At first glance, Riga, Latvia, seems more Scandinavian and less Soviet-influenced than Vilnius, its neighbor to the south. That's odd since over half of Riga's residents are Russian, and the remainder Latvian. The result is two communities appearing to lead completely separate lives: they read different newspapers, listen to radio and television stations broadcast in their own languages, and have discrete neighborhoods. Yet, these two distinct cultures harmoniously co-exist. As I was sitting in the hotel lobby, I couldn't help but notice how easily the person behind the front desk switched effortlessly between Latvian, Russian, and even English.
Cat House, Old Town Riga
Me Standing in Front of Riga Central Market
What makes Riga special is its architecture, from the Northern Gothic and Art Nouveau, to the utilitarian influences of Soviet-style design. In addition, Riga's picturesque cobblestone streets, well-preserved buildings, and abundance of cafes and restaurants makes it one of Europe's hot summer destinations. Riga has a little bit of this and a little bit of that. It has the architecture and feel of Prague, the style and sophistication of Paris, and the cosmopolitan flavor of Berlin. And even though it's pricier than Vilnius, it's still a real bargain compared to the rest of Europe.
Old Town Riga Afternoon
Like Vilnius, visiting Riga in November has its shortcomings. The days are short, and the bracing cold wind from the Baltic Sea can make outdoors unpleasant. Yet, I'm not sure I would enjoy Riga as much if I had visited during the summer. There are fewer people now, and it's easier to see the beauty of the city without the crush of tourists.