The final leg of my Baltic adventure was at the capital of Latvia. The largest city of the three Baltic states, it has a blend of history, culture, art and Gothic spires. Founded as part of Germany in 1201, the city has gone through several hands over the years, being part of the Swedish Empire in 1621 and was Russia’s third largest city in the mid 1860s. Independence in 1918 was short lived as Soviets occupied during the second world war, followed by the Nazi Germans. The country was again part of the Soviet Union and only became the Republic of Latvia in 1991. The city today is a mix of cultures and identities with Old Riga sitting on the East of the Daugava River and the rest of the city spreading out. This is another fantastic city to visit, where you can find an old historical town centre and some very modern areas to explore.
At the centre of the Old Town is St. Peter’s Church, originally built in 1209. The Lutheran church was reconstructed over the years and encompasses three different styles, Gothic, Romanesque and Baroque. The top of the church tower can be accessed via an elevator (with a fee) and offers panoramic views of the city and the river (picture above). The entrance to the church is also the starting place of the Riga Free Walking Tour which starts at 11 daily. The tour takes you around Old Riga and points out some of the fantastic buildings and the fascinating stories behind them. The guide speaks good English and the 1.5 hours goes by quickly, as you explore and learn more about the city.
A highlight of the tour was seeing the different types of buildings around the city and hearing about the stories behind each of them. On a quiet street round the back of the Old Town is The Three Brothers, which are three of the oldest houses in Riga, each house with different backgrounds and architecture. The three houses range from a Gothic approach with renaissance touches to a Baroque style. It is quite a clash of different architectural approaches alongside each other and it makes for some good photos!
A landmark of Riga is a sculpture consisting of four animals on top of each other – a donkey, dog, cat and rooster. This was a gift given to Riga by its twin city, Bremen, in 1990. It is believed that touching the rooster’s head will bring you luck.
The tour is a nice way to really get to know the history of the city, taking you along some old cobbled streets and pointing out some fun and interesting stories. The end of the tour is where the guide sits you down at his mate’s pub and answers any questions you may have and offers you a nice deal at the bar. A great way to finish off the walking tour!
The Rest of Riga
After finishing the tour, head to the Freedom Monument, which honours soldiers killed during the Latvian War of Independence (1918-20). Around the area of the monument is the Bastejkalna Parks, a small area of greenery with a nice small river flowing through. Its quite a pretty sight in the centre of town.
Take a short walk along the river towards the Riga Central Market, near the train station. This is a busy and buzzing market where locals do their grocery shop. One of the largest structures in Riga, this area has been included in the UNESCO World Heritage site along with Old Riga. The market is based in 5 large airplane hangers that used to house German Zeppelins during first world war. The market sells fresh meat, fruits, vegetables and fantastic locally made breads and pastries.
The Neoclassic and Art deco style gives this market a very unique feel and its quite an experience walking around these large buildings and picking out some pumpkin biscuits!
Art Nouveau District
For a complete change of scene, head north from the market and towards Alberta Iela, where you will find buildings all part of the Art Nouveau architecture. Slick and feeling like you were somewhere in Brussels, this approach started before the mid 19th century. Riga was in the middle of a financial boom and the lifting of a ban from building outside the City walls meant the start of the construction of a very different style. Pop into the Art Noveau Museum to find out more about the main architect behind this style.
Cafes, Restaurants and Bars
What was surprising about Riga was the number of quiet cafes and independent restaurants dotted around town. The best way to start your day is at Mitte Cafe, a small ‘hipster’ cafe, with great coffee and interesting porridge. I am still not sure what kind of grain or porridge it was, but it was filling and delicious.
Another great breakfast option is a Miera Iela Cafe. This is situated on the same street as the Laima Chocolate museum, this place is quiet and offers a great breakfast selection of delicious pancakes!
There were cafes and coffee shops everywhere but two that stood out were Parunasim Cafe and Robert Books. The first is hidden in a side street near The Three Brothers, where you enter via a courtyard. It is a very cosy and warm place, serving great lunches and offering a very homey feel. It is the kind of place you can sit at with a fire and looking out the windows as snow falls outside.
Robert’s Books is a small book store, also hidden via a small courtyard. This is a cute bookstore allowing people to read and enjoy some tea and coffees, away from the cold!
Dinning options are not lacking in Riga. Tourist will head to places like the Lido or Folkkclubs for local and traditional food. But if you are looking for something different then head to Galerija Istaba, a shop with a small restaurant on top. The open area allows you to look down into the shop which sells some quirky and interesting goods. The restaurant keeps it simple and only offers you four options: fish, beef, chicken or pork. While you wait for your surprise dish, freshly grilled bread is served with a selection of dips and a large bowl of salad. This all pairs off well with the beef dish I ordered and a nice glass of wine! Perfectly delicious and exciting, as the mystery unfolds! Finish your evening off with some cake and coffee at Mute. I didn’t get to dine here but heard great reviews.
The last recommendation is the Skyline Bar at the Raddision Blu Hotel. Sitting on top of the hotel, it offers some really good views of the city from all sides. Try and get a table by the window and sit back with a hot cocktail made with a traditional herbal liqueur (Black Balsam) and enjoy the view.
Overall, Riga is another beautiful city. It has a great Old Town, some amazing cafes and restaurants and is a fantastic city to enjoy. Another place which can be ticked off the list with a nice long weekend.
Flight from London – 3 hours – Air Baltic around £40
Time zone – Eastern European Time Zone
Note: Air Baltic allows you to pay with Bitcoin. An easy and fast way to transfer money with low fees.
Stay at Liene’s Airbnb! (There is an adorable cat!)
Also published on Medium.