Image: Flickr @ robertpaulyoung
The Baltic Jewel in the Crown
Often called the Paris of the East, Riga is fairy tale confection of turrets, cobbled streets and sumptuous art nouveau architecture that manages to look just as beautiful against the cold steel sky of a Baltic winter as it does against the cobalt blue of a Latvian summer.
With its thriving modern art scene, a handful of heavyweight restaurants and a thumping, glitter-coated nightlife, this mini capital punches well above its weight. If it’s history you’re after then the Old Town won’t disappoint with its labyrinthine streets lined with chichi clothing boutiques aimed at wealthy Russians, jewellery shops glowing orange with Baltic amber, bakeries and ancient stone houses that have crouched there for hundreds of years, determined to avoid the encroachment of the modern high-rises and shopping malls that circle the centre of the city.
Image: Flickr @ Jean-Pierre Dalbéra
Image: Flickr @ Jean-Pierre Dalbéra
Riga Fact file
- Riga uses the Euro as its currency
- There are more Russians than ethic Latvians in Riga so expect to hear a mixture of Russian and Latvian spoken in the streets.
- Riga is a designated 2014 Capital of Culture. Check out all the cultural goings on through the official portal at riga2014.org
- The app: Riga Tourist Guide has a downloadable app on Google Play with maps and sightseeing guides to the city
- The book: Commodore Hornblower by C.S. Forester is a book about the high seas adventures of Horatio Hornblower is set in the historic centre of Riga during the Napoleonic war
Where to stay
Stepping into the Ekes Konvents Hotel feels like you’re stepping back in time, which is unsurprising when you consider that it was the very first guest house to open in Riga back in 1435. It was turned into a sanctuary for the widows of Guild’s craftsmen at the end of the 16th century by the City’s Burgomaster Nikolauss Eke who thought that opening the Konvents would clean up his public image after he was accused of syphoning off money from the City Treasury. Ekes was opened as a guest house in 2005 and retains the long, cloister corridors with small rooms known as cells.
Luckily for the guests, the cells are more boutique chic than jailbird with traditional furnishings, wooden floors and miniscule bathrooms expertly squeezed into the small double rooms. While the atmosphere in this tiny hotel has the potential to feature on Most Haunted Live, its smart renovation and the helpful staff on hand to highlight the best of the cities entertainment make it seem more like a family B&B than a historic sanctuary.
Nestled on Skārņu street, Ekes forms part of a pretty line of shops, galleries and restaurants facing St Peter’s church in the centre of Riga’s old town. If you’ve had one too many sips of the national liqueur, Black Balsam, then just look out for the bronze statue of The Musicians of Bremen, which is exactly opposite the hotel and which, incidentally, offers the perfect post-evening selfie opportunity.
Image: Flickr @ Natodawn
What to eat
Baltic cuisine has a bit of a reputation for being all meat, beer and potatoes but Riga is fast turning into a diner’s dream with a new generation of restaurants specialising in fine dining and utilising some of Latvia’s seasonal, local ingredients like Baltic herring, berries and birch tree juice.
However, no trip to Riga would be complete without sampling some of their famous rye bread and hemp butter and drinking a Clavis Riga cocktail made with apple juice and Black Balsam, a tar-black, medicinal liqueur. Try the bread, pastries and cakes on offer at Rigensis, Tirgoņu 8.
Vincents Restaurant is 15 minutes outside the Old Town but it’s well worth the visit as it was voted the best restaurant in Latvia this year and the likes of Prince Charles, Elton John, the Emperor of Japan and Heston Bluhmenthal have eaten there. Owner and celebrated chef Mārtiņš Rītiņš produces exquisite dishes of seasonal food sourced from local producers like wild salmon and venison from the forests of Ventspils.
Image: Flickr @ Leon Brocard
If you’re short on cash and time you can’t go wrong with the hot, stodgy fare on offer at one of the Pelmeņi XL cafes, which serve up plates of steaming pelmeni (Russian dumplings) or varenyky (Ukranian dumplings) with lashings of sour cream to hungry patrons at rock bottom prices.
Image: Flickr @ Fearless Fred
It’s not all just bread and booze in Riga. Take a trip to the Central Market on the outskirts of town and browse through the seemingly endless airport hangar warehouses for anything from haunches of beef and gleaming cured fish to stacks of brightly-hued fruit and jars of golden Baltic honey. The honey, heady with lavender and wild flowers and jammed full of sticky combs, only costs a few euros and makes the perfect foodie present.
Image: Flickr @ wseltzer
Where to drink
- Star Lounge Bar: head to the highest bar in Riga at the top of the Albert Hotel for a cocktail and bird’s eye view of the old town
- Rīgas Balzams: a favourite with diplomats, expats and well-heeled locals, this bar, unsurprisingly, specialises in glasses of the bitter local drink Black Balsam. Torņa 4, Riga.
- D’Vine Bar: futuristic metal furnishing, a glowing ceiling and wall to wall glass make this wine and tapas bar the place to see and be seen in the city
- I Love You: ignoring the twee name, I Love You is one of the coolest little places in Riga with dark wood, exposed brick, hardwood floors, a bohemian vibe and a plethora of decent cocktails and beers
What to do
You can’t visit Riga without taking in the magnificent architectural homage to Art Nouveau that makes up 40% of the city centre’s buildings. The best part of these UNESCO World Heritage sites is that they are free, all you have to do is wander down the streets and look up to see the artistic movement in all its gothic, lavish and sometimes downright spooky splendour. Think gargoyles, tormented faces and plenty of artistically bared breasts.
Most of the more elaborate building are found along Alberta Street, a 20 minute walk from St Peter’s Church where you’ll also find the sumptuous Riga Art Nouveau Museum at No.12. Housed in the old apartment of the architect Konstantīns Pēkšēns, the place is packed full of dainty treasures and even the winding staircase is a work of art. If you fall in love with Riga’s style then don’t forget to visit Art Nouveau Riga as it’s the only shop on the city to sell exclusively all Art Nouveau merchandise from plaster busts to silk scarves and lamps.
If you like your buildings to pack less of a pretty punch then visit the hulking Riga Cathedral, the largest place of worship in the Baltics with two-metre thick walls and an organ that comes with a terrifying 6,768 pipes. If you can fit it in, an evening at the National Opera House is a surprisingly cheap night out with performances ranging from international opera companies, jazz bands, ballet stars and cabaret artists and tickets starting from a bargain-basement £1.50.
How to get there
Riga has one major airport located at Skulte, 8km west of the city centre. There are Airport Express minibuses that regularly shuttle passengers on the 30 minute journey between the airport and the city centre for £4 per ticket. Riga’s international bus station can be found behind the railway embankment next to the Central Market. Ecolines +371 6721 4512 ecolines.lv runs weekly coach services to Germany, Brussels, London, Moscow, Paris and Prague. Eurolines have coaches that travel daily to Tallinn, Vilnius and Tartu +371 6721 4080 eurolines.lv
Ekes Konvents offers double rooms from £47 per night based on two sharing including breakfast. To book, call +371 6735 8393 or visit www.ekeskonvents.lv
AirBaltic flies to Riga from Gatwick daily, with single fares starting from £60. Visit www.airbaltic.com to book.