Country #50 - Latvia

The Flights

Today was another crazy travel day as I set off back across the pond to visit Eastern Europe! Eastern Europe has been at the top of my bucket list for a long time so I am really looking forward to the countries on this trip, including Latvia, Estonia, Lithuania, Belarus, Ukraine, Moldova, Romania, and flying out of Norway (I’ve been before this trip but I’m doing Bergen this time so it’s a new city for me). I also want to do Eastern Europe before it gets much colder so that I can enjoy it.

Today I flew out of Dallas on a family pass. I didn’t get business class but I did get a row to myself which was very nice. I slept about four hours and watched the new Spider Man on the plane. As far as nonstop London flights go (and I’ve flown them a bit thanks to studying abroad and prior visits) this was the first time I have flown out of Dallas, so it was probably one of my longest flights ever so far at nine hours.

After landing in London I had plenty of time to transfer to my next airport but not enough time to safely venture out and see anything. It’s not like I haven’t been to London before, so this was purely a transit visit. I landed at Heathrow where I then sat for a while and figured out my plan for the day. I decided to transfer straight to Stansted (worst airport ever, I’m sure I’ve said that before) instead of waiting around at Heathrow or going into London and risking any sort of problem.

I took the tube to Liverpool Street where I made it on the next Stansted Express train right as the doors were closing. I dislike how expensive the Stansted Express is but it gets the job done and if you don’t have time to book early it usually the same price (if not cheaper) the day of than the National Express bus coaches, and it is definitely quicker than those.

I arrived at Stansted a little over three hours before my flight. Stansted is the worst, just to remind you for a hundredth time. Their entire system encourages you to be there early, but, surprise, if you are over three hours early you can’t check your bags yet (this wasn’t a problem for me because I had no bags). I would likely never be more than three hours early (I’m usually only two for international flights) except for in transit. So it just puts passengers in an annoying hold because there is literally nowhere to sit in the Stansted main entrance.

After going through what I swear is the longest duty-free section that is impossible to skip I decided to eat at an actual restaurant since it had been a while since my last meal and I was going to be traveling the rest of the day. I decided on the Windmill because it looked cool. It’s a pub (under the Wetherspoon brand) but it felt like a restaurant other than the weird ordering system where you either had to order on an app (which I did) or go to the bar (kinda hard to leave your bags at your table as a single traveler). I got a burger that was funnily enough called the American Burger. I then had another two hours so I went and sat in the main waiting area.

So here is my main beef with Stansted. The signs will tell you, without fail, that your flight is boarding the second that it gets assigned a gate. And they also wait forever to tell you the gate so once you know you almost always feel like you need to hurry when in reality boarding hasn’t actually started but you never know when on the off chance it will. My flight today was at 4:45pm. The gate was supposed to be posted at 4pm, was actually posted around 3:50, and then the second it was posted it said that it was now boarding. After a ten minute walk to the gate, I found no boarding for another twenty minutes at least. So basically, they make you run all over for no reason and it is a problem that could easily be corrected. The exact same thing happens when they post final calls. I have run to flights in Stansted because the signs have said final call only to find that half the time boarding hasn’t even started yet.

After finally boarding I had a seat in the back of the plane. The flight was fine other than the fact that I have never in my life seen so many people stand up on a flight. Like literally there would be at least five people in lines for the bathrooms all flight long and others were congregating in groups which is against rules. Other than the annoyance of having the constantly moving passengers run into me on the aisle seat It was a good three-hour fight that I stuck to Netflix on.

When arriving in Riga, Latvia, immigration was a breeze. I then found the mini-bus (basically a bus shuttle) #222 from the airport to the center of town. Regular bus #22 is also an option. The bus dropped off right by the central train station which, luckily for me, was right across the street from my hotel, Opera Hotel & Spa! After navigating the underground crosswalks (because there are too many trams for there to be crosswalks on the street) I came up right in front of Opera Hotel & Spa. Thank you so much to Opera Hotel & Spa for sponsoring this night of my trip! Check in was simple and my room is very nice! It is clean and updated and has an absolutely perfect location for exploring Riga.

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I’m really looking forward to seeing Riga tomorrow, and also to having a good night’s sleep after not getting much on the plane last night. I'm also really excited for Latvia as it is my 50th country! I'm so excited to have made it to this milestone and officially be over 1/4th of the way to my goal. It's been an incredible ride so far and I can't wait to keep going!

The East

Today was my first full day in Eastern Europe of the trip! After a late night getting in I set my alarm for 8:30, but then snoozed it until 9:30, and then somehow fell back asleep until 11am. Not ideal, but I still had enough time to see a good overview of Riga! After checking out of Opera Hotel & Spa I sat in the lobby for a bit to finish planning my day since I fell asleep before doing so last night.

I started the day with lunch at an Italian Restaurant. Lame, I know, but at every Latvian restaurant I looked up I would have just ended up getting a burger so I had some tasty lasagne instead. The walk to lunch introduced me to the Old City which is incredible. After lunch, and throughout the rest of my day, I spent a lot of time just walking around Old City. The buildings are very unique and I highly recommend spending as much time as possible walking through them.

My first stop after lunch was St. Peter's Church. St. Peter’s Church was first mentioned in official records as early as the 1200s, while the building itself is old but not nearly that old. My favorite part of the church was the observation. The student ticket was seven euro. You take an elevator to the very top for an awesome view out over all of Riga. The church itself had a really nice art exhibition on display and, while plain for a European church, it was still beautiful inside. I’m glad that the sun was out while I was on the observation deck because by the time I left St. Peter’s it had started raining.

The rain thankfully only lasted about five minutes. My next stop was the Museum of the Occupation of Latvia which was unfortunately closed. I’m looking forward to learning more about the history of the Eastern European countries, but it looks like I will have to wait until another city. The museum sits on Town Hall Square, which was, unfortunately, being renovated. The scaffolding showed how cool the square is when it is not under construction and I’m sad to have missed it!

After two very quick stops, I made my way to Riga Cathedral. When I walked in I heard what sounded like a live choir and orchestra performing. After buying my three euro ticket I found that I was lucky enough to be visiting the church during their practice! The chorus was huge and it was such a cool, but completely unexpected, moment to be able to sit and listen in such a beautiful place. After taking my time listening and then walking around the church cloister I then made my way to the Three Brothers, which are the three oldest houses in Riga. Their exteriors are very unique, especially for buildings dating from as early as the 1500s.

My walk from the Three Brothers to my next stop, Latvian National Museum of Art, was a little longer. However, I was able to walk through Bastejkalna parks, a lovely park that flows through the center of Riga. During my walk, I found some sort of kayak competition being held on the small body of water that flows through the park. I arrived at the Latvian National Museum of Art about an hour before closing time. I did the permanent exhibitions starting with the top floor, which was a super unique, all white space. The other floors were art by specifically Latvian artists. The museum wasn’t too large (though the building was grand) so I was able to do it all in about forty-five minutes.

After the museum, I headed to Alberta Iela (Albert Street), which is known for its Art Nouveau buildings. The buildings were cool but definitely did not take a lot of time to see. I walked down the street and then made my way back to the center of town. My longest walk of the day, at about fifteen minutes, took me from Alberta Iela to The Freedom Monument. The Freedom Monument stands at the start of the Old City and is a monument to the soldiers who died in the Latvian War of Independence. I then went to Riga Black Magic. It’s a super cool cafe where I had some cake and amazing hot chocolate. Latvia is the coldest country I have been to since Argentina so the hot chocolate was much needed and so good! It was the kind where you stir chocolate into warm milk which I really like. Black Magic had a really cool decor and I definitely recommend it.

After recharging on basically just chocolate I made my way back to Opera Hotel & Spa to gather my bags and head to the bus stop. The stop for the 22 or 222 bus to the airport was right down from Opera Hotel & Spa about a five-minute walk, and the bus arrived about ten minutes later. On the bus I met a British man who asked how long the bus took. We then went on to chat for a minute during which time he told me that when he hears of Alabama it makes him think of slavery or “worse things” which was not ideal to hear. Otherwise, he was really nice and wished me well on my trip, but that part of our conversation was definitely a bit awkward.

Security at the airport was simple with no lines and afterwards, I headed to my gate and found a good spot to sit. I was three and a half hours early for no reason other than that by this time it was dark in Riga and I decided to go ahead and be early. There was a Vanderbilt football game on and somehow I was able to have good enough wifi to watch over half of it. It was a horrible loss to Georgia but it gave me something to do to pass the time. Once I finally boarded the flight itself only took about thirty minutes.

When I arrived in Tallinn, Estonia, there was no immigration as I was passing from one Schengen Area country to another. The Schengen Area includes twenty-six European countries that have eliminated border control for fellow Schengen Area countries. I thought about taking an Uber because it would have been about five euros cheaper than a taxi but at 12am the wait time was too long and it was raining. I took a taxi instead and the ride took about ten minutes. I had a really easy check in at my hotel, Go Hotel Shnelli, who I cannot thank enough for sponsoring two nights of my trip! My room is very comfortable and the best part is the view of the Old Town from the room.

After arriving in my room I watched a little more football before showering and going to sleep pretty late. My goal is to get up early enough to have a full day exploring Tallinn, as after day one in Eastern Europe I am really looking forward to it!

50 countries down, 147 to go.

To learn more about Opera Hotel & Spa click here.

To learn more about Go Hotel Shnelli click here.