Neither Riga nor Latvia come first to mind when thinking about Europe, but one of the benefits of having visited many of the Western, Central and Southern European cities and regions we wanted to is that we can start to focus on less visited, and in some cases more interesting and authentic, corners of the continent. Latvia has seen its fair share of modern history, having been occupied by the Soviet Union, then Nazi Germany, then again by the Soviet Union until its independence during the breakup of the USSR in the late 80s and early 90s. Riga, Latvia’s capital city, shows signs of its Soviet past, including a sizable ethnic Russian minority, but is also host to a charming and cosmopolitan medieval old town. We stayed in a beautiful artist’s apartment on Kalēju iela, one of the old town’s main drags, for our three-day visit.
Visiting in March meant we more or less had the city to ourselves. We checked out Bastion Hill, a partially fortified hill with a series of intertwining paths, to get our bearings. The nearby Freedom Monument shoots over 100 feet into the sky, marking Latvia’s original fight for independence in the early 20th century. Unveiled in the 1930s, only a few years before the Soviet invasion, the monument stood in irony through most of the rest of the 20th century. Vērmanes dārzs, just a few steps away, is an attractive park at the southern edge of Riga’s more modern Centrs district. Opposite of the main thoroughfare Brīvības bulvāris lies Esplanāde park, crowned by the magnificent Riga Nativity of Christ Cathedral, one of the many Russian Orthodox churches that dot Latvia.
We spent a lot of time in RIIJA, a homeware shop full of thoughtfully designed and handmade goodies. As you wander deeper into Centrs, you’ll notice many examples of art nouveau architecture. Centrs was built up primarily in the early 20th century when art nouveau was a popular style and one that Latvians associated with cosmopolitan Europe. The city went so crazy with it that it now holds the title of the city with the highest concentration of art nouveau architecture in the world! Alberta and Elizabetes ielas are together the epicentre of art nouveau—we especially liked the latter. We also spent a lot of time in the Art Nouveau Museum, an apartment built and designed in the style. The main staircase in the building is a sight to behold in and of itself! We ended our first day with a stroll along the city canal back into the old town.
Our other day in Riga (our day trip to Cēsis will be covered in another post) started with a whirlwind tour of the old town. We walked past the “Cat’s House” on our way to Jacob’s Barracks, now home to many restaurants, bars, and shops. We passed through the Swedish Gate and snaked our way down to the Three Brothers, the oldest homes in the city. Doma laukums is host to Mākslas muzejs Rīgas Birža and Riga Cathedral. The museum had some interesting exhibitions (for example one celebrating the 500th anniversary of the Reformation) and a collection of vivid Nicholas Roerich paintings—and best yet we literally had the place to ourselves! After a quick stop at Rātslaukums to appreciate the House of Blackheads, we sought a different perspective of the old town from the top of St. Peter's Church’s 236-foot tower!
After a snack from Riga’s Central Market, which is spread between a series of huge old zeppelin hangars, we wandered through the Warehouse District into Riga’s rarely-visited Moscow District. Named for the neighborhood’s proximity to the main road between Riga and Moscow, the district today is Riga’s poorest and home to a significant proportion of the city’s Russian population. Additionally, there are over a quarter-million people, most of whom ethnic Russians, who reside in Latvia but have neither Latvian nor Russian (or otherwise) citizenship; many of them live in this part of Riga. Though this area is only a stone’s throw from the attractive old town, it feels a world away, with the imposing Latvian Academy of Sciences building keeping a watchful eye on you wherever you go. The area is worth some time for a more authentic view into life in urban Latvia. We didn’t spend too much time here but were able to make a loop around Gogoļa and Maskavas ielas, visiting the beautiful Orthodox Church of Annunciation and striking Great Choral Synagogue Memorial, built on the ruins of a synagogue burned to the ground—with dozens of Jews inside—during the Nazi occupation.
Food in Riga wasn’t the greatest, but we had a few good (and one very interesting…) experiences. BakeBerry is a modern bakery serving everything from croissants and cinnamon rolls to eclairs and huge macarons. Melna Bite, which provided probably the best food of the trip, is a higher scale lunch and dinner spot serving delicious food with lots of health-conscious options. De Commerce Gastro Pub 1871 is a hotel restaurant serving a wide range of Western European and American food—it’s a good option if you need a break from the local cuisine. Speaking of local cuisine, we received multiple recommendations before our trip to visit one of the city’s many Lido restaurants. These places provide local food at budget prices and offer a very kitschy atmosphere in which to enjoy it. We wouldn’t say we were too satisfied with the food, but it surely was an experience!
Riga was a perfect place for a three-day weekend and gave us a different view on a part of Europe we didn’t previously know much about. As we continue to cross off more traditional tourist areas in Europe, we will probably find ourselves in this part of the continent more often, which is exciting considering the opportunities for exploration and education in countries born out of the fall of the Soviet Union.