For a while Latvia had the dubious honour of holding the record for the world’s drunkest person. In the summer of 2012, a vagrant was found unconscious by police and rushed to hospital where his blood test revealed an astounding 8.89 parts per mille of alcohol. Although we don’t suggest you attempt to break any records, we do hope you enjoy a local drink in moderation while in Riga. Užavas and Valmiermuižas are among the nation’s best beers, but keep your eye out for great craft brews by Labietis and Malduguns. The infamous Riga Black Balsam is a potent spirit that Latvians enjoy inflicting on tourists. Bars are open at all hours, but alcoholic beverages are only sold in shops from 08:00 - 22:00.
Although Latvia was once an involuntary Soviet republic, visitors should not come to Riga with high hopes of seeing grand statues of Lenin and other objects from that bygone era. Most of these monuments, which are viewed as symbols of oppression by Latvians, have been removed including the Lenin statue that once faced east on Brīvības bulvāris. It was levelled in August 1991. A red granite monument, once dedicated to the Latvian riflemen who protected Lenin after the Revolution of 1917, still exists on Strēlnieku laukums, but now honours all of the riflemen - Whites and Reds. Another monument, dedicated to the Soviet ‘liberation’ of Riga, is located on the other side of the Daugava and is still used as a rallying point for red flag wavers. Many Russian-speakers also leave flowers at the foot of the monument on their wedding day. Hammers and sickles can also be seen on the wrought iron fence on A-B dambis near the Radisson Blu Daugava Hotel and on the facade of the Academy of Sciences building behind the Central Market.
Despite what you may have heard, drugs, without exception, are illegal in Latvia. If someone offers you any type of drug, whether it’s weed, ecstasy or coke, you aren’t allowed to buy it and you’re definitely not permitted to carry it, even in small amounts for personal use. If you buy pot off of a stranger in Riga there’s a good chance you’ll get a bag of oregano or locally grown hemp that has a THC level barely above zero which would give you about the same buzz as you’d get from smoking dried parsley. You can purchase hemp butter at the Central Market legally, but it’s just something to spread on toast and definitely won’t get you high. If you’re looking to get inebriated, stick to Latvian beer and spirits.
The electrical current is 220V AC, 50Hz. European plugs are a must.
Facts & Figures (Latvia)
Population: 1,995,000 in 2014.
Ethnicity: 61% Latvian, 26% Russian, 13% other.
Popular religions: Lutheran, Roman Catholic and Russian Orthodox.
Total territory: 64,589km2.
Longest rivers: Gauja (452km), Daugava (352km in Latvia).
Highest point: Gaiziņkalns (311.6m).
Largest lake: Lubāns (80.7km2).
Length of Latvian coastline: 494km.
For more fun facts and statistics visit www.latvia.lv.
Health & Safety
It’s no longer a state secret how much Eastern Europe’s pristine environment has been polluted over the past half century as a result of negligent Soviet industrialisation policies. Latvia is by no means an exception. However, this devastating blow to the country’s rivers, streams, and coastlines had a silver lining. Grassroots organisations, such as the Environmental Protection Club (VAK), protested against these policies in the 1980s and put the first dent in the Soviet wall of oppression. Most of the polluted areas of Latvia have been effectively cleaned up and are now safe for the public to enjoy. Unfortunately, air quality in Riga is still not the best.
Although the World Health Organisation once listed Latvia and Estonia as hot zones for drug-resistant strains of tuberculosis, the situation has greatly improved over the past 10 years. Unfortunately, cases of tick-borne encephalitis are still common in the countryside. We advise vaccination against this disease if you plan on spending much time in Latvia’s forests.
Sadly, those who enjoy a good pint and who frequent pubs and clubs should always be on the lookout for any suspicious characters, especially young girls on Līvu laukums who are eager to invite you to a local bar for a drink. Use your head and consider why a beautiful 18-year-old girl seems so interested in you. If you’re name is Brad Pitt, you get a pass, but all others should think twice. See Scams below.
Latvia is in the Eastern European Time Zone (EET): GMT +2 hours. However, during the summer months (April - October) Latvia is in the Eastern European Summer Time Zone (EEST): GMT +3. Correct time: tel. 82 154 (in Latvian).
As of January 1, 2014, the Latvian national currency is the euro. One euro contains 100 euro cents. There are 1, 2, 5, 10, 20 and 50 euro cent coins as well as 1 and 2 euro coins. Banknotes are available with the following values: 5, 10, 20, 50, 100, 200 and 500. Because Latvia so recently switched its currency, you’ll see prices at shops and restaurants in both euro and lats until the end of March. There are currency exchange booths and ATMs everywhere. Most hotels, restaurants and shops take credit and bank cards and we’ve marked the establishments that accept them.
Nearly 800 years of foreign occupation haven’t given Latvians much cause to celebrate, hence an acute lack of days off for the working man. Pagan Midsummer celebrations are the nation’s most popular holidays when locals head out to the countryside for bonfires, beer and assorted fertility rites.
January 1 New Year’s Day (Jaungads)
April 14, 2017 Good Friday (Lielā piektdiena)
April 16, 2017 Easter Sunday (Lieldienas)
April 17, 2017 Easter Monday (Otrās Lieldienas)
May 1 Labour Day (Strādnieku diena)
May 4 Independence day in 1990
June 23 - 24 Midsummer celebrations
(Līgo & Jāņi)
November 18 Independence day in 1918
Dec 24 - 26 Christmas (Ziemassvētki)
Dec 31 New Year’s Eve (Vecgada vakars)
Latvians were among the last European peoples to accept Christianity. Independent Latvian tribes still worshiped the sun, wind, holy groves, rocks and the like until Teutonic zealots arrived at the close of the 12th century to save the Balts from damnation. Depending on your point of view, the German invaders were either brave holy warriors or murderous, thieving savages. In any event, it took centuries to convert the Latvians to Christianity and even that’s still up for debate. In the beginning they were forced to have baptisms, but then, logical bunch that they were, they would just take a swim in the Daugava and, in their eyes, wash off the new religion returning to the gods and goddesses of their ancestors. To this day, the pagan Midsummer’s Eve celebration of Līgo and Jāņi, an ancient fertility festival, is still the nation’s most popular holiday. Martin Luther’s teachings have played a profound role in the development of Latvia and many practicing Latvian Christians belong to Lutheran congregations. Latvia’s Russian-speaking minorities are largely Orthodox Christians while Catholicism is more popular in the Latgale region of eastern Latvia. Jews were massacred in their thousands in Latvia during the Holocaust, but a small Jewish community still survives in Riga.
Latvia has some of the world’s worst drivers. It’s not that they can’t steer or press the break pedal, although for some reason Latvians can’t master the art of parallel parking, it’s more likely a reckless streak that allows grown men and women to act like children behind the wheel. Passing on blind curves is shockingly common, red lights are ignored by most BMWs and pedestrians on crosswalks tend to become targets for wannabe F1 drivers in tricked out Mercedes jeeps. In fact, a BMW was recently caught by a stationary radar flying at a speed of 210km/hour, or 120km/hour over the limit! If, like many locals, you enjoy operating an automobile while intoxicated, you should bear in mind that all perpetrators, including foreigners, face a mandatory ten-day jail sentence and a huge fine. The speed limit is 50km/h in towns, 90km/h on the open road and it is strictly enforced. Speed traps are prevalent and bribes are not recommended. It might also interest you to know that of the 20,081km of roads in Latvia, over half, or 11,075km, are actually gravel roads that are only repaired every 3 - 10 years, so be prepared for a bumpy ride in the country.
Traffic police regularly check parked cars in Riga, so make sure you've paid at one of the automatic ticket machines on city streets and don't forget to place the receipt on your dashboard. Old Riga is accessible to nearly all motor vehicles, but the authorities have made it impossible to drive from one end to the other, having divided the town into four different sections. Many streets have been changed to one-way streets and certain areas, such as Doma and Līvu squares, have become pedestrian and bicycles zones.
Naturally, the city has lost loads of revenue by opening up the old city, but now charges equally exorbitant parking fees that can only be paid with an SMS text message sent from a Latvian mobile phone number. In other words, most tourists are prohibited from parking their rented or borrowed cars in Old Riga.
The growth of the local tourism industry has created countless new jobs for Latvians, but it has also spawned another lucrative trade, which seems to be inevitable in Eastern Europe – scams and rip-offs. While most bars and restaurants are happy to welcome tourists into their establishments, there are some rotten apples that will do anything to take your money. Strip clubs, nightclubs and late night bars seem to be the biggest culprits often taking advantage of already inebriated patrons. Be wary of young attractive girls on Līvu Square asking you to join them for a drink in a nearby bar. You’ll be shocked to discover later that the barely palatable bottle of wine you bought them costs €700 or more. If you refuse the bouncers will pummel you until you give them your PIN code. Other scams include taking your credit card information and buying stuff online or charging your card for much more than you purchased. Avoid seedy bars and try to always pay in cash at nightclubs, even if they seem reputable.
Latvians love to smoke and until the mid-2000s you could see them lighting up almost anywhere, from barstools in local pubs to hospital beds. But all that has changed. Smoking is now banned in most public places including restaurants, clubs and government buildings. The few establishments which have built completely separate smoking sections with proper ventilation systems have been assigned a smoking symbol. Ironically, the government has largely ignored the root causes of smoking, but new taxes on cigarettes have brought the price of a pack of Marlboros up to a little over €3.
Unfortunately, our suggestion to improve public toilets as a condition for EU acceptance has fallen on deaf ears. Hotels and restaurants are still your best bet and most places won’t hassle you for not being a customer. Men’s facilities are designated with either a V for vīrieši, a K for kungi or a triangle pointing down; women’s restrooms with an S for sievietes, a D for dāmas or a triangle pointing up.
Citizens from Andorra, Argentina, Australia, Bolivia, Brazil, Brunei, Canada, Chile, Costa Rica, Croatia, El Salvador, EU countries, Guatemala, Honduras, Hong Kong, Iceland, Israel, Japan, Liechtenstein, Macao, Malaysia, Mexico, Monaco, New Zealand, Nicaragua, Norway, Panama, Paraguay, San Marino, Singapore, South Korea, Switzerland, Uruguay, USA, Vatican City and Venezuela do not require a visa to enter Latvia and may stay up to 90 days within a period of six months to one year depending on nationality. If you wish to stay in Latvia for more than 90 days you need a residency permit or risk the threat of becoming persona non grata. For assistance obtaining residency permits or special visas call the Foreigners’ Service Centre of the Citizenship and Migration Board, Čiekurkalna 1. līnija 1, k-3, tel. (+371) 67 21 96 39, www.pmlp.gov.lv. Open 08:00 - 20:00. Closed Sat, Sun.