Latvia – the Good, the Bad and the Not so Ugly

The Good

Latvia, a small nation situated in the heart of the Baltic States, sat very comfortably between neighboring Estonia and Lithuania. The country’s location, cultural vibrancy and many attractions are proving to make its capital city Riga, a popular tourism destination for corporate events and weekend breaks.

Riga

Riga

According to data from In the first quarter of 2014, Central Department of Statistics, Riga accommodated 193,698 foreign guests in the first quarter of 2014, which is 19% more than same time last year. Most of the tourists that stayed in Riga hotels and other accommodation facilities were from Russia – 31%, followed by Estonia – 10%, Lithuania – 8%, Norway and Germany – 6%, Great Britain – 5% and Finland – 4%. The biggest increase in the amount of tourists came from Poland (56%), Germany (42%) and Great Britain (27%).

The attraction of Riga

So why is the tourism to Riga increasing? Well for a start, there are many exciting and memorable things to do in Riga and surrounding areas. It is an ideal location for a group of friends or a company incentive to have fun and engaging travel experience. The city caters for all interests and desires, from the thrill of shooting an AK47 in a disused Nuclear bunker to enjoying a 5 star spa experience in Jurmala: a famous beach resort once known in German as Riga Strand, or Beach of Riga.

Riga is not only a popular city to visit in summer months; many visit Latvia to feel the sensation of a real Baltic winter. The experience of walking from VecRiga (old town) across the frozen River Daugava, (approximately 500m in width) to Pardaugava is feat many thought impossible! However, the opportunity to bobsleigh with an Olympian is one that is unique to visitors to Latvia and one not for the faint hearted. (Click here to our Bobsleigh video).

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Challenge gravity at Sigulda

Sigulda, a town one-hour drive from Riga, is an adrenalin junkie’s paradise. Here you can hit 4 G’s as you hurtle down the bobsleigh track, bungee jump off a cable car and experience the feeling of weightlessness as you fly in the vertical wind tunnel.

Nightlife

Riga’s nightlife is still one of the biggest reasons to visit for both corporate and leisure breaks. There is a popular T-shirt in Latvia: ‘Riga – 365 Friday nights a year’ and for many visitors from Scandinavia and Western Europe it is unlikely you would have experienced anything like it. Since Latvia’s independence from the Soviet Union, in 1991, much of Latvia’s freedom of expression and creativity has exploded on to the nightlife scene.

Many of the restaurants, bars and clubs cater for a stylish and trendy crowd who simply love to have a hedonistic experience! The good times roll on to the early hours and if you are visiting during the summer months it is very likely that you will not see any darkness. If time is limited on your visit to Riga, some companies run bar and club excursions that ensure you are always in the right places at the right time.

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One of Riga’s many clubs

One evening – two cultures

What adds to the spice of Riga’s nightlife is that you get to experience two cultures – Latvian and Russian – in one evening. The Russian-speaking population of Latvia rose from 12% to 40% between 1935 and 1989, mainly thanks to the post-war Soviet occupation, and now constitutes to around 50% of Riga’s 700,000 population. The two communities have not integrated extensively, each have its own schools, media and public figures but many of the larger clubs and bars you will see both cultures mixing.

It is very hard to imagine a Riga of 1991 in relation to today’s Riga. In Soviet times there was only 2 cafés in Riga’s old town, now the concentration, range and quality of café’s and restaurants in Riga would give any cosmopolitan capital city a run for their money. From hipster coffee shops to sushi bars, traditional medieval restaurants lit by candlelight to panoramic restaurants shining with the stars, Riga’s restaurants will suit all tastes and diets.

Culinary tourism and Black Balzam

Culinary tourism is becoming more popular and the Latvian Tourism and Development Agency are marketing Riga as a ‘Delightfully delicious destination’ and helping to promote culinary events and uniting restaurants in Riga who are actively attracting visitors to sample many of the local delicacies.

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Beer Degustation – allows your senses to travel through Latvia

Latvia’s national drink, Riga Black Balsam, certainly touches areas other drinks fail to reach but should you not dare risk this ‘exotic’ spirit we would recommend you sample one (or perhaps a few) of the many locally brewed beers. Each of the 4 regions of Latvia, Zemgale, Latgale, Vidzeme and Kurzeme have a flagship beer as well as many smaller breweries producing beers to satisfy your thirst. Honey beers, dark beers and live beers as well as the opportunity to bath in beer in a spa resort in Valmiera.

If you like beer you will love Latvia but should you not have time to travel to the 4 corners of Latvia you can experience a beer tasting experience in Riga with accompanying local treats and delicacies. (Click here to watch our Latvian Degustation video)

The Improved Hospitality

One of the positive outcomes from the 2008 economic crisis is the great improvement of service within the hospitality industry. Back in the ‘boom years’ there was no expectation for good service and people would leave tips no matter how their meal was served or tasted. When times got tough and disposable incomes shrank people started to become more vigilant on their spending. In combination with more attention and training in to service level requirements, Latvia’s hospitality industry has blossomed with this eagerness to earn gratuities rather than simply expect them.

Latvia has some of the lowest wages in the European Union, therefore should you experience good service a 15% tip would be greatly appreciated.

The Bad

As you walk around Riga you will be able to see evidence of past wealth lining the streets, Riga has the highest density of Jugendstil- Art Nouveau- architecture in Europe, yet it is not symbolic to the nation’s current financial and employment woes.

The Latvian economy suffered one of the sharpest downturns in the world during the crash of 2008-10. The economy shrank by more than one-quarter, in large part because the central bank insisted on keeping the local currency, the lat, pegged to the euro. The economy has improved since 2010 and the growth was one of the fastest one in Europe and considered a success by IMF. But although the economy increased with 5,5% in 2011 and 5,6% in 2012 the unemployment is still high and the GDP remains on the same level as before the crisis.

Population of Latvia

Population of Latvia

Emigration problem

With low wages and few job opportunities it is understandable Latvia is on the verge of a demographic disaster’. A 2011 survey revealed the Latvian population shrank from 2.2 million in 2000 to just 2.0 million as of 2011 — plunging 13.0 percent in little more than a decade. Although the emigration has stabilized a bit since the recovery of the economy after 2010 the shrinking population is still a fact. Worse still, if nothing is done to tackle the exodus, the population could drop to 1.6 million by 2030, according to a recent economy ministry study.

Migration studies by University of Latvia Professor Mihails Hazans show the country is becoming demographically top-heavy. “Most emigrants are young — about 80 percent of recent emigrants are under 35 — hence the remaining population is ageing faster,” said Hazans, whose studies have referred to the trend as a “demographic disaster”.

“Do we have some hope that they will come back? Unfortunately not very much. After three years the number who are planning to come back in the short run drops from ten to three percent.”

More babies

Initial suggestions by a special task force on demography set up by centrist Prime Minister Valdis Dombrovskis are aimed at boosting the birth rate and coaxing scientists to come home. Improving access to kindergartens and reviving fertility programme funding that was slashed during the crisis top the task force’s list of priorities. My partner was in 2011 granted a 300% increase in monthly governmental support for our child (30LS-45 euros a month to 100LS-140 Euros a month).

Dombrovskis has also floated the idea of using EU funds to give expatriate scientists good reasons to return. “I see that as an issue of the brain drain,” Dombrovskis told AFP, pointing to the current dearth of funding for high-tech research. “But the main reason behind emigration is the economic situation: lack of jobs, and lack of well-paid jobs. That’s what we need to concentrate on if we need to deal fundamentally with emigration.”

The Not so Ugly

Latvia prides itself as having in many people’s eyes the most beautiful women in the world. Should this not be the biggest temptation to visit this wonderful nation then I don’t know what is? What is the magic secret behind their looks? I am not really the person that should be answering this but I did have a go at explaining a few theories in a blog post a few years ago.

Travel Out There goes Blonde in 2011

Travel Out There goes Blonde in 2011

European Capital of Culture 2014

This year, 2014, is a year that has been anticipated for many years by Latvia. The introduction of the Europe took place on 1st of January 2014 and Riga is the European Capital of Culture. Neighboring Baltic capitals Vilnius and Tallinn have already held the Capital of Culture title, in 2009 and 2011, respectively, with varying degrees of success.

There are six main themes, such as the arts, history and national identity, which the European Capital of Culture events and entertainment is reflecting. More than 100 cultural events will take place during the year with the biggest number of events placed in August. On the 9-19th of August the world’s biggest choir music festival will take place in Riga, with participants from 73 different countries. The international Opera festival in Sigulda has been a yearly event for the last 22 years, and this year’s edition, taking place on 1.3 August, will be even more spectacular than usual.

Sigulda Opera Festival

Sigulda Opera Festival

This article was originally written by our CEO, Austin Nicholas. He has lived in Riga for over 10 years and has founded Travel Out There (the good), have yet to master the Latvian language (the bad) and have made his contribution in to trying to improve Latvia’s demographic dilemma. (the not so ugly). Should you want to know more about Austin please do not hesitate to contact him or check out his google profile – Austin Nicholas

Where is Riga?

There is one ‘Riga’ outside the borders of this planet. However, since space tourism is not so well developed right now and I’m not sure that the small planet which got the name ‘Riga’ way back in 1971 has anything to offer you, I welcome you to land back on Planet Earth and open the map of Europe.

Before we find out where is Riga, we have to clarify where Latvia is (we are back on Planet Earth – no places out of reach now). Some people will tell you that Latvia is a country in Northern Europe, others will say – Eastern Europe. Great! Excited by the North?  Want to know what life is like in Eastern Europe? Perfect! Latvia is a country in North-Eastern Europe, along the shores of the Baltic Sea. Finland, Sweden, Germany, Poland – all share the same sea with Latvia. On the other side of Latvia, you might get lost looking at the huge mass of Russia, so get back to the left side of Russia, where it has the border with Baltic States – Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania. Here we are – in the middle of 3 Baltic States you see one country called Latvia.

Where is Riga? ‘The City of Inspiration’, ‘The Capital of the North’, ‘Nordic Paris’ – these are other names for this city.  In Latvian, its called Rīga – with a long ‘i’.  In other languages you will find this city as Riqa, Рыга, Рига, Ρίγα, Riia, Ríge, Ryga, Riika… That’s the city founded way back in 1201, and celebrating it’s 810th anniversary this year.

The biggest city in Baltics, one of the oldest cities in Europe, the main industrial, business, culture, sports and financial center in the Baltics – Riga is located in the heart of Latvia – next to the Baltic Sea (Gulf of Riga). You can reach Riga by airplane – the biggest airport in the Baltics is located here. Little Baltic sea cruises have become quite popular to reach Riga from Nordic countries. From Russia, for example, it’s quite easy to come by train – you will get out right in Riga city centre.

Of course, all roads in Latvia lead to Riga and it is not only because Riga has always been the capital city. It has a lot to offer: from medieval Old Town to Art Nouveau architecture, famous opera, sparkling night life, arts and adventures. Did you know that this year Latvia was chosen from a pool of 160 candidates in the third annual survey as one of the Top 10 countries for adventure travel? Have you heard that Riga is included among the Top 5 European cities for summer travel? While the capital of the neighbour country Tallinn (in Estonia) is the reigning European Capital of Culture 2011, Riga is getting ready for 2014 when it will carry this title. Riga is where the magical Riga Black Balsam was made more than 250 years ago and definitely the best place where to taste it.

If you were initially searching for the planet named Riga and wanted to go there, I would strongly advice you to change your plans – let the space tourism develop – the city called Riga (in Latvia, Baltic States, Europe) is getting more and more popular every day, and it’s not without a reason. Where is Riga? If you are on Planet Earth, Riga is close and within easy reach!

Written by Kristine Fedotova author of Your Friend in Riga

Slider & Title image courtesy of Roy Marvelous