Riga has changed over the past years. Since my first visit in 2012, a whole lot of the city has been modernised, made more attractive for tourists as well as for commuters. If you come to see the city for the first time this year, you could absolutely tell at first glance that it is a European city, with a European heritage. Back in 2012, it still had the vibe of an Eastern city with a western touch. It was still dawning into a new era, even though it has already been part of the European Union since 2004. The strides it has taken since then are exemplary, though.
Now the cobblestone streets are cleaner and have modern “bike lanes”, Vecrīga, the old town has been tidied up and optimised for tourists, and shops and malls have all the bells and whistles of western shop malls, including all brands you would recognise in the west.
Riga is also in the heart of Latvia. Getting to any other spot in the country is easy and relatively fast. I’ve been to Ljepāja at the west coast and to Arakste, which is at the Estonian border in the north-east. I cannot remember taking longer than three and a half hours in any direction. Maybe it just feels that short because there is so much to see on the way. If you are a nature lover that is.
Riga Has Become My Second Home
I love Riga. I have been here countless times, have seen the hot spots and the secret locations, went the tourist trails and the native passageways. I owe my knowledge of the city mostly to my girlfriend of course, my friends and family here, but also to my curiosity to find spots and take pictures of objects and scapes neither tourist nor native might appreciate. Riga has endless amounts of them, and strolling around to find them is being well rewarded almost every time. Especially the clash of the Modern architecture, Jugendstil and affordable yet run-down homes of times past is creating a colourful contrast that is hard not to like. Gritty and glamorous unfold well next to another.
Then there is the people: While I wholeheartedly agree that Latvia has the most beautiful women in the world (and they flaunt it!), with my girlfriend right among them, it is also true that they are hard to come by. They are definitely not as touchy or warm as the Spanish, Swedish or South American that I got to know. They have a distance, a private space that seems wider than what you might be used to, but not as extreme as the Finnish you might know from memes across the web (f. ex. on facebook. It’s exactly my flavour and makes them so very likeable. If I am not in the mood to talk about anything, and they are not in the mood, the silence does not feel awkward in any way. It is almost comforting even. They also share the same longing for seclusion that I find myself in from time to time. So if you made a real friend in Latvia, it feels like a little achievement, something really special you want to cherish. Very unlike the overwhelmingly emotional oh-my-god-I-love-you-so-much-my-friend-we-are-just-besties-for-life-now behaviour of Americans. Personally, I am just not like that. So for people like me, Latvia is social interactivity heaven.
AN OPEN GATE TO THE WEST
If you take the metaphor of Riga being a room with doors to the east and to the west, you will find that the door to the east is wider open than the one to the west. Of course that is mostly because of Latvia’s history, which has been part of the Soviet Union ever since, although it was considered “independent” since 1918. Opening to the west only became possible since Latvia’s recognised full independence in September 1991, that’s why until this day you can of course still see the soviet influence everywhere.
Getting to Latvia leaves you little options. You will most likely fly there, but you can also take a ferry across the Baltic Sea or even reach it by car. Getting there by train is complicated, because the Latvian railway is built on the eastern standard of train track gauge, which is wider than the western one, so you will have to change trains and tracks in a city that has both standards.
A high speed train track, the Rail Baltica, has just left its planning phase and will supposedly not be taken into service before 2026. It will then allow a high speed train connection from Brussels to Riga, and even further to Helsinki. In terms of infrastructure, Latvia will have finalised its connection to the west only then. Both doors to Riga will be open just as wide. Not that they would have to be. Maybe because there is still a small distinction, that’s exactly the reason why the city has its own, particular flavour.