CHEAPEST PLACES ON EARTH
With lodgings from just $11 per night, free museums and full meals (with drinks) from just $10, it's hard to find a more affordable spot in Europe.
Last spring, Latvia joined both the European Union and NATO, turning its back on its giant eastern neighbor, Russia. But don't be fooled. The small country on the Baltic Sea--275 miles from Stockholm and just 300 miles from St. Petersburg--is still full of the kind of shopping and lodging bargains that can't be found anymore in Western Europe. Riga, Latvia's 800-year-old capital, is the largest and most lively of the cities in the breakaway Baltic republics.
A double room with a private bath in Riga's RPRA Hostel is perhaps the city's best lodging deal. In the 13 years since the break from the Soviet Union, as tourists from northern Europe began visiting, hotel options have ballooned. Prices are only likely to increase with Latvia's new E.U. membership. 26 Nicgales, 011-371/754-9012.
Riga's frequent trolleybuses ply the streets from dawn till about midnight. Even though most of the attractions are in and around the Old Town, the No. 23 goes to the newer Purvciems neighborhood, dominated by block after block of Soviet-built high-rise apartment buildings. It's like commuting to the Brezhnev era.
At the Staburags theme restaurant, a miniature waterfall gurgles as waitstaff in frilly native costumes serve up traditional Latvian dishes, including smoke-fried pork with bacon and forest berry juice. Latvian cuisine reflects both regional elements and the influences of the Germans, Swedes, and Russians who successively occupied and shaped the country. 55 Caka, 011-371/729-9787.
Kiploku Krogs, a pub in the Old Town, slips heavy doses of garlic into every dish--even the ice cream. Shots of garlic-infused vodka are $1.45. Explore the historic neighborhood's pedestrian-only alleys and courtyards for similarly priced food and drink. 3/5 Jekaba St., 011-371/721-1451.
The Occupation Museum, open daily, with English-speaking tour guides, is deeply informative but can be harrowing. One exhibit re-creates a Soviet labor camp, complete with an iron vat used as a common indoor toilet. Curators keep alive the memories of what Latvia endured--mass arrests, deportations to Siberia--during Moscow's half-century rule. Strelnieku laukums 1, 011-371/721-2715, occupationmuseum.lv.
Amber (fossilized tree resin), collected from the shores of the nearby Baltic Sea, is sold as jewelry by street vendors on Livu Square and throughout the Old Town. Laipa handicrafts store has a good variety and fair prices; it also sells handsome, locally made wool sweaters starting at $60. 2/4 Laipu St., 011-371/722-9962.
Latvia is the size of West Virginia and can be traversed in less than a day by car. Rent one from Car4rent. The 20 miles of clean, white-sand beach near Jurmala, a 30-minute drive west from Riga, is an excellent place to start exploring. 52-14 A. Caka, 011-371/731-6185, car4rent.lv.
Once an exclusive resort for the Soviet elite, Jurmala has a network of pedestrian paths lined with boutiques and restaurants--like the Orient-Sultan, serving traditional meals with Latvian beers, such as Zelta (33 Jomas St., 011-371/776-2082). After dinner, stroll the waterfront promenade for local handicrafts, especially leather goods and jewelry.
Jurmala's Zvaigzne Hotel is located just 150 feet from the Baltic Sea, right next to the Latvian president's summer residence. 23/4 Meierovica Prospect, 011-371/776-4681, email@example.com
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