A new year called for a weekend getaway to a new destination. Having visited Vilnius the previous January, Riga seemed to be the next logical step in my Baltic explorations.
The largest capital of all three Baltic nations had long been associated in my mind with decadent stag dos. Unsurprisingly, Riga has got a lot more to offer than cheap drinks and nights on the town. With its quaint old town, stunning architecture and tumultuous recent history, the city can appeal to many different travellers.
HIGHLIGHTS OF RIGA
Free Walking Tour
If your knowledge of Riga and Latvia is somewhat lacking like ours was, I suggest you start your holiday by joining the free walking tour offered by Yellow Free Tours. For 2.5 hours, we were guided across the newer neighbourhoods of Riga* and received a fantastic introduction to the city, and Latvian history and culture.
*This tour does not cover the old town. This can however be done with Tours in Riga.
Riga Central Market
The tour included a visit to the city’s Central Market – one of the biggest of its kind in Europe. Set inside several repurposed German zeppelin hangars, the market boasts an impressive architectural construction filled with stalls selling various kinds of fresh produce. Your olfactory senses will be tingling with wafts of raw meat and fish, fresh donuts and pickled vegetables – some smells evidently more pleasant than others.
Like Vilnius, Riga is teeming with churches, steeples and domes jutting out into the sky everywhere. And as in Vilnius, many of them were put to various other uses than worship during Soviet rule, for example the largest Orthodox church had been transformed into a planetarium.
Parks and freedom monument
Given that we visited Riga on a grey, rainy weekend in January, the inner-city parks failed to convey much splendour. I am sure however that in summertime the city’s green areas would be a pleasant place to stroll around or stop for a picnic.
Riga Old Town
Riga’s old town consists of windy cobbled streets and alleyways, full of cafes, bars, restaurants and churches. In her blog post on Riga, Abbi from Spin the Windrose describes the old town as having a fairytale feel to it – and I would agree. The statue of the Town Musicians of Bremen, the Three Brothers buildings (which reminded me of gingerbread houses), and the restaurant Alpenrose’s facade all convey a certain nostalgic cosiness.
The House of the Blackheads is arguably the most impressive building in this part of the city. During the 1940s, this building, like many others, had been completely destroyed so the structure that you see before you today is only a few decades old, albeit a replica of the original design.
Museum of Occupation
Due to its location along traditional trading routes between east and west, Latvia and its capital changed the hands of powerful empires for centuries and only officially gained their independence in 1918. With the onset of WWII and the reign of the USSR, occupation continued until fairly recently. If you are interested in learning more about Latvia under German and Soviet rule in the 20th century, head over to the Museum of Occupation (entrance is free). Some of the videos include some powerful and humbling eye-witness accounts of life in Siberian gulags.
** In January 2018, the museum was temporarily relocated to the old USA embassy not far from the Freedom Monument while its base next to the House of the Blackheads was being renovated.
View from Latvian Academy of Sciences
To get an aerial view of the entire city, spend €5 to climb on top of the Latvian Academy of Sciences. On a grey winter day, the view might admittedly not have been the most aesthetically pleasing, but it still allowed us to see the layout of Riga’s neighbourhoods, and gain a literal overview of its eclectic mix of buildings and architectural styles.
Art Nouveau Architecture
Architecture buffs will be interested to know that Riga is home to the most Art Nouveau buildings in all of Europe – roughly a third of its buildings are built in this style. Head over to Albert Iela and the surrounding streets to ogle at some extravagant facades.
On paper, traditional Latvian food confirms the Soviet stereotype as rich, meat- and potato-heavy dishes dominate the menus. Riga’s dining scene however proves that hearty cuisine does not necessarily equate to blandness nor preclude variety. A cursory glance at Tripadvisor and down Riga’s streets indicates an abundance of restaurants catering high-end, inventive meals. While I cannot comment on the quality of any of these ‘nicer’ restaurants in the city, we were overall impressed with the value we received for our money in the simpler establishments we visited.
- Folkklubs Ala Pagrabs: this tavern is set inside a large cave where you can enjoy Latvian food and local beers accompanied by live traditional folk music. Tasty food and drink, generous portions and a lively atmosphere. (We paid around €60 for a sharing platter of nibbles, 3 starters, 4 mains, and 7 pints of beer/cider.)
- Innocent Café: this café serves a delicious and plentiful brunch. For just under €10 (excluding drinks), you can fill your plates as many times as you like at the extensive buffet. The variety, presentation and quality of the dishes and coffee are top notch, I would highly recommend to start your day here!
- Lido: for some simple, hearty Latvian fare, head to one of the many Lidos dotted around Riga. The cafeteria-style restaurant chain serves various traditionally Latvian dishes for only a few €. Not a romantic date-night spot, but perfect for a convenient, cheap, and filling meal.
IS RIGA A BUDGET DESTINATION?
From our tour guide, we learned that prices in Riga have been on the up since Latvia joined the Eurozone. While this slight hike in prices has apparently discouraged stag tourism to some extent, it should not prevent you from visiting, you still get a lot and good quality for your buck.