There’s Something About Riga

Look skyward while walking around Riga and you will be rewarded with glimpses of fanciful architectural flourishes. Roughly 40 percent of the buildings in this port city were built in the Art Nouveau style.

Some of these stately stunners—constructed primarily at the turn of the 20th century, during the height of Riga’s wealth, and clustered in the city’s historic city center—have seen better days. This fact, along with the blustery weather that accompanied my visit, lent an air of Baltic melancholy to the streets.

Still, there is a quiet but palpable spirit of renewal in Riga, demonstrated by construction cranes and a spate of new shops and eateries opening up around town.

Heather Hall, an American travel blogger living in Riga, reports that the city remains under the international tourist radar, meaning that crowds are thin, even in summer. “You can enjoy the city’s wealth of cultural attractions and stunning architecture in relative peace and quiet,” she says.

Compact Riga is tailor-made for a weekend visit. And for travelers in search of authenticity, the Latvian capital delivers in spades.

Here’s my brief guide to the best sights, eats, and stays:

> Wander: Five Must-Dos

The massive Central Market, which consists of five imposing structures incorporating the frames of World War I-era dirigible hangars, is almost certainly Europe’s largest bazaar. Tip: Look for a local favorite in the spring—bottles of birch water, tapped directly from the tree.

Meander down Miera Street. In addition to discovering a veritable treasure trove of charming local boutiques and restaurants on this hip byway, you’ll find the Laima Chocolate Museum. Locals rave about Riga Black Balsam, a vodka-based herbal liqueur, though I found it to be too potent to enjoy. A more palatable way to sample the traditional flavor: Snap up a box of Black Balsam chocolate in the museum’s shop.

Head to the Art Nouveau Museum for a fascinating peek into Riga’s love affair with the well-loved aesthetic philosophy also known as Jugendstil. Tip: Pop across the street to the Art Nouveau Riga shop to pick up a functional—and beautiful—souvenir to take home.

Visit the Kalnciema Quarter, a cluster of restored late 19th-century wooden buildings located a five-minute drive from Riga’s Old Town (Vecrīga) on the right bank of the Daugava River. Tip: Go on a Saturday to experience a popular food and craft market that brings live music to the quaint neighborhood. “Latvia has a strong handicraft tradition,” Hall told me. “The workmanship is exquisite.”

See a performance at the beautiful Hapsburg-era Latvian National Opera, which draws opera lovers looking for affordable access to world-class performances from all over Europe. “Tickets can be had for less than 20 euros,” Hall says. Not an opera fan? Cruise by anyway; the park surrounding the theater is one of the loveliest spots in Riga.

> Eat & Drink: Three Ways

Typical Latvian cuisine revolves around pork, cabbage, pickled vegetables, and hearty soups (frikadeļu zupa, meatball soup, was my favorite). But like many cities I visit, global influences are making their way onto the food scene in Riga.

Coffee: Happily, there is a lively cafe culture in Riga. And nearly all coffee shops serve casual food. Follow my lead and overindulge in frothy cappuccinos at Rocket Bean Roastery. If you’re in need of a hair cut, there’s an on-site barber shop at popular gourmet coffee bar Vest Riga.

Food: Located around the corner from the Art Nouveau Museum, Art Cafe Sienna is one of the most sumptuous Old World spots in town. (Plan to spend a couple of hours nibbling and people-watching here.) For hearty, healthy food served family style, try Istaba, one of Hall’s favorite spots for dinner. And tiny Stock Pot Bistro features communal seating and smells like home-cooked bliss. That’s the idea, as servers spoon heaping portions of curries onto your plate.

Cocktails: Krogs Aptieka: This bar (operated by an American-Latvian) takes inspiration from an old-school pharmacy, with antique pills and bottles for decor. Bar grub, think burgers and chicken, is served at night.

> Sleep: Two Great Stays

On the whole, Riga hotels offer travelers an incredible value.

I loved the Dome Hotel, a Relais & Chateaux property set in a 400-year-old building on a quiet Old Town street. Its location directly behind Dome Square allowed me to wander Riga without a map and find my way back by scanning the skyline for the weathercock atop the grand Riga Cathedral, the square’s focal point.

Hotel Bergs, located next to the Bergs Bazaar, is another delightful option. The surrounding neighborhood is filled with shops and eateries, perfect for exploring on foot.

Annie Fitzsimmons is Nat Geo Travel’s Urban Insider, exploring the cities of the world with style. Follow her adventures on Twitter @anniefitz and on Instagram @anniefitzsimmons.

Comments

  1. Lena
    June 1, 2016, 7:14 am

    Riga is much an awesome place, there were couple of great places I really miss, like Pelmeni XL :D
    This was a first place I ever traveled to independently, so it means a lot to me <3

  2. Flora Adams
    March 15, 2016, 1:27 am

    Thanks for sharing this wonderful post with us. The capital city of Latvia, situated on the Baltic Sea coast, this is one of Europe’s most popular cities for tourists. Riga has plenty to things from history to culture, from shopping to nightlife. If you’re scheduled to land here, you can choose from different local transportation modes around here. You can take help of a well-known transportation service provider baltic-airport-transfers.com.

  3. Labonno
    Dhaka, Bangladesh
    October 14, 2015, 11:01 am

    I don’t know about riga before read the informative article, I appreciate your writing and travelling kills, I want to read more like this, thanks for share..

  4. tile
    Italy
    October 10, 2015, 3:17 am

    I have been travelling to Riga in the last 15 years at least 4 times a year.I agree it is a very nice town.Prices of restaurants and transports have been raising every year, so while I agree hotels are at reasonable prices, good restaurants are not anymore.You can find very good food in every Rimi supermarket and finally Stockmann.The only problem with Riga is that Air Baltic is almost the only airline connecting the town with other main towns in Europe.If you skip Lufthansa, no other airline, if I will remember, offers direct connections.I remember KLM was offering two flights a day from Amsterdam, and Czech Airlines was offering a flight a day to Prague.The result is that if you want to fly anywhere from Riga, you have to buy Air Baltic and then another ticket with another airline.Air Baltic is not cheap anymore, while Ryan Air offers a few cheap connection and Norwegian too.You did not mention the Open Air museum and some more Museums by the way.Let me add that for stamps collectors the service of the Post Office is very kind and efficient, while the coin collectors will find a good service at the Central Bank two offices.Unluckily, while the Post Office has employees that speak very good english, the Central bank has not,and their webpage is not updated frequently.Informations office at the Central Station is very kind and efficient, but there is no information office at the Airport.As far as I know, there is no Visitors’ card, allowing you free Musuems entries and free transports,as, for instance, in Stockholm.What I recommend is that the town should be more tourist oriented.. but of course it takes time.

  5. Vig living in Riga 2015
    Riga, Latvia
    October 8, 2015, 6:08 pm

    Hi,
    I’m from Riga, and was curious to read this article… However, I have to consider, that this article doesn’t give the image and real look to Riga.
    I’d love to be your guide in Riga, Dear Annie! After reading the article, I feel sad, that you didn’t meet Riga’s Best Spots… We have the tallest TV Tower in European Union (EU) – 368,5 m… and it reminds the Eiffel’s Tower in Paris… You can have the BEST Hot Chocolate in the Town not only in Chocolat Museum of Laima Brand (which is not the local brand anymore), but in any other Laima chocolate shops, which are plenty in our Riga. We have Breathtaking Orthodox Cathedral, stunning green parks…
    As I’d be the official Trip advisor, I’d exclude the Central Market for Tourists – its pretty dangerous for them and the personnel of the sales points are not communicating in foreign languages, the customer service there has to improve a lot..

    Regarding places to eat, to stay, to go for a coffee… well, to be honest – best were missing (and I agree with you for Bergs and Dom Hotels… but.. they are ptobably most expensive in the city and there are much more affordable and offering excellent services and locations nearby the already mentioned ones).

    The best time to visit Riga is May – September. Maby it was a reason, that the article’s writer couldn’t enjoy Best of Riga due to the presented content, because of not having the appropriate time for visiting our City of Inspiration. Riga is Wonderful place to discover, but just for summer period. The rest reriod of the year(October – April) – Riga is the best place for making business/to work fully focused on the settled goals.

    I Love my town – Amazing Riga.
    I wish Annie would come again in Riga and put the more exact story of Riga’s Spirit and Elegance.
    Riga is a Capital where females lead, matching high level of both criteria – the intelligence & beauty.
    P.s. I also missed photo of the Biggest Treasure of Riga – the photo of Art Nuevo Buildings located on Elizabetes, Brivibas, Terbatas, Barona, Baznicas, Valdemara …. streets

    P.s. in Riga you’d enjoy cheapest taxis in Europe. I recommend Panda Taxi Company.

    And every May you allso can participate in Lattelecom Riga Marathon (the Bronze Race level). Registration is available from every October. I did it too couple years ago..

    I apologize to the author of the article for any inconvenience my feedback may rise. I really Love my Riga. I wish it is very sweet to its any visitor.

    Btw, the emblem of the town has the Swedish crown. Come to visit Riga to discover more fun facts!
    Thank you for reading my review.

    Kind Regards,
    Vita

    • Annie Fitzsimmons
      October 13, 2015, 1:15 pm

      Dear Vita,
      Thank you so much for writing and for your tips and thoughts. I had the pleasure of going around Riga with several locals, including students from Riga Technical University and Riga Business School, as well as other writers and business people – but always wish I had time to speak with more locals as well.
      I appreciate the warning, but I didn’t feel unsafe at all at the Central Market. In fact, I found it very welcoming and hospitable to visitors. And I loved so many of Riga’s beautiful green parks…
      Thanks also for the taxi tip!
      I loved Elizabetes street for the Art Nouveau architecture…
      Please let me know your favorite cafes and places for hot chocolate – have you visited Rocket Bean yet? I loved it and really admired the passion the owner had for coffee and creating a place for local people to hang out.
      Thanks again.

  6. vinay
    http://www.centratravels.com/
    October 7, 2015, 2:45 am

    Riga is one of my favourite destination regularly i am traveling this place.. really such a awesome place.. after reading this article.. really i remember my traveling memories..thanks for sharing