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Both Riga and Marrakesh are fantastic cities, but which is better for your city-break or holiday?
We understand your dilemma. There is an abundance of travel guides for both cities, but few actually comparing them, and advising you which is the better for your trip.
This article will provide our unbiased and independent views of Marrakesh and Riga, hopefully making your choice that little easier.
The article is divided into the following sections, and can be jumped to using the underlined links:
1) Introductions -
2) City ratings -
3) Which one should I, friends, or family visit? -
4) When to visit and weather -
5) Who is the city suited for? -
6) The perfect 48hours (with map) -
7) Tourism details (where to stay? airport details?)
Mystical and magical, Marrakesh could have been plucked from One Thousand and One Nights. A city of souks and madrassahs, it will enthrall with its spice markets, lantern bazaars, pottery hawkers, carpet stalls – the list goes on. All that resides in the throbbing medina area, anchored on Jemaa el-Fnaa square, where you'll dodge snake charmers, fortune tellers, monkey tamers, and dance troupes come the evening.
Around the medieval centre of town is a sprawling modern city. Neighborhoods there come in the form of stylish Gueliz, with its Parisian-influenced boulevards and palm-lined streets. There's also the Jardin Majorelle, where the designer Yves Saint-Laurent has wrought the cacti plumes and the ponds into something truly special.
These days, loads of low-cost carriers can whiz you over to Marrakesh from Europe, opening this hitherto hard-to-reach city to travellers looking for a break with a difference.
Which city would I go to?
Which one would I recommend to my parents?
Which location for my 19-year-old cousin?
Which for my food obsessed friend?
Note: The above comparison does not consider the weather, and assumes travel at the best time of year (which is detailed later in this article)
The following sections compare the two cities and considers; how long to spend in them, when to visit, and provides suggested 48hours in each city (along with an interactive map).
The final section is tourism practicalities and includes which airport to fly into, what district to be based in and how best to explore the city.
We hope that you find all of this information useful, in planning your next exciting trip!
Two or three days is usually enough to get a good feel for the character and charms of Marrakesh.
In fact, lots of travellers say that any more than that is downright exhausting. That's because the touts and hawkers in the bazaars don't ever give up, and there's not much of a conception of personal space.
Still, 48 hours or so shouldn't be too overwhelming. And it will be plenty to check off the medina, the Majorelle Garden, stoic Koutoubia Mosque, and the lovely parks, all while having enough time to enjoy the enchanting riad hotels offered by this corner of the world.
Lots of travellers will be tempted to stay longer by the promise of the Atlas Mountains that loom on the horizon. If you can, a jaunt to those is definitely a good idea. It's a bus of a few hours up to the trekking hub of Imlil. From there, you can get a guide to navigate some gorgeous trails, and even climb the highest peak in North Africa (Mount Toubkal at 4,167 metres).
Riga might be the largest of the three Baltic capitals, but it's still a relatively small city. You can get from end to end in less than 40 minutes in the car, while the districts that are of interest to travellers are all within walking distance of each other.
That helps if you're only planning a short weekend away. Fly-in, fly-out city breaks are totally doable. In fact, a couple of days is what the majority of travellers come for.
If you want to explore for longer, you might want to come during the summertime. Not only can the winters here get downright cold (more on that later), but Riga is close to the some of the most celebrated beach resorts on the whole Baltic coast.
The Baltic summers are a tamer version of the warm season in the south of the continent. It's pleasant here when the temperature squeezes into the low 20s. Then, Riga goes al fresco in earnest.
The cafes on the main squares in the Riga Old Town buzz with life and chatter. There are students and backpackers sharing stories in the beer bar gardens at evening. Those, coupled with the enticing beaches of Jūrmala, are all reasons to plan to arrive sometime between June and September.
Winter in this corner of the continent can be cold. Really cold. It's not uncommon to see whole weeks go by without the thermometers passing single figures, or even positive numbers! Snow is normal, too, so it's wise to pack underlayers and good boots to hit the sightseeing trail anytime from November onwards.
It's no secret that Morocco gets hot. In fact, the summertime here can see temperatures exceed 40 degrees on a regular basis. That's not good for sightseeing and walking around. In fact, it can be downright exhausting. What's more, the crowds spike in Marrakesh between July and August, as holidaymakers flock in, even despite the soaring mercury levels.
Much better options are spring, in April, and autumn, in October. They have average highs in the upper 20s, and hardly a drop of rainfall. It's probably wise to avoid Ramadan dates, however, because that can affect transport and hotel services. Marrakesh also offers winter sun. Drop in between November and March to find average warmth of 18 degrees and clear blue skies. Evenings can be cool then, so a jumper is advisable.
Riga does well to distil rich Baltic history, a touch of hedonism, and authentic culture into a bitesize destination. With a population of under 650,000, you're not going to have to navigate a colossal megacity to get stuck into the action here.
You can spend most of your time walking from sight to sight, and enjoy relaxed dining and nightlife scenes to boot. It's one for the more chilled traveller.
The flip side of all that is that Riga isn't some bucket-list-busting capital. It's not got huge, world-famous sights. Instead, it's about enjoying the atmosphere, the regional food, and the intriguing merchant heritage of the place. You also might want to steer clear of the city if you hate the sight of stag and hen dos. They are rampant between June and August especially.
Feeling adventurous? Then, yes – Marrakesh is for you! An amazing place of spice smells and pandemonius markets, it's nothing like the cities you find on mainland Europe. You'll be hassled at every corner.
You'll dodge donkeys and hurtling minibuses. You'll encounter strange snake charmers and magicians. But all that is part of the fun, and what makes this Moroccan jewel the perfect place to break away from the comfort zone.
There's also something of a luxurious edge to Marrakesh. If you're willing to fork out for a hotel, then you can bag some seriously plush places, whether it's an inner-city riad with flower-filled courtyards or an oasis resort with infinity pools overlooking the Atlas Mountains.
Follow this fun-filled itinerary to make the most of your trip to Marrakesh. In just 48 hours, it packs in broiling tagines and stunning mosques, not to mention walks through the famous souks.
Day 1: Dive straight into the souks. Frantic and fun, these are the lifeblood of Marrakesh; ancient marketplaces where Berbers and spice traders once plied their trade. Things are now a little more tourist orientated. Head to D.El Maâden street and you'll find handcrafted leather bags and sandals.
Coming off that is the souk of the Babouches, where tanned slippers burst from every cobbler shop. You can then move to Souk Chouari to find whittled trinkets and statues in the carpenter's quarter. Still going north, you soon come to Souk des Teinturiers, where the pungent smells of tanning chemicals herald the leathermaker's market.
Double back and walk past Cafe Árabe to refresh with some mint tea and biscuits. Then it's into the heart of the medina, where the hubbub of Souk Semmarine unfolds with lantern shops, pastry vendors, and sparkling gold jewellery. Also be sure to breeze through the fragrant Souk Et Attarin, stacked with colourful soaps and all sorts of healing herbs.
Day 2: Don't be tempted by the allure of the bazaars right away. The other – more modern – half of Marrakesh awaits on day two. Find that to the west and north of the medina, holding the secret Majorelle Garden. This is unquestionably one of the city's (and all of Morocco's) most enchanting attractions.
A pleasure park that has been landscaped and curated by, among others, the French fashion designer Yves Saint-Laurent, it hosts a vivid blue villa and ponds peppered with lily pads. Beyond is the district of Gueliz. That was built in the image of France, so expect wide boulevards and chic café-bakeries, along with classy clothes stores and bistros.
For lunch, the quiet Cyber Park is a great place for a picnic. It's got babbling fountains and benches in the shade of date palms, all framed by the snow-capped Atlas Mountains. It's also a short walk from there to Jemaa el-Fnaa – the great plaza in the middle of the city.
Arrive in the early evening and you'll see entertainers of all sorts. Curious dancers, mystics speaking in tongues, the infamous snake charmers – they all make an appearance. To the side is the wonderful Koutoubia mosque, which looks especially handsome during sunset.
Hop between the charming plazas and Art Nouveau neighbourhoods of Riga with help from this curated itinerary. It lasts two days and includes most of the mainstream sights and some hidden extras for good measure:
Day 1: Breeze straight into the Riga Old Town. This medieval maze of a district is a fairy-tale place to be. It's also got a glut of sights. Start on the square topped by Saint Peter's Church. The oldest Christian building in the city, it's been rebuilt and reconstructed many a time.
You can scale the 120 or so metres to the top of the spire to get 360-degree views of the river, the capital, and even the Baltic coast. Back on ground level and a few streets over, you can see beautiful Town Hall Square. The most eye-catching building in the city looms on one side.
It's the so-called House of the Blackheads, where rich bachelor merchants held court for several hundred years. Delve inside for exhibits that unravel the enthralling past of the city since the age of the Hanseatic League.
Day 2: Hangover or not, you should rise early and make for the western area of Miera Iela. The cracked-plaster façades of the old buildings there herald what's surely the most hipster and creative corner of the city. Students and young professionals are everywhere, and there are some top brunch spots to kick start your morning. Then bear eastwards, back towards the Old Town.
On the way, you'll have to navigate Centrs district. Your first pitstop should be Alberta 12, where a grand edifice decorated with statues of nymphs and floral motifs commands the attention. It's one of the finest examples of the Art Nouveau style for which Riga is famous. Inside, you'll even find the Riga Art Nouveau Museum, which chronicles the architectural and design style from the turn of the century onwards.
Lunch can be had in the new town area to the south – Dzirnavu Iela especially has some charming café-bars and great shopping. The pretty walking paths of Vermane Garden can be perfect for an afternoon stroll if the sun is shining. They will take you all the way to the vibrant Pilsetas kanals garden, the home of the town's padlock-covered love bridge that's in good proximity to some hearty Old Town taverns for dinner.
Marrakesh Menara Airport sits just to the west of the heart of the city. It's now a major arrival point for low-cost carriers coming out of Europe, but also has premium flag-carrying airlines and domestic services coming into its runways. The distance from terminal to souk is just three miles.
However, you'll need to push a hard bargain with the taxi drivers outside for even that short journey – they're renowned for their scams and inflated prices. A fair rate is around 40-50 MAD. There's also a bus. Look for the No 19 Airport Express costing 30 MAD with a free return included if you make the trip within a fortnight.
Hotel wise, there's really nothing like a classic Moroccan riad. In fact, we'd go as far as to say don't book anything else in Marrakesh. They're old, Berber mansions that are centred on a tiled courtyard that either has a babbling fountain or a small splash pool.
You can pay less and get a more traditional one, but the luxurious riads are an experience in themselves. They typically exist in the medina area and on its fringes.
Riga International Airport is the largest in all of the Baltic states. It's served by flights originating all over Europe, in Russia, and even the Middle East. Bus 22 and plenty of private taxi firms offer connections to the city, though you'll need to be wary of scam drivers who often crank up the price to €80 or more! The trip to the downtown from the terminals usually takes no more than 30 minutes.
You shouldn't need to deal with any public transport on a city break to Riga. The town is nice and compact, so a good pair of shoes and a willingness to walk is usually enough to get around. That said, there are streetcars, buses and minibuses on the same network. Grab yourself an e-talons ticket to use the lot. Each ride costs €1.15 and needs to be renewed if you transfer.
Keep your guard up when walking around Riga, particularly after dark or a few beers. The capital is generally safe, but areas like Maskavas Forštate should be avoided. Pickpockets and petty theft, along with taxi scams, tend to be the biggest dangers of all.