The currency used in Latvia is the Lat (L) and it’s divided into one hundred santimi. Notes are in denominations of 5, 10, 20, 50, 100 and 500 Lats and the coins in use are 1, 2, 5, 10, 20 and 50 santims and 1 and 2 Lats.
Latvian is the official language but Russian, English and German are also widely spoken. It might be useful to learn a couple of phrases before you go, however, because Latvian is a very distinctive language and the only other European language which it vaguely resembles is Lithuanian – useful if you speak Lithuanian, otherwise learn the phrases.
Latvia enjoys a temperate climate where summer is warm and mild with average daily temperatures of about twenty-five degrees Celsius. Winter, on the other hand, can become very cold with snow covering the ground in some regions from two to four months of the year. Rainfall occurs throughout the year with August usually being the wettest month.
Latvia is two hours ahead of Greenwich Mean Time but observes Daylight Saving Time from the last Sunday in March to the last Sunday in October which places it three hours ahead.
Shops are generally open on weekdays between 10.00am and 7.00pm and from 10.00am and 4.00pm on Saturdays but the larger department stores and shopping centres usually open at 8.00am. Furthermore, there are also quite a few food shops in the capital that are open twenty-four hours daily. On the other hand, some shops in more remote regions close for a one to two hour lunch at some point between 12.00pm and 3.00pm. Office hours are between 8.30am and 5.00pm from Monday to Friday and banks are generally open between 9.00am and 5.00pm. Some also open on Saturdays between 9.00am and 1.00pm.
Electricity in Latvia is 220 Volts AC, 50Hz and European two pin plugs are used.
Value Added Tax (VAT) is calculated at 18% in Latvia and applies to most goods and services. As with any destination, it is a good idea to ensure that the VAT is included in the displayed price in order to avoid any confusion when it comes to payment.
Irish, UK and US nationals do not require a visa to visit Latvia for a period of ninety days or under. Citizens of Australia, Canada, New Zealand and South Africa will need a ninety day visa which you can either get at the Latvian consulate in your home country or you can purchase one at Riga airport when you arrive in the country. Citizens of all other countries or those intending to stay for a period exceeding ninety days should also contact the Latvian consulate in your country of origin.
In general privately owned tourist offices are better than the state owned variety which are denoted by a green ‘i’. In the capital the main source of information is Patricia which is located at Elizabetes iela 22-36 on the third floor. This office is open from Monday to Saturday between 9.00am and 9.00pm but closes at 6.00pm during the off season which occurs outside summer. There is also a tourist office at Skarnua iela 22 which is located behind St. Peter’s Church.
When exchanging foreign cash in Latvia, the currency booths (Valutas Maina) which you will find in any of the major cities offer better rates than most banks and also accept a wide range of different currencies although the Deutschmark and US Dollar are the most convenient. These booths can be found in hotels, shops, post offices and train stations. If you do wish to use a bank for this facility, however, Unibanka is probably the best place to go.
While traveller’s cheques are widely accepted in Riga, Daugavpils and Sigulda, there are some places which will refuse to do so, particularly in more remote parts of the country. Therefore, it is advised that you change them into hard currency before leaving these cities.
All major credit cards are also widely accepted and if you have the PIN you can use these to receive cash in compatible bank machines. The same applies to bankcards which are members of any of the international banking networks or Eurocard.
The country code for Latvia is 371 so if you are calling from abroad you need to dial 00, followed by 371, the local area code (2 for all six digit numbers but no code for seven digit numbers) and the local number. The same instructions apply when you are making an international call from within the country. You should also note that you need to omit the 0 from the local area code where applicable when dialing abroad.
Phone cards for the public booths come in denominations of 2, 3, 5 or 10 Lats and can be purchased in post offices, telephone offices and state stores. To make international calls out of Latvia you will need to use a telephone office. In Riga you will find one at Stacijas laukums 1 and there is another branch near the main train station. You should also note that you will be charged for a call to an international operator.
Because the service charge is included in the prices of most the principal services including hotel and restaurant bills, tipping is entirely at your discretion. If the service you receive is particularly good, however, you can leave a small additional amount. Where a service charge is not included a tip of between 10 and 15% is sufficient. For taxi drivers, any loose change or a tip of between 5 and 10% is fine.
It is worth noting what the public holidays are before you travel to a country as the majority of businesses, banks and shops usually shut for the day. In Latvia they take place on January 1st, Good Friday, May 1st, June 23rd and 24th, November 18th and December 25th, 26th and 31st. It is a good idea to check the particular area too as certain towns and cities also shut down during special events.