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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.
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Other Baltic & Northern Europe Cruise Ports:
Aarhus • Amsterdam • Bergen • Bremerhaven • Copenhagen • Flam • Gdansk • Helsinki • Ilulissat • Oslo • Reykjavik • Riga • St. Petersburg • Stockholm • Svalbard • Tallinn • Travemunde • Trondheim • Visby • Warnemunde
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.
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.
The ferry terminal has a small cafe and a money exchange office, but nothing else of interest.
Watch Out For
There are easily avoidable strip clubs that have gained fame, especially among partying young Brits (prostitution is "illegal" but "allowed").
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.
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.
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.
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; www.occupationmuseum.lv). 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.
Been There, Done That
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., www.virmus.lv), 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 (www.jurmala.lv) 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 opp.
For something completely different, head to the hilltop to see Turaida Museum Reserve (www.turaida-muzejs.lv, 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 velley.
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.
Staying in Touch
Riga is extremely high-tech: There is Wi-Fi service in all kinds of places including recreation centers, hotels, cafes and even some car washes and gas stations. Double Coffee and Coffee Nation, with shops all around the city, are probably the most convenient places to log-on (rates about $1.60 per hour). If you don't have your own laptop, head to Internet Cafe Bilteks (20/22 Jekaba St.) and use their computers for $3.41 per hour.
For History Lovers: The Riga Jewish History tour takes you to important memorials including the site of the Big Choral Synagogue (once the largest in Riga) that burned down in 1941 with 300 people inside. The tour also includes the Old Jewish Cemetery, which dates to 1725. A major killing took place here in 1941, with the victims buried in a common grave. Then head to the outskirts of the city to the memorial site in Rumbula, where some 30,000 Jewish people were massacred and there is a tombstone (placed in the late 1960's) on the mass grave. Conclude the tour on an uplifting note with a visit to the city's one functioning synagogue.
Best Out-of-Town Choice: Head about 40 miles south of Riga to the region known as the "bread basket" of Latvia and see the ruins of Bauska Castle, a fortress dating to the mid-15th century. Then visit Rundale Palace, a beautiful Baroque palace, built in the 18th century and designed by the same architect who did the famous Winter Palace (home of the Hermitage) in St. Petersburg. The interior is decorated in 18th-century splendor and there is also an extensive French-style garden.
Best Specialty Option: Riga's sad Jewish history is highlighted in a poignant tour. See the site of the Great Synagogue, built in 1868 and deliberately burned to the ground with hundreds inside in 1941. A memorial in the form of a large gray stone was established at the site in 1988. Also visit the Jewish Hospital, dating to 1924 (and still in operation) and the Old Jewish Cemetery, dating to 1725, which became a mass grave when most of Riga's long-established Jewish population was killed at the hands of the Nazis in 1941. It is now a memorial park. Travel to Rumbula, on the outskirts of the city, where Jewish people from all over Europe were massacred by the Nazis -- in the late 1960's, a tombstone was placed at the site. Returning to the city, you can stop by the Jewish Museum and the only synagogue that still functions in Riga (it's located in the Old Town).
For More Information
Visit Latvia's Official Tourism Site.
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The Independent Traveler
--by Fran Wenograd Golden. Boston-based Golden, whose contributions to Cruise Critic include features, ship reviews and port profiles, is the travel editor of the Boston Herald and co-author of Frommer's Europe Cruises & Ports of Call.