Today we'll examine 10 things for a tourist not to do in Riga. I learned the hard way so you don't have to. Avoid the following list and your adventure to Riga will be less painful and less expensive.
1. Hail a Taxi
The worst thing you can do in Riga is hail a taxi on the side of the road. Especially if they are not from a reputable taxi company. As with many countries in eastern Europe, there are plenty of shady taxis roaming around, charging ridiculous rates to tourists. What you should do is call a reputable taxi company and have them send a taxi to your location! Currently, a few good choices are Lady Taxi, and Baltic Taxi.
2. Give Money to Beggars
This may sound cruel, but giving money to beggars in Riga just sets a bad precedent. The experience of trying to enjoy a tranquil Riga Old Town is quickly nullified by having beggars constantly haggle you for change. My suggestion? Give your spare change to the tasteful street performers instead. There are many talented street performers and they deserve your change more than a beggar. The best way to avoid beggars I've found is to not make eye contact and ignore them. If you need practice just watch the locals in Riga.. They are extremely skilled at ignoring other people and avoiding eye contact!
3. Talk to Strangers
Riga is simply not a friendly place. The locals do not like tourists, and they certainly do not start conversations with tourists. With this in mind, people who DO start conversations with you most likely are either scammers or beggars. If a pretty girl approaches you and wants you to visit her favorite bar, beware! It's a scam! If you see a strange person go out of their way to walk towards you, beware! It's probably a beggar. If you truly want to start conversations with strangers, at least wait a few days to acclimate yourself to Riga and Riga Old Town. If you're skilled enough in the verbal arts, perhaps you can even get the attention of the icy locals! Just don't say I didn't warn you about talking to strangers.
4. Smile and be Friendly
I learned very quickly that smiling and being friendly are not commonly accepted in Riga and Riga Old Town. Latvians and Russians are very serious people, and find friendliness stupid to the core (as they do western humor). Being friendly in Riga basically identifies you as a tourist, and somebody to be taken advantage of. The beggars and scammers immediately notice anyone with a friendly demeanor and select them as easy targets. After a few days in Riga I learned to act more serious than usual, and to only smile if the situation truly warranted it. Be especially wary of the working Russian population in Riga, who can be extremely icy and bitter. If you do manage to find friendly folks in Riga, then consider yourself lucky!
5. Visit Unknown Clubs or Bars
One great way to get scammed in Riga and Riga Old Town is to visit an unknown club or bar. There are a number of scams here revolving around attracting you to these shady establishments. This is done through pretty women or friendly people who convince you to go to an unknown bar. Once inside your "friends" will order cheap drinks that are actually priced at hundreds of euros! Guess who gets the bill at the end? If you try to escape the bar or club large mafia bouncers will block the exit. They will force you to pay for the bill, and even withdrawal money out of an on-site ATM if necessary! The worst part is, the police will not get involved! This is organized crime and the Latvian government turns a blind eye. The US Embassy in Riga has banned American citizens from going to many of these shady clubs and bars. Beware..
6. Engage in Sex Tourism or Prostitution
Nobody will deny that Latvia has a LOT of incredibly beautiful women. Although Riga has been known as a popular sex tourism destination, this is no longer the case. Prostitution has been cracked down on big time and has been nearly wiped out. Although prostitution is technically legal in Latvia, the many restrictions effectively nullify it. What is far more prevalent are scams based around prostitution. Online prostitution sites are full of phony profiles and fake pictures. Latvia is simply not a good choice for sex tourism. Additionally Latvian people are not friendly, so your chances of meeting women in a club or bar are less than that of a friendlier country. Overall, unless you are an astute local or expert pick-up artist, I would not recommend engaging in sex tourism in Riga. The Netherlands and Germany are far better choices.
7. Walk Around Late at Night
Like in many cities, I would not recommend walking around late at night in Riga. Even the touristy Riga Old Town gets shady later into the evening. There are more scams and crime around. Remember that the police do not like to get involved, so you may find yourself out of luck if something nasty happens to you. Latvia is still a relatively poor country, so muggers and pick-pockets are about. Stag parties are also popular in Riga, so you may run into drunk and rowdy groups of young males from western Europe. You will notice in Old Town that the tourists thin out in the evening, and the shadier characters begin coming out. Use your common sense and do not walk down any dark alleys without people. Stick around the masses for safety.
8. Make Yourself an Obvious Target
While touring Riga and Riga Old Town, do not make yourself an obvious target tourist.. Try to dress in plain colors and avoid any extravagant jewelry or hats. Also be wary when carrying around expensive items (tablets, laptops, cameras). I have noticed that beggars and scammers target those who look like they have money. It's common sense but I've seen many tourists just making themselves obvious targets. Walking around while looking at a large map is also a great way to make yourself a target. As I said in a previous point do not smile excessively or make eye contact with strangers. Walk around with a brisker pace and look like you have a destination. Wandering around leisurely is another great way to make yourself a target. Obviously you won't be able to avoid all of these actions, but in a crowded area it would be wise to follow these rules. Remember the scammers and beggars are watching you..
9. Small Talk with Russians and Latvians
One thing I quickly learned in Latvia is that the locals hate small talk. They are extremely direct and find it very strange when you try to make small talk. I've had many awkward experiences trying to start a conversation with locals in Riga and Riga Old Town. Russians in particular seem to find your small talk incredibly stupid, and they will roll their eyes or get irritated before walking away. When visiting a restaurant, cafe, or bar, be extremely direct with the servers. They will only get confused and angry if you try to ask how their day is, or how often it rains in Riga, etc.. If a Latvian or Russian happens to be friendly with you (and doesn't appear to be scamming you), then by all means have a nice conversation with them. However, you will find this is extremely rare.
10. Ask the Locals for Help
This is similar to the last topic. Russians and Latvians are not friendly, and do not want to help you with your tourist questions. I have found that even when they know the answer to the question (something incredibly obvious), that they will still pretend they don't know the answer. I asked 5 locals the difference between a tram and a trolleybus in Latvia. Only one answered my question. The other four pretended that they didn't know the answer! Hilarious! They all spoke English as well! I think that the locals are too lazy to answer your questions, or perhaps just hate tourists and don't wish to help. Honestly, the best way to get help is to ask another tourist! Or use the internet!
11. Use a Credit Card or Bank Card
10 things? Nope, sorry I can't count. Now it's 11. How could I forget this one! This is a common sense tip to follow when visiting eastern Europe. DON'T use your credit cards or bank cards. ONLY use them to pull money out of reputable ATMs. Find the ATMs inside of banks or in a very public area, and be wary of your surroundings. Using a credit card or bank card anywhere else puts you at risk. In a best case scam your card number and details will be stolen, and later on you will find unknown credit charges on your bill. As long as you notice within a reasonable amount of time, the credit card company will credit you and change your card number. Worse case scam, your bank card details AND pin number will be stolen, and criminals will empty your bank account using a cloned card! The bank will probably say "tough luck" if this happens and your money will be gone! Be careful! Eastern Europe is renowned for credit card scams and your best option is to use cash everywhere.
This concludes the article about 10 things for a tourist not to do in Riga. I hope it has been educational, and that you will have a safe and enjoyable trip!