Riga, Latvia’s capital, is set on the Baltic Sea at the mouth of the River Daugava. It is considered a cultural center and is best known for its wooden buildings, art nouveau architecture and medieval Old Town. If you are looking for a place that is steeped in charm, but is still a highly undiscovered European gem, I highly recommend this incredible city. Here are just a few recommendations on what to do during your visit.
1. Take in the incredible views from St. Peter’s Church
Listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1997, St. Peter’s Church itself is beautiful and deserves a visit. However, the best thing about my visit to this church were the breathtaking 360 degree views of Riga from the top of the steeple. It does cost €3 to enter the church and another €6 to ride the painfully slow elevator to the top, but the views are worth it and there are no stairs to climb. If you are obsessed with finding the best views of a city like I am, it’s money well spent!
2. Visit Central Market
At the turn of the 20th century, Zeppelins were seen as the transportation of the future. During that time, five giant hangars were constructed to house the German-made airships in the center of Riga. When the Zeppelins fell out of use, the hangars were turned into Europe’s largest market, which was added to the list of UNESCO’s World Hertiage Sites in 1998. Each of the five hangars offers something different, including vegetables, dairy, meat, fish and other delicious foods. There is also a large outdoor market selling flowers, handicrafts, clothing and almost anything else you can imagine.
If you want to try a real taste of local Riga, grab a pastry and a glass of kvass. A traditional Baltic beverage, kvass is a concoction of rye bread that is soaked in water, mixed with yeast and fermented for a few days. The result is a carbonated and slightly sour beverage that locals line up for during the hot summer days. What does it taste like? It’s a bit difficult to describe, but reminded me a bit of kombucha.
3. Explore the Art Nouveau District
Once you’ve had your fill at the market, you may be looking for a way to walk it off. Art Nouveau architecture makes up roughly one third of all buildings in Riga’s center, earning the city the title of having the highest concentration of Art Nouveau architecture anywhere in the world. Take a stroll down Alberta Street (and surrounding areas) to take in the best of the elaborate, flamboyant naked maidens, floral motifs and funky gargoyles that adorn almost every exterior. Can’t get enough? You’re in luck! Art Nouveau wasn’t only relegated to the façades of the city’s buildings. The flowery style quickly became a part of everyday life and was present in well-to-do homes in furniture, flatware and fashion. For a peek at an entire art nouveau apartment where even the bathroom and kitchen are adorned with Art Nouveau elements, visit the Riga Art Nouveau Museum.
4. Say hello to the Three Brothers
Bring your wide angle lens to capture the best shot of these adorable houses at Maza Pils 17, 19 and 21, which form the oldest complex of stone houses in Riga. Legend has it they were built by three men from one family and represent different stages in the architectural development of Riga, from medieval to Baroque. The white house (#17) is from the 15th century, the yellow is from 16th and the green from the 17th century. Don’t forget to take a look at the tiny windows on the upper levels. Rīga’s property taxes during the Middle Ages were based on window size, which is why they are so small.
5. Take a Coffee Break
Duck into the alley right across from the Three Brothers and follow the signs to find the cutest little coffee shop in Riga – Parunāsim Kafe’teeka. Touting itself as the most romantic cafe in Old Town, this adorable hidden gem has a super Instagrammable patio and the most incredible selection of sweet treats. Even without a romantic partner to share the experience with, this cafe is quite a treat. Order a slice of their red velvet cake and an afternoon cortado and enjoy the quirky accents inside this cafe.
6. House of the Blackheads
Located in the heart of Old Town, in Town Hall Square, this magnificently decorated building was originally built in 1334 as a place for traders and shippers to gather and conduct business. It maintained the city’s economic lifeline, as well as established trade links with the East and West. But just who were the Blackheads, you ask? The Blackheads Society was a gentlemen’s club for wealthy single merchants and their journeymen who were best known for organizing festivities, such as tournaments and celebrations, for themselves and the citizens of Riga. Their extravagant Balls were famous throughout Europe. The building remained the cultural epicenter of Riga for centuries and is now a symbol of the city. Unfortunately, the original building was destroyed by bombs in the Second World War but was fully rebuilt in 1999. Visitors can explore its 14th century historic basements, marvel at its magnificent collection of silver, which was once the largest in the Baltics, and absorb the atmosphere of the Celebration Hall.
7. Indulge in Latvian Cuisine
After all this exploring you are bound to be hungry. When in Riga you must try the local cuisine. However, if you are expecting heavy, Soviet-influenced dishes you might be disappointed. While you can find several restaurants serving traditional Latvian cuisine, Riga’s newest generation of chefs are using local ingredients and their creativity to conceptualize dishes that would be right at home in any world class city. One of my favorites was lunch at Valtera Restorans. Chef Valters Zirdziņš offers a constantly changing menu of seasonal, modern Latvian cuisine. Everything on the menu sounded fantastic so I took the server’s recommendation and went with the arctic char. Not only was the fish incredible, the plate was a work of art. For less than€20 I felt like I was dining at a 5 star restaurant!
8. Try Riga Black Balsam
You’ll see the signs all over Riga: If you haven’t tasted it, you have not been in Riga. That certainly sounded like a challenge to me. One that I was most definitely up for. But first, I wanted to know more about it. As it turns out, Riga Black Balsam is a traditional Latvian balsam made with a blend of 24 all-natural ingredients, including extracts of carefully selected grasses, roots, berries and buds. It is actually the oldest bitter brand in the world and is an essential ingredient in many popular drinks, such as a Negroni, Caipirinha and Espresso Martini – who knew?
9. The Cat House
Another example of Art Nouveau architecture, this infamous yellow house has two angry black cats perched on top its roof. It is said that one Riga local was so offended by being refused membership into the Great Guild that he attached the cats on top of his building so they would cast an evil glare upon the Guild. Obviously, the members of the Guild hated the sculpture, and a fight between the man and the Guild raged for months. An agreement was finally reached and the statues were turned around, but the famous Black Cats still sit on their perch atop this house in Old Town Riga.
Did you know? A Latvian invented jeans! Tailor, Jacob W. Davis, was born Jākobs Jufess in Riga and emigrated to the US as a young man in 1854. In 1870, a customer asked him to make a strong pair of trousers for her husband, who was a woodcutter. His creation becamse the template for modern denim jeans, and two years later, with help from Levi Strauss, he patented the product.
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