When planning a weekend trip to Europe I’m sure most people would be looking for hotels in Paris, Milan or Berlin. However when I was looking to get away in November with my partner I stumbled across Riga, the capital of Latvia. With cheap flight and hotel prices it is perfect for a short break away. Price (although it’s a good point) shouldn’t be the main reason for visiting Riga. Its quaint old town, historic architecture and range of restaurants offering cultural cuisine are enough to persuade any traveller to visit this alternative destination.
You can see that the Latvian sun was out in full force. If you’re wanting tropical weather then northern Europe in November isn’t going to be the place for you. Still, we only had one full day in the city so we wanted to make the most of it. The weather we just had to brave. We were rewarded with a day in Riga’s old town, which for me is the highlight of the city. You feel like you have just walked into one of the Brothers Grimm’s fairy-tale villages. As you meander your way through the cobbled streets the historic buildings tower over you, oozing Latvian culture and history. Each building has its own character and charm, a little quirk is waiting for you as you turn each corner. This impresses me more as after years of occupation this wonderful city still holds onto its identity. This is even more prevalent as you walk further into the old town. I have never seen as many Latvian flags in my life. They are hanging off almost every building as well as being hung in windows and it’s really nice to see. It makes you want to experience more of their culture.
We didn’t know it but we were in Riga during Latvian Independence Day. The Freedom Monument that stands proud just outside of the old town was full of people laying flowers which shared the colours of the Latvian flag. Solders marched in formation in front of the monument and a big screen showed a parade happening in another part of the city. We stood and watched the celebrations alongside the locals, each had a look of pride on their face. After walking around the city for some more time we stumbled across the parade. The roads were full of people waving flags and cheering. Solders from Latvia and other countries (Lithuania, Estonia, Sweden and the USA to name a few) marched by shouting chants to each other. A brass band soon followed, which caused people to dance in the streets and join the parade themselves. I went into a nearby gift shop and bought a little flag to wave alongside everyone else. I was swept away in the atmosphere and wanted to join in the festivity even though it wasn’t my country that was celebrating independence. It was a special moment and it really brought something unique to my travel experience.
We decided to check out the Latvian Independence day events later that night. We walked to the Freedom Monument; where we had been earlier in the day. It looked like they had set up some exhibitions. There were light displays hanging from the trees surrounding the park, which added an aura of fantasy to the evening. On a small stream there were candles floating on the water and they had placed small paraffin lights on the grass. The little specs of light from the flames danced in the Baltic wind. My personal favourite was the fire coming out of the sculptures on top of one of the hills in the park. The bitter cold of a November evening was taken away by a burst of warmth, the fires of pride burning in front of me. It was beautiful to walk around. We were joined with crowds of people: couples, families, students and the elderly. Latvians from all walks of life taking part in the celebrations. Despite this we didn’t feel like outsiders, instead we were welcomed to take part with them. The park was full of games for the children and everyone was having a really good time. The atmosphere was electric! – It felt like the whole of Riga was out with us. The night was finished with a firework show, which I’m sure could be heard all over Riga. It definitely made the whole trip feel more meaningful being a part of something as special as that.
When is the best time to visit Riga? Well, the summer if you’re there for the weather – it even has a beach! I would recommend going around November because it is so much cheaper and you can experience the Independence Day celebrations as well. It’s best to go then if you want to see some Latvian culture first hand.