Did I enjoy my time in Riga? Yes. Did I adore its delightful medieval streets and historic buildings covering hundreds of years of artistic styles? Yup. Did I immerse myself as best I could in the occupation museum to get a better sense of what this nation has been through? Certainly. In fact, I’d recommend you visit. However…
Riga’s dark side
Riga isn’t all stylish and fancy. For all its exterior charm, Riga, and Latvia in general, have had some challenges managing the transition to independence. Seventy years of Soviet history was not kind to the economic integrity of this tiny nation, and its location at the edge of Europe certainly doesn’t put it on the map for most visitors who just want to see the Eiffel Tower and the Louvre and go home. Budget airlines have long since opened up the region to tourism, but Western visitors with plenty of money have been a mixed blessing.
Eastern Europe features a sure-fire combination of attractions, specifically cheap beer and beautiful women, that make it stag party central for incoming Westerners who have far more money to spend on evening entertainment than many locals make in a week. And thus Riga has no shortage of sex tourism. In fact I’d have difficulty recalling an Eastern European city in which this particular aspect of the nightlife was more obvious:
The hostel is on the upper floor, and the strip club is just a flight of stairs away. If you’re in Riga with your 20 English-speaking bachelor party buddies, you could stay in the building the entire trip in a constantly fluctuating state between drunk and hungover, with all of your lady needs met with little to no logistical hassle.
Except, you know, diseases and stuff.
So not only is the “nightclub” right there, but the hostel’s title gives away the intentions quite directly. “Hey, tourists. You’ve got money. Come stay with us!”
Stag partying Brits wander the old town, drunkenly stumbling and shouting loudly. Not all of them, of course, but enough to be rather annoying. The economic imbalances of East and West make this sort of unequal relationship inevitable, and sex tourism a mainstay of any heavily-touristed Eastern European capital, but, for whatever reason, Riga in particular.
Stories of certain bars denying entry altogether to any large group of drunken British visitors is, obviously, prejudiced and unfair. But on the other hand…eh. Hard to imagine a big group of a dozen drunken foreigners will be up to anything but trouble.
You’ll also find stories of tourist scams, where beautiful girls invite foreign men in for a drink and the bill ends up being $100 or whatever. It’s an unfortunate mess of mutual exploitation, with each side attempting to take advantage of the other, which doesn’t bode well for a sense of mutual respect, and thus the cycle continues.
I had a great time in Riga, and it was easy enough avoiding these sorts of hassles, but their presence was rather discomforting. Have fun in Riga, but remember a lot of people are having other kinds of “fun” there, too.
It’s not all bad, though. In fact, if you get out of Riga, you can have yourself a grand old time. Read up for some ideas.
Got any experiences like this? Let us know how you feel.