Art Nouveau, oodles of Beer bars, some of the best baked goods around . . . is this what heaven looks like? Could be. Thoroughly impressed and quickly in love with Riga, home to the above three things and many more, I am already planning the return trip.
- By plane: The major EU airlines fly from most European capitals to Riga.
- By train/bus: Trains run from Russia and Belarus, and buses from many other countries.
- By Ferry: Yes! There are ferries from Stockholm and Travemunde in Germany.
- Riga Old Town – a UNESCO World Heritage site
- The Three Brothers and Swedish gate (in the Old Town)
- The various wooden districts around the city
- Art Nouveau architecture – almost everywhere in the city
- The Riga Central Market
- Dad Café
- Rocket Bean Roasters
- Mon Amour bakery
- Beze konditoreja (beside Coffee Inn)
- Miera konditoreja
- Edible: Head to one of the supermarkets dotting the city and grab a loaf of hearty dark Latvian bread, some Laima sweets, a jar of Latvian honey, and a few bottles of local beer. You won’t regret any of it.
- Part of the traditional Latvian dress includes super-high (think over the knee) gorgeous hand-knit socks. Sold at the local markets and shops, they are something unique, warm, and woolly to take home.
Riga, Latvia. The surprise of the year (or my year) in 2017. I was simply looking to fill a gap in an otherwise full Euro trip. I booked a flight via Lufthansa and arrived with no clue what to expect.
Arriving at the airport, I got my first surprise – the taxis take credit card and come equipped with free wifi. What?! How modern and efficient. *cough* Germany *cough*, time to get with the program.
A short 15 minutes later, I arrived at Rixwell Riga Old Palace hotel, at the edge of the old town. The hotel is charming – heavy drapery, dark wood, and a warm reprieve from the positively frigid outside winds. Pronto, I made my way out in the rapidly dimming November evening light to explore the Old Town. Declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1997, the old town is breath-taking. Pastel buildings, a mix of Romantic, Gothic, Baroque, and Modern, squeeze tightly against each other, lining winding cobblestone streets. Lights wink from cosy restaurants, pubs, and craft shops, a cheery site in an otherwise bleak winter evening. I walk briskly through the damp cold, snapping pictures with ice cold fingers.
Down a side street, Folkklubs Ala Pagrabs beckons with the promise of heavy Latvian food and beer. The cavernous beer hall and restaurant, down a flight of stone stairs into the belly of an ancient building, is full of chatty locals and tourists alike. The tattooed and helpful barman gives me some local beer recommendations and I’m on my way. Thick dark Latvian bread with butter arrives, followed by stuffed chicken breast. These guys aren’t messing around. This is winter food in all it’s glory.
The morning arrives with the greyness of short-lived winter sunshine. Despite sub-zero temperatures and a bit of freezing rain, I don my hat, mitts, muff, and leggings, and head out to brave the cold. I’ve said it before, but there is nothing quite like running in frigid fresh winter air. Layering a new city on top, with amazing architecture at every turn, and I hardly notice the chill.
Arriving back with scarlet red cheeks, I shower and head for breakfast. The hotel buffet is very. . . Latvian. All manner of pickled vegetables, cured meats, cheese, dark thick bread, boiled eggs. Sustenance to brave another day of winter urban touring. I head towards the promise of hipster-heaven – the Miera iela Street Republic, known for up-and-coming boutique shopping, modern coffee shops, dive bars, and all sorts of local designers and restaurants. Rocket Bean Roastery could be considered the black hole centre of the area – a joint VERY serious about their coffee and with all millennial necessary décor for Instagram – rough wood, sleek metal, exposed warehouse lighting, high prices. And avocado.
I poke my head into some shops along the street and visit the famous Laima confectionary – the largest sweet shop in Latvia, with a long history and beloved by locals.
Cafes are a dime a dozen in this district, and I discover with delight that Latvians are not only serious about pickling things but serious about uhhhh-mazzzzing cakes as well. Thick slabs of rustic apple cake, rich chocolate tortes, and fruit pies piled high with cream are extremely reasonably priced and very delicious. Latvia = winning.
In the afternoon, I make a beeline for the wooden district, the Grizinkalns neighbourhood, a former working-class district. Without a doubt, this was the most unique architecture and neighbourhood I’ve ever seen.
Along with the rest of Europe in the 17th and 18th centures, timber was often the building material of choice in Riga. During wars, these building were often burned to protect from invaders. However, during the relatively peaceful 18th century, grandiose wooden buildings and stately family homes were built, and unlike most of Europe, Riga continued with this style of architecture right up until the start of World War II. The preserved houses today are something out of a fairytale. A little rough around the edges, but utterly charming.
Walking back towards the Old Town, I was treated to the sweetest architecture of all – my favourite, Art Nouveau. Not only is Riga unique for it’s wooden housing, it also happens to have the highest proportion of Art Nouveau buildings in the world – comprising about 1/3 of the city. I first fell in love with Art Nouveau in Belgium, but Riga is on a whole other level. Towering façade after façade, with delightfully intricate décor, all at once whimsical and intimidating. Most of the buildings were constructed in the early 20th century, and the Art Nouveau museum in the heart of the district is a great peek into interior design of the time as well.
In the dim light of early evening, the Freedom monument stands starkly in the main square. A symbol for the soldiers killed in the Latvian War of Independence, it was erected in 1935 . . . nearby, the aptly named “Bierhaus” offers modern craft beers and hearty cheap meals.
Another chilly morning arrives. I wrap up tight and head across the river to the Riga Central Market – a must-see. A huge warehouse spanning three buildings, the market is divided by category, the categories themselves so very Latvian. First up – smoked fish in every possible shape, color, and form. Next – cabbage, cabbage, and more cabbage – served with a side of pickled vegetables. Then, there are meat counters, staggering rounds of local cheese, jars of honey, and a bakeshop or two for good measure. Just the place to haggle and head home with a bag full of treasures. Once again, I’m floored by the dirt-cheap price of everything. Price: quality ratios in Riga are low as hell.
Nearby, a modern mall complete with a movie theatre looms, and thought it might sound odd, I was over-the-moon excited to see a movie. Why? Unlike larger European countries like Germany and France, Latvia doesn’t dub their films – a feature which is of utmost annoyance when you just want to watch George Clooney with his real voice and not a disembodied German actor trying to fit all those long German words into a single English sentence.
Latvia also has beer, and wine, on tap, in movie theatres. I watch Bad Moms 2 with glee, and a plastic jug of wine. Latvia = winning.
With a flight leaving later that day, I sadly check out of the hotel, and do a final round walking around the Old Town, visiting a few of my favourite buildings and stopping in at the outdoor Christmas market in the central square, where I buy some handknit beautiful socks.
At lunch, needing a final taste of Latvian beer – Easy Beer bar has hundreds of beers on tap. Latvians love to put things on tap, and I think it should be the way of the future. You’re handed a card when you enter, and you simply pay by the ounces poured when you scan your card at each beer station. So, you can sample as little or as much as you like. I pair my beers with a thick rich traditional soup – tomato, paprika, smoked Latvian sausage, topped with sour cream.
Breathtaking architecture, outrageous value for money, friendly people, great drinks, great food, unique neighbourhoods, an amazing history. Cheap movies, no dubbing. I left my heart in Riga, and I’ll have to go back to get it.