Riga really won me over. The last time I had visited was with my sister when I was 17 and the only thing I really remember is sitting in a park in the rain after realizing that holds had been placed on both our debit cards, we didn’t know where our hostel was, and we had spent our last euros at a McDonald’s in Helsinki.
Ah to be a teen again!
Ugh on second thought, who would want to go through that again? Not me. I would, however, happily go through Riga again and again, because it really is such a wonderful city. The architecture! The parks! The street art!
But I’m getting ahead of myself, as we actually visited Tallinn before Riga.
I was almost going to skip writing about Tallinn altogether because, you guys, Tallinn did not win me over. It didn’t really do anything for me at all in fact, except perhaps make me even more depressed that our visas to Russia had just expired.
Tallinn is probably best known by travelers for its picture-perfect Old Town, which is now a World Heritage Site.
It’s certainly beautiful, but with every other building housing a souvenir shop, restaurant, or night club and its streets packed with tourists (even in mid-March!) it felt a little inauthentic. Indeed, the Old Town feels so separate from the rest of Tallinn and so squeaky clean that I just couldn’t quite warm to it. Though I can see why it’s become a favorite spot for hen and stag parties!
I didn’t love Tallinn when I went as a teenager either, but to be fair, this time I suspect my lack of enthusiasm for Tallinn was mostly about my sadness over leaving Russia. Traveling of course always comes with highs and lows, and after my built up excitement about finally seeing Russia I guess I was due for a crash. Unfortunately, Tallinn was that crash.
I couldn’t muster up the energy to go and discover it for myself. It’s definitely a drawback of longterm travel – sometimes I simply can’t enjoy a place, and I leave not quite knowing if it was because of the place or because I was just being moody.
Maybe I’ll need to visit Tallinn again?
Edit: I did! And for anyone else struggling to love Tallinn, I hugely recommend going beyond the Old Town and visiting Kalamaja. You can read my full guide to Kalamaja and Tallinn’s alternative side here.
But I think the drive through the beautiful countryside into Latvia mended my spirits, because I totally fell in love with our next stop, Riga! Its Old Town is also beautifully preserved, but it felt more connected to the rest of the city, with locals bustling through its cobbled streets and even some normal, non tourist-centric shops!
I enjoyed simply wandering through Riga’s neighborhoods and getting a feel for the different sides of the city. Riga has the world’s largest concentration of Art Nouveau architecture and its Old Town is a World Heritage Site, so we definitely didn’t have to worry about getting bored walking through the city.
I also loved seeing the transition from the pretty center to its more industrial outskirts – I definitely will need to go back and explore Riga more thoroughly!
We also stopped in the Museum of the Occupation of Latvia, where I brushed up on my European history. Occupied by Soviet then German and then again Soviet forces during World War II and subsequently kept as part of the Soviet Union for decades after, Latvia hasn’t had an easy century.
But I’ve rarely seen a history museum conclude on such a positive note, with Latvia’s independence and finally its inclusion in the European Union. I love happy endings!
Where to Stay in Tallinn and Riga
In Tallinn we stayed at Fat Margaret’s, which is near the Old Town and Linnahall. The rooms were really clean and the common area was huge. Check current rates for Fat Margaret’s here
In Riga we stayed at Art Hotel Laine, which was beautifully decorated and had a great Latvian feel. Our room was spacious and comfortable, and the breakfast was delicious! It’s also a bargain. Check current rates for Art Hotel Laine here
Have you been to Riga or Tallinn? Do you have a favorite?