The best destination comparison site!
The best destination comparison site!
Both Istanbul 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 Istanbul, 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?)
With one foot in Europe and the other in Asia, Istanbul is the bridge between two continents. As much of a cliché as that might sound, this really is a place where you can wander between spiked mosque minarets on one street and be gazing at a Byzantine cathedral the next.
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?
Istanbul (via a guided tour)
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.
Don't think you can distil Istanbul into a few short days. Even with weeks to explore, this vast metropolis (it's one of the largest in the world, let alone Europe) will surely still hold secrets. That said, a fly-in jaunt for a weekend is always going to be fun. You'll just need to pick your side of town and focus on the sights you want to see the most. So, choose between the Old City streets and Asian Istanbul before arriving, and plan accordingly if time is limited.
For those with longer to spare, this great Turkish town is your oyster. You'll be able to cross the Bosphorus to explore districts of steamy hammams and mosques. You can have whole days in the Grand Bazaar and Ottoman palaces. You might even be able to head over to Agva (for beaches) and the islands of Marmara (for wild hikes in pine woods). Basically, having too much time is rarely an issue.
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.
When things get hot in Istanbul, things get really hot. In fact, it's not uncommon for summertime temperatures to creep over 30 degrees. What's more, June to August is when the crowds come, packing out sights like the Grand Bazaar.
The upshot here is that spring and fall reign as the top times in the calendar to plan a visit. March, April, September and October tend to be cooler, less busy and less expensive.
Winter can bring snows. Photographers will adore the city when it's blanketed, as the Hagia Sofia and the Blue Mosque look simply stunning under a sheen of the white stuff. However, the months from November to February can be bitterly cold, so off-season visitors will need to wrap up warm and forget having al fresco Turkish coffees on the street side.
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.
There's no doubt that Istanbul is one of the more adventurous and unusual breaks for European travellers. Most folk come to Turkey on package holidays, with pre-booked hotels by the sea. But this destination forgoes all that in favour of enthralling Ottoman history and heady bazaars.
It's a place that will help you break out of the comfort zone and push your boundaries a little.
Those keen on seeing a city that's walkable and compact should certainly steer clear of Turkey's largest. At 15.5 million strong and covering two separate continents, this isn't a bitesize destination by any stretch.
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.
You can unearth some seriously jaw-dropping sights, taste some unforgettable food, and get a grounding in Turkish history with only 48 hours to spend in Istanbul.
Day 1: There's really nowhere else to begin but Sultanahmet. This is the Istanbul you will have seen on the postcards; the land of minarets and mighty mosque domes. The kingpin of it all is the colossal Hagia Sophia.
In its long life of more than 1,500 years it's been an Orthodox cathedral and a mosque. It's now a museum containing gorgeous mosaics and frescos, although the star of the show is still its dome, flaunting an amazing 30-metre diameter.
Sitting opposite just to the south is the majestic Blue Mosque. Built in the early 1600s, it's still in working order. And even more history awaits in the Topkapi Palace Museum, which is a few blocks northwards. That sprawling complex reigned as the home of the Ottoman sultans. It's now a UNESCO site and occupies a stunning perch above the Bosphorus.
Day 2: Big, modern Taksim Square starts day two with a sighting of what 21st-century Istanbul is all about. Be sure to take a glimpse of the honorific statue at its heart.
That's the Republic Monument, made to celebrate the foundation of the Turkish state in 1928. Nearby Istiklal Street has abundant choices on the food front, no matter if you're craving a gritty Turkish coffee or a regional breakfast spread of mezze cheeses, flatbreads, and olives.
It's also a busting artery of the city, with high-street shopping and a classic trolley car running its length. One thing you can't miss – literally! – here is Galata Tower. Built by the Genoese to protect their European strongholds from the east, it's a mind-blowing fortification that boasts sweeping panoramas from its top floors.
Your afternoon session should be dedicated to exploring the Bosphorus. There's really no better way to do that than on a boat. Some cruises even offer stops in Asian Istanbul and meals with the sunset to boot.
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.
The modern Istanbul New Airport is the main hub serving this big city. It handles the largest amount of air traffic in Turkey, so expect to find lots of connections in from Western Europe and beyond. Regular shuttle buses link the terminals with the downtown in around 50 minutes to one hour, but, be warned, travel times can vary greatly depending on traffic. The smaller Sabiha Gokcen International Airport hosts most of the services coming in from across the Middle East. It's over on the south side of the metropolis.
Istanbul's tourist areas suffer from the same scams as many other European cities. Fake guides, pickpockets and unregistered taxis are particularly common, so be sure to have your wits about you when sightseeing. Be wary when converting cash in the Old Town area too, because extortionate commission rates and even fake banknotes have been reported.
Choosing a hotel in Istanbul really depends on what you want. Sightseeing in Sultanahmet is what most people come for and there are loads of hotels to pick there, even if paying a premium is normal. Beyoglu is better if you're after chain hotels and boutique stays, and it's right on the more modern and happening part of town. Asian Istanbul will likely be cheaper, but also a ferry ride from the most famous attractions.