Despite there being an emerging buzz about this beautiful Baltic city, it still doesn’t get nearly as much attention as it deserves. It’s compact, clean, safe, inexpensive and extremely loveable although it doesn’t get anything like the amount of visitors as say, Prague. I urge you to go before the rest of the world really does catch on, I promise you won’t regret it!
Soak up the atmosphere in the Old Town
With its pretty cobbled streets and alleyways peppered with cafes, chocolate houses, flower sellers and surprisingly good street performers, this part of town is best enjoyed slowly on foot. The centre of the action is Dome Square and on fine days (and evenings) the square really comes alive with packed alfresco cafes, live music and a friendly relaxed atmosphere.
Explore the city further and you’ll find lots of similar areas (its compact orientation usually ensures you won’t get too lost!) I would also recommend a canal boat trip on Riga River – which starts from the Boulevard Circle – it will take you out to see the city bridge which is another must-see, especially at sunset.
Indulge in the cuisine
This year Riga has been positioned as the Gastronomic Capital of the Baltics and quite rightly so – the Latvians take their food very seriously and it shows. The city has a diverse cuisine with influences taken from many parts of Europe although local specialties include Black (Rye) Bread, beetroot soup, Kefir (a fermented milk drink), honey, herring, pearl barley and Black Balsam – a medicinal tasting liquor and alleged curer of many ills. Visit the huge Central market (said to one of the largest in Europe) to sample the local produce – although be warned some stall owners are friendlier than others.
The city’s restaurants caters to all tastes and range from stylish design restaurants like Kitchen (located in the creative Spikeri district) and Garage which can be found in trendy Bergs Bazaar (make sure you order the tapas!) to the more traditional Lido which serves up tasty great-value food buffet style. For something a little bit different try the strangely tasteful medieval restaurant Rozengrals where you can eat your dinner by candlelight and be served by waiters dressed as 13th century monks.
See the architecture
Riga is filled with beautiful historic architecture and was even voted the best city to see Art Nouveau architecture. Head out to the Art Nouveau district to find elegant streets lined with superb neo classical and sometimes downright surreal examples of the 19th century movement. Back in In the old town you’ll find the formidable Riga Dome – the tallest cathedral in the Baltics and St. Peter’s Church which was first built in timber in 1209. It has a very distinctive wooden spire and you can take the elevator up to the observation deck for views over the city.
Also worth a visit is the beautifully detailed House of the Blackheads (featured above) – a prestigious medieval social club for rich merchants, the elegant Opera House which is the central hub of musical and cultural life in the city and the ‘Three Brothers’ a photogenic group of residential houses in the Old Town which date back to the 15th century.
Visit the museums
The Latvian National Museum of Art is considered to be the best art museum in the Baltics and the building itself is an architectural monument of national importance. To learn about the city’s unique past and historic struggle for independence then a visit to the sobering Occupation Museum is a must. It features a creepily realistic replica of gulag barracks and details the deportation of thousands of Latvians to concentration camps in Siberia. Still have a thirst for knowledge? Then also try The Museum of History of Riga which is the oldest museum in Europe and houses many well-preserved ancient artifacts.
Riga is an excellent place to shop – especially for high-quality crafts. Many of the goods available are ecologically sound and you’ll find the general trend in Riga’s shops is to sell traditional crafts which have been given a contemporary makeover. The best buys include high quality textiles, funky design goods, organic toiletries, beeswax candles, porcelain, wooden benches, amber and knitting. Shops here pull out all the stops to be interesting and exceptionally well presented and spending a few hours browsing them is recommended – even for the less materialistically minded.
Head to the mysterious chocolate shop, the Black Magic Bar (which also doubles as a Black Balsam-based cocktail bar) and try the gorgeous Pienene for eco-friendly artisan products and an organic food cafeteria. The Hobby Wool shop (6 M.Pils Street) is the place to go for excellent quality knitted products and if you’re on the hunt for designer products and young fashions then go to Galleria Riga (which is the largest and most stylish shopping centre in Riga).
Sample the nightlife
Riga’s nightlife is quickly becoming legendary and yet it has still managed to curb the Stag party curse – even in a city where the (very attractive) women outnumber the men. Many Riga bars make a huge effort with their decor and range from the artistically stylish to the retro kitsch. Try the trendy Terrace Riga and more mainstream Skyline Bar for incredible views of the city, the Mad House Bar (see above) for unusual decor and the B-Bar and Cafe Cuba for great cocktails.
Where to stay – During our trip we stayed in Hotel Gutenberg which is an Art Nouveau inspired boutique hotel in the Old Town. It has a pretty terrace rooftop terrace, shady courtyard and an attractive breakfast room. We also stayed in Albert Hotel which is a modern budget hotel a little further away from the action but in a still accessible position.