Riga? That’s Latvia, right? Ya, it’s the capital of Latvia. Ah right, and where is that again? It’s north Eastern Europe and borders Estonia (oh and RUSSIA!) And why did you decide to visit there then? Ah just because, why not? This was pretty much the conversation I had with people before I went to Riga. I honestly wasn’t sure what to expect. I imagined it to be cold and I thought it would be kind of Germanic in its food and culture. So I was only half right. I had seen some pictures of the Old Town and I was getting a vibe that it was not mobbed by tourists. My trusty rolly hand luggage bag was packed and I was Riga bound.
How to get there:
I wanted to see Christmas markets this year and having been to Germany already this year I wanted to check out somewhere new and Riga fit the bill. Booking a few weeks in advance could get you flights for around €100. Ex Dublin the flight leaves at 17.05 and gets into Riga about 22:10. So a 3+hr flight on a Friday night lands you in Riga with enough time to hop in a taxi for a 20-minute ride into the Old Town. Not too shabby, if you ask me.
What to wear:
All your clothes! I am not kidding, pack for the cold. Yes, I was aware it was winter and so I packed layers and boy was I glad I did. It hit -4 at night with a real feel of -9. I am not made for the cold. It is a bit of a pain de layering every time you walk into a bar or restaurant or café but I am not even sorry. I NEED to be warm! OK so if you are reading this out of season, it may seem a tad excessive to wear ALL your clothes when visiting Latvia but let me tell you winter in Latvia doesn’t play around. It had snowed the week before so snow was heaped up in patches around the city.
I wore ankle boots but you would likely need your snow boots for grip and warmth while there in the snow and I kid you not I saw people wearing ski jackets and trousers. Yes, some of those people were indeed children wrapped up like starfish but still. Wrap up warm is the message I am trying to get across here!
I did read in my pre-trip research that churches in Riga require you to cover your knees and shoulders and in some cases heads so it might be worth noting if you visit in the summer and are walking about rocking that cute romper you just bought. Head’s up. If you have those gloves that let you use your phone without taking them off, those are a God send. I did not have them and my fingers froze every time I wanted to take a photo.
Where to stay:
The hotel I stayed at, SemaraH Metropole is at the edge of the Old Town. A great location close to the main tourist sites (which to be fair are not a far walk from anywhere really as Riga is such a walkable city). Our hotel was billed as a 4 star and while it was clean, comfortable and had good wifi and breakfast our room was a bit on the cramped side. We were hardly there during our trip but I wonder if that was just the room I had booked and it was the luck of the draw or if all rooms are a little on the small side.
What and where to eat:
I kind of expected Riga to be more Germanic in its foods and was just a little disappointed not to see a plethora of pretzel trucks dotted around. Why pretzel trucks you ask? No clue, just cos. Just a head’s up in case, like me, you were expecting them. There are none. However, I did find the cutest spot called Easy Wine for a good selection of wine and tapas. Just down the street is an Easy Beer which serves limited wine selections, some self-serve whiskey taps, craft beers – obviously- and cider.
This place does delish tapas and a fun, ‘new to me’ wine experience.
You are given a store ‘credit card’ to charge your purchases and the wine bottles are in glass dispenser cases which keeps them at optimum temperature. Choose the wine you want and what size measure you want (50ml, 100ml, 150ml) and the prices are shown for each measure on the display screen. Slot in your card and press the wine you would like. It is dispensed into your glass and voila. At the end of your visit, you can pay what is charged to the card. Simples.
For a more authentic Latvian, culinary vibe. This is a chain in Latvia (just Riga?) and there are a variety of traditional dishes to choose from. For cheap! Meat is a big staple in Latvian cuisine as is smoked fish due to the proximity to the Baltic Sea. Rye and wheat pop up in beers and breads and peas and cabbage also raise their foodie heads. SO if none of that appeals to you and you aren’t interested in sampling local nosh then skip on by. However, if you are the adventurous sort then the guy in the restaurant told me that the grey pea and bacon dish was a local favourite and that if you finished all your peas it is said that you will not shed a tear in the New Year. Is this bull or was he serious?! As a side note, I did NOT finish my peas so I guess 2018 is gonna hold some tears for me. Good to know!
Check out Café Parunasim. The self-titled most romantic café in Riga Old Town is a sweet and very Instagrammable spot tucked down a laneway near the Three Brothers houses. This quirky café is good to get out of the cold and decide what your next step should be as well as what cake you will try next. Might I suggest the red velvet.
For dinner check out the 9 course tasting menu at Biblioteka No1. This fine dining restaurant is located near the Freedom monument and certainly needs to be booked. Or maybe try Riviera and their reasonably priced menu for modern European cuisine.
What to drink:
I am not a beer fan. We are not friends and it does me no favours. Don’t try to persuade me that I just haven’t met the right beer yet, I don’t want to. Beer and I parted ways after a visit to the Hofbrauhaus in Munich. I have a blurry recollection of a very drunken weekend there when I went Inter-railing and ended up in a club shaped like a volcano, a freeking train ride away from Munich. No more beers for me. If you are a beer fan then Riga is your holy grail. They love it there and have an IPA, wheat beer or craft beer sampler waiting for you. Try Bierhaus (Lāčplēša iela 12, Rīga), Lido (Elizabetes iela 65), Easy Beer (Audēju iela 8, Centra rajons, Rīga), Labietis (Aristida Briāna iela 9A2, Rīga). For you, non-beer drinkers check out Easy Wine (Audēju iela 4, Centra rajons, Rīga) and my top tip is cocktails at the Skyline bar. This bar is located on the 26th floor of the Radisson Blu Latvija Conference & SPA Hotel on Elizabetes iela 55. If you book a table by the window for sunset you are in for a treat.
Here you can sample the famous Riga Black Balsam disguised in a cocktail (prices range from €8-€12). It is a traditional herbal liqueur made with plants, flowers, oils and berries mixed with vodka and is 90 proof. The cocktails in this bar err on the sweet side and are not the best I have ever had but the view over the city made up for the pre-diabetes drinks we ordered.
What to see:
Top tip: Take your dang time. I was there for a full weekend and had seen so many of the big-ticket items by Sunday morning that Sunday afternoon involved some aimless wandering in the cold. Make sure to intersperse your sightseeing with café and bar or museum visits or you will have seen everything in one day!
St Peter’s medieval church, the tallest in Riga is located in the old town. For €9 a ticket you can climb steps to the lift and out to the steeple tower. I felt the price was a bit steep but the views are pretty. Although you can go up to the Skyline Bar before 5pm for free and get a similar view, so you decide.
The House of the Blackheads was closed to visitors the day we went due to a function but it is nonetheless pretty from the outside. This building was erected in the 1300s as a foreign merchant guild but it was bombed to ruin by the Germans in June 1941. The current structure in its place was completed in 1999.
‘The Brotherhood of Blackheads; Towards the end of the 14th century, the guilds uniting Riga’s merchants and craftsmen were joined by a brotherhood of banquet caterers to upper classes which quite significantly called themselves Blackheads. Its members included young and unmarried merchants of foreign, mostly German, descent. When travelling and supplying exotic goods from overseas, they managed to protect their ships and caravans from pirates and robbers. The Blackheads chose St. Maurice as their patron saint, who traditionally was depicted as a black soldier in knight’s armour. After obtaining their tenant’s rights and entering holy wedlock, members of the brotherhood become part of Riga’s patrician elite, serving as councilors, members of the Great Guild and respected members of the city’s community. The 17th-century merchant organization, the Brotherhood of the Blackheads, became the sole tenant of the House of the Blackheads.’
– Thanks for the history lesson Latvia Travel.
Latvia has had a series of occupations in its history and the Freedom monument is considered an important symbol of the freedom, independence, and sovereignty of Latvia. There are military guards that stand at the monument and change every hour between 9am and 6pm except during bad weather, below -10’ C or above 25’C.
Cat House is a yellow medieval structure with Art Nouveau elements boasting two cat statues on the roof corners. There is a story behind them that the wealthy tradesman who commissioned the building was refused membership of the Riga Tradesmen’s Guild, also called the Great Guild. As payback, he had two statues of angry-looking cats with arched backs and raised tails placed on the turret rooftops with their tails towards the Great Guild.
When he was granted membership the cats were turned around. I love little anecdotes like this where people get ‘butt creative’. It reminds me of Michelangelo’s painting of God’s bum as a screw you to the Pope in the Sistine Chapel.
The Three Brothers is a building comprising three houses forming the oldest dwelling in Riga and now houses the Latvian Museum of Architecture. These buildings are hard to photograph without a wide angle lens because the street they are on is narrow. I loved that if you hung around for a few minutes the little crowd that had gathered there would wander off and you had time to get a people free shot.
The Bremen musicians statue is behind St Peter’s church and represents the Grimm Brother’s fairytale of the animals who, past their prime and fearing slaughter, travelled to Bremen to become musicians. What I did not know at the time is that it is a political comment on staring through the Iron Curtain and not just the animals looking through the cottage window at the robbers. It is also said to bring luck if you rub the donkey’s hooves.
Museums a-plenty are dotted around the city from the Museum of the Occupation to the World of Hats museum. The only one I went to see was the old KGB building/ The Corner House but unfortunately, the tours were sold out so I just wandered around the free exhibit on the ground floor. This one does require you to book ahead so if you have any interest in hearing how the Cheka engaged in their rule of terror then pop along. See the virtual tour here.
This is the ‘my opinion’ bit:
Even a wander around the city reveals stunning architecture and intricate doorways as well as colourful buildings and quaint little streets. Riga Old Town is small and pretty but won’t take up your entire weekend.
I was there for the winter Christmas markets so that was an added bonus giving me a chance to see stalls full of traditional Latvian knitted wares and wood carvings as well as amber jewellery and lace. The mulled wine kept me warm and I saw a few people order food from the stalls to nibble as they strolled. Without these markets, I think we would have seen even more of the city on our first day.
The Central Markets were not quite what I had in mind and while they are abundant and full of local produce and locals themselves shopping for groceries it felt a bit grim and cold. Plus, it was unlikely that in -4 degree weather we would be preparing an outdoor picnic at that time of year. If you go in summer perhaps this is something to bear in mind for a cheap n’ cheerful self-catering lunch, There is a park by the canal with benches, ideal for warm weather lounging. Also worth checking out for the Gram is the Swedish Gate. I was there around 2pm and it wasn’t busy at all so waiting a few minutes gets you a clear shot. And you can skip the Riga Castle because it isn’t even a castle!
While there were elements of Riga that I really liked – Old Town, Easy Wine, views from Skyline Bar, quaint cobbled streets and beautifully colourful buildings it left me slightly underwhelmed. There was an underlying coldness there (not just because of the weather) that I just couldn’t put my finger on. Nothing overt as there were friendly enough people many of whom spoke English but I couldn’t shake the feeling that this was a veneer and under the surface, a far more stoic city lay beneath. Am I wrong? Tell me your experiences in the comments below.