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Both Stockholm 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 Stockholm, 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?)
Magical, mystical Stockholm spreads over a speckling of islets surrounded by the icy Baltic Sea. At its centre is the fairy-tale Gamla Stan. Cobbled lanes wiggle and writhe around medieval rowhouses in those parts, opening onto a kitschy plaza filled with gingerbread cafés and grand Neo-Classical palaces.
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.
Stockholm is a perfect city break spot. Two or three days is a great amount of time to while away between the historic Gamla Stan and the museums of Östermalm. What's more, planning a fly-in, fly-out jaunt has never been easier. There are no fewer than four airports serving the town, from big Stockholm-Arlanda to low-cost favourite Skavsta Airport. The advantage? It should be a cinch to find affordable connections in and out, say 72 hours apart.
If you've got a little more time to spare, then use it. Stockholm has secrets that aren't on the main tourist menu. For example, you could venture out to the rugged islands of the outer Stockholm Archipelago. They're for sailing, swimming, fishing, and wandering quaint villages. There are also the Viking relics of Birka and the idyllic forests and lake lands of Bornsjön. All those will require more than just a weekend.
Wrap up warm if you're heading north in the winter months. Stockholm is a cold capital, but it comes with hefty sides of festive charm. At Christmas, you'll find lovely markets on Stortorget square in the middle of the Gamla Stan, the scents of mulled wine and hot chocolate floating up through the pastel-painted guild mansions. On the flip side, November to March also means uber-short days (think sunset as early as 3pm!) and lots of rain and snowfall.
If you prefer a dose of Vitamin D, consider the white nights of summer. It doesn't get dark until well into the evening between June and August. What's more, the weather is usually warm and mild, with daily averages in the low 20s. Of course, this is also the most popular time to come, so expect hotel rates to be inflated.
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.
If you're a fan of culture-brimming capitals and enchanting old towns, then Stockholm is sure to impress. Whole days of wandering between waterside parks, centuries-old terraces, cobbled squares and stooped taverns are on the menu. And so are visits to places like the Vasa Museum, with its 17th-century Swedish warship pulled up from the deep.
In addition to all that, districts like Södermalm are there to entertain the foodie and the art lover. It's a vibrant mix of multicultural cafés and restaurants. On one corner you'll see a Bahian curry stall, on the next you'll catch a Lebanese rice kitchen. And that's not even mentioning the wealth of fair-trade coffee shops and roasteries that make an appearance.
It's also quite pricy, so we'd recommend anyone on a budget to steer well clear.
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 Stockholm
Let's get stuck into Stockholm with this curated 48-hour itinerary. It whisks you from the aged heart of the town to some of its lived-in outer areas, and passes acclaimed museums and eateries as it goes…
Day 1: Hop out at Gamla Stan station in the early morning. Doing that puts you right at the meeting point of the Free Walking Tour Stockholm. Their trips typically take around two hours from start to finish, but they're a fine intro to all the secrets and monuments of the amazing district.
You'll probably encounter the bustling shopping thoroughfare of Stora Nygatan, the narrow alley of Prästgatan, and the handsome Stortorget square, all topped off with the stunning Royal Palace of Stockholm to learn about the boundary-breaking monarchy of Sweden. Once it's finished, be sure to stroll down cobbled Österlånggatan between the toyshops and Nordic taverns.
Have something to eat there and then move south across the water to Södermalm. One of the first things you'll encounter is the Katarina Elevator, with its high lookout points gazing across the old town. A few blocks to the south and you'll be in SoFo. This is the hipster hub of the city. If you can get a place, be sure to dine at quirky Meatballs for the People – expect modern twists on Scandi staples. If not, there are oodles of ramen places and Indian joints to boot.
Day 2: Breakfast at the Hötorgshallen. A colossal, two-floor food court, it's bursting with pretzels, smoked-salmon outlets, New Yorker delis, and more. It's also on the edge of Norrmalm's chic shopping area. Wander that to see designer outlets galore before emerging onto the salt-washed quays around Berzelii Park.
From there, you'll be able to see the forested island of Djurgården – your next destination. It's a short walk, with a few riverside cafes like the Sjöcafeet to enjoy en route. Then you delve straight into the Vasa Museum. Simply not to be missed, it's a chart-topper of Stockholm. The whole exhibit revolves around a mighty warship that sunk in Stockholm harbour just minutes after launching in the 17th century.
If time allows, ABBA the Museum is also next door, complete with glitzy pop paraphernalia and the piano on which some of the band's hit tracks were written. Behind all that is the vast open-air museum come park of Skansen. It's got living history that'll transport you back to medieval Sweden, along with a fun funicular train ride and even enclosures with brown bears.
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.
Stockholm has four individual airports. Stockholm-Arlanda is the largest. That's where you're likely to land on long-haul connections. The direct Flygbussarna transfer can get you back and forth in just 45 minutes, but there's also express rail straight to the terminal.
Skavsta Airport is a hub for low-cost carriers like Ryanair and is linked to the city by private coach transfers (travel time: 1.2 hours). Bromma Airport is mainly for domestic links and also has buses straight to the city. Finally, there's Västerås Airport. Over 60 miles to the west, it's popular for Sweden-UK flights. A coach transfer there takes around 80 minutes in total.
If you're struggling on deciding where to stay in Stockholm, look no further than the northern quarters of Södermalm. That's a good balance between affordability, convenience, and proximity to the Gamla Stan. Of course, there are also hotels in the middle of the old town, but you'll usually need to fork out more for the immersion.
Stockholm is one of the safest capital cities in Europe, though problems are not unheard of. There are still pickpockets and muggings but stay sensible and calm and they are very unlikely to affect your trip. The most common places to fall victim to these sorts of crimes are on the subway, in the Gamla Stan, and in busy food halls..
Never stand on the cycle lane in Stockholm. Getting around on two wheels is an important mode of commuting for many locals. They don't take kindly to folk who get in their way!