Cities are the primary locations to spend a night in Latvia. The larger the city, the more expensive is the accommodation.
Riga has the most accommodation options, ranging from hostels to the most expensive global hotel brands (just like in any global city). However, rather bad Latvian roads mean that it is usually impossible to just stay in Riga and visit other locations from there (except for nearby locations such as Sigulda, Cēsis or Jūrmala).
In smaller cities there are typically hotels ranging from little-renovated Soviet style ones (cheaper) to modern ones, sometimes established within historic buildings. In seaside locations there are more offers (especially Jūrmala), but some may close down in winter.
Short-term apartment rental is often possible through Air BnB and Booking.com but may require collateral and have limited check-in / check-out hours and are comparatively expensive. They are more useful for larger groups or families.
In the countryside a lot of former palaces and manors that have been converted into hotels. They may offer a poetic location and pretty decorated buildings amidst old parks. However, most of the palaces lack authentic interiors as they were destroyed by Soviets to whom palaces were a symbol of former regimes. Palace or manor hotels typically have the word “pils” or “muiža” in their name.
However, not every muiža hotel will be within an impressive building and location, as some of the nobles weren’t especially rich and their “manors” did not differ that much from ordinary 19th-century homes. So, if you want to spend a night within a building built for the richest, you have to read beyond official comments at booking websites.
In cities the array of places to eat is rather large, the most so in Riga, where there is catering for every taste and wallet size.
All cities have fast food chain restaurants typically located on the outskirts or in the shopping malls. McDonald’s here has been dwarfed in the number of outlets by its regional (Finnish) competitor Hesburger, which offers similar albeit somewhat cheaper fare. Pizzerias are also somewhat popular, many of them owned by Lithuanian chains such as Čili Pizza. They often actually offer various food, not only pizzas.
Cafeterias are especially popular, offering both coffee and various cakes.
More traditional Latvian restaurants are located in the downtowns. Except for Riga, downtown location does not mean inflated prices. In summer, downtown restaurants often add open-air sections.
In smaller towns, there are usually just a couple restaurants offering standard Latvian cuisine. In weekends they may be hired for wedding celebrations and therefore closed.
The climate in Latvia is temperate continental. The population density is lower than in much of Europe and large parts of Latvia are covered by forests and agricultural pastures. It is possible to see wild animals roaming around if you drive enough around Latvia.
The climate (continental humid) is comparable to cities such as Moscow and Toronto. It has four distinct seasons, each associated with different tasks and colors.
Daytime temperatures in Riga range from an average daily high of +21,7 in July to average daily high of -2,3 in January.
Nighttime temperatures in Riga range from an average daily low of +12,3 in July to average daily low of -7,8 in January.
Latvia is a small country, so there are little temperature variations. However, the climate in the West is generally milder (warmer winters, cooler summers) than in the East.
Winters are traditionally considered “white” although there may be periods of thaw. January and February are the coldest months. Several weeks every year may be very cold, going under -20 at nights or even days. Throughout winter the interiors are heavily heated (by public heating, the bills of which make it controversial).
Summers are warm, but a few weeks may get very hot (above +30). Air conditioning is nevertheless limited with most homes and public buildings having none. Summers are the key period for seaside holidays.
Water temperature in the Baltic Sea is around 18 C in summer and considered especially warm if 20 C. In lakes and rivers, it gets significantly hotter.
Latvian terrain is extremely flat (all country under 350 m), meaning there are no altitude-induced climate differences.
June-to-September period has more precipitation but the difference is low with no real “wet period”. Considerable droughts may take place even during these months, but typically Latvia has more than enough water all year. February and March are the driest months.
If you come from outside Europe it may surprise you that Lithuania is very far to the north: further north than any US, Canadian, Japanese or Chinese major city. While the warm Gulf Stream supports its temperate climate and never allows Latvian ports to freeze, it could not change day/night cycle. High latitudes mean that in the deep winter the days are quite short (7 hours) whereas in mid-summer they are very long (17 hours), with nautical twilight lasting the whole night. Daylight savings time means that winter sunset is even earlier, getting dark ~4 PM.
The time zone for Latvia is UCT+2 in summer and UTC+3 in winter (due to daylight savings time). In reality, the sun rises and sets some 30 minutes earlier in the easternmost reaches of Latvia than in the westernmost.
There are no natural disasters like volcanoes, earthquakes or tornadoes (although the Western coast may get windy). Forest fires do happen, but they are minor. The cold in winter takes its toll sometimes but this is limited to the homeless. Heavy rains and strong winds do some damage, but usually only to the property and crops and this damage is minor compared to places like the United States.
Latvia is a “single city country”. Approximately half of its population lives in Riga and suburbs, with the rest of the country inhabited relatively sparsely.
As such, transportation opportunities beyond Riga are somewhat limited.
Locations around Riga and those in Eastern Latvia are best accessible by trains (if you have no car). The network there is extensive but there are no high-speed railroads. Nearly every Latvian passenger train route either begins or ends at Riga. In the areas close to Riga, the passenger railway traffic is especially frequent, with a train in each direction every 20-60 minutes between morning and almost midnight. It gets progressively scarcer further from Riga however, with just 2-4 daily trains each way to the most distant cities such as Daugavpils. To some cities, there are merely two trains a week (on Friday and Sunday, mostly aimed at students getting home). While Latvia seemingly has an extensive railroad network, it should be noted that the passenger services have been scaled down or removed on many tracks.
Areas around Riga are considered suburbs as far as railways matter and the tickets are sold by zones akin to subways.
Buses are the best public option of traveling where the passenger trains don’t reach or are scarce. They reach pretty much everywhere, however unlike railways they are operated by many companies making exact timetables more difficult to find.
Given rare public transport, having a car is advisable if going beyond main cities and Riga surroundings. Outside of Riga suburbs, there are no highways. The trunk roads are tarred, but they still have just two lanes. The other roads are surfaced in gravel. 90 km/h is the highest allowed speed, reduced to 50 km/h in towns.
While driving from Riga to Liepāja, Daugavpils and Ventspils may take ~3 hours, there are no internal flights as the ones that existed proved to be unprofitable due to the thin population outside Riga.
Latvia is best accessible from further countries by plane.
Riga International Airport is the largest passenger airport in the Baltic States (it serves as many passengers as Vilnius and Tallinn airports put together). The national airline airBaltic offers flights to destinations all over Europe. While there are several routes beyond Europe, traveling there usually requires a transfer in larger European hubs. Riga is the only airport to offer scheduled flights.
Roads lead to Latvia from Lithuania, Estonia, Russia, and Belarus. There are no customs nor border checks between Latvia and two other Baltic States, offering good opportunities to visit the three Baltic States by car in one trip. Borders with Russia and Belarus, however, may take multiple hours to cross and in almost all cases a visa will be needed.
As Latvia uses broad (“Soviet”) railroad gauge, the railroad access is limited to rather slow Russia-bound trains. There are no trains between the three Baltic capitals: while these would be technically possible, they would likely be too slow to outcompete buses.
As such, buses are the prime mode of transportation between Latvia and the neighboring countries. Longer distance buses fell out of fashion as the aircraft connections improved. While there are also numerous flights to Tallinn and Lithuania, these are too expensive to be competitive for non-business customers.
Latvia has three major ports: Riga, Ventspils, and Liepāja. Each of them offers different opportunities to cross the Baltic Sea in a ferry, with routes available to Stockholm (Sweden), Germany and St. Petersburg (Russia). These routes typically depart in evening (or afternoon) and arrive the following morning (or afternoon). One may hire a cabin.
Latvian cities have a comprehensive system of public transport.
There are no subways or elevated trains, meaning this transport can be slow. In areas around Riga, however, suburban trains serves as a rapid transit system, connecting Riga to Jūrmala and Jelgava and having multiple stops in those cities.
In the largest cities (Riga, Daugavpils, Liepāja), the local public transport is anchored on trams which serve main routes. Buses are also available. In the smaller cities, buses are effectively the only form of public transport.
Vehicle rental is readily available in Riga, including the airport. Fuel prices are rather large (as per European Union requirements, the total taxes of over 100% for every liter sold), while parking is especially costly in Riga but cheaper in other cities.
Crime levels in Latvia are relatively small. The murder rate is on par with the USA. However, crime is spread much more evenly in Latvia than in the West, meaning there is no division into “dangerous ghettos” and “suburbs where nothing bad ever happens”. Instead, all the areas are safe if taking the usual precautions such as not leaving bags openly in cars.
No natural disasters have ever happened in Latvia, as it is well beyond the danger zone for earthquakes, tornadoes or volcanoes. However, the few coldest weeks of the year sometimes take its toll among the homeless. With good clothing and ability to spend nights inside there is no danger even during harshest of winters.
The biggest historic danger to Latvia came from its aggressive neighbors which have murdered hundreds of thousands of locals over the course of 20th century. Most Latvians still feel a danger that Russia could reoccupy their land, possibly launching a campaign of looting and killing. However, the probability that this would happen at any given time is low, especially as Russia is now pre-occupied with wars elsewhere.
Small immigration from war zones means that terrorism danger is extremely low. No people have died in terrorist bombings throughout the Latvian history.
There may be scams in Latvian nightclubs and taxis. However, Latvian people are quite reserved and don’t come to solicit, so it is possible to avoid the scams by avoiding services where they are more common. Public transport or rental car may be preferable to taxi.
Entertainment in Latvia is diverse and quality, but relatively cheap. Regular spectator events are especially cheap, but you may expect good deals elsewhere too. Latvia excels in some particular types of entertainment: ice hockey spectating, winter sports, sandy beaches. Foraging (berries/mushrooms) in summer/autumn and under-ice angling in winter are other local traditions you may try.
Urban entertainment: Culture, Nightlife, Sport
Traditional culture (theaters, opera, concert halls) is concentrated in the city downtowns. Theater plays are mostly Latvian while the music is more international. There are also Russian-language venues.
Best nightlife is in the Old Town of Riga. In sunny summers Jūrmala resort outcompetes urban clubbing, with its Basanavičiaus street becoming one large crowded multi-stage gig area every evening.
Latvian urban entertainment became popular with foreigners for weekend trips, especially for bachelor parties. The prices are generally lower, the plane routes are plentiful and many local companies specialise at such services.
“Modern entertainment”, such as cinemas, bowling and pool, are most easily found at the largest shopping malls of the main cities. Each Akropolis mall also includes a public ice rink. Some casinos are also in the malls, but many are in the downtowns.
Top spectator sport in Latvia is ice hockey, the modern city arenas providing local teams’ home games. Riga team plays international games at the KHL league (mostly covering ex-Soviet Union) while the town teams are limited to the local leagues. Football and basketball are also popular, though the quality is generally lower.
The arenas also host irregular major concerts, although in summer they move to open air (parks and stadiums). Moreover, out-of-city music festivals are especially popular in summer.
There are no permanent theme parks but temporary funfairs visit in summers. A large indoor water park stands at Jūrmala.
Recreation: Nature, Parks and Active Tourism
Foraging (mushroom and berries), angling and hunting are traditional entertainment. Recently it was done for subsistence and if you wouldn’t eat the fish you caught you would still raise quite a glimpse. Some Latvian city-dwellers even own suburban agricultural land plots where they enjoy growing food, but this is something a foreigner wouldn’t experience.
The five National parks are the best introduction to Lithuanian nature. Roaming is generally free of “private property” signs as they are limited by law.
Winter sports is relatively popular in Latvia, even though the country have somewhat limited natural conditions, having no hills. However, short Alpine skiing tracks exist, while many fields are converted for ice hockey in winter. There are also good bobsleigh tracks available.
Extreme sports have also been rapidly growing in popularity since 2000s, such as BMX biking.
In the seaside resorts there are opportunities for boat trips to the sea and one may also rent water bikes. Sunbathing is however the main activity for tens of thousands resort visitors as the beaches are all sandy, wide and free-to-use. There are various beach cafes right on the sand in major resorts such as Jūrmala.
Summer bike rentals are available in the cities, and the quality of bicycle paths is improving.
Many companies offering active recreation lack English websites. It is possible to order through a travel agency but this may increase prices several times. It may be the best to come up without reservation in such cases, although this is possible only in some places (cities/resorts).
Modern shopping in Latvia is centered around shopping malls, which consists of various shops, restaurants and places for entertainment (e.g. cinemas).
The larger the city, the more large shopping malls it has. The largest ones are in Riga. These may be used to spend an entire day, whereas the smaller city malls are typically more limited in size.
While many malls are located in suburbs, some are also located in downtowns where they replaced old Soviet buildings.
Towns and many city districts lack malls, but they have supermarkets which are large shops that offer various goods and groceries. These belong to several major chains, most of them foreign: e.g. “Maxima” (Lithuanian), “Rimi” (Norwegian), “Prisma” (Finnish). “Narvessen” (Norwegian) is a chain of convenience stores which have longer working hours at an expense of a smaller size and somewhat higher prices.
More hectic places to shop are various bazaar-like marketplaces, often opened in mornings or just during some days. These are filled with small-scale businessmen, kiosks, and stalls.
During the festivals, makeshift new temporary marketplaces get constructed (e.g. the Christmas market in Riga).