Like many cities in central and Eastern Europe that have a long history of foreign occupation and a more recent history of dramatic transformation and independence, Riga is just getting to know itself. And, more so than most cities in the region, the capital of Latvia is in the midst of an identity-altering boom that gives it the slightly dyspeptic, mildly insane, and highly impressionable mien of a rebellious teen. In the last few years, there have been national furors over a streaker at a soccer game—the country’s first such scandal—and the restoration of a monument to Russia’s Peter the Great that has been relocated to an office-building parking lot.
In the meantime, dozens of multinational businesses, giddy at low-cost Latvia’s acceptance into the European Union in 2004, have opened offices in the city, which is centrally located between the other two Baltic capitals—Tallinn to the north and Vilnius to the south. Cue the tourism industry: European discount airlines have recently made Riga a direct-flight destination. And hotel-iers have responded, putting up more than 30 properties in 2005 and 2006 alone. The resulting influx of foreigners into the capital of the country with the EU’s lowest standard of living has left Riga dizzy in the identity-store fitting-room. "The new Prague"; the "hottest real estate market in Eastern Europe"; the latest "depressing sex-tourism destination"—all have been tried on and are waiting at the counter.
"Until recently, Riga was a blank page," said Eriks Stendzenieks, a young Latvian advertising maven who is pitching the government on developing a national image campaign. "Now it’s being defined by others."
Though most Latvians have a hard time describing their capital, one thing they rightfully relish is its size. With a population of approximately 800,000, Riga is the largest and most cosmopolitan city in the Baltics, and yet it remains quaint enough that the Russian mobsters who abstained from shooting me said they preferred it to Moscow. The town is flat, fairly compact, and easy to explore at any time of day, so long as it’s summer. One night I had a drink on the balcony of my hotel with a local photographer I’d met and his friend, a go-go dancer at a nightclub. We watched the sky streak orange and pink as the sun sank into the nearby Baltic Sea, and talked about where we would go out that night. It was 2 a.m. and I’d already had dinner, but for Rigans the night was literally just beginning. Because of the city’s northerly location, Riga enjoys long, pleasant summer days and the rest of the year salutes appallingly dark, unending nights.
We settled on a survey of Old Town’s bars and dance clubs, which I was assured could not be said to feature any of Europe’s best DJ’s. But walking there confirmed two characteristics of the city in which Rigan men take pride: The drivers operate as if they will score points by hitting you, and the women—long hair, Nordic features, skin-tight clothing—are gorgeous and seemingly omnipresent. "Everyone is out now," Karen, the photographer, said, as we dived out of the way of a swerving Lada, "because this is our only chance. When fall comes, we all get depressed again."
Assuming you don’t twist an ankle on the cobbled medieval streets, or consume too many shots of Black Balsam—the country’s (horrific) signature cordial—it is possible to visit five or six places in a few hours. We made it to three.
Some of them, like Club Essential, feature so many levels and dance floors they could pass muster in Los Angeles or, more to the point, Moscow. Nearly half of Riga’s population is Russian, and even without listening to a person speak, differentiating the Russians from the Latvians isn’t difficult. It’s like watching the Sex Pistols hang with the London Symphony. Later, when we were walking home past the Freedom Monument, just outside Old Town, a red sports car came screaming around the corner, did two tire-squealing circles around the monument, and tore off, with fists pumping out of its windows. "Something tells me they’re Russian," Karen (who is Russian) said knowingly.