Sunday, 17 January 2016

RĪGA, Latvia - A winter wonderland.

Writing this post from a British perspective, it’s safe to say that Latvia is not considered a typical holiday destination.  And I must admit that before my trip, I knew very little about the small Baltic nation.  So combined with the prospect of a cheap Ryanair flight, and a desire to learn more about this mystical country, I decided to take a trip to explore what Rīga, the Latvian capital, had to offer. 

Rīga's old town

For me, Rīga’s best attraction is its cute Old Town (‘Vecrīga’ in Latvian), situated on the eastern banks of the Daugava River.   Vecrīga consists of a labyrinth of narrow cobbled lanes and beautiful medieval buildings and is dotted with an abundance of impressive churches.  The best way to enjoy this part of the city is by putting the map away and letting yourself get purposefully lost – take your time exploring all the little squares and alleys as there are some real gems to be found.  The entire Old Town is protected as a UNESCO world heritage site, and can be easily explored on foot.

Rīga's old town

Rīga's old town

People (like myself) who get excited over pretty buildings will fall in love with Rīga.  The Latvian capital has acquired the nickname ‘Paris of the North’ for its abundance of flamboyant Art Nouveau architecture.  Each building is a work of art – many have intricate gargoyles and even statues incorporated into their ornate façades.  Art Nouveau is dotted all over the city, but the most impressive examples are clustered around Alberta iela in the Centrs district.

Art Nouveau on Alberta Iela

Art Nouveau on Strelnieku Iela

A short train ride from Rīga is Jūrmala, the largest coastal resort in the Baltics.  The name (pronounced ‘yoor-mala’) translates literally as ‘seaside’.  During the summer months, Jūrmala’s long sandy beaches attract crowds of tourists seeking the sun, but winter transforms the landscape into something more magical.  The area becomes very peaceful and in most winters, even the sea begins to freeze by mid-January.  The sight of the frozen sea is simply awe-inspiring – a very memorable experience.

Frozen Baltic Sea in Jūrmala
Typical Latvian wooden buildings in Jūrmala

Sub-zero temperatures are the norm in Latvia from late October through to early April and snow cover often persist for months at a time.  I visited in midwinter, and the Baltic weather certainly lived up to expectations.  I stepped off the plane into a winter wonderland.  If you are able to brave the frosty air and blizzards, the Latvian landscape is truly magical at this time of year.

Frozen Daugava River
A snowy train from Jūrmala to Rīga

I was very excited to discover the excellent nightlife in Rīga!  There is a huge selection of bars and clubs at very good prices – it’s a very social city.  I also found Latvian food very enjoyable – most dishes are very hearty and perfect for keeping you warm in the chilly weather.  Potato pancakes seemed to be a popular dish, which were often served with Latvian cheeses – these were incredible!

Whilst in Rīga, you are likely to come across Black Balsam, a popular vodka-based spirit made from a combination of herbs.  This drink is traditional to Latvia, and is served everywhere in the country.  It was historically developed by pharmacists as a remedy for colds and digestive ailments, but nowadays it’s more commonly drank socially.  The hostel reception welcomed me to Latvia with a shot of Black Balsam; it was from this point I knew I would love this country! 

Black Balsam of Rīga

Another thing which I loved about Latvia was the fact it was affordable.  This is an ideal destination for backpackers wanting to travel on a budget.  Prices around the country (even in the centre of Rīga) are very reasonable – your money will go a long way here compared to Western Europe. 

Winter Weather
Latvia, and its capital city Rīga are beautiful, unique and very affordable.  My knowledge of the Baltics was limited before this trip, but I’ve come back telling everyone to visit this fantastic country.  Whilst I can imagine Latvia would be worth visiting year-round, most tourists choose to visit in the summer, but I believe Latvia’s enchanting winter landscape is one of the country’s best kept secrets.

I've given Rīga a backpackability score of 5, making it very suitable for backpackers and budget travelers.  See this post for a more detailed explanation of the backpackability index.

As always, thank you for reading! 

Elis Griffiths. x

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