Discovering Riga

Less visited and with fewer obvious tourist attractions than other Baltic capitals such as Estonia’s Tallinn, Riga in Latvia is best enjoyed the local way. Huong Bergström explores.

Click here to read the article in .pdf file on TimeOut 6/2017.

Embracing the local lifestyle

We chose Riga for a Christmas family vacation, with few expectations for the usual touristy sights and activities. Our cruise package from Stockholm included a stay in the lovely Tallink Hotel Riga, located in the busiest area of the city. We visited Stockmann, one of Riga’s biggest malls, for a diverse and interesting shopping experience and were overwhelmed by the city’s main market.

Riga Central Market, open since 1930, is the largest and most visited market in Europe, featuring row upon row of traditional style stalls offering Latvian-grown and homemade products from vegetables to dairy, meat, and gastronomy produce. With its unique structure of five pavilions in a combined style of German Zeppelin hangars, Neoclassicism and Art Deco, the market became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1998. Amongst the hustle and bustle we became loyal visitors to a small stall in the dairy pavilion, where a humble woman fried up the most delicious donuts we have ever tasted. With the winter weather dark and freezing outside, nothing could beat being snuggled inside the warm market, sharing the fresh, soft-like-cloud donuts with my loved one.

Riga Web (3)

Local people have their own modes of travel, like the water taxis in Venice or motorbikes in Vietnam. In Riga, nothing is more convenient than public transport. The fun appearance of the trams and buses contrasted with the impassive facial expressions of Riga’s people.

Riga Web (1)

From the centre, we jumped on tram 5 to reach both of its destinations, one of which wasn’t even marked on our map. En route, a colourful church caught my eye in the quiet streets – the Holy Trinity Church of Pārdaugava. The pink coloured church is built in 17th century Russian baroque-style with red belfry and blue onion domes, reminding me of ice creams from my childhood.

And a little taste of tourism…

The touristiest thing we did in Riga was a Hop-On Hop-Off tour, to make the best of the 72 hour RigaCard we had purchased. Costing 35 EUR (Latvia’s official currency is the Euro), the card offers unlimited access to public transport and free or discounted entrance to many of the city’s attractions. The tour provides a great overview of the city, where passengers can pick interesting stop-off points and choose places they wish to save to visit later on.

Riga Web (4)

A trip to the city is not complete without a walk on the Stone Bridge to enjoy the stunning views of the Daugava River, with the Railway Bridge to the south and the cable-stayed Vanšu Bridge to the north – most beautiful at sunrise and sunset. Many modern buildings were designed with a visual link to the water surface, making the riverbanks attractive both by day and at night. One such example is the expressive architecture of the National Library that tells a continual story of dying and flourishing, like a tulip bulb that carries life season after season.

The west riverside is known for its modern buildings juxtaposed with many charming but rundown wooden houses. To the east lies the city centre and the heart of the Old Town, where many of the most famous attractions are located, such as the Town Hall Square, House of the Blackheads, Freedom Monument, Powder Tower, and St. Peter’s Church.

I spent a fabulous morning riding through the city under the winter sunlight admiring an astonishing amount of unique Art Nouveau masterpieces. An area known as the Quiet Centre or the Art Nouveau District where Albert, Elizabetes, and Strelnieku Streets can be found features enormous decorative and romantic design and construction.

Riga Web (6)

The city was founded in 1201, from the 13th century it became a significant intersection of trading and cultural routes between Western and Eastern Europe, and in the 19th century it witnessed a speedy industrial development. These periods all contributed to the prosperity of the medieval architecture in the old town and neoclassical wooden buildings and Art Nouveau stone buildings in the surrounding suburbs. Today Riga lays claim to being the European city with the highest concentration of Art Nouveau architecture and a source of pride for Latvians.

Sky high dining

We chose Neo Sky bar-restaurant for our first dinner in Riga. From the 10th floor of Riga Clock Tower the restaurant affords a beautiful panorama of downtown. A simple Caesar chicken salad and some beer made a great choice before we joined the locals and headed to the cinema to catch the film La La Land, giving us a chance to relax after a long day.

On Christmas Eve, we left the town, heading to Lido Recreation Centre where a huge dining hall was waiting for us. In this enormous but surprisingly cozy venue huge buffet tables served up Latvian and Nordic-Baltic dishes. With a 10 per cent RigaCard discount, we paid just 18 EUR for the entire delicious feast.

Riga Web (5)

On our last day in Riga, we took the lift up to the 26th floor of Radisson Blu Hotel for a bird’s eye view of the prominent golden dome of Riga’s Nativity of Christ Cathedral, shining like a jewel amid its bleak surroundings. Here we enjoyed excellent food and drink plus the best panoramic view of Riga.

Riga Web (2)

Our travel skills were tested by this independent trip, but we fully recommend acting like a local and discovering the Art Nouveau Mecca for yourself – for far greater rewards than the travel agencies can offer.

Text & photos by Huong Bergström