely spoken, as is English (particularly by younger people). School children are now learning English as a second language rather than Russian.

Best Souvenir

Black Balzams is a potent alcohol that's the pride of Riga. Buy it in funky dark brown bottles. Considered medicinal, it's best enjoyed mixed with something -- ranging from berry juice, to champagne, to coffee. Other popular bring-home items include Soviet memorabilia, amber jewelry, Latvian national hockey team jerseys and colorful folk costumes.

For More Information

Visit Latvia's Official Tourism Site.
Cruise Critic Message Boards
The Independent Traveler

--by Fran Golden, Cruise Critic contributor
  • Riga: Seven Seas Voyager
    Hazmat Guy
    Not worth it. The city was much more modern than we expected, the weather was not great and the guide was hard to understand ... Read more
  • Riga: Serenade of the Seas
    Rom Com
    Riga was the best port. The city is lively and had lots to see-easy to get to by shuttle bus from the ship. Also the weather had finally cleared up. ... Read more
  • Riga: Marina
    Tea Snob
    Easy walk from where the ship was docked to the city center. Riga is our new favorite city.. The Art Noveau Museum was wonderful. Riiga's Art Noveau architecture werre beautiful to behold. ... Read more
  • Riga: Marina
    williebegoode
    If you like Art Nouveau you'll love this city. The old town is full of beautiful buildings and you can get just about any locally produced Latvian crafts and woolens there. ... Read more
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