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Both Venice 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 Venice 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?)
Ah, Venice – a bucket-list city if there ever was one! Famed for its myriad canals, vast plazas and grand churches, this is one of Italy's most visited destinations. Once the epicentre of its own trading empire that stretched right across the Mediterranean and even east to the Old Silk Road, it became rich on spices, precious metals, and cloth.
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.
It's no secret that most people whiz in and out of Venice on big cruise ships, even if recent regulations are bringing a slow end to that.
Lots of weekenders also come on low-cost flights – Venice's Treviso Airport is a major hub for budget airlines like Ryanair and Easyjet. Those sorts of travellers can only ever really expect to scratch the surface of what's on offer.
The upshot? If you really want to explore this amazing city, you're going to need a little longer. If the budget allows, a week is perfect. That will be enough to see the mainstay sights, but also venture across to Murano and the Venice Lido, the party bars of Campo Santa Margherita, and the pathways of Giudecca.
We're almost tempted to say forget Venice in the summer entirely. During the Italian high season between May and August, the whole place is packed to bursting with tourists. You can barely swing a slice of pizza on the Rialto Bridge or down on Piazza San Marco.
What's more, the horizon is tainted with the outlines of huge cruise ships. Far better are the shoulder months of May and September. The crowds diminish considerably during those, but the weather still tends to be reasonable – think daytime temperatures regularly hitting the mid-20s.
The final weeks of February are also popular on account of the centuries-old tradition of the Venice Carnivale. Come then to join the revelry but be sure to bring along a flamboyant face mask (a must) and a good coat, because the winters can be cold.
It's probably a good idea to avoid the rest of the winter. Venice is one of the lowest-lying cities in the world, so flooding comes easy. In the last few years, there have been huge problems with water clogging up even the famous tourist hotspots around Piazza San Marco.
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.
Venice is a perfect break for those keen to check off another bucket-list city. Yes, it might be over touristed, but there's still something truly magical about the canals and the gondolas and the great churches here.
It's simply unlike anywhere else on the planet. All that adds an edge of romance to boot. So, consider this one if you're searching for a city-based honeymoon.
On the flip side, Venice isn't for the budget traveller or the outdoorsy person. Yes, you can hop on a bus to go north to the Dolomites, but they are still several hours away.
There are beaches, but they are nowhere near the best on the Italian east coast. And you can expect to pay over the odds for virtually everything, from hotels to ice creams to pizza.
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 Venice
Delve into the secrets and the uber-famous sights of Venice with this 48-hour itinerary. It will take you from the legendary walks of the Rialto Bridge all the way to the hidden glass workshops of Murano, revealing some of the most enthralling corners of the iconic City of Canals.
Day 1: Rise early and race to the Piazza San Marco. Beating the crowds to the vast plaza is a great way to see it in all its glory. As the sun rises, watch as the light caresses the red-brick Campanile (a 98-meter belfry dating from the 12th century) and the bulbous domes of St Marks Basilica.
If you've managed to arrive before the queues start to form, be sure to duck into the latter. It's free to enter and has intricate Byzantine apses and frescos. Right next door is the Doge's Palace. Again, if it's too late you can certainly expect a queue. If not, head behind the Gothic frontispiece to wander the old palace of the erstwhile leaders of the Venetian republic.
Then head north through the narrow alleys of the San Marco district. It's a beautiful maze of little side streets, occasionally punctuated by a watery canal. You're sure to find a cafeteria there for lunch, before you go straight for the Rialto Bridge, made famous by Shakespeare and painters. Cross it and hit the buzzing markets of Ruga dei Oresi, which abut the small Campo Bella Vienna, a top spot to sit with a cold beer and watch elegant Venetian gondolas drift in and out of the canals.
If you choose not to ride one, you can push on to see the San Giacomo di Rialto (probably the oldest church in the whole city!) and then the neighbourhood around Campo Santa Margherita. That's a nightlife mecca, where you can unwind with a prosecco or ten.
No trip to Venice is complete without a gondolas ride
Day 2: Your second 24 hours in Venice is all about hitting the different districts. We'd recommend starting on the northern side of the archipelago. That's home to characterful Cannaregio; the old Jewish Quarter. These days, it's got canal-side cafés next to the fascinating Muso Ebraico di Venezia, which tells the story of Venetian Jews over the centuries.
From there, move west to Santa Croce. Within, you'll glimpse the lived-in city. It's the only place where cars can travel on the archipelago and it has newer churches and loads of bakeries and shops. Hop the Grand Canal ferry (number 3) from there to Murano.
Pastel-painted workshops meet the water on that island, in an area that's been famed for centuries for its glass making. If you're interested, the Museum of Glass is a great place to start.
Alternatively, enjoy a lunch on the lagoon and then get back on the boat, travelling all the way through the Grand Canal to the Dorsoduro. The zone has beautiful broadside views of Piazza San Marco at sunset. It's also home to plenty of lovely osterias with northern Italian wines and delicacies to get stuck into.
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.
Venice is largely safe and easy to travel. However, there are some things worth knowing before you go. First off, the overload of tourists has seen a huge spike in pickpockets over the years. So, always keep an eye on your valuables, especially in uber-popular spots like the Piazza San Marco and Erbaria.
Second, be wary that Venice's side streets are rarely empty. You'll always need to dodge a crowd and watch where you're walking. When it rains, flooding is common, so pack waterproofs and wellies if you're visiting in the winter months. Also, keep an eye out for pigeons. They're a nuisance on the piazzas and can even carry disease.
There are two airports serving Venice and its region. The largest and the closest to town is the international hub at Marco Polo Airport. That's got connections going all around the world. It's linked to the city by the ATVO bus (arrives at Piazzale Roma) and to the train station in Mestre.
If you're flying low-cost, it's more likely you'll arrive at Treviso Airport. That sits some 20 miles to the north, with buses that link to the archipelago in around 70 minutes for about €10 each way.
Choosing where to stay in Venice is very important. Fly-in, fly-out tourists will want to be in the vicinity of Piazza San Marco. The area is laced with expensive and classy hotels, but also has some more affordable options, all within walking distance of the top sights.
If to save some cash and get somewhere a little quieter, you could sleep closer to Dorsoduro or the Cannaregio, or even out in Murano. The cheapest places of all will be on the mainland, in Mestre.