We’ve just returned from an extended bank holiday weekend trip to Latvia’s capital and the largest Baltic city, Riga, where we stayed two nights at the four star Pk Riga Hotel (centrally located in Pulkveza Brieza 11, a very pleasant three star experience, with, as expected, four stars in most countries translating into three stars by UK or U.S. standards).
Why Riga, you might ask. Well, initially all we knew about Riga was the limerick with the lady from Riga who rode with a smile on a tiger, but more recently we had heard good things about the Baltic Republics, and the flights and accommodation were incredibly good value. For some time now we’ve been looking further east for our European travel destinations, starting with Budapest and St. Petersburg, and planning our next trips to Bucharest, Helsinki, and Tallinn.
The airport is very conveniently located and the €15 cab ride from there to the centre of Riga took just over 15 minutes.
We immediately started exploring the town, knowing that we didn’t have much time, considering the short length of our stay and the fact that we were going to do a day trip to neighbouring Lithuania’s capital Vilnius on the day following our arrival in Riga. Most visitors to Riga combine Riga with one or both of the other two Baltic capital cities, Tallinn and/or Vilnius, because they’re so close, relatively easy and affordable to reach by local airlines (the 7h train connection to Vilnius goes via Russia and you have to change trains at least twice, so for most people that would not be a viable option), and not least because compact Riga can be explored relatively quickly (even though you could easily spend more time there and not get bored).
One of the first things we did, was take part in one of the free 2-hour walking tours that start in front of St. Peter’s Church and that give you a good overview of the history of the city.
Riga’s historical centre is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, mainly because of its Art Nouveau architecture (apparently nearly 40% of all buildings in this city; but we didn’t manage to explore these parts of town as much as we should have, we mainly stuck with the medieval parts of old town). In 2014, Riga also was the European Capital of Culture (together with Umeå in Sweden).
During the early Dark Ages Riga began to develop as a centre of Viking trade. The town had not yet been officially founded then. People lived mainly from animal husbandry, fishing, and trading, gradually also developing some crafts involving wood, amber, bone, and iron.
In 1158, German traders began visiting Riga and started setting up outposts, but it was not until 1201, that Riga was officially founded. It soon (in 1282) became a member of the most powerful organisation in the Baltic region and beyond: the Hanseatic League.
Our tour guide, who was really entertaining and seemed knowledgeable and well-read, regularly made allusions to the pagan past of the Latvians and the pride many of them still take in this pagan past, but times were not looking good for paganism in the late 1100s, with monk Meinhard of Segeberg arriving with the German traders and planning to convert the Latvian pagans to Christianity. He failed miserably. The church decided to send some crusaders and engage in forced Christianization. They were killed. The church was upset and decided to leave nothing to chance, and, on their third attempt, sent 23 ships with crusaders who managed to force Riga into submission.
Riga was captured by various armies over the following centuries, for many years becoming the largest city of Sweden, and thereafter one of the larger cities of Russia.
Despite these changes in ownership and horrible wars, the Baltic Germans in Riga had maintained a dominant position. By 1850, more than 40% of Riga’s population were German. German was Riga’s official language of administration, until it was replaced by Russian in the late 1800s. Nowadays Russia’s influence in Riga is strong and nearly 40% of Latvian residents consider themselves to be ethnic Russians, with Ukrainians and Belarussians contributing another 3 respectively 4% each. Latvians are an ethnic minority in their own country with less than 46% of residents considering themselves to be Latvian. Lithuanians, who are notoriously anti-Russian, contribute less than 1% of Latvia’s residents, even though Lithuania is next door to Latvia. There are next to no Estonians.
Every tour passes by the so-called Three Brothers, three adjacent old merchant’s buildings, one from the Gothic era, one from Renaissance, and one from Baroque. The Riga Radio and TV Tower is the tallest structure in the European Union, at 368m. It was built by the Soviet Union as a prestige project between 1979 and 1989 and looks rather sorry. Still, great effort, screw those satanic capitalist imperialists who promote democracy and freedom of travel.
The town hall square next to the river and St. Peter’s Church was damaged badly during WWII but nicely rebuilt (we ate there, at Salve restaurant, on our last day, and I thoroughly enjoyed their pork knuckle, even though it’s a bit touristy and pricey).
One of the best things about Riga in late spring (or summer or early autumn) is that there are so many outdoor seating areas and there is a real nice coffee culture. (The coffee is better than in the UK, the U.S. or Germany, but not quite as divine as in Vienna, Venice, or Versailles.)
We enjoyed dinner at Folkklubs, a basement tavern, part of which stems from the 13th century. It is admittedly very touristy and loud (they do karaoke and concerts most nights), but you can get a solid no-frills meal for under a tenner and it’s got a nice local traditional touch to it. They have a very large and tasty selection of local beers and you can try the famous Black Balsam liqueur (like we did, it tastes ok’ish). I had liver wrapped in bacon, and pork chops, my wife had grilled chicken covered in cheese, with a salad.
That evening we shared a cocktail at fancy Bar XIII (Strēlnieku iela 1A), less than one minute’s walk from our hotel, literally just around the corner. The bar is the second business venture of one of Latvia’s former national football players, if we understood correctly (the first one being a famous restaurant we didn’t find time to visit). 13 was his shirt number while still playing. The atmosphere was very elegant, the service impeccable, the other guests interesting (among others we got to know a local who now lives half of his life abroad, surfing, mainly in Australia and Hawaii, the rest of the time he runs a tech start-up in Riga), and best of all, these people really know how to mix a good drink.
One of the highlights was our visit to the enormous Central Market, which consists of five WWI-era dirigible hangars. It must be Europe’s biggest market by a far margin. We’ve certainly never been to a bigger one. Some parts are less impressing than others, but if you stay away from the 2nd hand clothes and electric goods stalls and stick with the farmer’s market and the stalls with ready-made food, then you really can’t go wrong. We found that most of the stall owners were not eager on having pictures taken of their stalls, possibly because that happens too much for their taste, but if you ask friendly, don’t use flashlight, and keep a low profile, you can easily get away with a few nice snaps. It helps, of course, if you also buy some of their produce.
On our last night we shared a cocktail at the Skyline Bar on the 26th floor of the Radisson Blu (Elizabetes Iela 55), a place that has all the charm of a Weatherspoon’s during happy hour at the price of a five star hotel, but the views make up for it a million times, so it’s an absolute must-do.
We enjoyed our lunch at Domini Canes (Skārņu Iela 18/20, ranking #9 out of 735 Riga restaurants on Tripadvisor). I had lamb shank (€14) and my wife had grilled chicken (€9.80).
MILDA restaurant (Dzirnavu 113a-103) is difficult to find. You have to cross a backyard, and then it’s hidden on the far right-hand side, with very limited signage, but this must have been the culinary highlight of our trip. The food was absolutely brilliant, mainly Russian/Latvian, with lots of other Eastern European influences and some modern Western ones, like French cuisine. Excellent taste, presentation, looks and service. On Tripadvisor it ranks #1 out of 735 Riga restaurants and a price indicator of £ out of ££££ for cheap, with main courses from €6 to €14.50. The portions were relatively small, so we tried several of their mains, including Russian Borscht with sour cream and beef strips and lovely German-style heavy rye bread, traditional Lithuanian grated potato pancakes served with creamy bacon sauce, delicious blood sausage on pickled red cabbage, potato wedges with sour cream, and several of their deserts.
Breakfast on our first morning in Riga was at the well-known, new luxury art nouveau hotel Neiburgs. The Eggs Royale were marvellous, nicely presented, with super-tasty cocktail tomatoes and leafy salad, and instead of toast or buns, you had two long mini flute stick halves covered in pesto-like wild garlic and spinach marinade. The hollandaise sauce was among the best we’ve ever had. Perfect texture. The café was nicely decorated, too, with black spider-like chandeliers that were each made up of about 15 or more extendable table lamps (the ones you would have at your work desk) and several beautiful modern oil paintings on the otherwise largely white walls of this elegant art nouveau building. The service was excellent and they unexpectedly didn’t even charge us extra for some extra wishes we had around our meal.
We had a jolly good time in Riga and would recommend it to anyone looking for a reasonably priced weekend destination in Europe.