- Old vs. New (architecture and more). Latvia occupies the strange position of neither forgetting its past (both recent and older) yet not quite transitioning into the futuristic splendour of other western countries. I don’t mean that as a criticism, just that there’s only a few other places in Europe as a continent where you can still see the trains from the 1970s, and the early 20th century clocks on the streets of Riga from Laima, the chocolatiers, to ensure punctuality, a well-respected Latvian trait. Of course, you can find multi-level shopping centres and McDonald’s in the centre of Riga, but you can also find Hesburger – a Finnish hamburger chain – and a museum totally dedicated to the Sun (including Latvian folklore and rituals by region).
- Street Art (look up, literally). Riga has the highest concerntration of art nouveau in the world, with around 1/3rd of all buildings being constructed in this style. NOTE: art nouveau refers to an early 20th century style containing floral motifs, mythological references, gargoyles and classically-dressed women. It’s different to the Art Deco style which gained popularity in the 1930s and is probably best represented by the Empire State building in New York City. As well as art nouveau I found quite a few street murals around Riga, which were very colourful, although I couldn’t find much about how painted them and why.
- Low season *avoid weekends and the typical tourist season (May-September). I’d advise avoiding weekends if you don’t want to encounter a lot of British stag parties, who come to take advantage of the relatively cheap price of alcohol. Also, it’s less busy Monday-Friday around the Old Town (Vecrige). Low season is good because of the lower prices for tourist sites, and the fact that some places will be almost empty when you visit (like the beach at Jurmala in February, or the Academy of Sciences, nicknamed “Stalin’s Birthday cake”, a huge Soviet tower which acts as an excellent observation point, which was deserted when I visited on a windy day in March). It’s also worth remembering that Riga, and Latvia in general, receives less tourism than Krakow, Wroclaw, Prague and Talinn, if you’re looking to beat the crowds.
- Russian influence and Soviet Union history (a recent Past which hasn’t completely past). I’ve heard it said that whilst Latvia’s neighbouring states, Lithuania and Estonia “look to the West” (i.e, western Europe, France, Spain, UK, Germany etc.) for insight, Latvia continues to “look to Russia” in cultural matters especially. This is especially prevalent in Riga, with direct trains leaving for Moscow and St. Petersburg, not to mention the Russian neighbourhood (and market) down by the river, in a run-down area known as “little Moscow”. The fact that signs were often bilingual, and a lot of Russian was spoken on the streets, made me feel like I was experiencing a distinctly Russian culture in the heart of Latvia. A lot of the staff in hostels and cafes are Russian nationals, who may have moved to Latvia due to the cheaper living costs compared to bigger Russian cities. Russian influence extends beyond the capital, in Jurmala the seafront tourism caters to a large Russian clientele who frequent the spas, as the resort was once a favourite haunt of Khrushchev’s.
- Food (probably not the best in the world, but definitely one of the most authentic cuisines). As mentioned, the food is hardly life-changing, but it is different, and more edible than some people have given it credit. You can find standard meat-and-potato dishes in Lido, a disney-esque Latvian chain themed around medieval peasant farmers. Venture down the main streets of any town and you’ll find small bakeries selling local varieties of pastries. There’s also a noticeable variety of chocolate and confectionary; you won’t find Cadbury’s, Hershey or Milka bars here!
With all of the old-town charm of other Eastern European destinations, but a definite Soviet heritage, and unique future, Latvia deserves to be given more attention, especially for its enchanting snow-scenes in winter (where did you think Christmas trees originated?) and unbeatable low-season prices. In 2012, Lonely Planet bunched together “Estonia, Latvia & Lithuania” into a single guidebook, I expect that this is something that will soon change as more tourists visit the Baltic.