Rick Steves: Hop away to Riga - Latvia's powerhouse
The Baltic countries are a close destination to seek holiday refuge out of Moscow. Rick Steves explains that this Latvian capital still carries the Russia scene, but with goodwill and charm.
Riga's tall 19th- and 20th-century buildings give Latvia's capital a cosmopolitan feel and vertical accent unusual in the Baltics. Riga is the Baltics' closest attempt at a metropolis.
In Riga, Russians outnumber Latvians. This ethnic mix is potentially the Baltics' most explosive, yet you'll see very little friction. Life goes on in two languages. Latvia's major newspapers, such as the daily Diena, come out in both Latvian and Russian. Latvians seem to switch effortlessly and naturally from one language to the next.
Up until 2008, Latvia's recipe for goodwill is a healthy economy. Sturdy Riga had muscled far ahead of most of the ex-USSR. The Latvian currency is rock-solid. Riga, the largest city in the Baltics, is on the verge of an economic boom.
German merchants and Bishop Albert of Bremen made Riga the center of Baltic commerce and Christianity when they founded the city in 13th century. Under the czars, 19th-century Riga was the Russian Empire's busiest commercial port.
Under Soviet rule, Riga became an important military center and later, because of its high standard of living, one of the favoured places for high-ranking military officers to retire.
Visit Latvia before it becomes just another European country. You won't need a visa, just your passport. If you fly into Riga, avoid taking a taxi into town from the airport -- you'll get ripped off. Instead, take the cheap local bus into town. If you're arriving by bus from the other Baltic capitals, check out the information window at Riga's bus station: they charge about a nickel for questions and a dime for "complicated" questions.
In Riga, pick up the handy information booklet Riga In Your Pocket at kiosks, newsstands, or the tourist information office. Updated bimonthly, it's loaded with in-depth info and maps. For an abridged version, log onto their website at www.inyourpocket.com.
Take a couple of days to explore Riga. Its walkable Old Town, hugging the bank of the wide Daugava River, hoards the main museums and monuments. Riga's Old Town is the least medieval in the Baltics. The grand churches, moat, bastion, fragments of the city walls, a couple dozen houses, and cannonballs embedded in the Powder Tower are all that survive from the Middle Ages.
The Old Town's formidable Dome Church dates from 1211. Its inscriptions recall Latvia's German Lutheran heritage, and in fact the crypt holds what's left of Bishop Albert of Bremen, who started it all. The church has a first-class organ and hosts top-notch choirs. Concert tickets are cheap: usually less than 2 lats. St. Peter's Church, also in the old town, offers celestial views from its observation deck.
Pick up a picnic at the lively Central Market. Filling and sprawling around the large former Zeppelin hangars, this colorful, photo-friendly market gives you a real insight into local life.
Riga's State Museum of Latvian Art is the best in the Baltics. Dating from 1910-1940, the Latvian art collection concentrates the strange brew of influences that stirred Latvia at that time: French impressionism, rural romanticism, German design, European internationalism, Latvian nationalism, and Russian propaganda.
For an unflinching look at Russian domination, tour Riga's Occupation Museum. English captions tell the relentless tale of Latvia's bleak history from 1940 to 1990, including the deportation of Latvians to Siberia. Step into the replica of a gulag barracks and see prisoners' letters home written on strips of birchbark.
In the heart and soul of the Old Town, you'll find Latvia's Freedom Monument. Dedicated in 1935, it was strangely left standing by the Soviets, though KGB agents apprehended anyone who tried to come near it. Now locals lay flowers on its foundation. Riga's most beloved landmark, the symbol of an independent Latvia, stands proud and tall as an exclamation point.
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