At Riga’s opera house, a young conductor energetically conducts Latvia’s National Symphony Orchestra, an ensemble of remarkably fresh-faced players. The soloists — young Latvian opera singers — look like movie stars.
Welcome to Riga, an emerging destination for young travelers on a budget.
Until recently the Latvian capital was a destination mostly for touristy stag parties — no city’s favorite. But Riga is trying hard to transform itself.
“Stag parties are like a childhood disease for emerging economies,” notes Janis Valags, Vice President for Corporate Communications at airBaltic, Latvia’s national airline. “We’re benefitting enormously from these vagabonds because they came and realized that in Riga you get a good value for money.”
Today Riga has passed the vagabond stage. The Latvian capital features an impressive selection of shops, bars, restaurants and entertainment. But the good value for money remains — a result of Latvia’s recent economic collapse.
Another advantage for visitors is that the city is so compact that everything is walkable. And Riga’s mayor wants people to visit his city for medical reasons, too.
“We’ve got a large supply of doctors,” explains Mayor Nils Usakovs, who’s trying to get rid of Riga’s stag party reputation. “People can come here for medical procedures like cosmetic surgery and get a good combination of quality and service.”
Though Latvia’s economy has resulted in a 17 per cent unemployment rate, its capital — a former Hanseatic city and the largest city in the Baltic states — features a bustling downtown with small squares dotted with outside cafés. Riga’s remarkable collection of art nouveau buildings, Europe’s largest, adds to its charm.
In one of these buildings, Karel Mark Chichon conducts the Latvian National Symphony Orchestra.
“It’s not good enough to play so-so concerts”, he explains. “We’ve hired many young players, and they’re really involved. Now we’re the best orchestra in the Baltics, and we want to become the best in New Europe.”
In Riga, symphony concerts are not an elite taste; the National Symphony Orchestra’s concerts are regularly sold out. Since tickets for classical music can be had for the same price as movie tickets, young Latvians often opt for the opera or the symphony on a Friday night. You don’t have to be an expert to enjoy it. Afterwards, head out for some local Aldaris or Cesu beer.