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The best destination comparison site!
Both Gdansk and Riga 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 Riga and Gdansk, hopefully making your choice that little easier.
The article is divided into the following sections, and can be jumped to using the links:
• Introduction to the cities
• Scores and ratings
• Which one should I, friends, or family visit?
• When to visit and weather
• Who is the city suited for?
• The perfect 48hours (with map)
• Tourism details (where to stay? airport details?)
Salt-washed, industrial-chic and filled with hipsters, Gdansk is one of the most happening cities in Poland. It sits on the edge of the Baltic Sea, proudly showcasing its merchant guilds and mansions, a leftover from the years when this was one of the richest ports in the Hanseatic League.
Like most Polish cities, the focal point is an immersive Old Town (also called the Main City) that beats with life and cafés and boutique shops.
Riga is a cool and collected Baltic capital. Bridging both sides of the Daugava River estuary, its laid-back districts effortlessly flit from elegant Art Nouveau to stoic northern cottages built from wood.
But it's the Old Town area that really draws the eye. That's a web of cobbled alleys and hidden squares. Onion domes and Gothic belfries loom overhead in those parts, and hearty Latvian taverns slosh with beers and burst with dumplings in cellars beneath the flagstones.
Be warned that Riga has developed a reputation for stag and hen do weekending. If you travel during the summer, you're likely to encounter at least one group of boozed-up Brits.
But that shouldn't put you off. There are enough craft beer joints, bohemian cafes, and restaurants to go around. What's more, the old guild houses and haunting churches can balance the experience out with a dollop of culture and history.
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!
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.
Gdansk can be done in just a couple of days, but don't expect that to be enough to do everything. You'll likely want to linger longer, if only to beachcomb the Baltic coast, explore the other corners of the Tri-City (Gdansk is just one of three individual towns that are joined together), and sample as many of the cool hipster bars as you can.
Still, city breaks are very much doable here. Just 48 or 72 hours is ample for checking off the historic sights in the centre, the fascinating dockyards monuments, and to get a feel for the unique fusion of Slavic-Germanic architecture that abounds. Expect to do a lot of walking, though, and be ready to hop on inner-city trains and trams to get from A to B.
During the summertime, you could opt to do as thousands of Polish locals do and extend your Gdansk holiday to a week or two. That'll let you head out to the coast and the beaches. They can be surprisingly stunning, especially along the breezy Hel headland.
Gdansk is surely at its best in the warmer months. Between May and September is when most travellers come. They get to enjoy all the al fresco bars along the old port. They can wander the Old Town without worrying (too much, at least) about rain. They can hit the open-air terraces to taste pierogi dumplings. The weather is a little milder than inland Poland thanks to the tempering effect of the Baltic Sea. Average highs in July are in the low 20s, but that's enough to bring crowds to the beaches of Sopot and the north coast.
The winter in Gdansk can be brutal. The Baltic magnetises icy storms and cold winds across the shoreline and the city. It's a time to get cosy in cute cafes and sip warm beers (yes, that's a thing here), but be certain to pack the thermal leggings and snow coats.
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.
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.
Gdansk has got loads going for it on the travel front. Melding enthralling medieval history with sobering tales of wartime and the proud trade union movement, it's a gem for those looking to unravel the history of Central-Eastern Europe. Shoppers get to delve into Amber shops galore – the city is hailed as one of the best places in the world to buy the glowing fossil. Hedonists get everything from basement bars to wild clubs in old bunkers that stay open all night. Sightseers need only look to the historic Old Town and its grand churches and squares.
Adding to all that, Gdansk has beaches. A quick train to Sopot will reveal one of the nicest in the region, with a long pier that juts out into the Baltic. A little further and you can get to Puck, which sits at the base of what is arguably Poland's finest length of coastline.
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.
48hours in Gdansk
Gdansk has big-name sights like the iconic dockyards and its Old Town. But it also has secrets up its millennia-old sleeve. This 48-hour itinerary covers both, with a little bit of partying and beachside living thrown in for good measure…
The interactive map below shows a suggested route for the 48 hours in Gdansk, with day 1 highlighted in green and day two in yellow.
Day 1: Make for Cafe Libertas for breakfast. It's a popular spot with fruit bowls and artisan coffee that will fuel you up right in the heart of the Old Town. Stepping outside the door, you'll find quaint Chlebnicka street, which you can stroll between grand townhouses with Flemish-inspired façades.
At one end is Chlebnicka Gate, still flaunting its original medieval crest from 1450. Beyond is the riverside and the iconic Żuraw Crane. Now a branch of the National Maritime Museum, it's a great detour to make if you want to learn all about the history of shipbuilding in Gdansk.
Day 2: Morning of Day 2 takes you out to the legendary Gdansk Shipyards. If you haven't heard of these already, then buckle in for a history lesson in the fall of Communism. It was here, in 1980, that the powerful Solidarity movement first took route under the leadership of Lech Wałęsa. It would go on to fuel revolutions across the Eastern Bloc, which finished with the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of Russian dominion in Europe.
There's nowhere better to uncover all that than at the European Solidarity Centre. A visit is likely to take a few hours, especially if you want to drop by the striking Monument to the Fallen Shipyard Workers of 1970 next door. For the afternoon, it's time to explore the Tri-City.
That means hopping on the SKM railway line from Gdańsk Główny. The ride to Sopot is only 15 minutes. It takes you to a lively resort area that's positively brimming with bars and eateries. It's also on the beach, so you might want to spend the evening here, moving between the music venues to famous Sopot Pier.
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.
Getting to Gdansk by plane is easy because of the countless short-haul and low-cost carriers that now fly into the local Lech Wałęsa Airport. A mere nine miles outside of the centre, you can get to the terminals on the 210 bus from the main train station. There are often problems with scam taxi fares to and from the airport, so always agree a rough price beforehand (the normal rate is between 60-80 PLN).
The best location for a hotel in Gdansk is certainly in the Old Town area. There, you'll get boutique lodgings and stylish aparthotels set in centuries-old buildings. An alternative for those who favour beaches and nightlife would be to bed down in Sopot, where resort hotels with swimming pools and stylish restaurants are the norm.
Gdansk is among the most liberal and welcoming of Polish cities. It's got a vibrant LGBT scene and incidents of racism and crime are relatively rare. Still, there are still tensions in Poland and it's wise to be on your guard, especially if out at night in the bars of the Old Town.