I visited Riga, Latvia on 2 seperate ocassions on my trip. They were almost exactly 2 months apart, so basically at the beginning of the trip, and then right before the end of the trip. The reason for a 2nd return visit, was I enjoyed the city and heck i was in Europe, alot closer than I would be to Latvia for a while, so why not get back again. Plus one of the discount airlines Air Baltic flies to/from Riga to where I had to goto next, Oslo very cheaply. The difference between my first trip early June and second trip early August was noticeable, more on that later.
My first visit I Arrived in Riga from Tallinn by Bus, not even a week into my trip and I learned one of my first lessons about efficient travel, BUY YOUR TICKETS IN ADVANCE. I walked all thru the construction of Tallinn to get to the bus station and check schedules and prices a day before I wanted to leave to Riga, yet I didnt buy the ticket at that time.. So when I go back the day and time i want to leave, naturally the bus is sold out and I had to wait another 3hrs at the bus station wasting time that could have been spent in Riga or Tallinn waiting on the bus. So in advance when you get the schedule info about when the bus/train/plane leaves buy your ticket then. My ticket was all of 200EEKs, which is about $16 for a 4-5hr ride between countries, it costs about as much to take a bus from Port Authority to JFK airport here in the city, so it was certaintly a good deal. The bus was as modern as any Greyhound/Chinatown bus here in the states and the ride was easy and comfortable.
The arrival in Riga was much easier than in my last stop, this is due to the fact I was staying about as close to the bus station as any place on my whole trip. It was about 300 meters away and simply had to cross the main street. I stayed at the Argonaut Hostel in Riga, which I would highly recommend. It was probably one of my top 3 Hostels during my entire trip. The location was a great factor for sure as it was located so close to the bus/train stations, along with being right in the old town. They had a good security system of a keycard the opened the front door after 10pm at night and also opened your room door at all times, along with small safes that you could put your own padlock on right next to your bed. While I wouldnt call it a bar, they had a fridge where you could buy a beer for about $1 and enjoy in their really nice common room which had free internet access, a 42" plasma TV and lots of couches to chill on, with books, maps, magazines and the like. Also the people were great, both in terms of the ones working there and the folks staying, it was a nice mix of people from all countries and in the evenings everyone would sit aruond have a beer or ten, talk about places they have been or going, trade stories and plan to hit the town at night, and oh what a town Riga is..
Riga is becoming known as the Sex Capital of Europe, or at least the Baltics. While I wouldnt go as far as saying that, it was obvious it was a popular destination for those horrible English Stag/Hen parties and all the debauchary that goes with them, also alot of "strip clubs" are around town, in fact one was located literally right under the Hostel, which made for a great last stop for that last beer you really dont need at 4am when hanging out. The stag parties are really bad, the first time in many on my trip I would experience drunken, costumed, stupid groups of Tourists, in fact they are so bad I am told the local ladies in Latvia basically stay at home on weekends to avoid these men.. Thus Riga is a city where every night you can find a party, so Monday thru Thursday are great nights to hang out. In my trip in June I honestly didnt notice the so called Sex Capital aspect of the town, my 3 nights there were peaceful and I wasnt distured on the street except for this one group of friendly guys hanging outside a place called Mary's that was a strip club and every night when I was coming home they were outside and trying to get me to come in.. I realized I would have been the only customer so I would chat them up and joke with them but realized their club was dead.. Yet in August when I went back, it was a bit more busy and hustling out on the street. Approaced by a few typical tourist scams, and also by men and or women, handing out flyers, trying to get you into their club, some were very pushy, others it was easy to ignore and just keep on walking. I must say in the 2 months I guess since August is high tourist season the activity picked up greatly.
The Old Town of Riga itself is a lovely place, the streets are narrow, few cars drive the town as there is a tariff for driving in the old town. While initally the names of the streets confused the heck out of me as they would change block by block, and no street went straight they all curved, after a few days and once you knew the landmarks to help guide you home, it was all good, I still walked around with a map on me as much as I could. All the resturants, museums, churches, and Bars are located in easy walking distance in the old town. There are also a few main squares where people have stands and sell local products, as with any city if you buy these in the main tourist areas you are going to pay twice or higher the prices than if you were to search out for the same items for sale away from the tourist centers. Here is a view of the Old Town from up high from the Church.
The currency in Latvia is the Lat. The exchange rate close to that of the British Pound, where the dollar isnt even worth 1 lat. In fact 1 US Dollar is about 55 cents(called Sentimes). Because of this and the fact the smallest paper money unit is the 5 lat note(about $9 US), you can have a pocketful of change that is worth something, so dont lose your change in this country. Why the Lat is such a strong currency I have no idea, it could be due to the fact that Latvia has one of the strongest economies in Europe with a GDP growth rate of 8.7%. They plan on switch to the Euro eventually but as of right now no formal plans are set for when that will take place. This could be one of the few countries due to good economy where the switch to the Euro does not make prices go up for the local people.
Bars, Beer and Women, yeah I know what you want to hear. Well lets start with the women... there are lots more lovely latvian ladies than there are men, some people estimate the ratio is about 3 to 1, I wouldnt say that high, but surely on a nice day in the Old Town, there seem to be women everywhere, and young blond women at that. In fact Latvia seems to have more blond women than the few Scandinvian countries that I visited, I never made it to Sweden or Denmark, but the Baltics have plenty of blondes. The women are not only tall and blond, but very nice and speak english, so no harm/no foul for going and approaching and talking to these women.
The Beer, while there are plenty of choices of Western beers, like Carlsberg, Heienken, etc the real action is in the local beers. Saku was a favorite of mine available in many bars, the prices were about 2Lat each on average, so that is a bit more expensive than other Baltic countries, but its possible to find it at some bars for 1.50Lat, still a bargin for a full half liter
The Bars, plenty of them scattered thru the old town, for the best info on the city and a great map check out the City Spy Map available for Riga and a few other cities, you can usually pick these up at Hostels and they fold up in a great size for your pocket, the best reference, and the writers are funny, witty and plugged into the local events. The most popular bar by far is probably Pulkvedim Neviens Neraksta(Nobody Writes to the Colonel) which is a resturant and at night a great club with 2 levels and a minidance floor, this was one of my favorite spots for sure. Located right in the old town, stumbling distance to most of the hostels.
Alright hope you enjoyed the wrap up and I do urge you to visit Riga, if you are ever in the area, a great place for history, and most of all will bring out the party animal in you.