A city guide to Riga, Latvia's thriving capital

With a medieval old town, art nouveau touches and vestiges of a Soviet past, the Latvian capital is a patchwork of a city that bears marks of its former occupiers. But a more modern Riga, of cocktail bars and high-rise hotels, is weaved in too.

Wednesday, February 19, 2020,
By David Whitley
House of the Blackheads, Riga.
The House of the Blackheads is a Dutch Renaissance guild house that was rebuilt and reopened in 2001.
Photograph by Simon Bajada

Riga has the look of somewhere that really, really wants people to visit it on a city break. It knows it’ll never have the art collections, international icons and global player dynamism of Paris, New York and Madrid. But there’s no question it’s prepared to hustle its way into the second tier. The old town, in particular, looks almost suspiciously adorable: it’s clear that serious money and determination has been thrown into every paint-lick and building restoration. Chunky red-brick churches and guild houses with satisfyingly decorative flourishes line a free-for-all of medieval streets that city planners long gave up on organising coherently.

These lanes lead pedestrians out into a series of squares, which, on an admittedly rare sunny day, are absolute catnip for idlers who enjoy sitting on a cafe terrace people-watching. Come the long summer evenings, coffees are switched for beers, and there’s a perceptible glow of agreeable pleasantness.

It should be noted that this feels a far cry from what Riga was like when cheap flights and European Union membership first put it on the city break radar. Back in the mid-2000s, it was a lads-on-tour mayhem magnet, with stag parties lured in by what was then cheap beer and a blind eye turned to the sort of things brides would disapprove of. But nowadays, it feels far more cruise ship than booze cruise, and there have been clear efforts to promote aspects — art nouveau architecture, the markets, history and Latvian food — that would have been lost in the swilling haze 15 years ago.

Riga is also notable for being a capital city that stands apart from the rest of the country. The city feels like it holds the rest of Latvia at arm’s length, mystified as to why everyone’s so obsessed with hanging out in forests and gathering mushrooms. 

This is at least partly because Riga was, historically, a separate entity — a Hanseatic trading port, run by a sizeable German merchant contingent, which preferred soaring brick guild houses to dainty, wooden rural shacks.

Over time it’s found itself bundled into an ever-rotating roster of larger political entities — German, Russian, Swedish, Polish-Lithuanian, Nazi and Soviet empires have all swallowed up Riga, sometimes tying it to the surrounding areas, sometimes treating it as a standalone port city.

This cavalcade of influences adds up, bringing edges and personality traits that hold the attention long after the joy of mooching around the old town starts to wear thin. Riga may be eager to please, but there’s plenty behind the make-up.

Lido Vermanitis is a Riga institution, known for its cheesy country hut-style decor.
Photograph by Simon Bajada

See & do

House of the Blackheads: The most potent symbol of how Riga’s old town has been dolled up is this ornate edifice, which was wrecked in two stages — during the Second World War and during Soviet occupation. The Dutch Renaissance guild house, all ziggurat-esque sides and decorative twiddliness, was rebuilt and reopened in 2001.

The park ‘moat’: A series of parks, with a canal running through them, turns the old town into something of an island. These parks are fantastic to hang out in, but also full of little oddities, including the memorial stones to those killed during the Soviet attack of January 1991 and the man-made, snail-like Bastejkalns hillock. Keep an eye out for beavers in the evening.

Boat cruises: The canal can be combined with the Daugava River for a leisurely, looping pootle around the old town. There are several grand (and borderline absurd) monuments to ogle, but the west bank of the Daugava is home to a host striking modern buildings — including the love-it-or-hate-it National Library Building, which looks a bit like a giant glass shoe.

Riga Ghetto and Latvian Holocaust Museum: Part of the former Jewish ghetto has had its warehouse district filled with cafes and galleries, but this free, largely open-air museum commemorates wartime horrors. The replica train carriage, full of information on the systematic transportation to concentration camps and execution sites, is particularly sobering.

Museum of the Occupation of Latvia: Continue the tour through Latvian history with this well-presented journey through Nazi and Soviet occupation. Resistance movements, families split with sons fighting on three sides and mass deportations to the Siberian gulags are all on the menu.

Latvian Academy of Sciences: It’s hard to miss this clunking great Soviet throwback in the Moscow District. A dramatic example of tiered Stalinist architecture, the building is also home to an open-air observation deck that affords fabulous 360-degree views over the pancake-flat city.

Art nouveau district: Many of Riga’s 800-plus art nouveau buildings are concentrated north of the old town. Some of the most audacious are on Elizabetes iela and Alberta iela, with the most detailed, flamboyant masterworks by Mikhail Eisenstein. Riga Trips runs walking tours here.

Art Nouveau Museum: This museum — fittingly housed in one of the city’s most lavish art nouveau buildings — is a must for admirers of the style. It’s handled well, with lots of touchscreen information, while the period apartment adorned with furniture and window decoration is outrageously sumptuous. Don’t forget to look up the spiralling staircase, too.

lingonberries from the forest being divided and weighed at the Riga Central Market.
Photograph by Simon Bajada

Buy

Riga Central Market: The five giant ‘pavilions’ the largest market in Europe is based around were originally designed to be airship hangars. Now they constitute a cornucopia of fresh food — including pig’s heads, trotters and a variety of unusual baked goods. The ‘Gastronomic Pavilion’ is the most visitor-friendly, with food court-esque specialist stalls and cheese and treats merchants.

Hobbywool: Patterned woollen clothing — particularly mittens — is traditionally big in Latvia, although it’s more a rural thing. Hobbywool, a sort of a knitting supplies store, brings it to Riga’s old town, however. In among the knitting kits are mittens, socks and more, made from wool that’s been hand-sheared on a family farm.

Art Nouveau Riga: Clearly milking its position opposite the Art Nouveau Museum, this very deliberate time warp of a shop sells pretty much any souvenir knick-knack you might consider — in the art nouveau style. That means decorative tiles, books, jewellery, plates, purses, glasses, the works. It could have been tacky, but much of what’s on sale is rather endearing.

Like a local

National romanticism: Eisenstein’s buildings are the flashiest examples of art nouveau, and they’re almost a genre to themselves. But far more of Riga’s art nouveau treasure chest is muted. In the centre, look out for the more subtle ‘national romanticism’ buildings, which incorporate earthy colours and forest-themed motifs.

Creative quarters: Locals don’t tend to hang out in the old town, preferring instead a series of former industrial sites that have been turned into ‘creative quarters’ full of start-up businesses, indie cafes, galleries and bars. The Kalnciema Quarter, with its wooden buildings and markets on the western side of the Daugava, is the best example, although the former Jewish ghetto behind the Central Market is more easily accessible.

Pickled food: The Latvian approach to food seems to be based on the assumption that a 10-year winter is approaching. If they can smoke it, or pickle it, they will. The Central Market provides the most eye-poppingly high scale illustration of this, but there’s been a recent uptick of pride and confidence in local cuisine that’s increasingly filtering through to restaurant menus.

Eat

Lido Vermanitis: The Lido mini-chain of self-service, canteen-style restaurants is a Riga institution, usually filled with cheesy country hut-style decor and soundtracked by questionable sub-oompah music. It’s not fine food, but it’s hearty, cheap, varied and distinctive. The Vermanitis and Dzirnavas branches are in the Central District and there’s another in the old town.

Zviedru Varti: In a 16th-century building next to the old town’s Swedish Gate, this family-run labour of love is at its best with the meaty winter warmers, such as pork leg with stewed cabbage, or duck breast with pear and red wine sauce. The interior is cosy — come the evening it’s positively romantic and low-lit — and attentive service is a point of honour.

Vincents: There are some local dishes here, including Baltic Sea flounder and grilled venison with wild mushrooms, but the aim is to be international standard rather than just the top address in town. That means Japanese wagyu beef, Faroe Islands langoustines, Ibérico pork, tasting menus and a hefty wine list.

Līvu Square, a small park in the centre of the old town.
Photograph by Simon Bajada

After hours

Brevings: A perfect symbol of the new, more sedate Riga, Brevings has terrace tables on the Old Town’s busiest square, but doesn’t pull in the rowdy crowd. The beer range is excellent — including several Latvian craft brews and a whole host of Belgian imports — but the single malt selection is even better.

Cafe Leningrad: Knowingly playing up the Soviet-era kitsch, with old radios stacked up against the back wall, 1970s-style furniture and a smattering of Lenin portraits, this bar morphs into a punk joint at night. The tiny stage round the corner from the bar see bands perform before a backdrop of bras, presumably donated by patrons.

Gimlet Nordic: Don’t expect easy-going mai tais in this very particular cocktail joint. The emphasis is pointedly on Northern European flavours, such as the nordic cooler, where sherry gets sharpened up with aquavit and dill. The forest vibes introduces the bitter and botanical-heavy local liqueur, Riga Black Balsam, with vodka and gooseberry cordial.

Sleep

Hotel Gutenbergs: Spread over two old town buildings, this charmer makes up for small rooms with an awful lot of thought. The little things thrown into the mix include a copy of the Gutenberg Bible, centuries-old paintings and several wall-mounted engravings. Rooms from €57 (£48).

Radisson Blu Latvija: This glossy high rise is defiant, modern Riga. Don’t expect a world of excitement in the business-orientated rooms, but the Skyline Bar on the 26th floor has tremendous city views, and the lifts going up the outside of the building are a fantastic gimmick. Rooms from €98 (£82).

Hotel Bergs: Built around a glorious courtyard with a grand old chestnut tree, this stately 19th-century building is liberally sprinkled with Latvian Old Master art, plants, art nouveau design flourishes and — somewhat less explicably — African textiles. There’s a whiff of Scandinavian clean lines in the room design, too. Rooms from €128 (£107).

Essentials

Getting there & around

There are plenty of direct flights from the UK to Riga, including Wizzair’s routes from Doncaster Sheffield and Luton. Ryanair goes from Edinburgh, East Midlands, Stansted, Manchester and Leeds-Bradford. AirBaltic has a year-round route from Gatwick, plus a seasonal route from Aberdeen, while British Airways flies there direct from Heathrow. 
Average flight time: 2h45m.

Bus number 22 goes from the airport to the city centre every 10-30 minutes, taking around half an hour. Tickets cost €2 (£1.70) from the driver. Taxis take around 15 minutes and should cost around €15 (£12.80). Public transport fare, timetable and journey-planner information is available at rigassatiksme.lv

When to go

Riga isn’t a winter sun destination, and the cold, dark winter months when the temperature hovers around freezing don’t show the city at its best. Summer can be rather magical, with temperatures around 22-24C.

More info

liveriga.com
inyourpocket.com/riga
Insight Guides’ Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania
(2019). RRP £15.99

How to do it

Myriga.co.uk offers city break packages, including three nights staying B&B at the four-star Hotel Gutenbergs, with return flights from Manchester, from £234 per person.

Published in the March 2020 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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