When I first decided upon Riga as my next city break, I was at once bombarded by confused, even disdainful reactions from family, friends, and colleagues alike.
‘Where the fuck is Latvia? And why are you even going?’
From this eloquent consensus, it soon became apparent that Riga was perhaps viewed as a more unusual choice as a destination. It may not be the first city that comes to mind when considering a mini break, but I feel this is an absolute shame considering the wealth of attributes this beautiful, characteristic city has to offer.
Nestled between Estonia, Lithuania and Russia, Latvia possesses the largest populations of all Baltic capitals in the form of its oh-so-decadent city of Riga. Strong aesthetics and lively nightlife define the capital and its inhabitants alike, creating a hip, relaxed vibe through its meandering cobbled streets. After gaining independence from Soviet rule in 1990, the country has gone from strength to strength in restoring its identity; establishing the very first art nouveau style buildings, the capital has become distinctive in its highly decorative use of architecture. Whether you’re looking for a quiet, cultural trip, or aiming to immerse yourself in the chaos of its lively bars and clubs, the city has something to suit all tastes.
For this particular trip, my partner and I decided to take a break from our usual Airbnb stays by booking a hotel in the heart of Riga’s Old Town. We opted for the highly rated Rixwell Hotel, which has plenty of cosy rooms complete with mini bars, as well as offering the most gorgeous champagne/pancake breakfasts. You do have to pay extra for use of the spa facilities, but most treatments aren’t too badly priced.
As we arrived fairly late in the evening, we decided to head straight out and hit the local restaurants and bars. Riga’s Old Town is an absolute treasure trove of romantic eateries, with many establishments suited for those looking to stick to a budget. Restaurants such as Folkklubs Ala Pagrabs and Domini Canes are worthy of a visit, offering authentic Latvian cuisine at a low cost. If you’re looking for a more upmarket eatery, I’d recommend the stylish Petergailis Restaurant, serving an elegant range of Eastern European food. Staff are friendly and eager to please, and the quality and price of the food is outstanding- we tucked into fish soup, lamb shank and a chocolate fondant for less than 40 euros, including a fair few glasses of wine. If you’re looking for fine-dining style food without the over inflated price tag, make sure to pop by this quaint little eatery.
Unsurprisingly, there’s plenty of sightseeing attractions dotted around the city. Our first stop was the House of the Blackheads: despite its dubious name, it served as an aesthetic delight, decked out in a fabulous gothic design with a hint of Dutch Renaissance. I’d also suggest visiting Riga’s Cathedral, where you can not only take in the stunning medieval architecture of the church, but also explore the grounds.
If you want to continue the architectural tour, you’ll find plenty of stunning scenes in the form of the capital’s pastel art nouveau buildings, a movement created and inspired by Mikhail Eisenstein. Elaborate, flamboyant, with plenty of flowers and gargoyles, this style of architecture came as quite as a surprise to me; while I had already visited the sherbert-hued houses of Copenhagen and Burano, these buildings were on a scale of opulence I had rarely seen nor expected. Even if you’re not really into architecture, you’ll find it difficult not to admire these ornate buildings for yourself.
Whilst Riga Old Town perhaps offers more potential for those Instagram-worthy photos, be sure to stray into the heart of the city centre, where you can visit the capital’s lavish gold-topped palace, or the Latvian War of Independence Memorial. Be aware that temperatures here are absolutely brutal during winter (temperatures dipped to -11 during our visit), so be sure to pack your thermals if you’re keen to explore the city on foot. Dressed in at least four layers, we took shelter from the cold by exploring Natural History Museum of Latvia, where we spent a comfortable afternoon admiring the exhibitions and interactive displays. The museum houses versatile collections of natural objects, such as minerals and fossils, and taxidermy animals, comprising into 195,000 items in total. Entry to the Museum costs a mere 2.13 euros, and serves as a great indoor activity if the weather isn’t at its best.
Riga possesses plenty of other cultural hotspots; take a walk over to Riga’s quaint park side Aspara Tea House, explore fantastic Art Nouveau museum, or else brush up on your historical prowess by visiting the Occupation Museum. Operating upon a donation basis, it’s a great, cheap way to learn about Latvia’s turbulent history as an occupied Soviet country, only interrupted by the totalitarian
Nazi regime during the 1940s. For a relatively small exhibition, there’s plenty of information on offer here, condensed in a way that gives you a great insight into Latvia’s history without feeling overbearing.
When it comes to nightlife, Riga really does deliver. Whether you’re after rowdy karaoke bars or independent brew houses, there’s plenty on offer; Bon Vivant and Peter’s Brewhouse serve a huge selection of European beers, whilst bars such as the Funny Fox are perfectly suited for those partial to a cheeky cocktail. Our favourite find was Easy Wine, an elegant Old Town bar that serves wine on tap. Essentially you’re given a card that’s already preloaded with fifty euros, which you then scan into a machine in order to select a wine, and size, of your choosing. It’s a great concept, but bear in mind that it’s all too easy to spend a fortune in a short space of time. There’s a huge array of wines on offer though, featuring everything from classic Spanish reds, to more unusual, sweeter notes in the form of its excellent choice of dessert wines. If wine really isn’t your thing, don’t despair- there’s also an Easy Beer bar that operates under the same process, located a mere three doors down from its sister company.
Before you leave, make sure you take time out to visit Riga’s beautiful St Peter’s Church. Not only functioning as a place of worship, the church also serves as an exhibition space for art and textiles, and creates a striking interplay between Lutheran architecture and contemporary visuals. While this section of the church is undoubtedly beautiful, it’s the church’s tower that really offers the most stunning of scenes; here you can take an elevator to a height of seventy-two metres, and look out across Riga’s colourful cityscape. Take some snaps and bask in yet more architectural mastery.
It’s safe to say that I’ve fallen absolutely in love with Riga. There’s so much warmth and vibrancy here, so much unexpected beauty, that is seems incredible that tourists aren’t flocking to the Latvian capital. Give it a few years, and it may begin to receive the recognition it deserves. But for now, Riga will continue to be one of Europe’s best kept secrets, and serve as truly underrated, budget friendly alternative to your standard city break.