Tag Archives: baltics

6 Cool Places in Riga, Latvia

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Heading to the Baltics for a cruise or a drive? Riga’s cosmopolitan cool will excite any traveler. Here’s our quick guide to places to explore in the Latvian capital.

1. Check out the Old Town

Eastern Europe capitals are known for their charming old town centers, and Riga’s is certainly a memorable one. But few cities have the towering, gingerbread-esque buildings that dot the Old Town Square. Spend a picturesque afternoon wandering the alleyways of Old Riga (Vecriga) any day of the year. The architecture is particularly pretty in winter, when Christmas markets and huge evergreens light up the warm Dutch colors and art nouveau rooftops.

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2. Try Balsam

No, it’s not a vinegar! Riga black balsam is an herbal liquor made from vodka. Though somewhat morphing into a drink for the locals, it’s still to be found in many homes as an old-fashioned cocktail or a general remedy for the common cold. Traditional recipes are made of 24 different herbs, berries, roots and oils, and is somewhat bitter to the taste. The golden-brown color can be poured over ice or mixed with juices or spices, served hot or cold. Balsam dates back all the way to the 18th century, a pharmacist concocted the beverage to cure Empress Catherine the Great of Russia of an ailment. In the winter, it’s sometimes mixed with black currant and heated, much like mulled wine. Though the drink is not to everyone’s taste, I say, “when in Rome!”

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3. Freedom Monument

In the middle of Bastion Hill Park towers a huge memorial honoring soldiers killed during the Latvian War of Independence, 1918-1920. The landmark is an important symbol of freedom and the sovereignty of Latvia. At the top of a white monolith stands a woman, her arms outstretched and holding three stars, that represent the three historic districts of Latvia. Locals call her Milda. Built in 1935, the 138-ft monument was designed by notable sculptor Kārlis Zāle, who won an award for his design “Shine like a star!” Guards regularly patrol the area, with a changing of the guard every hour from 9am to 6pm. Guards are required to be at least 6 feet tall and to stand without moving for half an hour!

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4. Gauja National Park and Gutmanis Cave

Though technically outside of Riga, the achingly beautiful Gauja National Park is reachable by a 1-hour drive. As the oldest and largest such park in Latvia, Gauja makes a refreshing day trip into the countryside. Established in 1973, it’s 90,000 hectares of sandstone cliffs, natural springs and thick foliage. Discover one of the more notable attractions, Gutmanis Cave, an old site of pilgrimage. The sandstone cavern walls are smothered in graffiti that dates all the way back to the 16th century, depicting coats-of-arms and the names of various barons. Legend has it that the waters of the nearby spring will heal any ache, injury or hangover. Once upon a time, the Liv chief Rindaugs buried his unfaithful wife alive on the banks of the Gauja river. The woman cried so hard in her grave, and her tears flowed out of the cave, creating the curative stream that flows there today.

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5. Art Nouveau

Though Art Nouveau peppers the streets of Riga, the best specimens can be found along Elizabetes Street, in the so-called “Quiet Center,” a 10-minute walk from Old Town. Some 800 facades in the area flaunt decorative motifs, floral patterns, peacocks, detailed female figurines and masks. At the turn of the 19th century, architectural themes remodeled from abstract romantic to more figurative and imaginative design characteristic of the Art Nouveau style.

For the true art-inclined, the Museum of Riga Art Nouveau (Alberta ielā 12) is the perfect place to start your tour of the city’s architecture, with its stained glass windows, elegant twisting staircase and sharp corner tower.

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6. Bergs Bazaar

The intimate and arched promenades of the Bergs Bazaar is nothing short of charming. The atmosphere is more garden than mall, and along its 130-year-old cobblestones you’ll find around 140 cafes, restaurants and boutiques. It’s a great place to come in the evenings for a languid stroll, and watch the locals chat and go about their daily business!

Willamette Intl Travel loves to talk Baltic cruises! Heading to this quirky region of Europe? Give us a call! 503-224-0180 or email info@wittravel.com. 

 

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Agent Picks: Our Top 2012 Destinations

This week we asked around the office for our agents’ top destinations for 2012, and here are some of our awesome picks:

photo by Hector Garcia

Cook Islands

The Cook Islands are situated between French Polynesia and Tonga, comprised of 15 islands. Summers (Nov-Apr) are warm with afternoon rains, and winters are cooler and dry. It is largely unspoiled, with pristine beaches, coral atolls, blue lagoons and white sands. With no high rise hotels and a culture firmly based in its roots—each island offers unique ways to relax and enjoy Polynesia. The visitor can enjoy a variety of activities, including swimming in resorts, visiting the famous Aitutaki Lagoon, snorkeling, scuba diving, mountain hiking or stopping for a shore excursion at Palmerston Atoll.

photo by Arian Zwegers

Baltics

Since the fall of Soviet communism, the Baltic states—namely Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia—have slowly emerged as a major travel hub. Still under the American traveler’s radar, the capitals of Vilnius, Riga and Talinn still retain their refreshing and unspoiled vibe. With old world architecture, pastel colors, and rich cultural backgrounds, the people have been called welcoming and yet still an enigma. The Baltics are also relatively inexpensive for Europe, with boutique hotels running less than 150 USD per night and private tours available for a third of the price of their Western European equivalents. From the lively cities to the icy resorts on the Baltic Sea, there’s something for nature and culture lovers alike.

photo by xiquinhosilva

 Turkey

Turkey is a less expensive option to neighboring and popular Greece—but as equally worth your time due to its rich cultural heritage and diverse landscapes—from mountains to beaches to ancient monuments and ruins. Depending on your travel tastes, spend your vacation wandering through bipolar cosmopolitan Istanbul, sunbathing on the Bodrum Peninsula, touring the fairy chimneys in Cappadocia, or unwinding in a steamy hamam. If you’re feeling more adventurous, we recommend exploring the uncharted deserts of Eastern Turkey, trekking through the Ottoman and Greek ruins, or hiking through Nemrut Dagi National Park. Above all, don’t miss the food—mouthwatering mezes, olives, kebabs, anchovies, baklava, and kanafeh (a sweet and delicious pastry). WIT works with a fantastic tour guide named Meli who provides fully escorted tours through incredible historical sites, hot springs, monasteries, and the gorgeous architectural wonders of the Aya Sophia and Topkapi Palace.

photo by Maurizio Costanzo

Ecuador/Galapagos

Ecuador is one of the smallest countries in South America, but features a biodiversity unparalleled in the Western Hemisphere. For decades a top destination for nature lovers, the country features volcanoes, tropical forests, Pacific coast, indigenous markets, and unique wildlife. Most popular are the Galapagos Islands, barren but beautiful landscapes ripe with giant tortoises, penguins, marine iguanas and sea lions. Due to the fragility of the islands, tourists’ access is limited and must be accompanied by a park-certified tour guide.

photo courtesy of Viking River Cruises

 European River Cruises

The European river cruise is a massively growing industry—not a destination, but a worthy travel experience in of itself. These cruises are often all-inclusive, allowing Americans to avoid high exchange rates by locking fares in dollars, and can include accommodations, remarkable scenery, meals from stellar chefs and occasionally shore excursions. The most popular routes are on the Douro River, the Rhone, the Rhine and the Danube. River boats travel at a leisurely pace of 5 mph, allowing travelers spectacular views of the countryside, vineyards, castles, and villages. They can accommodate from 200-300 passengers, and the tiniest barges as few as four—intimate yet never feeling claustrophobic Many ships offer deluxe cabins, or suites with balconies, and there is a small number of public rooms and plenty of deck space. Fall is a popular time to go—the time for grape harvesting, Oktoberfest brewing, and the polychromatic turning of the seasons.

photo by @Michael

USA National Parks

Summer is a time for parks, and no better place to check out wildlife than in America’s diverse and breathtaking national parks. The National Park Service protects 58 areas across America, so there’s no excuse not to find one for a hike! Lodges are already selling out in well-known destinations such as Bryce Canyon or Montana’s Glacier Park. In Oregon, check out Crater Lake, Fort Clatsop, John Day Fossil Beds, or the Oregon Caves—or hike a historical trail, such as the Lewis & Clark or Pacific Crest trails. Some of the tours WIT works with offer escorted park tours, like Tauck’s Southwestern canyon vacation or their Yosemite trail, both crafted by filmmaker Ken Burns.

Interested in traveling this year to a top destination? Email info@wittravel.com or call us at 503.224.0180.

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