The Best of Riga, Latvia

riga latvia dome hotel area

A Guide to Riga

Similar to many off-the-beaten-path places of the world, the Baltics are often overlooked by travelers, but are truly in a category of their own. Although technically part of Europe, the Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania have a distinct appearance much different than most European Nations. They barely miss the mark of fitting into Scandinavia and Russia. Despite obvious Russian influence from their past as a member nation of the USSR, the Baltic states have shown they value an identity of their own and customs diverse from Russian influence.

What to Know Before You Go

An Unknown Destination

Latvia is a place many travelers don’t venture to or talk about. Although it’s an off-the-beaten path destination, it is still quite easy to get to. By remaining off the main path of tourism, Latvia’s capital, Riga, has maintained its authenticity, and has become a must-visit for travelers seeking something new and different.

Safety

It’s no surprise that Riga hasn’t been on your bucket-list. Just 20 years ago Riga was much more dangerous than it is now. It was filled with gun violence and petty crime. However, today it's a gem of Eastern Europe, alongside Tallinn. Riga is just as safe as the rest of Europe and has just as much to offer!

riga latvia st peter church

History

Despite the lengthy history of Riga, much of what is visible to travelers today was built in the 1970’s and 1990’s, due to the destruction of the city during World War II, when Nazi Germany occupied Latvia. Even with much of the city destroyed, many older buildings survived, making the city an interesting mixture of new and old. After the fall of the Soviet Union, Latvia raced toward Europe. Latvia joined the EU and NATO in 2004, and became part of the eurozone in 2014.

Getting Around

The best way to get around Riga is by using Taxify, as Uber is not yet available. Hailing a regular cab on the street is not only inconvenient, but it’s also much more expensive than Taxify. Make sure to download the app before you leave. I also always suggest downloading the offline country map on Maps.me for any place you are visiting.

Where to Stay

park inn by radisson riga latvia

During my time in Riga, I stayed at the Park Inn by Radisson - Barona. The Park Inn is a residence and not a hotel. My one-bedroom apartment was stylish and featured its own kitchen which was fully equipped, making it easy to cook up a Latvian meal after visiting the Central Market.

park inn by radisson riga latvia

The Park Inn is just 10 minutes walking distance to Old Town Riga, making it easy to go in and out of the main city throughout the day. There was no parking at this location, but they were flexible enough to allow me to park at the other Park Inn location across town for free. There is also paid parking nearby.

I also loved the convenience of the asian restaurant downstairs, where I ordered up noodles every night for dinner, as well as a grocery store just a block away.

What to Do In Riga

Museum of the Occupation

The Museum of the Occupation is one of the highlights of Riga. Although it’s best to save museums for rainy days, my suggestion is to visit on your first day. Learning about the struggles that Latvia has overcome due to occupation by Russia and Germany, will help you have a greater understanding and appreciation for the unique culture that Latvia offers.

Free Walking Tour

Every day, there is a free walking tour of Riga. The tour meets at noon at St. Peters Church in Old Town Riga. The tour lasts 2.5 hours and walks guests through the city while explaining an in-depth history of Riga. Don’t forget to tip your guide, they are working for tips, not completely for free! My advice is to tip what you can, but 5-10 Euros is enough.

Take a Walk in the Park

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Some of the parks are absolutely beautiful and I highly suggest taking a walk through them even if it’s just for a few minutes. Bastion Hill Park has a small river running through it and is beautifully manicured. The park is just outside the Old Town of Riga, making it easy to walk to.

The Perfect Lunch Spot

The Dome Hotel and Spa is insanely beautiful. The building is an UNESCO world heritage site, built during the middle ages. Each room is special and unique with original paintings still on the wall. With their chef trained at a Michelin star restaurant, the Dome Hotel’s restaurant is one of the best in Riga, and climbs higher on the list each year.

dome hotel riga lunch ahi wasabi

There are two options for dining at the Dome Hotel, the cozy restaurant, or the rooftop terrace. My favorite dishes were the Fois Gras brulee´ and the Tuna tartare in crispy waffles with wasabi cream cheese. However, the most interesting ingredient was in the butter. Cannabis butter.

Riga Central Market

riga central market german hangers latvia

Riga’s market is the largest market in Europe- and is certainly one of the most unique. If you are expecting a wholesome European farmers market, consider yourself warned; this market is unapologetically honest and gritty. The market’s main structures are made of 5 old German Zeppelin hangers, making it impossible to miss.

Three Brothers

Not much is known about the Three Brothers other than they are the oldest stone residential buildings in the city of Riga dating back to the 15th century. They represent the different stages of architecture in Riga from medieval to Baroque. Today they house the Latvian museum of architecture, and since you will see them on just about every magnet and postcard of Riga, they are worth a visit.

House of the Blackheads

house of blackheads riga

Originally built in the 14th century, the House of the Blackheads was built to house members of a German merchants guild living in Riga. Like many things in Riga, the House of the Blackheads was destroyed by the Germans and demolished by the Soviets in the 1940’s. Later, in the 1990’s, the iconic structure was rebuilt. Above the entrance it reads “If I should fall, build me again”, and they did. Today, the House of the Blackheads is one of the most iconic structures in Riga.

Try Black Balsam

Coming to Riga without trying this take-your-breath-away herbal liquor, is like visiting Russia without trying vodka. It's a staple, a must-add to your list of Latvian adventures!

Black Balsam has a pretty high alcohol content and is made up of 24 ingredients. The local saying is "If you haven't tasted it, you have not been to Riga". 

Watch me try Riga Black Balsam in the video below!

What does Black Balsam taste like? Do the locals even drink this stuff? Find out!

Riga Tips:

Jaywalking

Unless you see a lot of locals doing it, then it’s okay. Apparently jay walking is punishable by a fine, and it’s not uncommon to be ticketed.

Smoking in Public

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In public places such as public parks, bus stops, and near buildings, smoking is not allowed. You need permission from the people around you to smoke, and if you are asked to put it out, you must. However, this law is similar in many other European countries.

Affordability

Riga, along with many other Baltic cities, has many other European destinations beat when it comes to affordability. From museum entrance fees to high end dining, car rentals and spa treatments, the Baltic's are extremely affordable for just about any traveler’s budget.

Driving in Latvia

Latvia has terrible drivers. They tailgate, pass at high speeds on blind curves, and run red lights. Be sure to take proper precautions, stay alert and be safe. Additionally, don’t speed. Speeding is checked by camera, as I found out after I arrived home when I was billed for a ticket by my rental car company.

Language Barrier

Due to the Russian occupation, travelers often feel there may be a language barrier when traveling to Latvia. Although most people in Riga speak Latvian and Russian, I found that many locals spoke English, making getting around the city and communicating effortless.

Why You Should Rent a Car

car rental riga

Renting a car is a great way to get around. If you are visiting the Baltics, renting a car is far more ideal than traveling by bus. It’s also very affordable to rent cars in the Baltic states. Five days in the highest luxury vehicle (a brand new Mercedes) in Tallinn was only about 500 Euro with EuropCar. (EuropCar is partners with Advantage in the US) The Baltics are a great place for affordable luxuries. Obviously an economy sized vehicle would have been even more affordable.

Day Trips from Riga

Day trips are another great reason to rent a car when traveling through the Baltics.

The Castle of Cēsis

castle of cesis in latvia riga day trip

Visiting the castle of Cēsis was one of my favorite activities in the entire Baltic region. There is a museum and a castle in the middle of the town. Once you arrive at the castle, you can enter from the lowest level (the dungeon, perhaps?) with a lantern and climb the stairs in the dark up to the top of the tower. Truly a great experience, but left me thinking, maybe I wouldn't have been cut out to be a princess with all those dark steps!

Jūrmala

The pine fringed beaches of Jūrmala, have long been a seaside playground for hundreds of years. Jūrmala is the Baltic’s version of the French Riviera. It’s the perfect place for a daytrip, or an overnight.

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Your Electronic Ban Survival Guide

Your Electronic Ban Survival Guide

The Electronic Ban for flights to and from the Middle East has been in place since early spring. Now, as the Trump administration pushes for another ban on electronics on flights to and from Europe, more passengers will be affected than ever before. I have compiled a list of things you will need to prepare for flights without your electronics.

Why The Philippines Should Be Your First Asian Destination

coconut bohol philippines

Many new travelers tell me they are looking to explore more continents, but they tell me that they have fears of the unexpected. I always have considered Europe the wading pool for most American travelers, and Asia is more like diving into the deep-end of the pool. That’s a pretty big leap, even for some of the boldest travelers.

cebu parasailing philippines

If you are looking to visit Asia, but have some hesitations due to language barriers and cultural differences, than you should start considering a visit to the Philippines. Many travelers seem to stick to Europe for the majority of their international travel as they find the idea of visiting an Asian country intimidating. Other Asian countries such as China, can be more difficult to navigate for less experienced or less adventurous travelers. In addition, they can also come with a bit more of a culture shock. The Philippines is a perfect place to get your feet wet as far as Asian travel is concerned. 

el nido philippines

No Language Barrier

If you speak English, you are already blessed as a traveler because you can get around pretty well in most countries. In the Philippines, you are even better off than most European nations, as just about everyone speaks English. This makes it extremely easy to read signs, get around and ask for directions. In many other Asian countries language barriers can cause stress to some travelers. You won't find this to be a problem while in the Philippines, as English is taught schools.

sunrise parasailing cebu philippines

There is Something For Everyone

It's often difficult for one country to appeal to everyone. However, with over 7,000 islands each with a unique culture and personality, there is something for everyone. With pristine beaches, nightlife, outdoor adventures, cultural activities and shopping– the Philippines is sure to please every type of traveler. Some islands are great for swimming with whale sharks, some have a great surf if you want to hang 10, and some islands have incredible SCUBA diving.

sunset bars el nido palawan philippines

Couples & Solo Travelers Will Both Enjoy

The Philippines can be experienced in so many different ways. It can be the perfect tropical romantic getaway or relaxing trip for couples. It’s a great place for solo travelers to immerse themselves in the culture and interact with locals as well as other travelers. It’s also great for adventure seekers thanks to incredible diving, and exotic foods.

scuba diving el nido philippines

The Food is Amazing

balut manila

The food in the Philippines is delicious. From the ensaymada's (a sweet bread), lechon and adobo, your tastebuds will always be entertained.  I really enjoyed Halo-Halo (pronounced "hallow-hallow"). It's a very sweet shaved ice dessert, topped with all types of goodies including ice cream, and then you top it off with condensed milk. 

If you are an adventurous eater, you can try balut, which is a fertilized duck egg that is hard boiled before reaching complete maturity. It tastes partially like an egg, and partially like a duck, and is definitely worth it for the experience. I found one to try at Market-Market in Manila.

It's Instagram Worthy

beach boats el nido palawan philippines

The islands are so beautiful that it will be sure to not only leave you with long lasting memories, but also some incredible pictures. El Nido on the island of Palawan is particularly stunning. Days in El Nido are spent island hopping and SCUBA diving, while evenings are spent at “sunset bars” enjoying sunsets that are arguably the best in the world.

island hopping philippines

Everyone is Extremely Kind

Adventuring out of your comfort zone can be a difficult task when traveling. Fortunately, the Philippine people are hands-down the most welcoming and hospitable people that I have come across throughout all of my travels. Filipinos are genuinely happy to have visitors in their country, as it’s often missed by the visitors and backpackers visiting Southeast Asia. Any local you encounter will take it upon themselves to ensure you have an enjoyable experience, as they are very proud to showcase their beautiful country.

cebu shangrila

Adventuring to new parts of the world can often be just as nerve-wracking as it is exciting. If you have been looking to visit Asia, the Philippines is a great place to start.

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Costa Rica: For Nature Lovers & Adventure Seekers

If you’re anything like me, you feel the best trips are the ones where you’re thrust into experiences you’d never be able to replicate at home. Costa Ricans have a saying: “Pura Vida,” which means pure life, and in Costa Rica it is not only a saying, but a way of life. 
 
After my second trip guiding a group, I can confidently say Costa Rica is the best place to crush comfort zones, be immersed in some of this planet’s most incredible ecosystems, and experience the unique, local Pura Vida lifestyle.

Voted the World’s Happiest Country in 2017, Costa Ricans have many accomplishments to be proud of. In 2015, the country was able to produce 99% of its electricity using renewable resources, and they continue to make strides toward their goal of being carbon neutral by 2021. All of their efforts are directed toward saving their incredible ecosystems, which are home to over 500,000 species. 

Costa Ricans are friendly and welcoming, and are happy to encourage visitors to experience everything their beautiful country has to offer:

NATURE: UP CLOSE & PERSONAL

It’s easy to appreciate the attention to preservation and protection around the country by how much nature you get to experience! From the beaches to the cloud forests, even when you sit down to open air dinners, wildlife is everywhere! There are many protected areas throughout the country that you can tour to get a more up close and personal look.

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We had amazing experiences with wildlife in every location we visited. In total, our group estimated we saw over six dozen new, exotic creatures we had never seen in real life before! And the best part is, alongside the animals are beautiful views of lush, green landscapes that are totally postcard-worthy. 

One place we loved for the spectacular views of a natural wonder was the Arenal Waterfall. It was 360 degrees of pure beauty. The 500 or so stairs to get down to the swimming hole were a bit of a challenge, but it was worth every step!

HANGING BRIDGES

hanging bridges costa rica

In Monteverde Cloud Forest, we first opted for a hanging bridges experience. In a cloud forest, each layer, from the ground to the tops of the trees, is home to different animals. The hanging bridges allow you to walk among the wildlife that spend time in the upper regions of the cloud forest, while also getting a glimpse at creatures on the floor on the hikes in between. Our guide was very knowledgeable and we learned so much about the species we were spotting.

RAINFOREST NIGHT TOUR

We also chose to take a night tour of the rainforest in Monteverde, because a whole different set of animals only appear at night. This tour with Don Juan Tours was combined with a coffee and chocolate education course (both grown locally in Costa Rica), which was a great way to start our evening. We learned the process to make our beloved java is way more complicated than we imagined! We were able to sample a number of coffees and chocolates to understand the differences in quality. 

When we left the education center and got ready for our night hike, we ran into a scorpion mother on the overhang with dozens of her babies on her back! That surely got the adrenaline pumping for our hike out into the jungle darkness. 

On our night hike, we followed our guide into a damp jungle to find porcupines eating fruits, toucans nestled in the greenery, and even were fortunate enough to have a bunch of leaf cutter ants try and make our sneakers their new home! No worries though, they don’t bite.

NATIONAL PARKS

We visited two Costa Rican National Parks: Arenal Volcano National Park and Manuel Antonio National Park. Both parks offered easy to moderate hiking options and provided a number of opportunities to see animals. We were worried that hiking these parks without a guide may make it harder to spot the animals we were so anxious to see, but after spending time in Monteverde, our group was starting to know where to look. The highlights included spotting a bunch of capuchin monkey families, as well as a number of sloths! Pro-tip: Both of these parks are hot and humid, and it’s best to bring a lot of drinking water along for your hikes!

Manuel Antonio National Park is also home to gorgeous protected beaches and viewpoints. It is definitely worth spending a day there to enjoy all that it has to offer. Just be careful; the animals in this park are VERY outgoing and will do almost anything to get to your food! The park’s strict regulations for what can be brought in helps to cut down on animal intrusion, but take it from us, watching a raccoon forage through your backpack for a banana is mildly concerning. 

ADVENTURE TOURISM: GOING EXTREME

The parts of the trip our group enjoyed most were the adventure activities. With different landscapes and terrain only a few hours in any direction, the country offers everything an adrenaline junky could ever hope for. From horseback riding to ATV adventures to bungee jumping to white water rafting, there’s not much more you could ask for. 

ZIPLINING

Ziplining is definitely an activity that Costa Rica is famous for. I’ve been ziplining all over the world, and nothing compares to the thrill of ziplining in Monteverde Cloud Forest

zip lining costa rica

We chose the zipline experience with the most bang for the buck: 100% Aventura, who boasts the longest zipline in Latin America. Your tour also includes two Superman style lines (face down, being suspended from the harness on your back) that average over 250 feet off the ground, as well as a 13-story Tarzan Swing that has you free-falling for a heart-stopping three seconds. The views are spectacular, and I can confidently say it’s the closest you’ll ever get to flying!

WHITE WATER RAFTING

This was my first time trying white water rafting and I’ll be honest, I was concerned that it would not live up to my expectations. But the trip down the Sarapiqui River with Desafio Adventure Company near La Fortuna was insanely fun and challenging. It was the perfect mix of excitement and relaxation, with the cherry on top being the great guides and breathtaking views along the ride. We rafted for a full two hours and the complimentary lunch was out of this world delicious!

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HOT SPRINGS

Now, the hot springs in La Fortuna/Arenal are not necessarily what I would consider extreme, but the experience is definitely challenging at times and one you cannot get anywhere else. 

The Baldi Hot Springs are situated within their beautiful resort hotel and spa; a nice change from the rustic outdoor activities we had been doing most of the trip. As you explore, you can experience 25 thermal pools that increase in temperature as you get further into the resort. Ending with a steamy experience at the top, where a waterfall cascades with water temperatures reaching almost 120 degrees! There is something oddly fantastic about the heat, if you can bear it!

Along with these beautiful pools, Baldi has fantastic wet bars you can swim up to, beautiful water features including a “grotto” that has an awesome steamy cave, a kid’s area with slides and other water fun, as well as a great buffet to make sure the drinks don’t hit you too hard in the heated water.

One thing about Baldi that is definitely extreme are their water slides. And boy did we underestimate them! You will come flying out of these slides at high speeds, but they are a ton of fun.

SURFING

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In Manuel Antonio, our group decided to try their luck with surfing. Most had never done it before, and those who had, still considered themselves novice. The surf in Manuel Antonio was perfect for beginners. Our group rented boards from our hostel, and were given complimentary surf lessons! A few of our friends got up, albeit briefly, while the rest of us enjoyed a beautiful sunset on one of the most gorgeous beaches we’ve ever been to!

SNORKELING & DIVING

Manuel Antonio has a dozens of snorkeling and diving companies that will take you to great locations to catch a glimpse of underwater worlds. We had the unfortunate luck of scheduling a snorkeling/diving day on a very stormy afternoon. Although our hopes of seeing aquatic treasures were squandered, we took advantage of our booking with King Catamaran.

We enjoyed a beautiful boat ride with enough complimentary drinks that we quickly forgot about the rain, some fun water slides, and a delicious traditional Costa Rican meal. We also took it upon ourselves to start a conga line that eventually got everyone on the boat out of their seats, dancing, and having a great time. Just another example of how making the best out of a bad situation can create amazing memories!

beach costa rica

In case you can’t guess, this is just a handful of what Costa Rica has to offer. We only visited three areas and were able to fit all of these activities into ten days! Be prepared, if you sign up for an adventure in Costa Rica, you may need to come home to get a vacation from your vacation! Pura Vida!


Contributor Steph Brochey Zarbo

steph photo we must dash

A Buffalo, NY native, Steph and her husband Brandon co-founded We Must Dash, a group adventure travel company. They are focused on providing millennials easy and affordable travel options to exotic locations all over the world. Steph handles marketing, video/photo, creating itineraries, as well as being an on-the-road experience guide. During the summer months you can find her in her other gig as a wedding videographer, and traveling during the cold Buffalo winters. Steph loves the outdoors, her yellow lab Thai, and trying to recreate delicious dishes she’s enjoyed on the road! Instagram: @wemustdash

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